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Lord Beaumont of Whitley: Sorry!

Viscount Addison: It is okay! My grandfather was involved, so I thought I would give it a mention.

The British Trust for Conservation Volunteers, in which again I declare an interest as a vice-president, supports groups, which are spread all over the country, which teach and train people in the art of conservation. The noble Lord, Lord Rotherwick, will be pleased that I have been on a hedge-laying course with BTCV and have been tremendously encouraged by its ability to make things happen and to give skills back to ordinary

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people who might otherwise never have the chance to do something practical to help to conserve our hedgerows and dry stone walls.

The National Grid has done a great deal to support the hedgerow cause through the BTCV. Its programme, the National Grid for Wildlife, is one of training and volunteer support by BTCV to care for the UK's hedgerows and create new ones. Just as the National Grid's transmission lines and cables cross the landscape to connect towns and cities with a constant flow of electricity, hedgerows form wildlife corridors connecting isolated habitats and allowing safe passage of wildlife between them.

I, too, was surprised to hear the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford mention the hideous yellow of oilseed rape. Does the right reverend Prelate realise that yellow is this year's fashion statement?

In supporting the noble Lord, Lord Hardy of Wath, I press the Government to support programmes that protect the environment and maintain threatened wildlife habitats.

7.37 p.m.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, perhaps I should declare an interest. First, I am one of the species of nanniers, in the form of a councillor, disliked by the noble Lord, Lord Stanley. Secondly, I am one of those who currently is spreading glorious gold over the countryside. I am glad that it is this year's fashionable colour.

We are mostly agreed that hedges are extremely important for the many reasons noble Lords have so eloquently explained. How can it be that we have such a clear understanding of what makes hedgerows important while we have criteria that are very complicated and dwell so extensively on the historical aspect alone? Birds certainly do not choose to live in a hedge because it is 300 rather than 150 years old, although I accept that the number of woody species will vary according to age. Certainly, stoats, weasels, and voles do not live under a hedge because it is a parish boundary.

Noble Lords agree that the regulations are over complicated. Any reform must make them less complicated so that we develop a much less narrow view of what constitutes an "important" hedgerow. The regulations reflect a centralist view of what is important. The current criteria therefore exclude so many sorts of hedgerow that they end up protecting only 20 per cent. They are most ill-equipped to take any local considerations into account.

My noble friend Lord Beaumont and the noble Viscount, Lord Addison, mentioned national parks. I find it extraordinary that neither areas of outstanding natural beauty nor national parks can do anything to protect the hedgerows in their landscapes. For example, in my area, Somerset, there are the distinctive local hedgerows of Exmoor. But they are single species hedgerows--beech--so they fall outside protection. We have a local planning system that should deliver preservation and take into account both national planning policy guidance and local views. It is quite a well-developed system. Good local authorities have

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developed methods of consulting parish councils, appropriate agencies and organisations, and indeed applicants. That should be of some comfort to those who are worried that we try to over-regulate farmers. In my area, quite a number of parish, district and county councillors are farmers.

I was interested to read the account of the debate that took place when the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, moved the regulations in this House in March 1997. The noble Earl said, at col. 1170 of the Official Report of 20th March 1997:

    "The countryside cannot be fossilised. It changes; indeed, it always will". Of course he was right. But in terms of wildlife and landscape, public opinion is that matters have changed dramatically for the worse over past decades. To retain what is by common agreement extremely important, we need (the noble Lord, Lord Middleton, stole my words) to apply both stick and carrot. Our reference so far has been mainly to application of the stick, in the form of regulations, but the idea of the carrot was mentioned by several speakers. Most of the work of preserving, managing and replanting hedgerows falls on farmers. They are the ones who are being asked to sacrifice time and efficiency; and that costs money.

Many of the reasons given by noble Lords for trying to retain more hedgerows are of no direct benefit to the farmer, and will sometimes prove a disbenefit. The benefits to wildlife and landscape are, equally, benefits to the local pub owner, the child, the pensioner, indeed anyone who lives in or visits a particular locality. So we should be willing to see that agri-environment measures recognise the "public good" element of a farmer's work. I am extremely disappointed that reform of the CAP is unlikely to recognise the wider role of the farmer as manager of the countryside and not simply as food producer. We must encourage the Government to address this matter wherever they can. The recent increase, for example, in the organic aid scheme is a positive step. And the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford had some good ideas on how to progress hedge conserving measures.

Several noble Lords mentioned the question of hedges as habitat and the phenomenal fall in the numbers of many farmland bird species. That fall has been much less marked where traditional patterns of agriculture have led to well-maintained hedgerows. The sterling work of the British Trust for Ornithology and of the RSPB has made sure that the effect on the bird population is widely known. But the effect on other dependants on the hedgerows is less well known. I refer, for example, to mammals and wild flowers. The margins around a hedgerow are often the only place to find wild flowers in an intensively agricultural area. Those of your Lordships who spent last weekend in the countryside might have seen pink campion, cow parsley, cowslips and bluebells, but those are now mostly to be found underneath hedgerows and not all over the fields. They are the kinds of flowers that make the English countryside memorable, distinctive and special.

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However, they are not regarded as especially important. The revised regulations must be complementary to the biodiversity action plan and the habitats directive.

Several noble Lords mentioned the question of soil erosion. A couple of years ago we were asked, as councillors in Somerset, to approve a sum of money for filter fences to prevent soil being washed on to the highway, thereby blocking drains and causing flooding to local houses. We visited the area and found that all the hedges had been removed or neglected. In addition, the pattern of ploughing had changed, so that where the earth had previously been retained by ploughing across the slope, and by hedges across the bottom of fields, those natural methods were no more. Instead, the council tax payer was expected to fund filter fences, which, being long strips of unsightly plastic which do not last for very long, are a far less effective and desirable method of soil retention than is a hedge. We are therefore looking closely at the economic arguments for the replacement of hedges.

One of the worst aspects of the 1997 regulations is the lack of emphasis given to the importance that hedgerows have in defining the character of a region. It is sometimes easy to tell where you are merely from the boundary system. I have mentioned the beech hedges of Exmoor, and noble Lords will be able to produce other examples. The hedges on high banks in Devon are fundamental to local distinctiveness. They are as much a part of the value of the landscape as the building materials that are used in the houses. Local authorities must produce local plans and policies that reflect local distinctiveness, and their residents may wish them to do so. But they may still not decide that a hedge is important simply because of its value as a landscape feature. The present national criteria do not empower local authorities to resist the breaking up of a traditional landscape of small fields; and many hedgerows do not fall into the important criteria as defined by the hedgerow regulations.

What a strange set of criteria they are. If a hedge marks the boundary of a pre-1600 estate or manor, it is important; if it marks the boundary of a mid-18th century estate, possibly not. If it includes at least seven woody species, it is important; if it includes only five, possibly not--and so on. I support the view that the criteria should be simplified. Defining nationally what is important locally is not conducive to creating regulations that are coherent, easy to understand and easy to regulate.

Because the previous government wished to remove any meaningful power from local authorities, they denied them the right to decide, preferring instead for Ministers to impose a set of regulations which, by common agreement in this debate, left much to be desired. If we compare them with what happens in the built environment, the Countryside Commission, now the Countryside Agency, promotes village design statements which enable local residents, in consultation with their local authority, to draw up a plan of exactly what they want to happen in their locality. That is a good way of ascertaining local views, and it could be widened to include local landscape.

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Perhaps I may now turn to the subject of deterrence for those who fail to abide by the regulations. Again, the complicated nature of the regulations makes it extremely difficult for a local authority to bring a case. I commend Herefordshire County Council which was the first to discover a blatant act of destruction when a farmer, under cover of darkness, grubbed out half a mile of medieval hedge. He was heavily fined, and replacement costs for the hedgerow made the fine even greater. That might be termed a success. But the extremely detailed and painstaking work required by legal and conservation officers of that authority bear out the fact that local authorities may not always be able to consider pursuing a prosecution. The regulations must be made less complex so that flouting them becomes easier to discourage. Incidentally, hedgerows are the poor relation to trees. If you destroy a hedgerow, you pay a maximum fine of £5,000, as opposed to £20,000 for a tree. I therefore call on the Government to simplify the regulations and bring them into line with other planning procedures so that local people can be consulted and local authorities can make decisions that are in line with the wishes of local residents.

7.48 p.m.

Baroness Byford: My Lords, no one, apart perhaps from the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, disputes that the existing legislation for ancient hedgerows is better than no legislation at all. Taken in conjunction with the amount of new planting that is going on, it may well be encouraging an approach that will benefit our countryside greatly over time. However, there seems little doubt that it could be improved. The NFU has stated:

    "criteria that identify important hedgerows should be transparent, equitable and objective". The problems that have been drawn to my attention by, for example, the Countryside Restoration Trust, the RSPB, the CLA, the NFU and the CPRE, suggest that further work is needed before "transparent, equitable and objective" legislation is introduced.

Anyone who wishes to remove a hedge must notify the local authority. The local authority has six weeks in which to refuse permission. It has six weeks in which to examine the hedge, check its history and call for evidence of its importance. In particular, if the six weeks begin in the autumn just when furry mammals retire to sleep away the winter, perhaps when foliage is dying and many farmers and landowners give their hedges a short back and sides, it can be difficult to establish what a particular hedge shelters in the normal course of events.

I understand that the main study is usually a species count that is carried out on hedge lengths of 30 metres. If the hedge is less than 30 metres in length, the whole hedge is examined; if it is between 30 metres and 100 metres in length, the central 30 metres, which may include gaps such as gateways, are examined; if the hedge is between 100 metres and 200 metres in length, and is divided into two equal parts, the count is based on the central 30 metres in each part, the results being added together and divided by two; or, if it is over 200 metres in length, the hedge is divided into three

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equal parts and the central 30 metres of each part are counted and averaged. It is no wonder that there is deep confusion about the present application of the regulations.

It is possible for these counts to be made so that particular lengths are not examined. It is also possible to apply for permission to remove more than is intended, thereby weakening the result. Will the Minister consider extending the regulations so that the full length of hedgerow is involved in the count? Will she also consider amending the timetable so that applications to remove hedges must be made before, say, 1st April in any year, with the local authority having until 1st September to decide?

Historical data can save a hedge, but if that information is not already on file it must be adduced from sightings in the hedgerow at the time of the species count. Here, all the drawbacks of the suitability of the season and shortage of inspection time also apply.

No account is taken of the visual impact of the hedge, although I understand that for other purposes it is possible to commission a formal landscape assessment. Will the Minister consider changing the legislation to incorporate these assessments at least in areas of outstanding natural beauty?

I refer next to survey work carried out by Dr. Joe Crocker for an article in the Central Scientific Laboratory Science Review which implies that, at least in Herefordshire, the state of health of the bird population in cider orchards is more dependent on hedgerows than on pesticides and their application--the noble Lord, Lord Rotherwick, referred to this--and that the more overgrown the hedge, the greater the number of birds that it can sustain. Will the Minister take a close look at this research, perhaps with a view to restricting the frequency of hedge cutting?

Having said that, it is hardly fair to expect farmers to bear the continual cost of managing hedgerows and maintaining field boundaries--mention has also been made of dry stone walls--if they have no right at the same time to remove them when necessary. This becomes particularly important in those areas of the country where the Government propose to assert the right to roam or to institute new green open spaces. Will the Minister give earnest consideration to incorporating in the right to roam and the green spaces legislation a clause that requires the relevant authorities to pay the costs of maintaining boundaries in those designated areas? Such boundaries were devised originally to keep stock in and/or people out. On heath and moorland, it was mainly the latter.

Many noble Lords have spoken today about wanting to look after hedgerows. However, as my noble friend Lord Stanley and other noble Lords have pointed out, it comes down to cost and profit. Noble Lords have debated farming in this House on many occasions and are aware that farmers are going through a tremendously difficult time. To impose upon them extra burdens and regulations, as the noble Lord, Lord Hardy, seeks to do, may be the very straw that breaks their back. If we want the kind of countryside of which the noble Lord speaks, the farming community must make a profit and compete

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in the global market, not just with other farmers in the UK. In earlier debates in this House we have considered animal welfare and "gold-plated" measures, the responsibility for which is placed on farmers by the Government. If we are not careful, the very things that the noble Lord, Lord Hardy, wants to do may well prove to be too much. That burden will make many of our farmers uncompetitive and therefore they will go to the wall.

My noble friend Lord Caithness referred to the general public's chocolate-box perception of the countryside. That perception of our countryside exists only because farmers farm the land. If that were not so, that perception would not exist. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Blackburn quite rightly pointed out that there could be more and better effective protection of our countryside if it included dykes, ditches, hedges and banks. I am sure all noble Lords in this House would agree with that. However, in the end, it comes back to money. In the past week in this House we had a very important debate on trade sanctions between the EU and the US. I was disappointed that the Government and the European Union had failed to come to grips with CAP reforms. I believe that we have missed a great opportunity and that this will pose difficulties for us in the future. Other noble Lords have pointed out that those who farm the countryside are stewards, but that they need to trade commercially in the world market.

Finally, I turn to another aspect of hedgerow protection that concerns me. My noble friend Lady Gardner has already touched on one aspect of this. Most hedgerows disappear through neglect, but a portion are dug up by property developers, demolished at the edge of rural land by keen gardeners or are destroyed by the former public utilities digging holes in the roads. No sooner have they finished than they return and dig up the road again. There is also the debilitating effect of the installation of cable television. All of those activities place a great strain on urban hedgerows. My noble friend Lady Gardner referred to leylandii. Will the Minister give consideration to the scope for regulations that bind the operations of some of the bodies to which I have referred in order to conserve one of the prime factors in the make-up of our green and pleasant land?

In conclusion, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Hardy of Wath, for giving us this opportunity to debate a subject that is so beneficial. We all want to see greater protection of hedgerows, but the money must come from somewhere.

7.58 p.m.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Hardy of Wath for initiating this debate and drawing attention to the current arrangements for the protection of hedgerows. We have benefited from his longstanding interest and experience in the subject both here and in the Council of Europe. The noble Lord and others who have spoken today have expressed concern that the current arrangements may not be adequate to protect these defining features of our

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country's landscape which also serve as a habitat for animals and plants and provide important evidence as to the historic development of the landscape.

As noble Lords have said, there are two main strands to the current arrangements. First, there are statutory controls on hedgerow removal in England and Wales under the Hedgerows Regulations 1997. The noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, presented the regulations to your Lordships' House for approval, admitting--the appropriate term, I think, having heard his views--that they were the last piece of business transacted under the previous administration. The noble Earl need not feel ashamed. Many noble Lords who have spoken are glad that he carried out that action.

Secondly, we encourage the planting, management and restoration of hedgerows through financial incentives which are available throughout the United Kingdom.

I must make clear at the outset that the Government are committed to providing strong and effective protection for hedgerows. To that end, we have taken positive steps to strengthen both the statutory framework and the management incentive schemes.

As regards the Hedgerows Regulations 1997, the Environment Minister, Michael Meacher, announced in May 1997 that the system of protection in the regulations which were about to come into force would be subject to immediate review. The Government believed that early attention should be paid to those regulations because of concerns that the criteria, which local authorities must use to determine whether a hedgerow is important and therefore worthy of protection, were too complicated--a point raised in the debate--and did not protect enough hedgerows. At that time it was estimated that the regulations would catch only about one in five hedgerows. The period allowed for local authorities to respond was also raised. I shall refer to the issue of timing later.

The review was carried out by a group which included the statutory agencies, local authorities and the main farming and conservation bodies. Its report, published in July last year, demonstrated a thorough investigation of the complex issues and careful analysis of possible options. Key recommendations included simpler criteria representing the landscape and the historic and wildlife importance of hedgerows. The review also proposed an increase in time allowed for response to a hedgerow removal notice from six to eight weeks.

Before final decisions were taken on the group's proposals, however, it was recommended that research should be commissioned into the new criteria. In particular that would provide an estimate of the percentage of hedgerows the regulations would be likely to protect. We are currently studying the results of that research and expect to publish revised draft regulations for statutory consultation after the evaluation has been completed. Our deliberations will be informed by the

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report of the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee on The Protection of Field Boundaries, and the Government's response to it.

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