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In moving Amendment No. 457B, I wish to speak also to Amendment No. 458. It is the experience of some in the conservation field that those employed by the NCC as officers who undertake these assessment tasks, are not necessarily expert in the specific field. We feel that it would be more appropriate and probably cheaper for outside exerts to be used on an ad hoc basis. Furthermore, the initial assessment of a site for SSSI purposes or continuing monitoring should be by someone with specific expertise in flora, fauna, geology or geomorphology of that type exhibited in the SSSI. Following the previous discussion concerning these different sciences, the amendment seems very reasonable and sensible.
Amendment No. 458 seeks to amend new Section 28(3) enabling external scientific views to be sought by English Nature or the Countryside Council for Wales in considering confirmation. The amendment seeks assurances that English Nature or the Countryside Council for Wales will ensure that the best possible advice is available to them on issues or questions raised by owners and occupiers who object to notifications. While there is tremendous scientific expertise within the two organisations, English Nature and CCW, they do not pretend to have the monopoly of wisdom on all habitats or species. Questions about the scientific merits of notification may arise. Where English Nature or CCW consider that it would be helpful to seek advice from external experts--for example, academics or other natural reserve managers--they should do so. That will help to add credibility to the responses made by English Nature and the Countryside Council for Wales to owners and occupiers.
Three amendments are proposed in this group. They concern the removal of references to "enhancement" and "restoration". The basic aim of the amendments is to ensure that owners and occupiers of SSSIs can simply be required to conserve SSSIs, not to enhance or restore them. There is a concern that the Government are, by the back door, opening up the prospect that owners could be required to enhance or restore SSSIs at their own cost. That has never been part of the SSSI system before, which has simply required owners to conserve--that includes not to damage--SSSIs. Enhancement, where sought, has always been secured through management agreements, where the extra costs beyond conservation are covered by English Nature or the Countryside Council for Wales. It is stressed that the amendments would not in any way interfere with the provisions of Schedule 8 relating to restoration of SSSIs after they have suffered criminal damage.
The Earl of Caithness: I thank my noble friend for giving way. I thought that we were dealing with Amendment No. 457B. My noble friend has now gone on to deal with Amendment No. 458A, which is the beginning of a different group.
Baroness Nicol: It is my understanding that the Countryside Council for Wales and English Nature already have the power to go outside for advice when needed. I therefore wonder why this amendment has been tabled.
The Earl of Caithness: How nice to see the noble Baroness on her feet. The two of us have been discussing this issue for many years past. I fear that a good many of our arguments on Monday and today will be almost a replica of what we discussed in 1981. The crux of a sensible SSSI is the trust between the landowner and those affected by the SSSI and English Nature. If the system is to work properly, that trust is an integral and key part. But there is no reference in the new powers of English Nature to it consulting the owners and occupiers before making a decision. That is the whole point of Amendment No. 459.
In another place on 13th June the right honourable Mr Meacher said how important it is to consult the owners and occupiers and those whose economy depends on the land on which the site lies. Why is there not something in the Bill to that effect? Similarly, when it comes to Amendment No. 460, we have the position that English Nature is prosecutor, judge, jury and defence in its own cause. The landowner has no recourse to any other body and English Nature is not required to present the results of its consideration of any appeal. That is defying natural justice. It is just an open confirmation of the Government's dislike of owners and occupiers, which has become increasingly apparent as the Bill has been discussed.
Lord Glentoran: Perhaps I may respond to the noble Baroness. My amendment states specifically that the responsibility should be taken on by someone with specific expertise in the flora, fauna, geology or geomorphology of the type exhibited in the SSSI. The whole purpose of the amendment is to ensure that the person making the assessment should be someone with the specific and particular expertise that is required for that site.
These amendments concern the notification of an SSSI, which includes a statement from the conservation agency of its view as to the management of the land. They seek to ensure that people are consulted, that expert views are taken and objections responded to. I hope that I have represented the amendments fairly. We support those sentiments, but I believe that I can demonstrate that they do not need to be enshrined in law.
I shall turn first to Amendment No. 457B. The notification of an SSSI takes account of selection criteria published by the Joint Nature Conservation Committee. The justification for notification turns on a scientific judgment about the special features of a site. The agency is under a duty to notify the land if it considers that it is special by reason of the features on that land. The staff of English Nature are well qualified to make an assessment of whether a site is of special interest and I see no reason to restrict the qualification as suggested by the amendment which, as my noble friend Lady Young pointed out, refers only to,
Amendment No. 458 is unnecessary because it is always open to the agency to take advice from another party if the relevant scientific expertise or experience is not available within the agency. That point was made entirely clear by my noble friend Lady Nicol.
As regards Amendment No. 459, it may not be appropriate in every case for discussions to be undertaken prior to notification of the land--for example, there may be a specific and imminent threat to the site and immediate notification may be essential. It would be quite inappropriate to introduce procedures which would allow damage to take place before a site could be notified. Noble Lords may recall a similar loophole in relation to the provisions originally included in the 1981 Act. Because of that loophole, it was necessary to produce an amending provision in 1985. Of course, in most cases where there is no specific and imminent threat, the agency will have entered into what it terms "pre-notification discussions" with owners and occupiers before the notification is served. They will then have had an opportunity to provide early views.
Subject to this, however, the views set out in the notification will be the views of the conservation agency, reached with the benefit of a wealth of experience and expertise, not only as advised by its staff but as considered by the members of its council. The views presented to the council will be drawn together by agency staff experienced in conservation management, but they will also be able to seek specialist advice where particularly difficult or technical issues arise, and will encourage them to do so wherever this is necessary.
Finally, turning Amendment No. 460, the notification of an SSSI includes an opportunity for representations to be made on any part of the package, including the statement of views on the management of the land. That is in Clause 28(3). The conservation agency is statutorily required to consider those views. Where it takes a decision after considering the views of owners and occupiers of land directly affected, it would be expected to give reasons for its decision, clearly demonstrating that the decision is proportionate and defensible. We would expect the agencies to follow this example and to explain to owners and occupiers, where this is the case, the reasons that it feels unable to amend or withdraw the notification. I hate to suggest it in the current climate of the law, but if they did not do so there is always the risk of judicial review.
Earl Peel: Before the noble Lord sits down, perhaps I may take him back, very briefly, to Amendment No. 459. This is a very important amendment. As my noble friend Lord Caithness said, the relationship between the owners and the occupiers and the conservation agencies is very important and very special. It is a relationship that has been built up over the years and has, on the whole, worked extremely well.
I should be quite concerned if most land managers did not have the opportunity of being involved in a management statement that was being drawn up on their land. The noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, made the point--it is a valid one--that in special cases that would not be appropriate. Will the Minister consider coming back with an amendment on Report which would divide those two circumstances? Such an amendment would provide confirmation that, where possible, the land manager would be involved, and would differentiate between that situation and the situation where it was inappropriate for him to be involved because the conservation agency had to act as a matter of emergency.
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