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Business of the House: Debate this Day

The Lord Privy Seal (Lord Richard): My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.

Moved, That the debate on the Motion in the name of the Lord Williams of Elvel set down for today shall be limited to five hours.--(Lord Richard.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Environmental Protection and Enhancement

3.20 p.m.

Lord Williams of Elvel rose to call attention to the environment and, in particular, to the case for environmental protection and enhancement, both nationally and internationally; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, allowing a certain time for noble Lords who are not interested in the environment to leave the Chamber, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.

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As your Lordships will be aware, the Motion is widely drawn. That is deliberate. First, although it is a minor consideration, it offers an opportunity for noble Lords who have recently arrived among us to make their maiden speeches. I am glad to see that four noble Lords have availed themselves of that opportunity and I look forward to hearing their contributions.

Secondly, and--with due respect to our maiden speakers--more importantly, the Motion reflects the variety of considerations and issues which are subsumed under the word "environment". That is deliberately so. The expression "environment" embodies a wide concept. Indeed, it is possible to say that it embodies a series of wide concepts, each of which needs proper treatment. For instance, taking some topical issues, it would be a mistake to focus entirely on global warming and to neglect the sorry state of much of our domestic housing. Equally, it is no good worrying about forest fires in Indonesia and ignoring the problems of our own countryside. In my view, it would have been ridiculous to concentrate only on a healthy future for our children and grandchildren and to pass over the damage that is being inflicted even now on the health of the present generation. Those are only a few of the issues which properly fall under the heading "environment".

It would be absurd to imagine that all these issues, diverse as they are, can be covered in any detail in a time-limited debate such as this. If your Lordships will allow, I wish to set the scene on a number of issues and to raise what I regard to be a number of crucial questions in the hope that other noble Lords will develop the arguments at greater length than I am able to do, and raise related issues and questions in the expectation that my noble friend the Minister will feel able to respond helpfully to the points that I and they will bring forward.

We are told that the environment is, to use the appropriate expression, "at the heart of government policy". I fully support that objective, but it is no use pretending that its achievement does not make for some hard and possibly unpopular decisions. Perhaps I may take, first, the international aspect. Next month in Kyoto there will be a summit meeting on climate change. It is--I shall try to find the right word--disappointing to say the least that the United States Government have refused to commit themselves to reducing carbon dioxide emissions to 1990 levels before 2008 to 2012. It is equally disappointing that the Japanese Government have undertaken a target reduction of only 0 per cent. to 5 per cent. by 2010. Obviously, a great deal of work must be done before the Kyoto Summit can be considered to be any kind of success.

However, success it must be, because the reason for our disappointment is simple. A volume of scientific evidence shows that if we continue to emit greenhouse gases the world's climate will change. It is perhaps changing even now. The effects of such a change are by no means clear. There are those who argue that in future there will be vineyards in Scotland and palm trees in Snowdonia. On the other hand, there are those who argue that the course of the Gulf Stream may change and that, since the Gulf Stream provides warmth to the British Isles of approximately 27,000 times our total generating capacity of electricity, we are in for another

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local ice age. Neither I nor anyone else can answer that particular conundrum, but it is clear that we are in the middle of what will be an historic debate and that the decisions taken now will have an effect, whatever it may be, on the future of the planet in general and on these islands in particular.

It is to the credit of the Government and, to give credit where it is due, to the previous government, that these problems have been recognised and at least some action has been taken to combat their effects. Indeed, the United Kingdom is one of the few countries to meet the target undertaken at the Rio Summit to reduce carbon dioxide emissions to 1990 levels by the end of the decade. But the Kyoto Summit is meant to go a stage further and set targets for 2010. Our Government have set what can only be described as a stern target. They have topped the European Union target of a 15 per cent. reduction on 1990 levels by 2010; they have gone further and set a target of 20 per cent.

That is all very well and no doubt your Lordships will believe that it is desirable, but I turn to the domestic problem. It is simple: how is that target to be achieved? I am afraid that it is unrealistic to suppose that, overnight, people will leave their cars at home and walk. That process will mean years, even decades, of persuasion and the provision of a proper system of public transport to provide an adequate and sustainable alternative.

Nor is it clear that a switch from fossil fuels in electricity generation is anything other than a long-term option. Nuclear energy, however clean, and given the costs of eventual decommissioning, is still hopelessly uneconomic and fraught with planning difficulties. Renewables are promising in the long term but cannot possibly contribute anything other than a minuscule amount of electricity for an economy whose consumption of electricity will grow at least as fast as the economy grows, if past experience is anything to go by.

Furthermore--and, as vice-president of the Campaign for the Protection of Rural Wales, here I strike a somewhat parochial note--wind energy creates its own environmental problems. Anybody who has seen wind farms on the top of hills in mid-Wales will know, I believe, what I am talking about.

It may well be that the more efficient use of energy is the key to the problem. However, I am by no means clear how that is to be achieved in substantial measure other than--and we must face the fact quite squarely--by the use of the price mechanism. In other words, I recognise the contribution that renewables may make and I recognise the contribution that combined heat and power schemes may make. The current review of utilities will no doubt come up with useful suggestions. I accept, too, that there will be best practice schemes for home energy use and for industry. But I very much hope that the Minister will be able to set out in greater detail how our target at the end of the day--whatever day it is--will be achieved.

That brings me conveniently to the next issue which I believe needs to be raised. It is known, perhaps somewhat quaintly, as the "countryside". I have no

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objections to the expression itself, although I personally tend to take the view that you do not get to what could properly be recognised as "countryside" until you have crossed the Severn river going westwards.

Nevertheless, there is a continuing debate about the future of the countryside, and how we should protect and, indeed, enhance it. The debate, like all debates on the environment, has many aspects, but is at the moment linked to the future of rural economies and housing needs. As regards projections of future housing needs, I am afraid that I have no particular views of my own to offer on whether the household projections which we have heard about are right or wrong. However, it is clear that, over the past 20 years, the area covered by green belts has doubled, while the amount of land in urban use has increased by just 10 per cent. over the same period. So we have, in my view, to keep this whole matter in perspective: 90 per cent. of the population of England and Wales live in urban areas; and, furthermore, more than 90 per cent. of new households have local roots--sons and daughters getting married or getting divorced, or old people wanting their own home in the place in which they have lived their lives. That is the truth of the matter and, whatever difficulties that may cause, and however much enthusiasts for green belts--some of them, if I may say so, journalists with a comfortable London home--may object, that does seem to me to have the basis of good sense.

None of that should detract from the obligation of government, at all levels--national and local--to protect and enhance their own domestic environment. The legislation for national parks is already in place, and I should be interested to hear from my noble friend how that is bedding down. I should also be interested to hear from the Minister how Agenda 21 is progressing in local authorities. Contaminated land continues to be a difficult matter (apart, perhaps, from the millenium dome). The Environment Agency has, I understand, had staffing problems, and I should be interested to hear about those.

I do not wish to seem carping. There are many things which I would wish to welcome. I welcome the merging of the Departments of Transport and Environment. I welcome the approach to an integrated transport policy which will bring together environmental and transport policies. That is beneficial. I welcome the establishment of a special Cabinet committee to oversee the environmental impact of all government policies. And, perhaps (with my cynical mind) I think this to be the most important of all: I welcome the setting up of a Select Committee in another place to deal specifically with environmental audits, able to call evidence across all departments in public.

It will come as no surprise to the House that I finish precisely where I started. I have tried to set the scene for this important debate. These are early days, and the Government have promised much. I look forward to the remainder of this debate, particularly in the hope that my noble friend will be able to convince

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us all that the Government can, and will, deliver on their promises. There is much to do. I wish them well in their efforts. I beg to move for Papers.

3.35 p.m.

Lord Norrie: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, for introducing such an important and wide-ranging debate this afternoon. He touched briefly on a subject about which I shall speak; that is, national parks. The noble Lord, Lord Williams, and I spent many hours together taking my national parks Private Member's Bill through your Lordships' House. Much of its contents formed the national park measures in the Environment Act 1995 which strengthened the statutory provisions for environmental protection and enhancement in England and Wales.

I should like to take a few moments to talk about national parks, a subject close to my heart, and I speak today as a vice-president of the Council for National Parks.

In 1999, we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949. Those 50 years have brought many changes to the parks but they remain places where environmentally sustainable policies can be pioneered. Generally speaking, decision-making by national park authorities, public utilities, government departments and other bodies whose activities may affect national parks hinges upon park purposes. Those were set out in the 1949 Act and amended in the Environment Act 1995. They are to conserve and enhance the natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage of the national parks; and to promote opportunities for the public understanding and enjoyment of the special qualities of the parks themselves.

Environmental protection and enhancement of the parks means that national park purposes must remain as a focus for decision-making at all levels, particularly that of government and their departments. In that respect, I welcome the introduction of "green" Ministers in each government department. It is very good news that the Government are committed to designating more areas of the countryside with national park status. I should like to mention the merits of national park status for two of our finest lowland landscapes--the South Downs and the New Forest.

In fact, on 22nd July of this year, the Government instigated a public consultation on the best way forward for managing the South Downs in the medium and long term. I look forward to contributions to that consultation process. However, I am rather concerned about some aspects of the process itself. First, the period of response, which is from 26th November to 12th January 1998, is very short when Christmas and the New Year are taken into account. I am concerned that that may inhibit interested parties from responding seriously. I hope that members of the public who wish to attend the conference at which the consultation will be launched will not be put off by the fee of £20 and the fact that it is scheduled during a working day. People throughout the nation value the South Downs and it is

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essential that the national viewpoint, in addition to that of local residents, receives a very good airing. Therefore, I hope sincerely that the Minister will ensure that the process will be more widely advertised than at present and that the period will be extended.

I turn now to the New Forest. The highly respected 1991 National Parks Review Panel recommended that the New Forest be recognised formally as a national park. In 1992 the Government said that it,

    "believes that the [Panel's] recommendations provide a sound basis for achieving improved protection",
for the New Forest and that it envisaged a position for the New Forest that,

    "would be essentially analogous to that of the Broads which enjoys the same degree of protection as a National Park".
In view of that government commitment and the independent panel's recommendation, can the Minister say what plans the Government have for making progress on statutory national park status for the New Forest?

Perhaps I may suggest to the Minister that a most appropriate and timely way to mark the 50th anniversary of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 would be by announcing national park status for the South Downs and the New Forest. How splendid it would be if we were to ensure that two of our most valued lowland landscapes are protected and enhanced for future generations to enjoy, just as we have enjoyed those designated 50 years ago.

Perhaps I may say a few words about the protection of the existing 11 national parks of England and Wales, and about the upholding of their statutory purposes which I mentioned earlier. In recent years, the parks have been under threat from major development pressures in terms of damage to the landscape, restrictions on access and erosion of the parks' special qualities. That pressure comes from many quarters, including that of military training, energy and transport related development and mineral extraction.

I welcome the Government's commitment to using the planning system to restrict the growth of new quarries in the countryside. I hope that this commitment on paper will be carried through when a decision is made on the application to extend the Spaunton quarry in the North York Moors National Park, and indeed on other decisions involving quarrying in the parks. The Spaunton decision in particular represents an important opportunity for the Government to uphold national park purposes.

The Government will soon have the opportunity to restate their commitment to the principle of "quiet enjoyment" in national parks when they look again at the decision of the previous Secretary of State not to confirm the 10 mph by-law for Windermere. I was pleased that the Deputy Prime Minister has decided not to defend that decision in the High Court. An important principle is at stake here (and one that we debated with much fervour and at great length during the passage of the Environment Act 1995 through this House). Despite no explicit reference to the principle of "quiet enjoyment" in the Environment Act 1995, I welcome the fact that successive governments have expressed

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continuing commitment to the principle of "quiet enjoyment" of national parks. It is time for that commitment to be tested and for the by-law to be confirmed.

In conclusion, national parks are a vital national resource and are visited and enjoyed by nearly 80 million people each year. The need for national park status for the South Downs and the New Forest is more pressing than ever, in view of the tremendous pressures that the special qualities of both these areas face. They would be a most welcome and popular addition to our family of national parks. In short, adequate protection for national parks, recognition at all levels of decision making of their special qualities, and designation of these two new national parks would all help the Government meet their sustainable development objectives.

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