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House of Lords

Friday, 4th April 2003.

The House met at eleven of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Guildford.

Code of Guidance on Sites of Special Scientific Interest: Encouraging positive partnerships

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton rose to move, That the draft code of guidance laid before the House on 5th February be approved.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, the Government have a long-standing commitment to protecting biodiversity. A coherent network of designated sites remains vital to nature conservation and a core element of our wider biodiversity strategy. Sites of special scientific interest are at the heart of the system of designated conservation areas and safeguard the best of England's wildlife and geology.

There are over 4,000 sites of special scientific interest in England, covering more than 1 million hectares of land. This is about 7.5 per cent of England's total land area. Over three-quarters of the area is of international importance. The key features of the modern regime for managing and protecting these areas were put in place under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. Far-reaching changes to this regime were introduced by the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 for England and Wales. I am sure many of your Lordships will remember the debates we had in the Chamber during the passage of that legislation. It contained significant new provisions concerning notification, protection and management of SSSIs. The changes were made to secure positive management of sites of special scientific interest and to ensure robust protection responsive to today's threats.

The 1981 Act sets out a requirement under Section 33 for a code to be prepared from time to time containing advice, recommendations and information to guide those exercising functions relating to SSSIs and those who are affected by those functions. The revised draft code before your Lordships today seeks to meet this requirement. It reflects the legislative changes and represents a significant enhancement over the previous code, issued in 1982. Although there is a statutory requirement for the code itself, its content is advisory only and does not provide any additional basis for enforcement proceedings or prosecution, or have any bearing upon them.

The code applies to England only; it is aimed at English Nature, local authorities, land agents, public bodies, all those exercising functions that could impact on SSSIs and corporate and individual owners and occupiers of SSSI land. A separate code is being prepared for Wales.

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The draft code summarises and explains the regime now protecting SSSIs, taking into account the effect of the new legislation. It explains in more accessible terms than the legislation how the provisions for site notification, management and protection should operate. It sets out the Government's expectations of English Nature and explains to interested parties their rights and what they can expect of their dealings with English Nature. It also highlights the obligations on owners and occupiers as well as public bodies. The new positive statutory duty that local authorities have to protect and enhance SSSIs when they exercise their functions is highlighted along with the consultative obligations this requires.

We consulted widely on the draft code in August 2000 and again with key bodies in 2001. The code does not introduce any new burdens in respect of SSSIs but provides guidance within the context of the existing legislation. The Government have set a public service agreement target that 95 per cent of SSSIs should be in favourable condition by 2010. I believe the code will help to make a contribution towards that target by raising awareness among public bodies, landowners and other groups and by explaining in a clear way the powers and procedures associated with them. Of course, achievement of the target will require a sustained level of commitment and action from many people and organisations within government and beyond. Nevertheless, the setting of the target shows we are serious in our commitment to biodiversity. The code will significantly help in establishing a clear understanding of the basic legislative regime for protecting and enhancing our SSSIs.

The code has received a broad welcome from the various groups that have seen it, such as landowners and occupiers, NGOs, and statutory agencies and bodies. It sets out very clearly the partnership approach that is essential in managing SSSIs to get the maximum benefit from them, and our commitment to working with all interested players in this area. I am sure that everyone here today shares the objectives of protecting our valuable sites and enhancing the biodiversity of our country. I commend the code to the House.

Moved, That the draft code of guidance laid before the House on 5th February be approved.—(Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton.)

Baroness Byford: My Lords, I thank the Minister for putting this code before us. The noble Baroness said, slightly wryly, that many of us would remember the hours we spent on the Countryside and Rights of Way Bill. Indeed, I think it is imprinted on our hearts. There were many agonising times, and before I return to the code, I should like to reflect on the difficulty we had in trying to balance the protection of wildlife with the proper management of land, because sometimes they are in conflict.

I accept that the code is advisory and sets out very clearly the expectations that the Government and all of us have of English Nature and the way in which the

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rights and dealings will take place between landowners and those who work the land. I have one or two specific questions.

The code is for guidance only. It refers to the 1981 Act to emphasise the importance of positive management of SSSIs, something we all welcome. It recognises the need to develop further the constructive relationship between landowners, managers, officers of conservation agencies, English Nature and, in regard to Wales—although the code does not refer to Wales—the Countryside Council for Wales.

The code is to assist English Nature in exercising its powers and to give guidance to public bodies and utilities. By January 2006, every owner or occupier should have had a clear statement of the proposed management requirements for the SSSI. A formal appeal system will be in place. Would the Minister clarify for me that if there is an impasse between the owner and English Nature, it is the Secretary of State who will give the final decision?

English Nature will also be required regularly to report to the Secretary of State on the progress of improving the conditions of the SSSIs. Will the Minister define "regularly" for us?

As the Minister said, the Government have set a target of 95 per cent of SSSIs to be in a favourable or unfavourable but recovering condition by 2010. However, when the original White Paper was published, it set a different goal. It stated that the Government had set themselves,

    "an ambitious target of ensuring that 95 per cent of the nationally important sites in England are in a favourable condition by March 2010".

Why has the wording been altered? Did the Government feel at that time, or subsequent to their discussions, that they could not achieve their original goal for favourable conditions? The wording has been changed and one might say, in interpretation, that the target has been watered down.

I turn to one section of people who work on SSSIs and to the question of commoners' grazing rights. Having considered the draft code, I do not believe that they are included in it. Many commoners do not have ownership of the land; they have only grazing rights upon it. Will the Minister comment on that?

Finally, I turn to a letter that I was sent only this week, which expresses some of the concerns that are being felt now that the new Act and the codes are coming into being. It is from a Mr Pope from down in Dorset, who has about 1,500 acres of Dorset countryside. He says:

    "So we have an SSSI (plus potentially another) and most is ESA. We work with the RSPB, and with Butterfly Conservation, and we have an extraordinary concentration of flora and fauna from spawning salmon, water voles and egrets, to barn owls and rare orchids"—

all the things that we would love to be out there seeing today, rather than debating in this House. Mr Pope goes on to say that,

    "it is precisely this level of care which has exposed us to the full brunt of the right to roam, with no hope of defence. Because the Right will not give access to 'improved grassland', other land I

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    know well where environmental crime has been committed in the past, is safe from this intrusion. Because investors in the land pay a premium for privacy, one can expect to see values suffer, but so will the wildlife we have protected, and the businesses we try to run".

He goes on to say that he has an internationally famous shoot, and that,

    "we take the greatest care that it is positive to wildlife; it pays for the maintenance of woodland to be flora and fauna friendly, crops which encourage songbirds, and generally it enriches the food chain; it makes a most significant financial contribution to the local rural economy. At worst, our right to roam areas will make it impossible to run it profitably, whilst our 'improved grassland' areas, which are closer to populations but irrelevant to the shoot, remain undisturbed".

There is more, but I shall not waste your Lordships' time. However, that letter is relevant to our discussions. Here is somebody—and I suspect that there are many others—who is doing his best to preserve and protect wildlife and to look after the countryside as the Government would desire. Unfortunately, some of the implications of the Act make it difficult for those people to do so. I pose only those few questions for the Minister, but I thank her for presenting the code to us this morning.

11.15 a.m.

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