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The hon. Gentleman asks how the salt marshes and Lymington harbour itself can be protected from the open seas. As he has stated, this is an important site. The salt marshes and mudflats at Lymington estuary are internationally designated as part of the Solent and Southampton Water special protection area for birds. They constitute a Ramsar site, and are part of the
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Solent maritime special area of conservation. They are also part of the national sites of special scientific interest series.

Natural England has confirmed that recent studies have estimated that the Solent will lose around 700 hectares of salt marsh over the next 100 years due to sea level rises and increased erosion, and that there will also be losses of inter-tidal mud and sand. The coast is able to adapt to sea level rises, as it has over the centuries, by rolling back. Much of the Solent is developed and not available for such dynamic change. However, there are sites where such adaptation can occur and this is the only way that salt marshes can be part of the Solent’s suite of habitats into the future. It is not—I repeat, not—sustainable to maintain salt marshes in situ in the long term.

Natural England is working through the shoreline management plan process to enable important habitats to roll back where appropriate. There is limited scope in Lymington for such a roll-back. A water level management plan led by the Environment Agency is exploring the possibility of allowing salt marsh to form up-river from the harbour, where it will naturally migrate under climate change.

However, I can see the logic of the hon. Gentleman’s argument that, if the salt marsh habitat in the Lymington river will ultimately disappear through the effects of sea level rises, a temporary artificial intervention to protect at least part of this asset in the short term should be welcomed. The merits of that approach, however, need to be very carefully assessed and weighed against the potential loss, in so doing, of some of that habitat. In particular, it is necessary to undertake sophisticated modelling to ensure that, as far as possible, any proposal would not have unforeseen effects that could exacerbate the loss of the salt marsh.

Regarding the proposed breakwater development in Lymington harbour, as the hon. Gentleman knows, this lies within the New Forest national park and consequently the New Forest national park authority is the appropriate local planning authority. However, I understand that Lymington harbour commissioners are relying on permitted development rights—a general development order under section 25 of the Pier and Harbour Order (Lymington) Confirmation Act 1951—to pursue the development. As such, the new breakwaters do not require planning permission from the New Forest national park authority. However, as the proposal affects an international site, the national park’s approval will still be required under regulation 62 of the Conservation (Natural Habitats, etc.) Regulations 1994.

The regulations say that where a developer relies on a general development order, the developer still has to make an application in writing to the local planning authority for its approval. The regulations state that

As the hon. Gentleman said, the New Forest national park authority is awaiting the production by Black & Veatch—consultants working on behalf of the Lymington harbour commissioners—of a draft environmental statement to support an environmental impact assessment and an appropriate assessment. I understand that Natural
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England has provided some informal feedback on the drafting of the statement and impact assessment in meetings with the harbour commissioners, and Natural England intends to respond formally in writing to the commissioners next month. As yet, no application for consent to the breakwater proposal has been submitted to the Marine and Fisheries Agency. Assuming that an application is made in due course, it will need to be supported by an environmental statement incorporating a draft appropriate assessment. In considering any such application, the MFA will consult formally with Natural England. Despite what the hon. Gentleman said, Natural England has no pre-formed view on the issue.

As the hon. Gentleman said, a meeting for Black & Veatch, Natural England, the national park authority and the MFA is scheduled for 5 December, at which the results of that work will be heard. Until the regulators have seen the report, it would be inappropriate for them to take a formal position on the proposal. Clearly, they could not have gone to the meeting that has been described. As members of a statutory body, the Lymington harbour commissioners have a duty under section 62 of the Environment Act 1995 to take into account the impact of their decisions on the national park. The national park authority considers the coastal landscape outside Lymington harbour to be of very high importance because of its unspoilt natural beauty. The area is highly sensitive and could be irreversibly damaged by inappropriate or unsympathetic development, so there is a responsibility on the harbour commissioners to ensure that the highest possible standards of design, and the best materials, are applied in the construction of the breakwaters to protect the special qualities of the national park.

The national park authority recognises the significance of the national conservation interest and the level of legal protection it is afforded, but it is also aware of the socio-economic importance of Lymington harbour, and it is therefore keen to ensure a balanced, sustainable solution to the problems facing the port. The harbour needs a solution that takes into account nature conservation and landscape and environmental issues, while securing the future of the recreational and commercial activities that sustain the local economy and enrich the life of local communities and visitors. The national park authority is keen to support a sustainable solution that meets the range of legitimate demands made on the part of the New Forest concerned.

The hon. Gentleman pointed out that it is possible for the Secretary of State to consider an application for

and he seeks an assurance on the issue. I am sorry to disappoint him, but it is obvious that until the results of the appropriate assessment are available I can comment no further on that point.

The hon. Gentleman is correct that the Wightlink application has been received by the Marine Fisheries Agency. Wightlink applied for a licence under the Food and Environment Protection Act 1985, and for consent under the Coast Protection Act 1949 for works to improve the ferry berth and access ramps in Lymington. In considering such applications the MFA endeavours to satisfy legitimate development aspirations and to promote economic growth, commensurate with delivering sustainable development. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that all applications for marine works are subject to
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rigorous scientific evaluation to prevent or minimise any adverse environmental effects and prevent undue interference for other users of the sea.

In dealing with the application the MFA has consulted a range of marine stakeholders and other regulators, including Natural England, which has a statutory duty to advise on nature conservation issues. In considering whether to grant consent, NE has advised that the MFA should also have regard to the potential impact of Wightlink’s intention to replace the current ferries with larger and more powerful vessels. In its view a formal appropriate assessment should be carried out. Natural England also suggested that the scheme may be a relevant project under the Marine Works (Environmental Impact Assessment) Regulations 2007. Wightlink, as the hon. Gentleman said, has challenged NE’s stance with its own legal advice.

The MFA has not yet taken a view on these matters but will have full regard to the responses that it has received, together with the expert advice of the Department’s marine scientists. Although the proposed vessels are understood to have a significantly larger superstructure and correspondingly greater displacement, more information about their propulsion, operational speed and service frequency will be needed to assess better any risks. The Lymington harbour commissioners manage the Lymington river and harbour in accordance with the Lymington Harbour Orders of 1951 to 2002. Although they have indicated that the construction works will have no adverse effect, it is not clear to what extent they have assessed the potential effects of operating larger ferries.

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I understand, as does the hon. Gentleman, that New Forest district council says that planning permission is required. No doubt the larger ferries may also have implications for road traffic and other planning-related matters. Accordingly, the agency intends shortly to meet Wightlink, the harbour commissioners, Natural England and New Forest district council to consider how each regulator will take forward the process of appropriate assessment. The matter needs to be sorted out between those regulators. They will need to address how the potential risks associated with the operation of larger vessels can be properly assessed and what measures may be available, if necessary, to mitigate their effect on the environment and other river users. The results of the appropriate assessments may, of course, have an impact on the time scale for the introduction of the ferries or the operating arrangements for them.

I have done my best to obtain all the relevant information in order to assist the hon. Member for New Forest, West and his constituents. We are dealing with very complex matters in trying to conserve our beautiful places and our biodiversity while satisfying human demand for economic opportunity, trade and leisure. It is important to explore the issues and this has been an important debate. I heard what the hon. Gentleman said, and I trust that he will understand why it is not possible for me to give him more definitive answers at this juncture.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twelve minutes to Eleven o’clock.

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