Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Viscount Mills: I spoke in the debate on the Address last November on the very subject dealt with in Amendments Nos. 79 and 81. I support fully those amendments, along with my noble friends Lord Crickhowell and Lord Norrie. At that time, I highlighted the need to ensure that the duty to further conservation would apply to pollution control activities in the new agencies and especially pollution control activities in the water environment.

19 Jan 1995 : Column 804

Conservation objectives are already at the heart of the regulatory system; for example, in EC directives where there are already numerous binding agreements to meet water quality standards for the protection of aquatic flora and fauna.

Equally, the NRA's duty to further conservation in relation to pollution control has led to very real environmental improvements. I give an example which I hope will appeal to the Minister and which certainly appeals to me as someone involved with fisheries. Populations of nationally rare fish such as the vendace and the Arctic charr are increasing in the Lake District following action taken by the NRA to prevent sewage treatment works discharging phosphates. That work would not have taken place without the duty to further conservation in relation to pollution control.

Therefore, I have no hesitation in supporting the amendment, as without it I believe that the agency would lack clear direction on the matter and the basis for future pollution control regulation would be weakened.

Lord Renton: I shall be very brief because my noble friends, the noble Lord, Lord Moran, and the noble Baroness have already expressed their anxieties about the effect of Clause 7. The real problem is that this Bill is over-zealous with regard to detail. I should have thought that essentially it is a matter which we could paint with a broad brush and summarise the various functions and make them apply collectively overall.

It may be that my noble friend Lord Ullswater will say that as paragraph (a) relates to functions other than pollution control, paragraph (b) relates to pollution control functions and paragraph (c) relates to any functions, that should set our minds at rest. But we are then presented with a tremendous mumbo-jumbo of this kind followed, as it is, by the provisions of subsection (2) which say "Subject to subsection (1)" and then only some but not all of the well-known functions are selected, which do not include pollution control. It then goes on to say that subsections (1) and (2) shall apply to duties other than pollution control functions, and so on. It is extraordinary to express overall duties of great importance and a well-understood principle by tying them up with too much detail and unnecessary distinctions. I hope that my noble friend will invite the draftsmen to look again at this matter.

6.45 p.m.

Viscount Ullswater: We are dealing here with a number of amendments affecting the conservation duties of Ministers and the agency and the protection of sites of special interest.

The Government have considered carefully the conservation role of the agency. We are sure that it is right that the agency should have proper regard to the needs of conservation in discharging all its functions and the Bill seeks to ensure that. But it is essential to recognise that at the end of the day its core purposes are environmental protection and water management. I believe that the amendments proposed to Clauses 6 and 7 by the noble Baroness, Lady Hilton, and my noble friend Lord Norrie would weaken its ability properly to discharge those functions by making the furtherance of

19 Jan 1995 : Column 805

conservation of nature, protection of sites and objects of archaeological, architectural or historic interest and availability of access to sites to the public matters which must be achieved at the cost of other factors. Taken together, they go well beyond the equivalent duties on the National Rivers Authority and would change the nature of the proposed environment agency.

For example, Amendment No. 70 to Clause 6 would replace the existing requirement on the NRA by elevating the conservation and enhancement of the natural beauty and amenity of inland and coastal waters and land associated with such waters, the conservation of flora and fauna which are dependent on an aquatic environment and the use of waters and land for recreational purposes from matters which the agency is to promote to the extent that it considers desirable to matters which it must further irrespective of the impact on its other functions or cost. Not only is that unreasonable in itself; I have to say that I believe it is unworkable. What, for example, is the agency to do where there is a clear conflict between furthering the conservation of flora and fauna and furthering the use of waters for recreational purposes?

Amendments Nos. 79 and 81, moved by my noble friend Lord Norrie, extend the duty on Ministers and the agency to further conservation to the agency's pollution control functions, and Amendments Nos. 90 and 92 are consequential upon those.

The duty in Clause 7 already incorporates an extension to the requirement to take account of conservation to encompass integrated pollution control functions and waste functions. Therefore, it would be a complete misrepresentation to suggest that the Bill is simply a weakening of the existing arrangements for taking account of the needs of conservation.

As I said in the debate on Second Reading, the existing NRA duty is not unqualified and must be adapted to the broader functions of the agency. I must tell my noble friend Lord Mills that to further conservation in every case would be inconsistent with the effective discharge of the agency's role in issuing environmental licences. For example, in issuing authorisations under integrated pollution control, Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Pollution does so on the basis of the best practicable environmental option utilising best available techniques not entailing excessive costs. In doing so, it is right that it should have regard to the needs of conservation. But it would be a radical step which I do not believe would be in the interests of environmental protection if its ability to issue such authorisations was constrained by a need to further conservation in each case.

Nor do I believe that the changes to the duty in relation to water discharge consents will in practice damage the interests of conservation. The needs of nature conservation will continue to play an important role in determining acceptable discharges to water, as at present. That is a normal part of the arrangements for delivering acceptable discharges under the relevant European and domestic legislation and is not, in practice, driven by the duty under Section 16 of the Water Resources Act.

19 Jan 1995 : Column 806

Similarly, while I fully accept, and the Bill recognises, the desirability of preserving sites of archaeological, architectural and historic interest, and public access to those and to natural areas, they cannot be made overriding duties. They can conflict with other equally desirable requirements and each other, requiring a balanced judgment. As I said on Second Reading and subsequently, I believe that we have the balance right. However, I shall consider most carefully what my noble friend Lord Crickhowell said about the concerns that the statutory agencies have put forward and consider whether the wording is correct.

In Amendment No. 71 the noble Lord, Lord Moran, seeks to remove the reference to the duties under Clause 6 without prejudice to those under Clause 7. Clause 6 places a general duty on the agency to promote conservation and recreation in relation to inland and coastal water and land associated with those waters. The duty applies,

    "to such extent as the Agency considers appropriate".

Clause 7 requires the agency to further conservation (or to have regard to it) generally, not just in relation to inland and coastal waters and land associated with those waters. That duty applies whenever the agency is formulating or considering proposals relating to its functions. Clause 6 gives the agency an independent role in relation to conservation and recreation in relation to the "watery" environment. Clause 7 ensures that the agency does what it can in relation to conservation in performing its other functions. The Clause 6 duty is expressed to be "without prejudice" to the duties of the agency under Clause 7. That makes it clear that the Clause 6 duty does not detract from the duty imposed by Clause 7; in other words, the duties are independent of each other and are accumulative. The noble Lord seeks to remove the "without prejudice" provision. As I understand it, that would leave the relationship between the two clauses unclear. For that reason, the amendment should not be accepted by the Committee.

I have a deal of sympathy with the aim of the noble Lord, Lord Moran, in introducing Amendments Nos. 93, 94, 95, and 97. They reflect the noble Lord's desire to ensure that the agency is made fully aware of all areas of special interest as regards their flora, fauna, physiographical and geological features when carrying out its statutory obligations. The amendments seek to extend the definition of sites of special scientific interest and to widen the powers of the Nature Conservancy Council for England and the Countryside Council for Wales to notify the environment agency of areas of nature conservation interests over estuaries and the sea.

My difficulty with the amendments arises from the fact that the primary function of the SSSI system is to ensure that the nature conservation value of terrestrial sites—and, for the most part, that includes estuaries—is taken fully into account when development proposals and changes in management practice that would cause damage are considered. I fear that the amendments are inconsistent with the existing provisions in both nature conservation and water industry legislation, both of which apply to land only. However, I can assure the noble Lord that the Government are concerned to ensure adequate protection for the coastal areas and the sea.

19 Jan 1995 : Column 807

Members of the Committee will be aware that, in July last year, my honourable friend the Minister of State for the Environment and Countryside announced four new major coastal policy initiatives. They include proposed new policy guidelines for the coast, a best practice guide to coastal management plans, a review of by-law making powers relating to coastal management and the establishment of a coastal forum. I believe that those measures offer the best way forward to protect the marine environment. They will ensure that all those with an interest in the sea are aware, when appropriate, of areas of special interest.

English Nature and the Countryside Council for Wales will continue to involve the environment agency in the making and the day-to-day management of marine nature reserves. In addition, the Conservation (Natural Habitats etc.) Regulations 1994 provide mechanisms for the conservation of European marine sites designated under the habitats and birds directives. Regulation 13 requires nature conservation bodies to inform, among others, such other persons or bodies as the Secretary of State may direct. That will include the environment agency.

While on the subject of protection of the sea, I should also mention Clauses 84 and 85 of the Bill which will provide that the agency's sea fisheries committees and Ministers may exercise their powers to regulate fisheries for environmental purposes. I believe that those arrangements should fully meet the aims of the amendments.

Amendments Nos. 85A and 97A proposed by my noble friend Lord Derwent would have the effect of requiring the national park authorities and the Broads Authority to notify the agency of all land and water in their areas. The powers given to the national park and Broads authorities under Clause 8(2) do not weaken the water, environmental and recreational duties placed on the agency by Clauses 6(1) and 7. As an additional safeguard, however, we believe that the national park and Broads authorities should demonstrate that importance of their areas, and they should give reasons why the agency should operate in a certain manner when considering activity in those areas.

The meaning of Amendment No. 97B is unclear, but could require the agency to consult a notifying body before its own project planning purposes were complete. I do not consider that to be an efficient way of working. An agency must be allowed to complete its own planning procedures before being required to consult others. I believe that that is only businesslike.

Clause 8 establishes machinery whereby heritage and conservation bodies can raise specific conservation-heritage matters with the agency where its operations would cause particular problems for land and, of particular importance, by reason of the conservation-heritage purposes in Clauses 6(1) and 7.

Amendments Nos. 96, 99, 100 and 101 proposed by the noble Baroness, Lady Hilton, would change the nature of Clause 8 by widening its application to encompass any land in a local authority area (apart from land in national parks). The local authority would be able to make a similar reference to the agency of

19 Jan 1995 : Column 808

conservation-heritage concerns about any land. Given that the powers described are already given to the four bodies covered by the clause, there seems no reason to give formal duplicated powers of the same description to local authorities. I very much hope that effective consultation between the agency and local authorities would, in any event, render any such amendment unnecessary.

In summary, the Government are not seeking to weaken the agency's commitment to conservation. But that commitment must be integrated into the proper delivery of the agency's functions and recognise the need for judgments that balance potentially conflicting requirements. I do not believe that the amendments would in practice strengthen the agency. I hope, therefore, that noble Lords will feel able to withdraw them.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page