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Natural Environment and Rural Communities Bill

3.03 pm

The Lord President of the Council (Baroness Amos): My Lords, I have it in command from Her Majesty the Queen and His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales to acquaint the House that they, having been informed of the purport of the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Bill, have consented to place their Interests, so far as they are affected by the Bill, at the disposal of Parliament for the purposes of the Bill.

Bill read a third time.

Clause 2 [General Purpose]:

Lord Dixon-Smith moved Amendment No. 1:

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The noble Lord said: My Lords, the Prime Minister himself said that the problem of global warming is probably the most important subject that any Government face. Indeed, it is probably even more significant than international terrorism. I make no apologies for tabling a redesigned amendment to try to persuade the Government that it is worth mentioning the subject in the Bill.

I have said before in this House that the news on global warming is consistently bad. I paid some tribute to the Government over the weekend because they made an announcement in the press about micro-generation. That is one of the first optimistic signs I have seen in this country for a very long time, although one has an instinctive reservation. We await the details when the Government make a proper announcement to Parliament so that we can see what that one is all about.

That announcement was, in effect, counter-balanced by research carried out by the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, working with a colleague at the University of Arizona, which was announced at the end of the week and reported in the Times on Friday. It is remarkable that the Americans, who are supposed to be a very negative force on the subject of global warming, host a great deal of extremely helpful and useful research into the matter. This research was predicated on the possibility that existing models that take account of the effect of global warming on the melting of Arctic and Antarctic ice are inadequate and that sea levels may rise at a rate vastly greater than anything suggested at present. Of course, this is yet more research in a very wide field, and its findings may not be realised. If it were to happen, however, the work of Natural England would be dramatically affected, because the research was postulating the possibility in the coming century of a sea rise of 20 feet rather than perhaps a foot or two.

It is worth noting that a study was done by, I believe, the Environment Agency on the impact of a tidal surge on top of a major spring tide in 2030. It is one thing if that takes into account the expected sea rise of a foot or two, but it is entirely another if it has to take into account a sea rise of several feet. More importantly, a number of other policies will be dramatically affected if—I stress the "if"—that research is at all valid, because the whole management of our coastlines will be dramatically affected. If such a sea rise does not dramatically affect the way in which Natural England works in those areas, I am not standing here addressing this House this afternoon. But I am addressing the House this afternoon because the effect will be dramatic.

When I tabled my amendment on Report, the Minister said:

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Instead of making the containment of global warming a specific function of Natural England, the amendment would make it part of its general functions. It would provide the context in which the functions mentioned in the Bill would have to be carried out. In my view, the amendment is consistent with the words of the Minister on Report. He will not be surprised therefore if I suggest that he could accept it. I beg to move.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, I have added my name to the noble Lord's amendment. For the reasons he has stated, climate change is important. Natural England will be in the forefront, together with the Environment Agency, of facing what that means. It will have to face adaptation and mitigation for land management and best advice on biodiversity and wildlife and the whole swathe of issues with which it will be subsequently tasked under the Bill.

Therefore, reference to climate change is essential. I was disappointed on Report when the Minister indicated that he was not minded to include it in the Bill. When the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, put down his amendment, I held out some hope that, if the Government did not like the exact wording, they might choose to amend it in such a way as to make them happy with it. I believe that we will have to task particular agencies and bodies to think about climate change at the forefront of what they do. After all, it is the most important issue of our time. This Bill is the place to start that. We support the noble Lord's amendment.

Baroness Byford: My Lords, I, too, support my noble friend's amendment. I was as disappointed as my noble friend when on Report the Minister referred to the key element of sustainable development. In fact, I would refer to the previous sentence of the Minister's speech. The Minister said that climate change has a,

So who is the lead player? Many departments are covered. With Natural England established, clearly Defra should be not just a key player, but the leading player. If it is not, perhaps the noble Lord will tell us who is. What discussions or arrangements have been made with other government departments? We do not want climate change to be manhandled between one department and another when, clearly, Natural England, with its new responsibilities, will be at the forefront of this.

I obviously support my noble friend Lord Dixon-Smith. He referred to the management of coastline. Even now, Southwold, in East Anglia, which I know quite well, is spending millions of pounds on improving its coastal defence plan. That is the situation now. With estimates of additional hazards of climate change, surely the Government cannot take—I wanted to say "lackadaisical", but that is not quite
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the right word—such a negative attitude to the very important crisis that is facing us and will continue to face us.

Lord Chorley: My Lords, for once I find myself not in agreement with the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, partly because I do not really understand his amendment, which reads,

in the context of the "General purpose" of the Bill.

I will give the noble Lord an example. Last year, there was a major wind farm inquiry near Tebay, between the Yorkshire Dales National Park and the English Lake District National Park. The Countryside Agency put in evidence, extremely strongly and extremely effectively, that on landscape grounds there was no case for this wind farm. That was a good, renewable project. I am glad to say that the Minister accepted evidence from others, in particular the Countryside Agency, and the wind farm was rejected. There will be wind farms up and down the country where the landscape question will be extremely important. There will be other questions. A moment ago, the noble Baroness mentioned Southwold and just down the coast there is Sizewell. I am fully behind the noble Lord on global warming; it is the most serious issue the world has to face in the next hundred years; and I believe nuclear power will be one of the main ways of dealing with it. But the siting of nuclear power stations will be a problem and Natural England has to keep its hands free so that it can participate in the wider national debate. For that reason, much though I respect the philosophy of the noble Lord regarding global warming, I cannot support his amendment.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Bach): My Lords, the noble Lord's amendment would make it clear that in taking action to conserve, enhance or manage the natural environment, Natural England has regard to the need to contain global warming. I appreciate the noble Lord's desire to find a form of words on this important, even crucial, topic that we could accept. However, I have to disappoint him.

As I said at Report, the Government expect Natural England, in common with all other public bodies, to play an active role in combating the effects of global warming, which is a huge issue for our time. Given the serious effects that global warming will have on the natural environment of England, I am absolutely confident that Natural England will have regard to this need, so far as it is able, in the exercise of its functions—the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Chorley—for conserving, enhancing and managing the natural environment. So why can we not accept the amendment?

It comes back to the role of Clause 2(1), where this amendment is now—for the first time, I believe—laid, in defining Natural England's purpose. Clause 2(1) is the general purpose—the core purpose—of Natural
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England. Far from being a preamble to paragraphs (a) to (e) of Clause (2)(2), it is the touchstone against which all Natural England's actions must be judged. The paragraphs are merely examples of things that are contained within the general purpose.

Clause 2(1) also plays a crucial role in communicating Natural England's job to a wide range of its customers and other interested parties. It will certainly be the most quoted clause of the Bill. It will probably appear inside the front cover of every Natural England publication and in exhibitions, videos and university text books, among other places. I understand that that is precisely why the noble Lord wants to get a reference to global warming here. But there are a very large number of things which Natural England must or may have regard to. While the need to contain global warming would be high up anybody's list, we cannot accept that it should be the sole factor that is elevated to a position at the heart of Natural England's core purpose. If this amendment was carried, that would be the result.

Our reservations are heightened by the wording used. "Containing" global warming is the key international challenge—the Kyoto protocol territory. Natural England will be able to make a more than useful contribution through the way it runs its operations, its comments on development plans and so on—the sort of decisions that the noble Lord, Lord Chorley, was talking about—but it will not be a large player in international development and energy policy. Natural England's contribution will lie more in drawing attention to the impact of global warming on the natural environment and facilitating its adaptation.

I was asked who the lead player is. Defra agencies, such as the Environment Agency and Natural England, of course have an important role. Because this topic is so wide-ranging, however, a government department leads. That department is, of course, Defra.

I hope that my brief remarks about the Government's expectations of Natural England—in having regard to the need to contain global warming—offer some reassurance to the noble Lord. He will be, as all of us will, a key monitor of Natural England's performance in this area. I am sure he will take us to task if he feels it falls short of its potential. On that basis I invite the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.

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