Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page


Viscount Waverley: My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down perhaps I may point out that I am a member of PADI, which is an American organisation. We do not seemingly adhere to the practices, pointed out by the noble Lord, carried out by the organisation which I understand to be a British organisation.

4.55 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department of the Environment (Viscount Ullswater): My Lords, I understand the concern which has been expressed in some quarters about marine nature reserves and the delays in establishing them. We appreciate their importance and wish to make progress with marine nature reserves where their establishment would be productive.

In introducing this interesting debate, the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, indicated that I am rather low in the batting order now, I think, coming in at number eight, but I hope that I shall be able to deal with a number of matters—with the thinking behind marine nature reserves in general; with the progress made with the proposed MNR at Menai Strait; and with the very important roles to be played by implementation of the EC habitats directive in marine conservation and by coastal measures such as coastal management plans, mentioned by my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy.

First, I was asked the direct question by the noble Lord, Lord Williams: what is the Government's attitude to this area generally? The Government's commitment to the conservation of our environment is beyond question. I have only to cite the leading role that we played in developing the habitats directive and the fact that we are at the forefront of member states in developing our list of sites and transposing directives into national law—a fact, I believe, widely acknowledged. More widely, there is the Government's sustainable development strategy—a leading model for other countries—and our leading role in advancing climate change targets at the recent Berlin conference. That is a measure of the Government's commitment to the environment.

As regards the establishment of MNRs generally, I should make it clear that it was never intended that there should be other than a small number of statutory reserves for conserving areas of special interest in the UK context or to facilitate study or research. We accept that statutory marine nature reserves have a role to play in marine conservation and we will continue to consider applications made by the country agencies whenever appropriate. The voluntary approach is deeply embedded in Section 36 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, and we are far from convinced that it has been exhausted. On the contrary, we remain convinced that the introduction of compulsion would only harden attitudes and thus be counter-productive. I should like to put the matter of marine nature reserves into perspective by, first, explaining the background to the existing legislation.

17 May 1995 : Column 589

The case for establishing statutorily protected marine nature reserves was made at considerable length in the 1979 joint Nature Conservancy Council/Natural Environment Research Council publication, Nature Conservation in the Marine Environment. The Government readily accepted, in principle, the recommendations contained in the report and proposed to introduce provisions for marine nature reserves in the then forthcoming Wildlife and Countryside Bill.

It has always been the Government's policy to protect the highest quality nature conservation sites through legislation, policy and management. But in the marine environment we were moving into "uncharted waters" for nature conservation. It was tempting to look for analogies with the existing legislation on protected land areas, but although that may have been possible up to a point, there are, of course, fundamental differences in methods of ownership, rights of way and even the simple act of drawing and marking boundaries in the marine environment. The noble Lord, Lord Chorley, pointed to some of the great difficulties in bringing together the various interests concerned with the use and management of our coastal waters. Of particular concern was that the UK legislation should be strictly in accordance with the international law of the sea—though, equally it needed to be as strong as international law allowed. The Government are, of course, committed to the voluntary principles set out in the Wildlife and Countryside Act.

The noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, reinforced what was said by my noble friend Lord Avon at the time of the Bill. Speaking for the Government, Lord Avon said:


    "it is essential to take into account the views of all sectors of the community with legitimate interests in our coastal waters and to allay the fears of, for example, our fishermen. I know that those who argue the case for MNRs consider that these fears are unjustified and that conservationists and fishermen should be working together in the matter, to the benefit of both. Nevertheless, the fears are genuine and it will not be helping the cause of marine nature conservation at all if the very people whose goodwill will be vital to the successful operation of the reserves are quite unnecessarily antagonised. We must write into our legislation the safeguards which all those interested in the marine environment consider essential to their needs".—[Official Report, 12/3/81; col. 433.]

The legislation had a stormy and controversial passage through Parliament. The noble Baroness, Lady David, recounted some of the difficulties experienced in this House during discussions on that important Bill. When the Government's proposals were introduced in Committee, some 72 amendments were proposed and there were more than six hours of debate.

The resulting power for the appropriate Secretary of State, following an application from the appropriate conservation agency, to establish statutory marine nature reserves, to conserve and provide opportunity for the study of marine flora and fauna and of geological and physiographical features can be found in Section 36 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. In answer to my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy, the relevant Secretary of State may apply such a designation to any areas of land covered (continuously or intermittently) by tidal waters or to parts of the sea up to the seaward limits of territorial waters. The relevant nature conservation agency (in England, that is English Nature) may make bylaws to protect MNRs, except where these would

17 May 1995 : Column 590

interfere with the bylaw-making powers of another authority. It is worth stressing that in 1981 the present habitats directive was not even a gleam in the eye of the European Commission, so if we wanted to further marine conservation we had to do the job ourselves. That is no longer the case. The habitats directive, which provides for the designation of marine Special Areas of Conservation, makes a fundamental change to the situation. I shall return to this point in a few moments.

Consultation and discussion with and the co-operation of all interested parties remains our policy: not coercion. Consultation prior to designation is essential. It provides the opportunity to take account of users' views and, if properly handled, provides the basis of further future co-operation. I accept that the process is often a lengthy exercise but it has proved its value. An interesting example is the case of Lundy Island where, with the full co-operation of owners and users—the chairman of the National Trust is here and has indicated himself as the owner—English Nature has been able to introduce a management plan which seeks to protect the area's habitats and species while providing for commercial and recreational use of the seas around the island. Most notable is the introduction of a zoning scheme which illustrates where activities can be carried on without detriment to the marine nature reserve. Such a consultation process may also lead not to designation but to other outcomes. At St. Abb's Head for example, a voluntary reserve has proved more generally acceptable than a statutory one, and both the Government and their statutory advisers are happy with that situation because the purposes for which the designation was originally proposed are being achieved.

The noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, asked whether English Nature plans to withdraw financial support from voluntary MNRs. We are now in the third and final year of English Nature's marine grant scheme, which aims to encourage and support local communities in establishing and managing voluntary marine nature reserves in important wildlife areas. The effect of this funding scheme is being evaluated by English Nature and no decision has been taken about its future. The bodies currently being supported under this scheme are fully aware of the position. There are no plans to review support to the voluntary reserve at St. Abb's Head, which is being given by Scottish Natural Heritage.

My noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy mentioned the recently announced coastal forum. Guidelines will be published this summer. The Secretaries of State for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are considering what arrangements should be made in their instances. The forum agreed to set up topic groups to examine specific issues, including the management of SACs, and to report back to the forum. Topic groups will comprise representatives of government departments, NGOs and commercial interests. So there is a broad range of interests in the management of the coastal areas.

I now turn to the Menai Strait, mentioned in particular by the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, and, perhaps more importantly, by the noble Baroness, Lady White. I should be the first to defer to the noble Baroness, Lady White, whose knowledge and interest in this reserve and others in Wales are considerable. Of the seven MNRs initially

17 May 1995 : Column 591

suggested, one of the two that have since been established—Skomer—is in Wales. The Menai Strait, if approved, would be the second Welsh MNR. The application to the Secretary of State for Wales by the Countryside Council for Wales was made in April 1994. The noble Baroness said that it was in March but there is hardly a difference. The intention was to process the application within the year and this intention was made public in The Environment in Wales—Third Report. In the event, it proved not to be possible.

The Menai Strait is not, of course, without protection. A large part of the Strait is either an SSSI, or SPA or both. The Menai Strait is not, however, included in the list of possible Special Areas of Conservation about which the Government are currently consulting. That was brought to our attention on 2nd May and again today by the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel. The reason for this is quite straightforward. The selection criteria under the 1981 Act, which I have already described, are different from those set out in the directive. The habitats directive lists a number of habitat types whose conservation is important from a European perspective. Although the Menai Strait includes some of the habitat types listed in the directive, there are more significant examples of these particular features in other areas that have been included in the list of possible SACs now out to public consultation.

Further protection for the Menai Strait is provided by the development plans that apply in the area. The Gwynedd structure plan includes policies to safeguard the county's heritage of wild flora and fauna and geological and physiographical features, including particularly SSSIs. It has a policy designed to protect the nature and quality of linear landscape areas such as river valleys and estuaries. It has a presumption against any development which will discharge effluent in a manner likely to impair the quality of coastal waters. The Menai Strait local plan has policies to safeguard SSSIs and areas in close proximity to them and states that in such areas nature conservation interests will take precedence over all other considerations.

Despite the efforts of the Countryside Council for Wales, there is still, in relation to the designation of the Menai Strait, a considerable body of opposition. Clearly, the concerns of objectors must be considered. The majority of those objecting are angling clubs which operate in the area, but there are also objections from the RICS and the CLA.

Objectors have expressed a range of concerns. They question the scientific justification for the MNR; the way in which the area will be regulated; the relationship to development and business uses in an area where there is a long history of such uses. The noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, pointed out the important economic involvement of man over a long period of time in these areas and said that that should not be ignored. The objectors question the impact of the bylaws which will be necessary, the restrictions which will be imposed on anglers and the ability of the MNR generally to produce what is claimed for it.

17 May 1995 : Column 592

In processing the proposals of the Countryside Council for Wales for a MNR, the Secretary of State for Wales has various options open to him. He can ask the CCW to re-open negotiations with objectors with a view to overcoming their concerns. He can refuse to proceed further with the designation on the basis that there is still a significant body of objection to the proposal. He can decide to proceed with the order and, if necessary, if there are unresolved objections, hold a public inquiry or hearing under Schedule 12 to the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. When this matter was last before the House I gave the impression that such an inquiry would definitely be held and on a non-statutory basis. I am pleased to have this opportunity to correct what I said then. The decision rests with my right honourable friend and it is not for me to indicate at this stage what he might do. He has indicated, however, that the proposal will be determined as quickly as possible.

Many noble Lords stressed the problems created by over-fishing all over the world. Indeed, the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, gave us some interesting facts and figures. He also told us about the management of MNRs worldwide.

While we accept that statutory marine nature reserves have their place as part of a suite of protection mechanisms for the marine environment, we have no immediate plans to extend the list of possible MNRs originally proposed by the Nature Conservancy Council. Our efforts will be mainly focused on the designation of marine special areas of conservation (SACs) and the implementation of various coastal measures, such as coastal management plans. Of the 282 proposed SACs in the consultation paper published by the Government earlier this year, 36 are marine sites.

The overall objective of the directive is to contribute to the conservation of biodiversity in the territory of the European Union. Sites selected under the directive, and those classified as special protection areas under the birds directive, will together make up the "Natura 2000" network of sites protected under European law throughout the union.

Many noble Lords, including the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy, the noble Lord, Lord Moran, and the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, were worried about the timetable for the designation of SACs. Designation should indeed be possible well before 2004. The list of sites should be submitted to the European Commission by June 1995 and agreed with it by 1998. They could be agreed earlier. They may be designated as soon as may be after agreement with the Commission. In parallel with discussions with the Commission, consultation with local interests will continue to facilitate early designation.

The directive requires that the sites selected should be significant in the relevant biogeographical region. In the case of the United Kingdom, this is the Atlantic region. The noble Lord, Lord Moran, suggested that in some way these sites would not represent important areas of conservation for this country. I do not agree with that. The sites selected should individually make a significant contribution to the overall aim of the network to maintain or restore the habitats and species listed in the annexes to the directive to a favourable conservation status. The sites

17 May 1995 : Column 593

will be the most precious in the Union. Each member state's contribution to the network must be proportionate to the representation of the listed habitat types or species on its territory.

The regulations implementing the habitats directive place a duty on bodies with jurisdiction in the marine environment to use their existing statutory powers, including bylaw-making powers, and to perform their duties in ways that safeguard the conservation interests of special areas of conservation and special protection areas. The bodies concerned will include sea fisheries committees and the National Rivers Authority—when they act as sea fisheries committees—harbour authorities, local authorities and the nature conservation agencies. No new body has been created; nor is it proposed to give an existing body authority over the others.

Just to set at rest the mind of the noble Lord, Lord Chorley, I believe that he will be pleased to learn that nature conservation agencies will be able to act where no other organisation is empowered or willing to do so to counter a potential threat to the site.

The Government believe that the relevant organisations will act voluntarily within a joint scheme of management to bring effective management to the designated area. That will follow best practice for coastal management plans. The nature conservation agencies will advise the relevant authorities on the nature conservation needs of the area, and they might well initially identify the bodies with the relevant interests in the designated area and seek to agree schemes of management. That is already happening along many stretches of the coast where inter-agency management plans are being established. For SACs, however, Ministers have statutory reserve powers to require the relevant bodies to work together and, with a designated lead agency, to draw up a scheme of management and implement it within a specific time frame.

My noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy and the noble Lords, Lord Dean of Beswick and Lord Williams, asked about the problem of abandonment of oil platforms. The Government's view is that the treatment of each oil platform must be decided on an individual basis, taking account of the depth of the water and other relevant factors. In fact, draft guidelines which address these matters in more detail are currently out to public consultation.

The noble Lord, Lord Williams, and the noble Baroness, Lady White, asked about the proposals put forward by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Wales about the future of the Countryside Council for Wales. It is for the Secretary of State for Wales to decide the level of grant in aid to be given to CCW. He has held discussions with the chairman of that body and he is satisfied that the council has sufficient resources to undertake the full range of its statutory duties. The chairman concurs with that view. Statutory responsibility for the designated sites will still rest with the CCW. The local authorities and other suitable organisations could, however, become more involved in the day-to-day running of national nature reserves and small SSSIs.

17 May 1995 : Column 594

My noble friend Lord Clanwilliam asked about the possibility of investigating the problems of disease, particularly in fish farms. MAFF and the Scottish Office fisheries department have embarked on a considerable amount of research into this problem. I shall write to my noble friend on what is presently being done and the Government's view on the way forward.

The noble Lord, Lord Moran, and the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, asked about the proposals to be made at the fourth North Sea conference. The conservation of fish stocks can only go forward by international agreement. Any proposal must be on the basis of generally accepted scientific information. Indeed, the conservation of fish stocks is on the agenda for the conference. I shall report the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Moran, as regards the conservation boxes, to my right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. Other examples on the broad agenda for the conference include pollution, research and marine safety. I have to agree with the noble Lord, Lord Williams, that the health of the North Sea and, for that matter, other seas, must be taken forward by international agreement. I know that the Government will indeed work to that end.

I should tell the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, that the Darwin Fund set up by the Government to help developing countries meet their obligations under the biodiversity convention provides grants for projects that will conserve biodiversity on land or at sea. I think that that should give the noble Viscount some comfort.

The noble Lord, Lord Dean of Beswick, mentioned the Donaldson inquiry. Indeed, the Government welcomed the report of that inquiry and the ecological steering group. A voluntary code by the UK Chamber of Shipping came into effect on 28th November. Laden tankers will avoid a number of sensitive areas and a number of mandatory and voluntary controls are possible through the International Maritime Organisation to control the routes ships take to avoid sensitive areas. We are working with the European Commission in identifying sensitive areas, some of which might be SACs or SPAs.

Before I conclude, I should just like to tell the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, that the establishment of the statutory reserves is not the end of the story. The native cetacean species that the noble Viscount particularly mentioned are protected from deliberate harm by the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. Additional protection is now provided by the Conservation (Habitats etc.) Regulations 1994. The two cetacean species, the bottle-nosed dolphin and the harbour porpoise, are listed on Annex 2 of the habitats directive; in other words, they are included in SACs, particularly Cardigan Bay and the Moray Firth.

I believe that, taken together, the three-pronged approach that I have indicated of SACs, statutory and voluntary MNRs and our wider initiatives of encouraging the integration of coastal management plans provide a sound basis for conserving our most important marine habitats.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page