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Lord Marlesford: The noble Baroness was kind enough to refer to the grouping. Amendment No. 74, which she and I have signed, relates to water. Is it appropriate to take it with this group of amendments? It seems to fit in rather well with the earlier amendments.
Baroness Hilton of Eggardon: I am willing to include it. I have not been trying to increase the group; in my efforts earlier I tried to diminish it. I am happy that water resources be included in the group.
Lord Derwent: I speak to three rather special amendments (Nos. 95A, 97A and 97B) in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Addison. They also figure in this grouping. I am authorised to say that the Association of National Parks which is the body representing the chairmen and chief officers of the national parks and the Broads Authority strongly support the amendments.
The problems arise in Clause 8(2) which requires a national park authority to notify the agency of land which is of particular importance from an environmental point of view that might be affected by the agency's future activities. Only when the agency has received such a notification is it, in turn, obliged to notify the park authority before undertaking works of various kinds.
That gives the national park authority the almost impossible tasks of trying to determine, first, what land is of particular conservation importance within a park; and, secondly, whether such land may be affected adversely by the possible wide range of agency activities. Not only does that threaten to create a two-tier quality of landscape in a national park, but it is unclear how it would be possible to differentiate between different areas of a park when we are talking, for example, of pollution risks such as toxic emissions or acid rain.
The effect of Amendment No. 95A would be to make consultation by the agency mandatory when the agency intended to carry out work which affected any part of a national park, the point being that land has been included in the national park because it has already been determined that it is of particular importance, otherwise it would not be in the national park.
Amendment No. 97A is tabled in order to ensure that there is no distinction between the need to consult on works which affect land within a park and works which affect water. Therefore, it is purely technical.
Amendment No. 97B seeks to ensure that the park authorities will be notified about the plans of the environment agency before the works become imminent. They will therefore be able to make their views known well before the works are undertaken. I have in mind, for example, the situation in which the agency is working on a river catchment plan within a national park. It is sensible for the park authority to be notified before the plans are finalised, otherwise there may be a huge waste of time and effort. The planning stage will end and the park authority will then be notified that the work is about to start. That explains why there may be objections.
The Association of National Parks strongly believes that it should not be asked to go through the bureaucratic problems and the local political problems involved in differentiating between sections of the parks. I hope that the Minister will be able to accept all my amendments.
Lord Norrie: I wish to speak to Amendments Nos. 79, 81 and 90 which stand in my name. We have had a good discussion about the role to be played by the new environment agency, which I welcome. However, it is important that the agency is set up with the strongest possible legal framework in order to allow it to perform its vital environmental duties. Therefore, it is of great concern to me that the Bill in its present form may weaken the environmental duty to further conservation under which the National Rivers Authority currently operates.
I am pleased to see my noble friend Lord Renton in the Chamber. During the passage of the Water Act in 1989 he and I persuaded the Government to strengthen the NRA's environmental duties. I am disappointed that only a few years later that important duty is under review, in particular as it has proved so helpful to the NRA.
The Committee will be aware of the attention that Clause 7 attracted before the Bill received its First Reading. I was delighted by the Government's moves to strengthen the clause before the Bill was published. However, they do not go far enough. The duty to further conservation does not apply to pollution control functions. That point concerns the National Federation of Anglers, which believes strongly that the duty to further conservation should apply to all the functions of the new agency and that pollution control should not be excluded.
On Second Reading my noble friend the Minister assured the House that it was not his intention to weaken the agency's commitment to conservation. In the light of the evidence presented by the NRA and other bodies, will he assure me that the current duty to further conservation is not weakened by the Bill in such circumstances?
I believe that those words give precedence to Clause 7. Clause 7(1) (a) (ii) and (iii) subject the agency's duty to further conservation to guidance from Ministers on sustainable development. The way in which Clauses 6 and 7 are read together appears to subordinate almost all the agency's conservation duties to ministerial guidance and to a contribution towards development, albeit sustainable development. I do not believe that that is right. Unless the Minister can reassure me about the matter, I hope that the Government will consider removing the qualification in Clause 6.
I have also tabled Amendments Nos. 93, 94, 95, 97 and 98. They seek to widen the categories of concern which can be brought to the agency by English Nature or the Countryside Council for Wales to include estuaries and areas of the sea, such as potential marine nature reserves, which may be affected by its operations. As such, I hope that the Government will regard the purpose behind the amendments as consistent with the habitats regulations that were introduced and discussed in this House earlier this year.
Clause 8 achieves a sensible and practical machinery for the conservation bodies to raise their concerns with the agency. It would be a pity if estuaries and vulnerable areas, especially of territorial sea, were left unprotected. No doubt a similar provision would be required in the equivalent clause relating to Scotland. I hope that the Minister will accept the principle behind the amendments. If so, I hope that the Government will be able to make the necessary change to the Bill before the next stage.
Lord Crickhowell: As I said previously, I am not a lawyer and I always hesitate when confronted with contradictory legal advice. At the beginning of the proceedings on the Bill, and in the light of representations made on the drafts that had been previously published so admirably by the Government so that we could have prior consultation, they made their substantial revision to the clauses relating to
My noble friend Lord Cranbrook is unable to be here tonight but he has written to my noble friend the Minister expressing the view of English Nature, the organisation which he chairs, that it is a matter of anxiety. I too have written supporting that view. I hope that in the face of the advice given by two statutory bodies set up to be expert in their own field, the Government will not take lightly the advice that the present wording appears to represent a weakening.
In recent years we have been able to protect SSSIs from damage due to drainage, flood defence and fisheries management because of our ability to do things. We believe that our ability will be weakened if the wording remains in its present form. Often one has to take certain actions by using the other powers in a sympathetic manner. When one is carrying out flood defence work one extends the nature of the work that one would do and perhaps adds to the costs to have it approved. As a result of the wording of the appropriate provisions, it is thought that one has the right and the power so to do without challenge. It remains my belief that if we do not have amendments of the kind suggested there will come a moment when the agency will not be able to do what it wishes to do or, if it tries to do it, it will be challenged either by one of the funding bodies or some other organisation.
As I say, I am not a legal expert and I hesitate to be absolutely categoric about the matter. But when I find that there is a great weight of opinion in all quarters concerned with the environment, and particularly in the statutory organisations, which consider that a strengthening of the existing wording of the Bill is required, then I take it seriously. Nothing has been said to me in recent weeks which has convinced me that the department is right and that its critics are wrong.
My noble friend is extremely persuasive. I have no doubt that he will have a well-argued brief and that he will do his best to persuade me. If he does that, no one will be more pleased than I. I shall wait to hear his argument with interest. However, at present I am not convinced. If the noble Baroness, in the circumstances which prevail on her Benches this evening, does not wish to press the matter on this occasion, we may well wish to return to it later. However, I shall listen to my noble friend's arguments with great care.
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