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Marine and Coastal Access Bill [HL]

Bill Main page
Bill as Introduced
Explanatory Notes

Second Reading (Continued)

4.38 pm

Lord Moran: My Lords, we come back nearer to home with the Marine and Coastal Access Bill. This Bill, as the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Holbeach, said, is long overdue. We all know that our seas, with their exceptional wildlife, have been neglected and despoiled, suffering from gross overfishing and dredging and trawling along the seabed. That is apart from what now appear to be the adverse effects of climate change.

What were, not long ago, substantial populations of cod, herring, mackerel, sole, plaice and whiting are all greatly depleted. Some have collapsed. Sand eels, an essential food species for many fish and such birds as puffins, kittiwakes and Arctic terns, are nowhere near as numerous as they once were. The species that feed on them are in trouble. Our seas and their wildlife urgently need protection, yet, year after year, while all sorts of measures have been put before us, we have not been asked to pay attention to the seas that surround us. It is surely rather shameful that our island country, while doing a good deal to promote conservation on the land, has done hardly anything comparable to conserve our seas.

However, the Bill we have awaited so long at last has arrived. Its 300 pages and accompanying documents show that Defra and other departments have put a vast amount of work into it. They have produced a good Bill that deserves our support. It has had extensive pre-legislative scrutiny although, unhappily, some of

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the very sensible proposals made by parliamentary committees have been rejected. In any case, there is room for improvement, which we shall address at subsequent stages.

Although it is not included in the Bill, we must bear in mind that under an EU directive we are now required to achieve good environmental status for our seas by 2020. That includes making sure that commercially exploited fish and shellfish populations are within safe biological limits, maintaining the biological diversity of marine habitats and limiting contamination of the marine environment to levels that do not cause pollution.

Turning first to the nature conservation provisions in the Bill, I think that some of the key proposals are those in Part 5 for marine conservation zones or MCZs in the seas off England and Wales. However, I agree with those critics who say that the conservation objectives could be undermined by the provision that the designating authorities may have regard to economic or social consequences. I am sure that sites should be designated solely on scientific criteria, as is the case on land. That is in line with the Government’s promise in the 2002 document, Safeguarding our Seas, that there should be an,

The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, for which we should have the highest respect, in its 25th report, recommended that in order to restore health to UK fisheries and marine biodiversity, the Government should establish a linked network of marine reserves. It should cover at least 30 per cent of UK seas, go out 200 nautical miles and protect the whole ecosystem by connecting together reserves that are established as “no-take” areas. That would allow fish to reach their full size, which they cannot do at present, and to spawn safely. That is the right way to bring about the needed recovery, as has been argued by Friends of the Earth’s Marine Network.

I welcome the plan to have an independent body, the Marine Management Organisation—MMO—to discharge marine functions and control planning and licensing, provided that it is properly resourced and staffed by competent, knowledgeable people and given powers to police provisions in the Bill. We shall get nowhere without such enforcement.

I also welcome the proposal to set up inshore fisheries and conservation authorities and to reform migratory and freshwater fisheries, although it has taken, strangely, nearly a decade to meet the relevant recommendations in the Salmon and Freshwater Fisheries Review. It is clearly important that the management proposed should be co-ordinated with the authorities in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The inshore fisheries and conservation authorities should also be required to work closely with the Environment Agency.

Speaking as a resident of Wales and as president of the Welsh Salmon and Trout Angling Association, I think it essential that the Welsh Assembly Government should be given the necessary powers and duties to deliver the same improvements that will enhance fisheries management in Wales as those to be passed in England, even though TECAs will not be created in Wales.

It is odd that the Government are working in the Bill to secure the welfare of migratory fish while they are also considering the construction of the Severn

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barrage, which, as I pointed out when we debated that project some time ago, will probably destroy the runs of all migratory fish heading for the upper Severn, the Usk and the Wye.

Part 9 on coastal access has been generally welcomed but is inevitably rather more controversial than the rest of the Bill. I sympathise with the Government’s objectives. I remember that when my wife and I served in Canada we used at weekends to drive out to the country near Ottawa and often found attractive lakes where we hoped to walk with our dogs. Usually, we found a lodge and fences barring our way.

There are of course many private properties along out coast: farms, beaches, golf courses and much else besides. Although gardens and parks will be exempted, other properties may have a 33 feet-wide corridor together with an area curiously described as “spreading room” driven through them. The Government have rejected views expressed by the Joint Committee of both Houses and the Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee that there should be a right of appeal and, where appropriate, compensation paid. It seems quite wrong to me for the Government to take such a ruthless, unsympathetic line in dealing with the private property of ordinary citizens. That ought to be looked at again.

Apart from that, it will clearly be necessary to arrange that the route does not damage sensitive habitats and wildlife sites such as estuaries, marshes and cliffs, which are used as nesting sites by birds.

On the whole, we are fortunate in having to deal with a really worthwhile Bill, but it needs some changes. I look forward to subsequent stages, and I hope that the Government will respond reasonably to suggestions that may be made to them. If so, the Bill may, as I hope, become a real environmental landmark.

4.47 pm

Baroness Young of Old Scone: My Lords, I declare an interest as president of the British Trust for Ornithology and of a wildlife trust and as vice-president of the RSPB and BirdLife International.

I was delighted to hear the Minister do the vision thing on the marine environment. It is a whole new country that we have out there and it has been only lightly explored. It is full of diverse landscapes, constructions, species and habitats and it is rich in natural resources. I invite your Lordships for a moment to walk, wade or swim with me through that landscape. Those weeds that you see are its forests; those shoals are its soils, mountains and hills; and those fish are its cows and sheep.

Some of challenges that we face in the marine environment are very similar to those that we have worked on for considerably longer on the land. There are pressures on natural resources and pressures for development. There is the impact on the environment: the noble Lord, Lord Moran, talked about the impact on fish stocks, for example. We have a lot of experience in balancing these competing demands in the terrestrial environment. We need perhaps to add to the welcome and long-awaited framework that the Marine and Coastal Access Bill provides by drawing from some of

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our experience on the land and by taking that 60, 70, 80 years’ worth of rather sophisticated legislation and case law into the Bill.

Let us think what some of the issues might be that could be better informed by thinking about what has happened on land. I welcome marine conservation zones. The previous legislation on protected areas was absolutely hopeless and resulted in only one marine nature reserve in 27 years. We need to make sure that the marine conservation zone programme mirrors some of the protected area provisions that we already have on land. We need identification and designation of a series of sites that will be ecologically coherent and representative of those areas that are distinctive and deserve protection. They need to be well managed and they need to have an adequate level of defence and protection.

At the moment, the Bill has some deficiencies in that respect. For example, site designation on land is purely on the basis of evidence of nature conservation criteria. Then, once a site has been designated, it is possible to take a view about socio-economic aspects, about development and about the needs of people, bearing in mind that that piece of land has been identified on good scientific evidence as being in need of protection, so that the social and economic issues can take full account of that. If the designation process as it is suggested in the Bill has to take socio-economic considerations into account before any designation even takes place, we will almost by definition be damaging some of the most important sites at sea.

The Bill provides for a very welcome process for designation, but it does not give us much of a timescale or programme. The appropriate authority should have a duty to produce a programme for this coherent network of sites and a pretty swift timescale. We have been hanging around for quite a long time and, as the noble Lord pointed out, the pressures for use of the sea as a resource and for the development of alternative energy sources are becoming ever more pressing. We need to move rather fast. There is no mention of a timescale in the Bill. There needs to be a swift timescale. The authority needs to publish a programme for reaching the point where that coherent network has been created. There also need to be absolute timescales for decisions being made by the appropriate authority, so that when the first six-year review comes up we are not sitting here with very few designations having been made. That was the sort of programme that we saw for the Natura 2000 series in terrestrial habitats, and it worked perfectly well. I say with some pride that I was chairing English Nature at the time when we did it. That could perfectly well happen in respect of marine conservation zones.

I mentioned that sites should be properly managed. The statutory conservation agencies should be required to set conservation objectives right at the start as part of the designation process and to have a role in co-ordinating the management schemes for each of the marine conservation zones. It is not simply the process of excluding; there will be competing demands within these zones and they will need management. This is the sort of process that currently happens on land with Natura 2000 sites and SSSIs. I am sure that

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we could replicate it at sea. We also need clearer powers of prevention of damage or destruction of designated features in a marine conservation zone and proper enforcement measures. We need to spread the very welcome general enforcement power for impact on designated features to include reckless damage and disturbance, as it is often difficult, as has been proven on land, to prove intent in damage. We need a slightly broader statement of that general power.

The marine conservation zones will be the equivalent of our protected areas on land—our sites of special scientific interest or our habitats regulations sites. They will be the jewels in the crown and the most important part of that underwater new country. Noble Lords know how concerned we are about the terrestrial habitat in the wider countryside—some of the common habitats, species and landscapes that we see across the countryside. We need a similar mechanism for looking at the non-designated areas in the marine environment. That is where the marine planning system needs to be specifically tasked. It needs to cover the whole marine environment to make sure that, as the pressure on marine resources increases, areas are identified that are suitable or unsuitable for particular activities. Conflict can therefore be reduced as far as possible, development can go ahead in the right places and conservation can happen in the right places, much as the planning system over the past 60 years has worked on the land.

I am proud of the planning system in this country, which has produced one of the most democratic local institutions. I believe that there are ways in which we can replicate that in the marine environment. We need to ensure that the planning system looks at the whole marine environment so that those competing uses can be allocated space in ways that prevent conflict. Conflict costs time and money. It creates winners and losers, whereas we want everyone to win.

Ministers can draw up a marine policy statement and marine plans. This should be a requirement, as it is on land, not a discretion. The statutory nature conservation agencies, including Natural England, should be asked not just to monitor the condition of the marine conservation zones but to monitor and report on the condition of the whole marine environment, much as they do on the whole of the natural environment on the land. We can learn from long experience in terrestrial conservation and bring that experience in to strengthen this Bill.

Turning to my other major preoccupation, I was amazed that I did not get a single briefing from anybody banging on about access and nature conservation. I do not know what to draw from that. The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, talked about survivors of the Countryside and Rights of Way Bill and I bear that badge with pride. There must be something cyclical about this. The last night of the CROW Bill was, if I remember, the US presidential election and here we are again. There must be a link between choosing US Presidents and access Bills in this country.

I feel like the Ghost of Christmas Past because it appears that almost everybody has now been mollified—although I note that the noble Lord, Lord Moran, expressed concern about disturbance to wildlife—about

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the impact of coastal access provisions on wildlife. Reading the accompanying documents and particularly the Natural England draft scheme, we see strong assurances both in that scheme and in supporting legislation about appropriate assessment of habitats regulations sites, about proper assessment of the environmental impacts of proposals and about appropriate monitoring to ensure that damage is not taking place. I am still concerned, however, because the scientific evidence is increasing that linear access through narrow corridors—such as there will be, even with the elbow-room, or spreading-room, provision—has a disproportionately disturbing impact on breeding and foraging birds. It may not be gross; it may not be that you will not see birds there ever again. It may mean, however, that regular disturbance will decrease their feeding and breeding success and that there will be a gradual decline over a period of years.

We will have to watch like hawks the operation of the Natural England draft scheme to ensure that a proper baseline is established for some of these sensitive species and that the scheme is rigorously applied in assessing the environmental impacts. The understandable wish to get near-universal access to the coast around this country should not be at the expense of the long-term viability of some of those populations of species, particularly coastal wading birds, which are the most internationally distinctive feature of biodiversity in this country. So watch this space. I am not sure that much can be done in the Bill to strengthen that; I simply want to put on record my belief that careful implementation of the access provisions in the Bill will be important.

Other issues will no doubt be mentioned by other speakers, such as the need to study the remit of the Marine Management Organisation and of the inshore fisheries and conservation authorities to ensure that stewardship of marine resources is absolutely at the heart of those bodies. We need to toughen the Bill to ensure that the statutory conservation bodies are statutory consultees across all the Bill’s provisions rather than just some of them. Stronger environmental safeguards and wider consultation are needed on all the marine licensing provisions. Other smaller issues will arise.

As many noble Lords have said, and will no doubt repeat, this is a long-awaited, much worked-over Bill. It is much better than it was initially but it can still be improved.

5 pm

Lord Davies of Coity: My Lords, I am delighted to contribute to this important debate. The Marine and Coastal Access Bill is long awaited and is to be commended. Our maritime heritage is so rich and unique that it must be protected. Our fisheries, coastlines, ports and harbours are extraordinary resources that we as an island nation have always treasured. We must preserve the seas and coastal environment and guard them for the use and enjoyment of future generations.

I draw attention to the importance of protecting existing marine facilities and the environment of the estuaries and stress the need for clear understanding of the obligations imposed by this legislation. I shall

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illustrate that point by referring to the ongoing and important debate on the use of the Severn estuary as a renewable energy resource.

The Bill contains provisions designed to safeguard the marine environment. Clause 99 even goes so far as to prevent licence holders from carrying out approved activity by enabling the issuing of stop notices. By virtue of Clause 108, the Secretary of State can intervene only in issues designated as national security matters. Part 4 deals with marine licensing and Clauses 66, 67 and 68 set out the need to have regard to the protection of the environment, to protect human health and to prevent interference with legitimate uses of the sea.

Further guidance on the meaning of “environment” helpfully says that it includes the local and global environment, the natural environment and any site of historic or archaeological interest. “Natural environment” includes the physical, chemical and biological state of the sea and the seashore. “Legitimate uses of the sea” mainly, but not exclusively, concerns the safe navigation of ships. These are most important provisions, which I fully support, but I seek clarification on how they might work in practice.

My noble friend Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, who introduced this important debate, has an unenviable task. In addition to his responsibilities at Defra, he represents the Government in your Lordships’ House on renewable energy and carbon savings. I am very concerned about the potential conflict that will arise if the Government decide to proceed with environmentally damaging marine policies when to do so flies in the face of the Bill’s purpose. That may be a hypothetical point but I should be interested to hear how the Government would deal with such a conflict in practice, should it arise.

That brings me to the massively controversial scheme to build a barrage across the Severn estuary. Supporters claim that such a barrage can contribute 5 per cent of the UK’s renewable energy-generating capacity for electricity. That may or may not be the case, but this is not the occasion on which to dwell on such issues. I shall save my comments on that for a more appropriate time.

However, the overwhelming evidence of comprehensive and widespread damage across every category set out in Clauses 66, 67 and 68, together with the limited powers to prevent such damage offered by Clause 99, deepens my concern. All the environmental agencies and representative bodies believe that a barrage would be an unmitigated ecological disaster. I have statements from the RSPB, Friends of the Earth Cymru, the World Wildlife Fund, the National Trust and the Wye and Usk Foundation. Water quality, flooding and sewage are other very real concerns. The archaeological damage would be immense and the interruption to navigation on the Severn could be fatal to the ports of Bristol and Gloucester. The Government’s advisers, DTZ, have said that the barrage would threaten thousands of jobs and create an economic deficit of around £500 million.

Where does the balance lie? If the Government are really serious about this Bill, as I believe they are, they must declare now that they will not immediately

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undermine it by promoting such schemes as the Severn barrage, whatever our energy experts or climate change philosophers argue.

To conclude, this is a courageous Bill, which I support. It is of paramount importance for the conservation of our marine resources. However, the Government must recognise their overwhelming obligation, however inconvenient, to enforce the legislation, even if it means killing off one of the schemes favoured by another part of government. That is the dilemma that the Government face.

5.06 pm

Baroness Byford: My Lords, it is just over a year since we were at the start of the Climate Change Bill and the intervening months have seen also the passage of the Planning Bill and the Energy Bill. All three will have considerable influence on the implementation of this Marine and Coastal Access Bill. As a member of the Joint Committee on the draft Bill, I can attest that under the expert and business-like chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Greenway, the main issues were thoroughly explored. I compliment him on his leadership, which enabled us to cover the main territory and examine many of the side issues without wasting time on dead-ends; not that there was any time available for dead-ends, as the Government gave the committee a mere nine weeks in which to study the implications of this major and fundamental legislation.

My noble friend Lord Taylor in his contribution in the debate on the gracious Speech and again today enumerated the delays to which this Bill has been subjected. I endorse his comment and hope that time taken in preparation will smooth its passage. Among the areas on which I believe we shall concentrate are, first, the points where the Bill may conflict with other legislation, as referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Coity; secondly, the issues affecting the setting up of the MMO; thirdly, the areas of government operation which may be affected by the Bill’s provisions, but which are not specified; and, lastly, the contentious issues about the coastal path.

On the front of the Bill is the statement by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, that, in his view, its provisions are compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. In regard to Part 4, I wonder: no appeal and no compensation. That is a matter for another time.

The MMO will have to make a contribution to the achievement of sustainable development. That is not defined in the Bill, but the notes explain that in taking decisions, the MMO will have to take a balanced view, having considered potentially adverse effects. The Secretary of State will issue guidance on how it should be done. What will be the duty of the MMO when the Secretary of State, acting under the Energy Act or the Planning Act, wants to do something which the MMO not only knows is wrong but has, at a lower level or in a smaller way, already rejected? Should not the Bill carry a duty on the Secretary of State to consult the MMO in all matters which potentially affect sustainable development?

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