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Lord Cameron of Dillington: My Lords, I spoke against this clause on Report, having been an agnostic in Committee. The whole point of Clause 2 is that it creates an equilibrium whereby Natural England must decide by itself where the right balance lies. Sustainable development is key here. I do not believe that Natural England will be cowed, as the noble Baroness, Lady Young, said about English Nature in its early days, by the economic case. I very firmly do not believe that Parliament should be taking decisions for Natural England in advance of hypothetical cases yet to come up before its board. That is all wrong. To quote my noble friend Lord Chorley, as he stated on the previous amendment, Natural England should be allowed to keep its hands free.

Lord Greenway: My Lords, I have consistently opposed the inclusion of the Sandford principle in the general purposes of the Bill. At Second Reading the Minister said that the Government had considered this clause very carefully and they thought that they had come up with the right balance. I agree on that; we have the right balance. The Sandford principle, commendable though it is in relation to national parks, is not appropriate to this Bill, because Natural England will have a remit far wider than that of national parks, including urban areas. It is correct that recreational and socio-economic interests should be balanced with conservation interests. It is not beyond the wit of the board of Natural England to come up with solutions when it comes up against conflict.

The Earl of Erroll: My Lords, I support my noble friend Lord Greenway. I am cynical enough to believe that someone could dig their toes in enough to make something irreconcilable and therefore always push it into an environmental decision. I have seen that sort of behaviour before elsewhere. It would be very dangerous to accept the amendment.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, on Report I said that we on these Benches were of the opinion that it was impossible to legislate for every single sort of case that Natural England would have to look at. When noble Lords are considering the amendment, it is important to remember that the board will be looking at dozens of cases that will be reconcilable. They will sometimes be extremely
 
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difficult to balance and yet they will be able to come to some form of opinion on them. It is not that the board will not have enough experience. In moving the amendment the noble Baroness said that it will be a body of people with different slants—independent people with knowledge and expertise. We will have to trust the board to be able to make judgments. It is possible that once every decade or so it will get that judgment wrong. We will probably be sad about that. However, it will get its judgments right most of the time. In the rare instance that it gets the judgment wrong, this clause would not necessarily get it right either, for all the reasons that other noble Lords have given.

The Bill has also strengthened—for example, in Clause 40, with the duty to conserve biodiversity—the position of wildlife, which is quite different from what it was at the time the noble Baroness, Lady Young, referred to. That was back in the days when you had only Swampy to defend the great crested newts against the roads. Time has moved on, which is part of the point of the CROW Act and, I hope, will be part of the point of this Act. I hope that it is one reason why we do not need this amendment—I believe that it is.

Lord Bach: My Lords, we return to conflict resolution. Whatever view we take of this, I am grateful that we have had debates on four occasions, including Second Reading, on this important topic. I am grateful, too, for the spirit in which those debates have been conducted. It will not surprise noble Lords to know that the Government remain opposed to including a clause of this type in the Bill.

Natural England's purpose, and the powers it has to research, experiment, advise and fund, have been drafted to be broad and enabling and, in particular, to give it the flexibility and, above all, the independence to be an effective and, indeed, trenchant—a word heard often in this House—champion of the natural environment, taking action on a wide front. However, Natural England will, of course, make its decisions in the context of sustainable development. It will contribute to sustainable development by proactively seeking solutions which, while achieving environmental benefits, also provide long-term economic and social benefits, and avoid untoward economic and social impacts.

With that remit at the forefront of our minds, I invite noble Lords to imagine that they are board members of Natural England. What sort of issues will come up for discussion and decision? I offer a few examples: first, deciding whether to fund a new initiative to improve the quality and accessibility of urban open space; secondly, advising government on their climate change action plan; thirdly, deciding how to target agri-environment funds to get the best value for money; fourthly, advising government on the management of a wild species whose population is out of control; and lastly, deciding whether or not to enter a statutory objection to a road scheme.
 
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Noble Lords will remember the lively debate on Report about the pros and cons of tourist development in the Cairngorms. It is of course unlikely that Natural England will comment on a development in Scotland, but it is not a bad example of the type of complex issue which will come before the board.

Would the clause help members of the board to decide Natural England's position on the breadth of issues I have just listed? In each case, they would need to consider which of their objectives were in conflict. For example, is there a conflict between both social and economic well-being and environmental conservation, or just one of these? Perhaps there is a conflict between the study of the natural environment and conservation, or between the enhancement of the natural environment and its conservation. How might they resolve a conflict between the conservation of landscape and the protection of biodiversity, both of which are aspects of the natural environment? Having identified their conflicts, they must consider whether each one is "significant" and "irreconcilable". Thus, having reached a short list, they must decide exactly how to give "greater weight" to conservation and ensure that their decision is fully documented to show that it has taken into account all relevant considerations to resist challenge—possibly through judicial review. The effect of imposing such a statutory duty within Natural England's general purpose, far from being helpful to their deliberations as board members, would, in practice, be closer to a nightmare. The board would certainly need extremely good and attentive expert and legal advice to help to decide when a matter falls within the category of "significant, irreconcilable conflict".

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It is not just the board of Natural England that must jump through those hoops. Every officer making a grant, issuing a licence or offering advice is likely to come under pressure from either the public or the affected customer to decide whether the situation at hand does or does not come within the parameters of this duty. That is likely to result in very detailed reasoning having to be recorded for all decisions that are made, which could add significantly to the workload of the new body.

Perhaps we should ask why no other equivalent body has a conflict resolution clause—not English Nature; not the Countryside Agency; not the Countryside Council for Wales; not Scottish Natural Heritage; not even the Environment Agency itself. None has such a duty. It may not be a surprise but the technical briefing to your Lordships of those bodies that will make up Natural England states that,

That is the Government's view, too.
 
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The case against a conflict resolution clause seems to be powerful. However, even if we are proved wrong, there remains the option of statutory guidance. As your Lordships know, and I make it abundantly clear again, we do not think that there is a case at the outset to issue guidance on the subject to Natural England. If, in time, it becomes clear, which we do not expect, that Natural England's decisions, or perhaps one subset of decisions, would benefit from such statutory guidance on how to resolve conflicts, we have the option of issuing such guidance, following consultation, as set out in Clause 15(3) of the Bill.

We believe that Clause 2, when read together with the Explanatory Notes, will provide the right framework for the board of Natural England to decide how to address the diverse range of complex issues that fall within its remit. It will be one of the Government's key advisers on managing the natural environment. Our argument is that it would not be right to constrain the judgment of the board in the Bill in the way proposed in the amendment, or to expose it to the threat—however unlikely—of judicial review on this ground for every difficult decision that it and its officers take. It is for those reasons that I invite the noble Baroness to withdraw her amendment.


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