Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

6 p.m.

Lord Moran: My Lords, this is an important and wide-ranging Bill which we shall need to study with care. Although it has been introduced in this House, the other place has to some extent gazumped us by holding an inquiry of its Environment Committee last month, before the full text of the Bill was published, when it questioned the Secretary of State and the agencies affected. A record of that inquiry is now available. I propose to leave the Scottish agency to Scottish Peers and to confine my remarks to the agency that is to cover England and Wales.

I am not much of an enthusiast for mergers; indeed, I was against the proposed merger of English Nature and the Countryside Council and was glad that it was dropped. In this instance, I recognise that there are some advantages in putting together in one organisation the functions of the NRA, HMIP and the waste regulation authorities and giving industry a "one-stop shop". But there are two serious disadvantages. First, there will be--and, indeed, already is--massive upheaval and distraction of effort. When I was associated with the NRA I was struck by the huge amounts of committee time and the writing of papers on consideration of the merger. It is also very expensive and unsettling to the staff.

15 Dec 1994 : Column 1408

The noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, said in the debate on the Address that,

    "morale in the NRA has been dented",

and that the organisation was "bewildered and uncertain". That, from the chairman of the NRA, is disturbing. It shows the damage that is done by the constant reorganisations to which the Government are addicted.

It is not easy to find people who can run very large organisations efficiently and economically. I see no merit in the view expressed by the Labour Party's policy commission on the environment in its document In Trust for Tomorrow that,

    "the existing statutory nature and countryside agencies"--

that is, in England and Wales, English Nature, the Countryside Council and the Countryside Council for Wales--

    "could eventually be brought within the agency to integrate pollution control and conservation".

That would make it hopelessly unwieldy.

But, as it is, the new agency will be a very large one. Large organisations have a tendency to create large bureaucracies and over-large head offices. When funds are tight, what tends to happen is that front-line troops at the sharp end tend to be cut but head office staffs remain intact. When I was in the United States I was struck by the fact that the Mars Corporation--an extremely successful confectionery company represented in many countries--managed without any large head office at all, the whole organisation being run from a small suburban house in Virginia. Large head offices are not necessarily indispensable.

At the Conservative Party Conference Mr. Gummer said:

    "Britain will lead the world in its environmental protection methods but not in bureaucracy. No more overlapping jurisdiction, competing regulations or repeating official visits--a leaner, fitter, more together regulator".

I am not sure that Mr. Gummer's implied criticism of the present organisations was justified. When I was associated with the NRA, I heard no complaints of overlapping jurisdiction or competing regulations. But I welcome the call for a minimum of bureaucracy. I hope that the new agency will keep its administrative structure and, above all, its head office as small as it possibly can and promote the teeth at the expense of the tail.

There are three other general comments that I should like to make about the proposed agency. First, I believe that it must at all times remember that it is an environmental agency. I am a little worried that the names of its shadow board so far announced appear, unless I am mistaken, to include only two who have significant environmental qualifications or experience--Mr. Nigel Haigh and Mr. Christopher Hampson. People with real knowledge of environmental matters seem thin on the ground, in striking contrast, for example, to the members of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution. I hope

15 Dec 1994 : Column 1409

that future appointments to the board will put that right. I see that the noble Lord wishes to intervene. I give way.

Lord Crickhowell: My Lords, I am much obliged. It is possible that the noble Lord has not heard that Professor Ron Edwards has now joined John Norris on the board. From his association, I am sure that the noble Lord would not like to give the impression that there was no one on the board who was particularly well qualified in environmental matters.

Lord Moran: My Lords, I am delighted to hear what the noble Lord says. I have the highest regard for Professor Ron Edwards. I am sure that he will greatly strengthen the new board.

My second point is that the agency must make it crystal clear in the first months or even weeks of its operation that it takes its enforcement duties very seriously and that it intends to deal firmly with polluters. The NRA did that when it successfully prosecuted Shell for polluting the Mersey. Moreover, to his lasting credit, the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, made it abundantly clear both then and later that, faced with the pollution of our rivers, the NRA was prepared to take tough action to put things right. Similarly, HMIP had to consider National Power's proposal to burn orimulsion in the power station at Pembroke. The inspectorate said that that could be done only if the station was upgraded to new plant standards, thus, for the time being at least, saving Wales from a damaging increase in acidification. The new agency must be equally robust. If it turns out that the agency shies away from confrontation and attempts to settle matters by cosy chairman-to-chairman confidential chats, it will very quickly be discredited. That would be a disaster.

The agency must establish itself as a centre of excellence, as Mr. Gummer has said he intends it to be. It needs to become the leading authority on all matters within its remit, building on the work of the admirable scientists that it will inherit from the NRA and HMIP. Its research needs to be of the highest quality and properly funded. In that area, it ought to lead and not follow.

The Government are to be congratulated on having put out a consultation paper in 1992 and on having published a draft of the main proposals in October; and also on having amended those proposals in the light of the criticism then made. Their readiness to listen to what was said was very welcome.

So far as the vexed question of conservation duties is concerned, I am one of the few who tend to think that the Government have now got it about right, although I know that English Nature and a number of NGOs are still concerned about it; indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, told us that the NRA is also concerned.

Dr. Slater's evidence to the Environment Committee of another place on 23rd November is worth reading carefully. As a leading practitioner, he made it clear that having regard to conservation is a new and stronger duty for those dealing with pollution control.

15 Dec 1994 : Column 1410

When your Lordships get down to detailed consideration of this very substantial Bill, I hope that the Government will be prepared to respond positively to constructive suggestions so that the Bill can be improved. There is still concern among voluntary agencies that the agency's aims and objectives are not firmly set out--giving the agency clear duties to improve environmental protection--and that the agency may, in the words of the Council for the Protection of Rural England,

    "be weaker than the sum of its constituent parts".

I share their worries about the vague and unspecified nature of ministerial guidance as currently defined in Clause 4. The nature of that guidance needs to be clarified. We need to know what will be the role of Parliament, what will the guidance say and who will be consulted about it. I think that it needs to be open and public. I am glad that Mr. Gummer gave the Environment Committee in another place an assurance on 30th November that the guidance would be public.

The latter is to include guidance on sustainable development. I have said before in this House that I do not care for that term, whatever its origins in the Brundtland Report and its now almost universal use as a catchphrase for a balance between development and protection of the environment. It actually means the opposite to what it is generally supposed to mean. "Sustainable" is an adjective which qualifies the noun "development". So a developer or polluter can reasonably claim that the phrase means the continuance of his developing or polluting operations, while the World Wildlife Fund argues that that phrase must mean environmental sustainability, not economic sustainability. The term gives rise to endless ambiguity and confusion. The chief executive of the NRA told the Environment Committee in in another place that there are problems with the understanding of sustainable development; indeed, there are. I do not like to see such a misleading term included in legislation; but, if it is, it should be rigorously defined and clarified on the face of the Bill.

We must, I think, consider very carefully what Clause 37 about costs and benefits really means. I share the reservations of my noble friend Lord Chorley about this. The Government will, I hope, spell out how precisely this will work, and we need to be reassured that it is not going to hamstring the work of the agency in carrying out its environmental protection work.

I welcome the establishment of independent authorities for national parks as recommended by the Edwards Review Panel and as was contained in the Bill promoted by the noble Lord, Lord Norrie, which we supported in this House. I regret, however, that the Edwards Panel's recommendation that the New Forest should be formally recognised as a national park is not being pursued and I share the views expressed by so many noble Lords that there should be something in the Bill following up the Edwards Panel's recommendations about resisting development pressures in national parks and about quiet enjoyment.

15 Dec 1994 : Column 1411

I welcome the inclusion of powers to protect some hedgerows, and we must consider carefully what the Minister has told us today about how it is to be determined that some hedgerows are important and some are not. The Government's own countryside survey showed that some 2,200 miles of hedgerow in England and Wales were destroyed every year between 1990 and 1993, a further 14,000 miles a year being lost because of neglect. This amounts to a serious degradation of the countryside. I think this section of the Bill may well need strengthening.

Much of this Bill is welcome. It is valuable to have new powers and duties about contaminated land and pollution from abandoned mines, though it is clearly essential that the Bill should cover problems from abandoned mines which are already causing pollution, where pumping or other pollution control measures need to be continued, and mines which may be abandoned between now and 1999.

It is very important that the NRA's work on protecting rivers should be continued and strengthened. The key concept of integrated catchment management pioneered by the NRA needs to be written into the Bill.

I welcome Clause 6(2). It is essential that the agency should take active steps to maintain and in many cases restore adequate flows in our rivers. I am thinking particularly of some like the Upper Kennet and the Driffield Beck, but there are many more. Boreholes need to be moved from headwaters to near the mouths of rivers. Abstraction must be controlled and water resources generally managed so that our rivers and streams, and especially the headwaters, are not reduced to pathetic trickles. The Salmon and Trout Association is seriously concerned about the weakening of the statutory duty to advertise applications to discharge. In this instance deregulation has, I think, gone too far and this needs to be remedied.

Whatever regional arrangements the new agency makes it is in my view essential that the integrity of river catchments should be preserved. Under the NRA the Welsh region manages the whole of the Wye in England as well as in Wales, while the Severn Trent region manages the whole of the Severn, including the headwaters in Wales. These arrangements work well, give rise to no difficulty and should not be disturbed. To split the management of these two great river systems along the political boundary would be a disaster. I am very glad that Mr. Gummer told the Environment Committee of another place that,

    "in environmental terms the crucial importance of the river catchment area is something one could not possibly understate".

Finally, a word about fisheries, which are a particular interest of mine. I am concerned to see that the shadow board appears to include no one at all with particular knowledge of or interest in fisheries. The noble Lord, Lord Mason of Barnsley, whose dedication to fisheries is well known to your Lordships, was an original board member of the NRA and Mr. Dennis Mitchell represents MAFF and speaks up for fisheries. I perceive no equivalent appointments

15 Dec 1994 : Column 1412

to the agency's shadow board. I hope that this can be remedied. I am concerned that fisheries may be neglected. Already they are suffering from lack of funds. In Wales the NRA now spends less than a tenth of what was spent a few years ago when Welsh Water was responsible and the NRA is now barely able to fulfil its statutory responsibility to maintain, let alone improve and develop, fisheries.

But fisheries are of great importance not least as the best environmental indicator. They go with clean rivers and there are great numbers of anglers in all parts of the country. Having been critical of head offices, may I say that the NRA's present fishery officers in their head office, Mr. David Jordan and Dr. Guy Mawle, are in my view doing an excellent job and I hope they will continue to do so in the new agency. I am glad that the fisheries advisory committees are to continue. They play a valuable part in keeping the managers in touch with fishery interests. Their composition should remain as it is, though I think they can, if need be, take on responsibility for advising on conservation, navigation and recreation.

I welcome Schedule 12 and Clause 86 about fixed penalties and I am particularly glad to see the inclusion of Clauses 84 and 85 on marine environmental matters. That is a real step forward. I think WWF is right to argue that Clauses 80 and 81 give too unfettered grant-making powers to the Scottish and Welsh Secretaries and that the Bill should require them, in making grants for conservation and countryside matters in Scotland and Wales, to consult Scottish Natural Heritage and the Countryside Council for Wales respectively. All in all we have here the framework of a major change in the way we control pollution and manage our countryside. Some changes are, I believe, required but these we can address at subsequent stages and if the Government will listen to constructive criticism we may end up with a valuable piece of legislation.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page