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6.15 p.m.

Earl Peel: My Lords, like my noble friend Lord Hesketh, I apologise to the House, and in particular to my noble friend on the Front Bench. I, too, have a long-standing engagement this evening and therefore I will not be in my place when my noble friend replies to the debate.

I, like every noble Lord, broadly welcome the Bill. However, before I discuss national parks, which form the main thrust of my speech, perhaps I can address one or two other items on the way. Of course it is right to bring the National Rivers Authority, Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Pollution and waste regulation authorities together under one agency. I welcome that. But before simply dismissing the NRA, I wish to say that I shall rather miss it. It is an agency that has become synonymous with sound management and considerable achievement. I pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Crickhowell for the expert way in which he has chaired that authority. I was particularly interested in what he had to say about environmental economics. I am sure that that is

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something that will be taken on board by the new agency. I think that his remarks need to be well heeded.

The only real difficulty I had with the National Rivers Authority was with regard to the licensing of commercial fisheries where I thought it a little slow in coming forward and particularly unhelpful; otherwise, I think it achieved a great deal. Many noble Lords, and in particular the noble Lord, Lord Williams, have referred to a duty to further conservation including pollution control. Like other noble Lords, I find it odd that that has been omitted as a duty of the new organisation. I ask my noble friend to give the matter due consideration.

Another omission from the Bill, as I see it, concerns Clause 7 on general environmental and recreational duties. I should have thought it sensible to include a duty first placed on countryside bodies in the 1968 Countryside Act, namely, to have,


    "due regard to the needs of agriculture, forestry and the economic and social interests of rural areas".

Again, I hope that my noble friend will give the suggestion serious consideration.

One of the keenest aspects of debate will be the question of what remains, or indeed is put, on the face of the Bill and what will come through in the form of ministerial guidance. I thoroughly welcome the principles of sustainability agreed at Rio, but the Government are, I believe, absolutely right not to have made them a statutory duty of the new agency. The definition of the word is far too unclear and, I am sure, would lead to considerable confusion. But having said that, like other noble Lords, I, too, ask the Government to produce proper consultation procedures on the guidance and to act as quickly as possible, preferably before the Bill goes much further.

I welcome Clause 80 and the new powers given to the Ministry of Agriculture enabling it to enter into environmental land management agreements with landowners who are not themselves farmers. That is long overdue. There has been a great deal of confusion and also frustration and missed opportunities. However, it would be helpful if the Bill were to make provision for joint agreements between landlords and tenants. Again, I ask my noble friend to consider that possibility.

Perhaps I may concentrate on the issue of national parks, a major part of the Bill. I give the government proposals a guarded welcome. Some noble Lords may recall that during the Second Reading debate on the Bill of my noble friend Lord Norrie I expressed considerable doubts about giving the national parks further powers because I had considerable doubts about what they had achieved. I suggested that there were other, more specialist, agencies which could well have coped with the national park responsibilities and done the job more effectively and efficiently. I do not propose to comment on that aspect. I recognise that reality prevails. I hope, however, that with their new powers and responsibilities the new national park authorities will take a more pragmatic view.

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I have lived in the Yorkshire Dales National Park for the best part of 25 years, and I declare an interest as a landowner. During that time I have seen different ideas and initiatives emerge from a whole range of agencies, many doing much the same thing. There have been some considerable successes. SSSI designations have gone a long way towards ensuring the maintenance of good quality habitats. The introduction of the ESA scheme, in so far as it went, has been partially successful.

However, I am still witnessing considerable habitat loss. I still see new dwellings going up which grate against the traditional. I also see agricultural buildings being erected in what I regard as totally unsuitable positions. I see an ever-increasing stream of visitors, too many of them showing scant regard for the tradition of the area, often through no fault of their own and arising from a lack of information. More than anything, I am witnessing the erosion of delicate landscape.

I do not suggest for one moment that the task is easy. We have to accommodate the interests of everyone. But of one thing I am absolutely certain. Now and in the future, if our parks are to survive as attractive working environments producing well-managed and productive habitats for wildlife, great care will be required.

I welcome the obligation on the national park authorities to have regard to the economic and social well-being of those living in the parks. In fact, I moved an amendment to that effect during the passage of my noble friend's Bill. Therefore, I am glad to see that that has been included, particularly in view of the fact that park authorities now have additional powers in relation to planning and the ability to produce structure plans.

Whether the power goes far enough or whether the park authorities should have a duty to promote the economic and social well-being of the inhabitants of the parks--a point mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol--can be debated at a later stage. I believe that they should have that additional power. The noble Baroness said that there are other agencies to promote social well-being. But there are also other agencies to promote conservation and enjoyment of the parks by the public. I am looking for a three-legged stool, something which will be fair and even. I question whether we are going far enough. However, again, that is an issue which we can discuss in Committee.

I am particularly pleased to see an adherence in the Bill to the Sandford principle--a clear and unequivocal commitment to the fact that when conflicts of interest arise, wildlife, natural beauty and heritage come first. That is a most important part of the Bill, and I hope that the Government will not compromise on it in any way.

Finally, I refer to the composition of the park committees. We discussed the matter at length during the passage of my noble friend's Bill. I believe that we all accepted in relation to the two-thirds local majority on the national parks committees that one of the greatest problems is that many of those people do not live and work in the park. Clearly, that is a

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problem that we shall have to address carefully during the further stages of the Bill. I appreciate that local authorities with land in the parks will be entitled to appoint members to the national park committees. I welcome that. I ask the Minister for confirmation that the Government will issue guidance strongly recommending that local authority members appointed to national park committees will, where possible, represent wards within the parks. Again, that is a matter of detail for the Committee stage, but I believe that there is a case for local representation from parish councils. I know that that is a matter on which my noble friend Lord Derwent feels strongly.

I appreciate that there is a strong body of opinion which feels that the national parks would better serve their purpose as free-standing authorities. We shall have to see. The real question is: what is their purpose? In an article which appeared in my local newspaper, from which I have quoted in your Lordships' House on a number of occasions--the Darlington & Stockton Times--Mr. Chris Bonington said recently:


    "Support for farmers, village post offices and local cultural traditions are aspects of the work of national park authorities which are vital".

I believe that to be absolutely true. We must not have national park authorities which are seen to be promoting outside interests at the expense of the traditions and the well-being of those who work and live in our national parks.

6.27 p.m.

Baroness David: My Lords, I join in the general welcome for the Bill. It is wise to introduce it in this House where there is so much knowledge and expertise. However, like others, I do not find the Bill totally satisfactory. It was wise to produce a draft Bill, as advocated by the Hansard Report, discussed yesterday, and good that some attention was paid to comments on it, although not enough. The aims and objectives of the agency are not sufficiently clear and should be set out on the face of the Bill to ensure that it has a clear remit to protect and enhance the environment. The NRA has benefited enormously from having clear objectives set out in statute. Clause 4 should be strengthened to define primary objectives, including reference to the promotion of environmental sustainability, the use of a precautionary principle and the application of the principle that the polluter pays. I shall support amendments to introduce clear statutory aims for the new agency.

I mentioned the advantages the NRA has gained from having clear objectives set out in statute. I should like to congratulate it and its chairman on what they have achieved and their robust stand. I should like to say how much I enjoyed the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, today.

I wish to refer specifically to one area omitted from the Bill: the process of integrated catchment management being implemented by the NRA. The noble Lord, Lord Moran, referred to that issue. ICM ensures that a holistic view is taken of all factors

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influencing the water environment. Water quality and quantity and land management are intrinsically linked. Many fear that the new agencies will abandon that approach rather than building into it consideration of waste disposal and air pollution.

Perhaps I may illustrate the NRA's achievements together with those of the Wildlife Trust by reference to the Anglian region. The Blackborne, Thet and Little Ouse catchments are centred on the Brecks in Suffolk with their confluence upstream of Thetford. The rivers and their catchments have suffered excessive drainage and dredging in the past. Such mismanagement has resulted in the catchment environment being unable to cope with droughts or floods and unable to sustain a healthy pastoral system in places. That has caused problems for wildlife due to wetlands being drained and low river flows, flooding in Thetford, and farmers being unable to have their meadows grazed in places as the water is too low for stock to drink.

The Breckland River Restoration Project, involving the NRA and the Suffolk Wildlife Trust, started in 1989. Its objectives were to alleviate flooding, particularly in Thetford; to raise water levels and increase river flows; and to maximise conservation benefit. Work has already begun and involves reinstating riffle-pool sequences and recreating old meanders. That will effectively make the river longer and the valley wetter and will slow down the pulses of surface water hitting Thetford during times of flood.

Other regions can show similar successes. But without ICM as a core duty, a widely admired programme could be jeopardised. The future health of our water environment and the wildlife and people dependent on it will be put at risk. Can we have some commitment on that aspect from the Minister?

I hope that we can do something about Clause 79 and hedgerows, despite what the noble Lord, Lord Hesketh, said. I support my noble friend Lady Nicol. I was glad that she mentioned dry stone walls as well as hedgerows. They were mentioned also by the noble Lord, Lord Chorley, and I believe by the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell.

Much has been said about national parks. I join in the general acclaim but add my voice to those many who regret the vagueness of the recreational purpose stated in Clause 58(1) (b). The provision should be strengthened to make it clear that parks are designated for quiet enjoyment and that the problems and nuisance caused by noisy and motorised sports will be addressed. There should be protection from major development. All such development should be subject to rigorous public examination and allowed only in very exceptional circumstances.

Planning policy guidance is too weak and does not cover all developments such as energy and road projects and, very importantly, quarrying. I am particularly fearful of using the parks for military purposes which can all too easily result in road building and denial of access to the public. I wrote to the Secretary of State about my concern that the

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second purpose in the Edwards review did not appear in the Bill. I received an answer. Perhaps I may quote one part of it. He stated:


    "While we have not made specific reference in the second purpose to the words recommended by the Edwards Panel, I believe that we have reflected the Edwards' concept that the public's enjoyment of the Parks should be derived from their special qualities, rather than simply maximising the number of visitors and their activities. Promoting the understanding of the Parks should increase people's enjoyment of them and their commitment to their protection".

I do not believe that that is a wholly satisfactory reply but perhaps we can work on the issue in the course of the Committee stage.

I am very interested in Part II, and contaminated land. However, as I know my noble friend Lady Hilton will speak on the subject--I am in agreement with what she will say--I shall not take up the time of the House except to say this. I regret the repeal of Section 143 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 which requires registers of contaminated land to be kept. That is despite the fact that in 1991 the Government stated that those registers were,


    "essential when there is concern over threats to public health and the environment".

In fact, I learned only today that that section has never been implemented.

There has been criticism of Clause 37. Several noble Lords have mentioned it. Proper attention must be paid to costs and benefits. However, one point worth emphasising is that prevention is better than cure when it comes to keeping the environment in reasonable condition. Although environmentally friendly policies and practices are often portrayed as costly to firms, they are a good deal cheaper than the costs of removing environmental damage. I emphasise the classic point that the firm which damages the environment may be saving money for itself while adding to the costs of other firms. A chemical firm which pollutes a water supply, harming other firms which need clean water, is as good an example as any. Thus, although it is right to support that section of the Bill which refers to comparing costs and benefit, it ought to be amended to recognise that the sufferers and beneficiaries may not be the same people. Decisions on that should not be taken by the agency according to who shouts loudest but must be based on an objective assessment of gains and losses.

A second consideration is the time span. It is said that firms in the private sector take too short a view. That may be debatable. But what must be agreed is that the Government need to take a long view and should not allow the existing generation to be myopic and ignore its successors. The right reverend Prelate referred to that point. It is akin to what I have just said. If we pollute the environment, our children and grandchildren will bear the costs of putting things right. Sometimes we may have little choice. But where we can we should recognise the future consequences of our actions. Equally, environmental reclamation, say, of land, may yield a return in the long run. But for once we should not rely on the dictum, "In the long run we are all dead". The Government have a responsibility to look further ahead than we would

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look individually as customers, consumers and businessmen. I hope that the Government will accept that responsibility.


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