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The harbour itself is part of a complex of sheltered, semi-natural estuaries in the Solent, supporting a diverse
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coastal ecology. The key features of international interest are extensive salt marshes, supporting plants such as sea lavender, sea blite and sea purslane. In addition, the extensive mudflats and sandflats support marine invertebrates that provide food for thousands of water fowl, which arrive each autumn to feed on the rich food supply of the sheltered inlets marking the Solent estuaries.

However, although, like the hon. Gentleman, we recognise the significance of the nature conservation interest, we, like him, are also aware of the socio-economic importance of Lymington harbour. We are therefore keen for there to be a balanced and sustainable solution to any problems facing the port. The harbour needs a solution that takes into account nature conservation, landscape, and archaeological and environmental issues, while securing the future of the recreational and commercial activities that sustain the local economy and enrich the lives of communities and visitors. We are keen to support such a solution.

On the habitats directive and requirements under regulations, I should say that development applications likely to affect European protected sites need to be assessed under the habitat regulations; there is a legal procedure associated with applications that may have a significant effect on a protected site. The procedure requires an “appropriate assessment” to be carried out by the consenting body or competent authority. In relation to the conservation objectives, that includes a detailed study of impacts, mitigation measures and an assessment of alternative solutions. When the assessment process suggests that there are no alternative solutions, but there may be adverse effects on the protected site, the development can go ahead only if it is judged that there are “imperative reasons of overriding public interest”, or IROPI, and if the member state—in this case, the UK—takes all compensatory measures necessary. That is some of the background.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned Wightlink. The development proposal affecting Lymington harbour is the subject of an application by Wightlink Ferries. It wants to operate larger ferries from Lymington harbour to Yarmouth, on the Isle of Wight. The enabling shoreside works require consent, and through the consent procedure the need for an appropriate assessment under the habitat regulations has been triggered. The hon. Gentleman has been aware of and involved in that issue. The appropriate assessment will include the effects of changing from the existing ferries to the new W-class vessels.

As the hon. Gentleman will understand, it would be inappropriate at this stage for me to comment in detail on the assessment or speculate on its likely outcome. Only after it has been completed will we have a complete picture of the likely effect on the protected sites of operating the larger ferries.

Mr. Swayne rose—

Huw Irranca-Davies: The hon. Gentleman may not want to intervene, as I will come in a moment to how the issue has developed.

I turn now to the science and the appropriate assessment. The competent authority has been in close contact with Natural England over the scientific work needed properly to assess the impact of the new ferries; as Minister, I have been keeping an eye on that issue. The competent authority has consulted Natural England on the different impact of the larger ferries. Without going into the
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details, I should say that the scientific work includes an initial assessment of whether the existing ferries appear to be having any detrimental effects, in order to assist in predicting whether the new ferry will cause additional such effects.

The assessment includes consideration of mapping evidence to assess changes to the navigational channel, consideration of sediment movement and a review of other natural and anthropogenic influences on the navigation channel. The work will also consider propulsion and ship wash modelling and other effects likely to result from the increased size of the new ferries.

Mr. Swayne: I do not complain that the Minister is dwelling on the appropriate assessment, as I did so myself. However, is he confident that the appropriate assessment will be completed? It is tied to the application for the shore works. Wightlink is now saying, “We don’t need the shore works and we’re going to start next month without them.”

Huw Irranca-Davies: The hon. Gentleman makes a valuable intervention. When I deal with the immediate issue before us, I will refer to the need to ensure that the timeliness of any decisions works for the balance of the environment and the economic considerations.

In terms of the assessment, the requirements of the habitat regulations will ensure that the adverse effects will be identified and mitigating measures explored. The current position is that the new ferries are undergoing sea trials under the management of the Lymington harbour commissioners. This work is primarily aimed at determining safe navigation and speeds, but valuable environmental information will also be gathered. It is hoped that the appropriate assessment will be concluded before Christmas. I am not in a position to give any guarantee on that, but I am watching the situation very closely. It is important to ensure that the assessment is sufficiently rigorous.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would want me to record the valuable input of the Lymington River Association. Although opposed to the introduction of the larger ferries, it has, to be fair, entered into a constructive dialogue with Natural England about the scientific issues. Although it has not been possible to include all the science that it has proposed, Natural England has pursued some of its suggestions and is still considering others. I hope that this valuable dialogue will continue in future, and I know that the hon. Gentleman will encourage that. I understand that he has met officials from the statutory agency, Natural England, to go through the issues relating to the appropriate assessment. I sense from this debate that he may still have some reservations about the scope and timeliness of the scientific work, but I hope that this important dialogue will continue.

Let me turn now to the wider environmental issues to explain some of the background. I will come to the point about timeliness, but it is important to explain why we have got to this position and some of the ways forward. Several regulators have a role to play in a proposal for a new development, including, in this instance, the local authority, the local harbour commissioners and DEFRA’s Marine and Fisheries Agency—the MFA. The MFA was asked to license minor improvements to berths in Lymington harbour
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under the Food and Environment Protection Act 1985. It was not apparent when the original application for the works was submitted to the MFA that it could be part of a wider process facilitating the introduction of these new ferries. That information came to light only through subsequent discussions between regulators, the applicant and stakeholders. Since then, my Department, alongside the MFA, has continued to work with other Government Departments, the Government office for the south-east and regulators in order to address the issues that this complex case presents within the regulatory regime.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and his constituents for raising wider concerns over the possible effects, including possible traffic increases, the effects on local yachtsmen, and the environmental and economic impacts. However, I note that, as with many issues of this type, there are always at least two sides to every story. I understand that many people at the other end of the ferry route, in Yarmouth, feel that these ferries provide a lifeline for them to the mainland. Many of them rely on the service for access to health services, education and employment. We must also consider the important social and tourism aspects and the economic benefits to Lymington. Of course, the new ferries will comply with all modern safety and operational standards, so we need to ensure that our course of action is the right one.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the marine Bill. I will not go into great detail on that, but I think he is right to mention it, and we will welcome his support when it is introduced. We are looking forward to that. The Bill will bring in a new planning system allowing for the creation of a much more integrated regime for planning in the coastal zone—that is long overdue. It will also provide for the designation and protection of marine conservation zones. Together with European marine sites, MCZs will contribute to the UK’s achieving, first among the nations, an ecologically coherent network of marine protected areas. As the hon. Gentleman says, that may not be in time, despite our best wishes, but the marine Bill will have an impact in future.

I come now to the immediate issue before us. The proposal by Wightlink to introduce new ferries in the near future seems, on my first reflections, to be rather premature in the light of the ongoing assessments, and I would suggest that Wightlink might constructively like to reflect carefully before pursuing this course. Although I am not aware of anything unlawful in this proposal, Wightlink is a harbour authority as well as a commercial company, and although I accept that its existing ferries may no longer meet safety standards, and that it is waiting for a decision on its application for consent to the enabling shoreside works, I urge it to give due consideration to its responsibility for the environment.

The regulators need to consider carefully the full implications of any such action. There are general duties under the habitats regulations that require Lymington harbour commissioners to have regard to the requirements under the habitats directive when exercising their functions and the commissioners would need urgently to assess the position. Furthermore, it is of particular concern that the company is contemplating the introduction of new ferries on this route before the appropriate assessment under the habitats regulations has been completed. We are not talking about a big overlap of time in this case. Should the assessment, when completed, show that the operation of the new ferries would have an adverse
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effect on the integrity of the protected site, and that mitigation measures could not be agreed with Wightlink, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the other regulators would need to consider carefully, and as a matter of urgency, any regulatory powers they have or might need to exercise in order to fulfil the UK’s obligations under the habitats directive.

I should point out that my officials have already met the Department for Transport to discuss this case. I will instruct them as a matter of urgency to explore further with that Department and other regulators, including the harbour commissioners, the implications of any such action. I will consider carefully any existing regulatory powers that might need to exercised in order to fulfil the UK’s obligations under the habitats directive.

I will not step over the mark tonight and outline the exact course of action that I am likely to pursue, and I stress the balance between the social and economic needs of the ferry service and its responsibility, as a harbour commissioner, to the environment. After reading the transcript of this debate—the strong and powerful contribution of the hon. Member for New Forest, West, the intervention by the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) and my comments—I hope that Wightlink will take its responsibilities seriously, consider the issue in the round and recognise that an appropriate assessment is under way, through which we are rapidly gathering the science to make an appropriate decision. I hope that, on that basis, we can find a way forward and that Wightlink hesitates before acting prematurely and rapidly introducing the larger ferries. I hope it recognises that, although it is a commercial operator, it has wider responsibilities.

I believe that there is a way forward. The debate has shown the complexity of regulation in the marine
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environment. I feel strongly that—curiously—the marine Bill is uniquely fitted in Europe to introduce a coherent and integrated regime, which has the buy-in from stakeholders at the earliest opportunity, and can consider such an eventuality in future.

In the meantime, there is a regulatory framework, and work is under way, in which the hon. Gentleman has not only been involved but pushed along diligently. That is the way we need to proceed. That would be my message to the constituents with whom the hon. Member for New Forest, West has worked, to those who rely in his constituency and that of the hon. Member for Isle of Wight on the important economic link that the ferry constitutes, and to the operator, who has an understandable desire to improve the service. I also ask them to take their responsibilities seriously and work with the agencies and regulators who are currently involved with making the appropriate assessment. We can then determine the further action that might need to be taken.

I thank the hon. Member for New Forest, West for raising the matter in a timely fashion and for the way in which he did so. I urge him to continue his close involvement with the issue and to keep communicating with the Department directly. I hope he is reassured that I, as a Minister, the Department and my officials are fully engaged in the matter and are keeping a close eye on progress. We want to work with Wightlink and agencies in the area to ensure the right outcome, which balances priorities in a beautiful, diverse and environmentally important area of the coast.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Seven o’clock.

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