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Lord Ewing of Kirkford: My Lords, is the Minister aware that his answer appears to be at least contrary to the terms of the legislation? The 94 strategic sites at issue in the Question that has been tabled were handed over to Railtrack to be held in trust for the future development of rail freight. Are the Government really prepared to sit back and allow such sales to continue in direct breach of their own legislation? Is it not about time that the Government, through the regulator, imposed the terms of their own Act?
The Earl of Courtown: My Lords, I do not know of the occasions where planning applications have been lodged as regards development on strategic sites for supermarkets and whatever else the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, mentioned. However, there is protection for those strategic freight terminals in the future. As the noble Lord, Lord Ewing of Kirkford, said, there are roughly 100 such former sites owned by Railtrack which have been designated as strategic freight sites. Freight operators can call for a lease from Railtrack if they can return a strategic site to freight use. Railtrack has to consult significant freight operators before a site can be deleted from the list. That stems from the Government's desire to ensure that the sites with rail freight potential are kept available for freight use.
Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, is the Minister familiar with the recent report from the Department of the Environment on the need to reverse the shift from rail to road in terms of transport? Further, is he convinced that enough care is, therefore, being taken to safeguard disused rail track that may now be needed to reinvent trains and tram tracks in urban areas?
The Earl of Courtown: My Lords, the noble Lord has made an important point. Yes, we are aware that those corridors should be protected, if necessary. British Rail will consult Railtrack, train operating companies and local authorities before proceeding with the disposal of disused track.
Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, does the Minister say that the department has received no complaints from freight companies about the way in which Railtrack and the British Rail Property Board have disposed and continue to dispose of land which has substantial commercial value? After all, those are public assets. Is it not clear from evidence that my noble friends, as well as I, have received that Railtrack and the British Rail Property Board are more concerned about the sale of such assets, to the detriment of freight interests, notwithstanding their statutory obligations? Since the regulator and the Minister are involved in the situation, should there not be an independent inquiry into what is happening to those public assets?
The noble Lord spoke of complaints being made to the department. Perhaps he is referring to representations made by Rail Freight Group concerning a terminal at Holyhead which was not on the former freight site. I understand that the Piggyback Consortium was somewhat concerned that it did not have a chance to purchase it. It was advertised from the beginning of January, with the auction towards the end of February. Four and a half thousand particulars were sent out. As I said earlier to the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, if companies are looking for property in this sector, they should go to the British Rail Property Board.
Lord Lucas: My Lords, the Government are expected to announce very shortly the nitrate vulnerable zone designations in England and Wales following the review by the independent panel chaired by Mr. Terence Etherton QC, which reported to Ministers in October 1995.
Later this year the Government expect to make regulations establishing the action programme measures which will place obligations on farmers in the zones, and which must be in force by December 1999. The measures have been the subject of a recent consultation. The Government are taking account of the responses received and, following further consultation, the action programme regulations will be laid before the House. Guidance for farmers will be issued at the same time.
Viscount Addison: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Is he aware that catchments of some very low nitrate boreholes, amounting to several tens of thousands of acres, may be designated in order to assist water companies in blending with high nitrate water? Is it still the Government's intention to compensate farmers where those measures go beyond the code of good agricultural practice?
Lord Lucas: My Lords, we believe that the proposed measures are based on good agricultural practice and will not, therefore, impose obligations on farmers who, in any event, should be subject to the polluter pays principle, as indeed is everyone else.
As regards the designation of low nitrate boreholes within NVZs, yes, some have been so designated. But they have been designated not for the convenience of water companies, but in order that nitrate vulnerable zones should have sensible boundaries and should not appear like a lace patchwork over the countryside.
Baroness Nicol: My Lords, will the Minister give any indication of the costs per pig or cow of setting aside secure areas for manure storage and of the losses caused to farmers by the lower stocking in those areas? Is he aware that many small farmers are on the edge of viability? Unless a sensible arrangement is reached on compensation, they will be forced out of business.
As regards putting manure into storage so that it can be spread on the land at the right times, we estimate that the total cost including capital on an annualised basis for England and Wales will be £3 million a year. That is not excessive in the context of the industry as a whole.
Viscount Ullswater: My Lords, does my noble friend recall that for a number of years the World Health Organisation gave an advisory figure of some 100 milligrammes per litre? I believe that it has readdressed that figure. It was brought down to 50 milligrammes per litre in the late 1980s. Is my noble friend convinced that regulating for 50 milligrammes per litre as a maximum figure conforms with the best scientific advice?
Lord Lucas: My Lords, there is no perfection in these figures. They are based on scientific advice and scientific evidence, and, allowing for possible medical effects of high nitrate levels, a certain level of safety. We believe that 50 milligrammes is a reasonable figure. We also believe that it is a figure with which we shall have to live.
Lord Mackie of Benshie: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that I was pleased to hear the happy manner in which he threw away £3 million a year? However, if someone in a low nitrate area has to build a storage facility costing £100,000, the share of that figure may be considerable and rather unfair. If a farmer is forced to build storage facilities in order to preserve the water, there is an obligation at least to help in building such storage facilities.
Lord Lucas: My Lords, perhaps I may begin by addressing the last point and comfort the noble Lord. We have designated a quite small proportion of the land surface of England and Wales as nitrate vulnerable zones compared with some countries in Europe which have designated their entire territories as nitrate vulnerable zones. We have done our best not only in that regard but in other aspects to make sure that the way in which we implement this regulation is reasonable and right.
As regards help with the costs of waste storage facilities, I expect a grant scheme available from the Ministry of Agriculture to be announced shortly after the regulations are promulgated.
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