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Mr. Robathan: That is a rather big issue, and I do not want to go too far down the line with it at the moment. I agree with my hon. Friend entirely, though, because that

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is what this is all about. Farmers want to farm; that is why they go into farming. They want to get out there and work the land and work with their animals; they do not want to deal with regulations, which always take time. More and more regulations will take more and more time. A common complaint from farmers is that they are submerged in paperwork, and unable to get out and do the farming. Candidly, many of them were not brought up in a world of form filling, and they find it very tiresome. I find it frightening when my hon. Friend talks about costs of £2,000 or £3,000.

I am sure that the Minister will say that the regulations will not put a burden on farmers. I have not read his speech, but I can guess that that is what he will say. I would just draw his attention to paragraph 6, which sums up my argument:

that covers just about any improvement to the land—

That is a fairly burdensome requirement.

5.12 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Elliot Morley): I welcome the broad consensus that the regulations have benefits in relation to good agricultural practice and to the protection of our habitats. I understand the points that have been made by the hon. Members for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce), for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham), for Blaby (Mr. Robathan), and for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth), and by my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping), and I shall try to address them.

The regulations were introduced in 1985, and amended by directive 97/62/EC. Equivalent regulations are being made in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. The hon. Member for East Surrey asked about the scale of the problem, and why the measures were introduced. The countryside survey produced by the Countryside Agency estimated that acid grassland has been reduced by 10 per cent in the last 10 years, and that calciferous grassland—which is very species-rich—has been reduced by 18 per cent. It also estimated that about 10,000 hectares of land that might fall into that category are lost annually. A significant amount of damage is, therefore, being done.

The Select Committee on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, whose membership included Conservative Members, produced a unanimous report which pressed DEFRA—or MAFF, as it then was—to introduce these regulations as soon as possible, because of the impact of ploughing up downland and river valley land, and because of the problem of run-off and soil erosion, and the effect that that had on flooding. Indeed, in my travels following the floods of 2000 I visited people whose homes had been swamped with mud run-off from ploughed downland that had for a long time been grassland. Turning it into downland was probably not the most appropriate use for it. There are therefore very good reasons for measures such as these.

I am pleased that hon. Members recognise that the language in the guidelines is non-confrontational. The talk is of co-operation and the aim is to make the measure work. I am pleased also that the hon. Member for Gordon and my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood recognise

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that within 18 months there will be a formal review of the way in which the regulations are working. The idea is to take up the points that have been raised and to ensure that the measures have bedded down. We need to learn from the experience of operating environmental impact assessments whether there is a need to change or fine-tune the regulations. We are trying to be proportionate and co-operative.

Mr. Peter Ainsworth: The fact that the regulations will be reviewed is most welcome. The Minister says that there are good reasons for introducing them. It is impossible to resist the temptation to ask why, if that is the case, he has waited to be threatened with infraction procedures by the European Union before doing so.

Mr. Morley: From my days in the old Ministry of Agriculture, I have asked for the regulations to be introduced. The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that there has been a great deal to do, and I point out that there has been over a year of consultation on the measure, and rightly so. It makes a big change; it is complex, and I make no apologies for the length of the consultation.

I am a little surprised at the hon. Gentleman's point, bearing in mind the fact that the measure appeared in 1985, and there was no sign of it being introduced until we began to make progress. He is right to say that there is a threat of infraction procedures, and we cannot ignore that, but I believe that the measure has an important role to play. It is important that we get it right, that it is proportionate and that we take on board the points that have been made about bureaucracy. We have been trying to do that in the consultation process.

Hugh Robertson (Faversham and Mid-Kent): Will the Minister give an undertaking—I ask not so much as a constituency MP but as the secretary of the parliamentary fruit group—that as part of the review in 18 months' time he will consider horticulture in particular? Many fruit farmers in my constituency and elsewhere produce their trees over a 16 or 17-year economic period and they are very worried about the effects of the regulations.

Mr. Morley: I have not forgotten the point about orchards—I have here a note about it—and I assure the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members that I shall come to it.

The directive requires an environmental assessment to be carried out on projects that are likely to have significant environmental effects. Guidelines have been sent to all farms, and more detailed guidelines are available to all farmers. That information can be found on our website, to which I hope more and more farmers have access. Agriculture projects are the sole subject of the regulations, and other parts of the EIA directive have already been implemented. Town and country planning legislation deals with projects requiring planning permission, and other measures deal with specific matters such as forestry.

We announced in the rural White Paper our intention to consult on implementation of the uncultivated land provisions of the EIA directive. As hon. Members have made clear, there is a strong general wish for farming to be environmentally responsible; indeed, our countryside stewardship schemes have been very popular and are

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over-subscribed. That desire to be environmentally responsible is reflected in the five-point plan for wildlife-friendly farming drawn up by the NFU and English Nature, and I pay tribute to that. The statute that we are debating forms part of a wide spectrum of measures—voluntary or enforced through regulation where necessary—to ensure a sustainable future for our countryside and our farming industry.

As I said, we have consulted widely on these measures: first on the options for implementation and then on the draft regulations and guidelines. We have been concerned throughout the process to find ways of accommodating and reconciling the need for proper environmental safeguards and the need to avoid excessive regulation and cost for farmers. We are very grateful to the statutory agencies and other organisations for their invaluable help in framing the new procedures.

In the guidelines, we emphasise in particular the Department's intention to apply the measures in co-operation with farmers, wherever possible. If problems arise in implementing the EIA regulations when the farmer is considering changing the use of the land, we will discuss the issue. It is part of the procedures and guidelines that the farmers or landowners can contact our regional offices, and we will work with them to try to find a solution and give them whatever guidance we possibly can.

I was asked whether we would be flexible in applying the guidelines and in the exact contents of the environmental statements, and I can certainly give that assurance. We will be flexible, especially in the bedding-down period when people have to get used to things. I repeat that the statements will be required only for projects that are likely to have significant environmental effects. We will use the full flexibility permitted under the directive in line with our principles of reasonable and fair legislation, so I give that assurance.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire): The Minister will know that one of the points that is always made about such regulations is that there is not a level playing field. Can the Minister assure us that no significant change will be dealt with under these regulations that will not be covered by equivalent regulations on the continent? Are we covering any changes that they are not?

Mr. Morley: I made a point of finding out what other countries are doing in relation to these regulations, because it is important that we examine how they are being applied elsewhere. The problem is that various countries have different regulations in the first place, so they are not strictly comparable. For example, in many European countries, farming comes within the planning guidelines. In our country, of course, many farming activities are exempt from the planning guidelines. In many countries, these regulations are applied through the planning process, and I can assure the hon. Gentleman that that is somewhat more onerous and restrictive than the way in which we propose to apply these regulations. It is not right to think that other countries are much more lax about these regulations and do not apply them.

I was asked about the thresholds. We consulted on them in some detail and, in the end, we did not think that specific thresholds would be appropriate because even

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small projects in certain situations can have significant effects. That point was made by the hon. Member for Gordon. Small areas can have significant biodiversity importance, and damaging small areas has a cumulative effect. That is why we think that we should have a threshold, but I hope that our procedures will be quick in dealing with small areas, so that farmers and landowners will not find them onerous.

We have clearly stated that the guidelines for routine farming, such as maintenance of drainage works and watercourses, are not subject to the EIA procedures.

Orchards may be subject to the EIA regulations if they contain old grassland that has not been ploughed for many years. We are thinking of ancient orchards, not modern orchards, in which intensively managed trees generally need to be replanted. They would normally not come within the scope of the EIA regulations, but there are some important orchards that have not been ploughed and contain very old trees, and they are often not commercial.

Indeed, the orchards that I saw in Norfolk had been entered into our stewardship scheme because of their biodiversity value. That is an option for their owners. In other parts of the country, I have seen commercial orchards where organic apples were grown for Bulmers. Those apples received a premium and the orchards were also in our stewardship scheme. There are options for such orchards, but they are the exception in modern fruit management, rather than the norm.

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