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Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: I thank the Minister for her reply. I appreciate that fact. However, as drafted, the Bill may cause statutory bodies to increase the costs so that they are excessive. Then they have to do nothing; they do not even have to provide an alternative.

I shall consider the point carefully before returning to it on Report. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton moved Amendments Nos. 479 to 481:

    Page 96, line 49, leave out ("requirement is") and insert ("requirements are--


    Page 96, line 54, at end insert ("; and

(b) that the authority restore the site to its former condition, so far as is reasonably practicable, if any such damage does occur.").

On Question, amendments agreed to.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer moved Amendment No. 482:

    Page 96, line 54, at end insert--

("( ) Where the Council concludes, on reasonable terms, that they cannot assent to the proposed operations (with or without conditions), they may require that the section 28E authority seek authorisation by a planning permission granted on an application under Part III of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990.").

The noble Baroness said: This amendment relates to procedure. If a disagreement between the statutory undertakers and the nature conservation agencies about an operation on SSSIs fails to be resolved, as drafted there is no provision in the Bill for a procedure satisfactorily to resolve that disagreement. If the conservation agencies cannot assent to a proposed operation, the amendment would allow them to require the statutory undertaker to apply for planning permission. That would put in place the procedure needed satisfactorily to resolve the issue.

The proposed operation would then be subject to normal planning procedures and the operation could be determined by the local planning authority. However, if the circumstances were truly exceptional--they may well be if we refer to SSSIs of particular value to the nation and internationally--the conservation agencies or other parties could request that the proposed operation be called in by the Secretary of State for his determination, and the normal public inquiry procedures would apply. I accept that that would be necessary only in extreme circumstances. However, given the rate at which SSSIs have been damaged, we must make some provision for extreme circumstances.

Perhaps I may cite examples provided by the RSPB. In the Dorset heathlands a local authority leased land to a parish council which wants to convert the heathland into urban parkland. It has been unable to resolve the situation with English Nature. English Nature strongly objects, but there is nothing in the Bill

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as drafted which will empower the agency to make representations to present its objections. I beg to move.

Lord Skelmersdale: In the case cited by the noble Baroness, there would be an appeal to the Secretary of State. English Nature can apply for a Section 28 order on the SSSI. The Secretary of State will determine that, usually very speedily.

Baroness Young of Old Scone: Underlying the amendment is a principle which it is valuable to explore but this is not the right amendment for that debate. In many cases the relationship between English Nature and the Section 28 authorities is excellent. Much is achieved by collaboration and co-operation. In circumstances of downright disagreement, a system is needed to resolve it. I do not believe that the proposal would work. It implies that the planning system would deal with issues which currently are not subject to, and would not helpfully be dealt with by, planning considerations. However, there is a point here which the noble Baroness rightly raises.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour: Would the system suggested by my noble friend Lord Skelmersdale work?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: I recognise that there is a point underlying the amendment which goes further than the amendment itself. The idea of requiring a public body or statutory undertaker to seek authorisation through an application for planning permission would not work or achieve the objectives. The modern system of land use planning has established principles. They were established in the Town and Country Planning Act 1947 and they are based on the idea of an operation constituting development and then being subject to the planning regime. The amendment would say that "non-development activities" might be treated as though they were development.

The planning system is not structured to consider applications for non-development activities. How could a local planning authority consider such an application? It could not consider an operation that falls outside the definition of "development" and outside the scope of the planning system against, for example, development policies in local development plans and other material considerations. We do not propose in this part of the Bill to change the well-established definition of "development". Indeed, we would not do so in this Bill.

I acknowledge that public bodies, including statutory undertakers, may benefit from consents granted under their own enabling legislation and other permitted development rights; that is, operations that constitute "development" but for which an application under Part III of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 is not required.

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These consents and the regime for permitted development rights ensure that statutory undertakers are equipped to carry out their functions--their statutory duties. In exceptional circumstances, a local planning authority may consider that planning control should apply to permitted development. In these circumstances--I believe that these are the exceptional circumstances to which the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, referred--it is open to the local planning authority to make and submit to the Secretary of State an order under Article 4 of the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) Order 1995 seeking to remove the particular development right and requiring an application for planning permission. I am not sure whether that answers the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, about a reference to the Secretary of State.

The Bill as drafted requires for the first time that the conservation agency is fully involved in the consideration and exercise of such consents. I stress the totally new provision of new Section 28F to which my noble friend Lady Farrington spoke in debate on the last group of amendments: the public body, in carrying out operations, must do so in such a way as to cause as little damage as reasonably practicable; and the public body must restore the land to its former condition so far as practicable. However, there must be a balance of interests. We have ensured that if such operations are imperative, the conservation agency retains a full opportunity to advise the public body on the operation and the best way to carry it out.

We are firmly committed to sustainable development. That involves carefully weighing all the issues, particularly the benefits to the public. In some cases, the duty of a statutory undertaker may need to override the nature conservation interest. The procedures allow for that. We have never sought to imply that SSSIs must be inviolable. Of course there will be difficult decisions, but we are talking about exceptional circumstances only. I expect statutory undertakers to work constructively with the agencies to ensure that their work is carried out without compromising the nature conservation interest. As the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, has just made clear, the conservation agencies have good working relationships with public bodies and constantly seek to develop them further. I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, will not press the amendment.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: The noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, helpfully pointed out that the underlying principle of the amendment was important and was not currently met in the Bill but that this was not the right vehicle to implement it. I accept that and shall go away and look at the issue further. Perhaps my local authority background is coming out too strongly. I should like to discuss the issue further with the noble Baroness. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 483 to 483B not moved.]

16 Oct 2000 : Column 679

3.45 p.m.

Lord Glentoran moved Amendment No. 483C:

    Page 97, line 33, leave out ("may") and insert ("shall").

The noble Lord said: I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 484 to 487. Management schemes are the only way to control operations on SSSIs. Given that management agreements are already part of the process, schemes of management would be helpful, even if they may not be over-popular.

Amendment No. 484 would remove the words "if they think fit" in the reference to actions by the council. It is not clear why the power granted to English Nature and the Countryside Council for Wales to make a management scheme is to be exercised only "if they think fit". That is an unusual drafting term. Usually, a statutory body is given either a duty, in which case the Bill would use the word "shall", or a power, in which case the Bill would use the word "may". It is not clear what the phrase adds to the understanding of the power granted. Presumably English Nature and the Countryside Council for Wales would exercise any power granted to them only if they thought that it was appropriate. What body would exercise a power if it did not think that it was a good idea to do so? That would be daft.

It would be helpful if the Minister could explain what value is added by the inclusion of the phrase in new Section 28H(1). It also appears in new Section 28I(1)(b), new Section 28J(4) in relation to the Secretary of State and new Section 28K(2). The same arguments apply. A consistent approach should be adopted in reviewing its utility in each case. I hope that the Minister will be able to explain the reasoning behind its inclusion. If his arguments are not persuasive, perhaps we can take it further on another occasion.

Amendment No. 485 would ensure that owners were consulted while the management scheme was being formulated instead of after it had been formulated. New Section 28H(3) requires owners to be consulted about a proposed management scheme. However, it appears that that consultation would take place after the scheme had been formulated, not before or during its formulation. There is therefore a risk that English Nature and the Countryside Council for Wales would prepare a scheme without informing an owner that they were doing so and would then consult the owner on a scheme to which they had had no input.

Three potential problems could then arise. The scheme could be incomplete because it failed to take account of current management practices, it could fail to take account of the economic realities of the land management business involved or, as an effective fait accompli, it could cause offence to owners, who might be concerned that their input was not wanted.

Those problems could be avoided if English Nature and the Countryside Council for Wales actively invited input from owners and occupiers to the preparation of a scheme. Such early involvement would help to build a better partnership with owners and would help English Nature and the Countryside Council for Wales in preparing the scheme, because owners and

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occupiers would be able to give them a clear idea of issues such as how the land was managed, how that management might change and what practical difficulties had to be overcome if the land was to be managed differently.

Spending time actively involving owners in formulating schemes should also work to the advantage of English Nature and the Countryside Council for Wales once they come to give owners the opportunity to make formal representations about a scheme under new Section 28H(7). If owners' concerns have been taken into account as far as possible in formulating the scheme, it is unlikely that they will wish to make formal representations. If, on the other hand, as the Bill currently suggests, owners are simply presented with a fait accompli in which they have not been actively involved, they are likely to make detailed representations, which could delay the finalisation of the scheme, because English Nature and the Countryside Council for Wales have to consider all such representations. I hope that the Minister will know from his experience that all good managements involve all those concerned when formulating plans and changes and will accept that the amendment is common sense. As those of us who have worked on the shopfloor and in the industrial world know, it makes it considerably easier if everybody is involved at the earliest possible stage.

Amendment No. 486 would provide for English Nature and the Countryside Council for Wales to seek external advice when preparing management schemes. I have a short brief from the National Farmers Union on the amendment, which would enable English Nature and the Countryside Council for Wales to tap into external sources of land management expertise or experience in preparing management schemes. While English Nature and the Countryside Council for Wales will often have a clear idea of conservation objectives for SSSIs, they may lack experience of the particular farming systems that can deliver those objectives. That brings to mind a discussion that we had late one night last week. Even where they have such experience in general, such as from managing livestock on national nature reserves, they are unlikely to have experience relevant to the particular locality or farming regime of the owner or occupier.

In contrast, owners and occupiers will often have a good idea of the management required. It is important that English Nature and the Countryside Council for Wales tap that expertise in consulting owners or occupiers about schemes under Section 28C(3). However, input from bodies such as the Agricultural Development Advisory Service, the Farming and Rural Conservation Agency or the Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group could be helpful in developing and refining schemes. In cases when English Nature and the Countryside Council for Wales lack experience, they should be encouraged to take advice from regular experts. The NFU stresses that the confidence of owners and occupiers in management schemes is essential to their success. The process must be as transparent as possible. The amendment would help to minimise any risk of

16 Oct 2000 : Column 681

misunderstanding about why the nature conservation body was proposing the particular management scheme.

As I have just outlined, Amendment No. 487 is also supported by the National Farmers Union. Again, this amendment gives the basic contents of a management scheme and relates to Section 28H(2). SSSI notifications, especially in relation to large sites, will often be vague about the particular interest and management of parts of the site under different owners or occupiers. On average, each SSSI involves eight different landholdings.

The management scheme provides an important opportunity to tailor the details of the notification, and the management objectives which flow from it, to the individual land management unit. That process should involve specifying which of the particular features of the SSSI occur on the landholding, what management regime the council considers is needed to conserve those features, which of the operations contained in the general list is relevant to the site, and which of the operations pose no threat to the site and, accordingly, have been consented to by English Nature and the Countryside Council for Wales.

The end product should be a scheme for managing the site which sets out clear, agreed objectives and seeks to keep the bureaucracy associated with the SSSI consent system to the absolute minimum, consistent with the conservation of the site. Such schemes should provide a sound basis for a positive working partnership between English Nature, the Countryside Council for Wales and SSSI owners and occupiers. That is what we on this side believe in. I beg to move.

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