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23 Jun 2009 : Column 711

We have concerns about the status of the proposed marine conservation zones. The WWF has described them as

They offer an opportunity to make a lasting improvement to the marine environment, but they must have enough flexibility with regard to designation and restriction to ensure that they can be successfully designated and enforced, and that real ecological benefits accrue.

As Wildlife and Countryside Link has highlighted, it is essential that the Bill does not repeat some of the weaknesses of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 in its creation of marine nature reserves. Since that Act only three small reserves have been created, including Lundy island, which I had the pleasure of visiting a few years ago. According to the wildlife trusts, a complete fishing ban around Lundy in 2003 resulted in dramatic changes, noticeably an increase in the abundance of shellfish.

The experience of Lundy and of international examples in New Zealand and Australia shows the benefit of designation both to wildlife and to those who use the sea commercially. Fish are given the opportunity to recover and abundant stocks spill out of the no-take zones, improving catches locally. However, such levels of protection, which include outright fishing bans, are clearly the most exceptional form of designation; we need to achieve the protection of larger areas of the seas with a flexible and ecologically coherent network of conservation zones.

Mr. Jenkin: Can my hon. Friend enlighten the House a little about the debate in the other place? The Minister there said that

Given that indiscriminate fishing does so much damage to the marine environment, is that statement not a bit of an illogicality? Are the Government trying to avoid a collision between the Bill and the common fisheries policy?

Nick Herbert: Depending on the conditions set for the zones, one benefit would be to ensure sustainable fishing, but I shall deal with the specific concern about the common fisheries policy, because without reform of that policy we shall not achieve the sustainable management of our fisheries that we want. In that sense, I agree with my hon. Friend’s point.

Many of us will have received e-mails from constituents calling for a number of changes to the Bill. Some conservation organisations are particularly concerned about the lack of ability to create highly protected zones to sit alongside marine conservation zones, and about the requirements of clause 117(7) to consider the economic and social consequences of designating an area—the issue that my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) raised. Such issues will need to be probed further in Committee, and the Secretary of State will need to explain why economic and social consequences are to be taken into account in the designation of the zones.

It is our belief that the zones should operate as flexible areas, with degrees of protection that are sufficient, but provide a sensible balance between sustainable social
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or economic activity and conservation. For example, the designation of a zone with an area protected for its unique marine geology might be entirely compatible with the use of leisure boats or jet skis, but it would clearly not be appropriate to permit dredging. Gradations of protection within zones are entirely possible and should be achieved through science-based decision making. Such flexibility means that there would be plenty of scope for the assignment of highly protected zones in appropriate areas, without the creation of separately designated “highly protected areas”, which would create a two-tier system.

The creation of an ecologically coherent network is a significant issue. It would, for example, ensure that protected marine areas are linked so that species can move between areas with the right habitat for different stages of their life cycle. A number of leading conservation bodies have called for such a network and much time was devoted to the matter in the other place. We are pleased that the Government accepted the need for greater clarity and tabled amendments to require the appropriate devolved and domestic authorities to set out the principles to be followed in contributing to such a network, but we need to hear more about how it will be set up.

We all want our marine environment to be properly protected, and it is important that those who abuse it, or recklessly damage the seas through pollution or neglect, are held responsible, so we are grateful to the other place for helping the Government to understand the importance of ensuring that the offence of causing reckless damage within a marine conservation zone was added to the Bill.

Mr. Roger Williams: My reading of the Bill suggests that if someone does damage to a marine conservation zone or a highly protected area, the defence that they were fishing is almost absolute, even though with modern fishing boats they know exactly where they are and where the marine conservation zones are. Does the hon. Gentleman think that is something we should address during our consideration of the Bill?

Nick Herbert: That point needs further examination and perhaps the Minister will reply to it. It would depend on the level of protection afforded in the marine conservation zone; different levels can be afforded to different parts of the zone.

On coastal access, although we support the principle of a coastal path, we are keen to ensure that the scheme is workable and respects the interests of landowners. We are pleased that Ministers made a number of important concessions in the other place. It is right that local authorities now have a role in the preliminary stages of the scheme to ensure that local issues are properly accounted for, the appropriate infrastructure is available and local residents are properly engaged. Equally important is the procedure in place to deal with the concerns of landowners and other people with property rights. Conservative peers fought hard to ensure that an adequate appeals process, or review, was set up to address disputes, should they arise, over the location and format of the route, and I am pleased that Ministers accepted that point.

Despite those concessions, a number of outstanding issues relating to the coastal route still need to be addressed by the House to ensure a workable, cost-effective and deliverable scheme.

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Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): Given that two thirds of the coast is already open to walkers, does my hon. Friend see a real need for access to the entire coast at a minimum cost of £50 million—probably more? At a time such as this, can we really justify forcing through a path that apparently walkers do not actually need?

Nick Herbert: I think my hon. Friend would accept that there is considerable demand from organisations concerned about the countryside for a coastal path for the parts of the country that are not already covered, so that the coast can be enjoyed in places where that is not possible at present. The Bill is enabling legislation; no timetable has been set and of course the costs will have to be taken into account.

Julia Goldsworthy (Falmouth and Camborne) (LD): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the creation of the south-west coastal path has led the way in developing best practice? That may indicate that the best negotiations and the greatest flexibility happen locally and that primary legislation may undermine that position.

Nick Herbert: I have a lot of sympathy with the hon. Lady’s point. Obviously the path in her part of the world was designated under different legislation, but the voluntary approach is a wise one. We have been concerned to ensure that localism is built into the provisions so that there is proper local consultation and involvement. The success of the path in Cornwall is an indication of its significance for tourism and its economic advantages, as well as the costs to which other Members have referred.

David Taylor: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Nick Herbert: I shall draw my remarks to a conclusion, if I may.

The Bill goes some way to addressing a number of key challenges facing the marine environment, but we need to ensure that the European Union plays its role. Marine conservation zones must be respected by all who use our waters but, without EU co-operation, zones beyond 12 nautical miles will not be enforceable for European fishing vessels. This will not only disadvantage our fishermen, but will undermine the purpose behind the zones.

We must also recognise the huge and frequently damaging impact that the current operation of the common fisheries policy has on the marine environment. The recent publication of the Commission’s Green Paper has provided a unique opportunity for radical reform to ensure that the common fisheries policy works better for our fishermen and for the environment. Commissioner Borg himself has called for wholesale fundamental reform and it is long overdue.

Barry Gardiner: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that although clause 141(4) proposes that

should be a defence against the offences in clause 140, that is already protected under the CFP through the exclusive economic zone, but up to the 12-mile limit—

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Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman must be brief. Many Members want to contribute, and there is a time limit on Back-Bench speeches. Will the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) respond?

Nick Herbert: The hon. Member for Brent, North (Barry Gardiner) had better raise his points in his own speech, and the Minister will reply.

It is vital that we do not underestimate the importance of the marine environment. The Bill represents a once in a lifetime opportunity to secure the protection that our seas need. We have waited a long time for it, and Conservatives are pleased that after many years of delay, we are close to delivering legislation that will help to safeguard our seas for future generations.

The sea has always been critical to the health and prosperity of our islands, but around the world the marine environment faces challenges that we might not have imagined 50 or perhaps even 20 years ago. It is important that in creating laws to govern how we manage and safeguard our seas, the right balance is achieved. As a living asset, our seas require the right level of protection for marine ecosystems and the biodiversity that they contain, but those laws must also allow a sustainable environment for fishing and other activities and the communities that rely on them. We hope that the Bill is able to strike the proper balance so that we can protect and improve the marine environment now and for the future.

Several hon. Members rose

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I remind all right hon. and hon. Members that Mr. Speaker has imposed a 10-minute limit on Back-Bench contributions.

6.22 pm

Mr. Elliot Morley (Scunthorpe) (Lab): I very much welcome the Bill. Although it is true it has taken some time, it is a complicated measure and I appreciate that consultation has been necessary, particularly with the devolved Administrations. That should be taken into account. We must get the Bill right. It deals with vital issues of marine management and coastal access, and I warmly welcome those measures.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will be aware that although improvements have been made to the Bill, for which he and his team should take great credit, NGOs have nevertheless expressed reasonable concerns that can be addressed. They could be summarised as concerns about legitimate socio-economic activities in our seas and the equally legitimate need to preserve a vulnerable and sensitive ecosystem, of which very little is protected. The Government should be congratulated on the steps they took to introduce marine nature reserves and to protect areas such as the Darwin mounds in international waters, which is a first for the European Union. The Government led the way in that, and the Bill similarly leads the way.

Unfortunately, our coasts and coastal waters are crowded places where activities such as aggregate dredging, offshore renewable energy, oil and gas, the fishing industry and many others take place, so the right balance must be struck. A consistent approach is needed, and the designation
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of SSSIs is part of that. On land, the criteria for the designation of a SSSI is purely scientific, as we have heard, although the management takes into account an element of socio-economic activity. There is a strong argument for consistency in the designation of marine conservation zones.

It has further been argued that there ought to be a differential between marine conservation zones in terms of the most vulnerable and sensitive areas. That suggestion is worth considering.

Clause 117(7) makes it obligatory to take socio-economics into account. I do not criticise the fact that the Bill recognises that there are a number of different demands on our seas, and I do not think it is impossible to strike the right balance in respect of offshore wind farms, for example. An offshore wind farm could form an important part of protecting a sensitive marine conservation area. The two could be complementary.

I worry that if we do not get it right, the Government could be making a rod for their own back, and a rod for the marine management organisation. Any organisation that feels that it is facing restrictions will seek to use the clause to stop the designation of marine conservation zones or to weaken and undermine them. That needs to be looked at.

Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): Does my right hon. Friend therefore agree with the WWF that the socio-economic consequences of designation should be considered only where the desirability of designating two or more areas is equal and will not compromise the ability to achieve an ecologically coherent network? That seems a sensible way of resolving the tensions he is discussing.

Mr. Morley: Indeed.

I know that the wording of the Bill, as was pointed out, is “may have regard”, but I return to the point that that opens the door to protracted legal wrangling. It is more important to make sure that the Bill is effective.

I am concerned about the wording in relation to the need for the MMO to have a strong sustainable development duty. The Government should be congratulated on implementing, in a range of bodies and organisations, a clear duty to promote sustainable development. The Bill refers to

which is rather weak wording. The wildlife trusts think that that should be replaced with a duty “to further sustainable development,” which implies a much more proactive approach. That is worth taking into account.

Another issue raised in the debate is the important role of the Infrastructure Planning Commission. That has an important role in major developments in our offshore waters, but I am surprised that the marine management organisation is not a statutory consultee of the IPC. That would be a simple amendment and should be considered.

The Bill removes from Natural England its decision-making power for the designation of sub-tidal parts of SSSIs, and transfers that power to the Secretary of State. I have every confidence in the present Secretary of State, but, to be consistent, Natural England should retain responsibility for the designation of SSSIs in inter-tidal zones. That needs to be re-examined.

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Those points are fairly straightforward, but they are important and a range of organisations have written to right hon. and hon. Members echoing them. I am quite sure that many constituents will have contacted Members, as many have contacted me, not only to support the Bill and the Government but to ensure that we get the Bill right and address in Committee some of the points I have mentioned, many of which have already been addressed in the welcome Joint Committee that performed pre-legislative scrutiny. It was a very useful part of the process, and, although the pre-legislative process adds to the time scale, we should support it more often. It makes for better legislation and involves interested organisations, many of which have given their input, expertise and experience.

Rob Marris: Does my right hon. Friend share my surprise that, under the programme motion, a Bill of 326 pages looks like it will have only 12 sittings in Committee and one day on Report?

Mr. Morley: My hon. Friend knows as well as I do that, rather than faff around and waste an awful lot of time, Committees can focus on the important parts of Bills. I am quite sure that Committee members will be very anxious to do exactly that, and that it will receive proper and thorough scrutiny.

I very much appreciate the opportunity to contribute to the debate. I, like many Members, have been looking forward to the measure for a long time. It is important that we get it right, and the Government are genuinely trying to do so. They could take further steps, and I offer some in the spirit of constructive support, not criticism. I look forward to the measure going on to the statute book and giving our seas the long-overdue protection that they deserve.

6.31 pm

Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley), because he has a distinguished record, of which he can be proud, of commitment to marine conservation in and around the UK over many years, and of negotiation in Europe and internationally. I congratulate not only the Government on introducing the Bill, the campaign organisations that have been behind it for many years and many Members, but the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall), who many years ago promoted a private Member’s Bill that certainly helped to highlight the issue.

I often describe the seas around the UK as a rather damp piece of common ground, on which there are layers of competing interests and conflicting demands. Of course, it is extremely damp, because, apart from on the coast itself, it is wet all the time. Leaving aside the brief and discordant note of disappointment that the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) cast, I endorse his highlighting of the many issues that I hope we will have the opportunity to debate in Committee. I hope that the Minister in Committee will be receptive to several issues that need to be probed still further and to which I shall return in a moment.

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