Unlike the Minister, I shall be taking the time of the House properly to debate these regulations, which are extremely important and do not deserve to be pushed through in this way in the late afternoon. On the importance of hedgerows to our landscape, I can do no better than quote from the briefing provided by the Wildlife Trust:
Hedgerows are a living example of our natural heritage—they contribute greatly to the quality of the landscape and are highly valuable for wildlife … Hedges are wildlife corridors sheltering a wealth of plant, insect and animal life. Three quarters of our native lowland mammals and birds and half our butterflies breed in hedges. The threatened dormouse and field vole nestle in their midst; along with nesting birds such as the tree sparrow and yellowhammer. They are also bountiful hunting grounds for stoats and weasels.
Laden with berries in the autumn, hedges provide rich pickings for both resident and visiting species. Hedge plants can provide nectar for butterflies and are often foodplants for their caterpillars.
Hedgerows vary regionally in species composition. The common perception of hedges in the UK is that they are generally hawthorn … which was planted as it was quick growing. However, hedges can be surprisingly species rich, with older ones containing more than five species in a 30 m length. A good kilometre of hedge can be home to 10 pairs of nesting birds. Beneath a hedge, the sward may harbour plants typical of ancient woodland and unimproved meadow such as bluebell, wild garlic, early purple orchid and harebell.
Since the Second World War … hedgerows have been removed at a much faster rate than they have been planted.
The Government promised as far back as 1990 to protect hedgerows. In 1992, they made it an election manifesto pledge. It is only now—at the eleventh hour of a dying Parliament—that they have fulfilled their promise. But they have done so pathetically.
The regulations are fundamentally flawed—a weak and timid attempt that will leave almost 80 per cent. of hedgerows unprotected. In the time it has taken this sorry Government to act on their promise, thousands of kilometres of hedgerows have been dug up and lost for ever. More than 10,800 km of hedgerow were removed between 1990 and 1993, and a further 67,500 km were classified as derelict. It is in that context that we must examine the regulations today.
We in the Labour party, like all wildlife and countryside non-governmental organisations, are amazed at the deficiencies of the regulations. They make no reference to the UK biodiversity action plan, which set targets for hedgerow conservation, as well as for several species dependent on hedgerows, such as the grey partridge and the song thrush.
Far from complementing the biodiversity action plan—as we would have expected—the regulations completely undermine it. It is an illustration of the gross inadequacy of the regulations that hedges which meet the action plan criteria set by the Government could still legally be removed under the regulations. In light of this, can the Minister—who is not prepared to speak on the regulations—tell us whether he thinks that the habitat action plan for ancient and/or species-rich hedgerows can now carry any credibility whatever in light of the regulations?
Nor do the regulations make any reference to the habitats directive, even though article 10 of the directive seeks to encourage the protection and management of linear features such as hedgerows for their value to flora and fauna.
The original proposal of four weeks for local planning authorities to determine applications for removal was heavily criticised. The Government's response is to offer six weeks, but that is still hopelessly inadequate. Owners can apply to remove a hedge at any time of the year. As the Minister knows, few data are available on the wildlife and biodiversity of most hedgerows.
Thus it is completely impossible for a local authority to carry out a meaningful wildlife survey of a hedgerow during the winter months if asked to do so. If the owners apply in winter, as they may well do, and the necessary information is not available, local authorities will be unable to make any adequate assessment that takes the biodiversity into account and hedgerows with a significant biodiversity interest will continue to be lost.
Furthermore, local planning authorities must now take into account the reasons for the removal of a hedge. That requirement was not in the original proposals, and we can conclude that it has been inserted only because the Government have succumbed to some rather heavy lobbying. It is yet another example of their willingness to act in the interests of the few instead of the interests of the majority of ordinary people who value our natural heritage.
Does the Minister agree that farmers rarely remove hedges other than for economic reasons? How do the Government expect local planning authorities to make objective and consistent judgments on the economic and non-market benefits of hedgerows? Can he define a valid economic reason for removing an environmentally valuable hedgerow?
A look at the criteria for identifying important hedgerows reveals further fundamental failings. The criteria referred to species lists originating from the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and the red data books. As the Minister must know, the Act is now 16 years old. We on the Opposition Benches are extremely puzzled as to why the regulations stipulate that only species lists published before the hedgerows legislation is implemented may be taken into account. That absurdity means that updated records and new sources of information, such as the lists compiled as part of the biodiversity action plan, will not be able to be used in the evaluation process, thus making a farce of that very process.
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds is particularly concerned that one effect will be the exclusion of many farmland birds, including some species—yet again—that the biodiversity action plan recognises as a high priority for conservation, such as the grey partridge and the song thrush. Surely that ridiculous failing has to be corrected, and would have been if it were not for the fact that the Government are intent on rushing the regulations through this afternoon despite the flaws within them.
Conservative Members are anxious to speak, and rightly so. I just hope that they will share my numerous criticisms.
Another glaring hole in the criteria is the omission of landscape value as a separately specified criterion. Although it involves some qualitative judgment, so, of course, do tree preservation orders, landscape assessments and the Department of the Environment's good practice guide to environmental appraisals.
It is a further failing of the regulations that they require local authorities to consult only parish councils. Of course they should consult parish councils, but many conservation and heritage bodies in Britain have built up great expertise during many years on local hedgerows. Why have the Government decided to exclude such groups? Surely it would be right for such bodies to be made statutory consultees.
The Minister will be aware that much wider public consultation procedures are required under other planning legislation, including the tree preservation orders, which surely bear some similarity to the regulations. If the planning process is to be truly more democratic, we need to increase the scope for public consultation.
It is a telling indictment of the low priority that the Government give to hedgerow legislation—
Will my hon. Friend give a clear undertaking that when she is sitting on the Treasury Bench she will bring forward regulations that will really work at the earliest opportunity?
I am delighted to respond positively to my hon. Friend on that point.
I was pointing to the low priority that is signalled in the regulations by the maximum fine for illegally removing a hedgerow—just £5,000, compared with £20,000 for breaking tree protection orders.
The Government have promised to produce guidance on the regulations for local authorities, but they have given hedgerow protection such low priority, and left it so late in the day, that we shall never set eyes on it.
However, a number of conservation bodies are anxious to see on the record for this afternoon a commitment from whoever forms the next Government to consult environmental interests before producing any such guidance, especially on how local authorities should evaluate the landowner's reason for removing a hedge.
I am happy to give the House today the commitment that, if Labour forms the next Government, we shall certainly hold those consultations. Will the Minister give such a commitment? Does he accept that only in extreme circumstances should a landowner's private interest be allowed to override a hedgerow protection order made in the wider public interest?
The regulations are perhaps unique in being roundly criticised by all the major environmental groups in Britain. On Monday this week, the umbrella organisation Wildlife and Countryside Link, representing 11 leading organisations and more that 3.5 million members, wrote to the Secretary of State urging him to withdraw and redraft the regulation.
The Government have chosen to fly in the face of that expert advice by insisting on squeezing in the regulations even when they are being forced to drop key clauses from their flagship Bills to get them through before the imminent end of this discredited Parliament.
I can confirm that, should Labour form the next Government, we shall consult all the interested parties and take urgent steps to strengthen the regulations in the interests of all our people and of our biodiversity and our countryside.
I am delighted to have this last opportunity to speak as a Member of Parliament and on the environment and countryside.
The hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Ms Ruddock) was a little curmudgeonly in her welcome of the measure. After all, this is the first statutory instrument on hedgerows, and it is a fulfilment of our commitment in the Environment Act 1995 to take action to protect hedgerows. This is the first time that any Government of any political persuasion have introduced such a measure.
The statutory instrument should be seen in the wider context of what we have done for the environment and to promote conservation within the countryside. I am delighted to have joined the countryside stewardship scheme. It was only two or three weeks ago that, under that scheme, I planted 300 m of new hedgerow on my farm. I have a programme to plant about that amount of new hedgerow on our land in Suffolk in each of the next five years. Hundreds of farmers throughout the country have benefited from that scheme to increase hedgerows. Once a hedgerow has been planted, one cannot plough up to it: one undertakes to leave at least 6 m of good tussocky grassland on each side.
The Government have encouraged the planting of more hedgerows. It is wrong for the hon. Lady to suggest that we have not done that.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, despite the good efforts of people like him, who are to be applauded, there are more hedgerows disappearing than there are kilometres of hedgerows being planted?
I do not have the facts to hand, but in the countryside in East Anglia very few hedgerows are pulled up, and I see miles of new hedgerow. Attitudes to the countryside have changed. The Government have introduced this statutory instrument to protect older hedgerows, which are the most valuable, because they recognise that change in mood. This action was promised, and this legislation is a valuable first step. I welcome the measure, and I applaud the Government on their action.
I ask my hon. Friend the Minister, when he returns to the Front Bench after the general election, to monitor carefully the way in which the statutory instrument develops. Legislation is a learning curve, and new arrangements can be improved upon, so we should monitor carefully what happens. If necessary, we should take pragmatic steps to ensure that this legislation protects the most valuable ancient hedgerows.
I join the hon. Lady in asking the Minister to consult environmental interests before producing guidance for local authorities. One of the great successes of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has been to come on board with those voluntary bodies. He is widely regarded as outstanding, because he consults those bodies widely on matters affecting the countryside, and listens carefully to them.
The important thing is to get the statutory instrument on the statute book before Parliament is dissolved. This is a step forward, because it is the first time that such legislation has been introduced. I am sure that, when my right hon. Friend is again in government as Secretary of State for the Environment, he will carry these measures forward. This is not a one-off: conservation measures have progressed throughout my 18 years in Parliament. They are now more pragmatic and more in tune with the wishes of those of us who have a great regard for the countryside, and who want to secure the environment for future generations.
The hon. Member for Lincoln (Sir K. Carlisle) gave the game away when he said that the important thing was to get the regulations on to the statute book in order to fulfil a promise. It is one of the few promises made by the Conservatives in their 1992 manifesto of which they will be able to say, "Well, we did it"—and people will not discover until after the election that the regulations will not work.
In fact, it is worse than that. We pass regulations time after time: the Government introduce some 2,500 each year. I see a role for regulations, but only for regulations that work; regulations that do not work create the bureaucracy that so many people dislike. As far as I can see, once the farmers have worked their way through these regulations, 80 per cent. of them will be able to find a way out of them. They will be able to do exactly what they want, unhindered by the regulations. The only hindrance is the fact that, rather than protecting hedgerows, the regulations merely confront the farmers with bureaucracy.
If the Government had come up with regulations that worked, I would be praising them, but it is surely absurd to construct a hurdle for farmers that will not protect 80 per cent. of hedgerows. Far from fulfilling an election promise, the Government have fudged their way out of it, claiming to be doing something for hedgerows but, in reality, doing very little.
I shall be interested to hear from the Minister what the regulations do to maintain hedgerows. The vast majority of the hedgerows that are now disappearing are not disappearing because someone is coming along with a bulldozer and pushing them out of the way, although that may have been the case 10 or 15 years ago. The majority are disappearing because of neglect. Farmers no longer prune hedges—I believe that "brush" is the technical term—and very few hedges are laid and maintained other than by voluntary groups and conservation volunteers. In large parts of countryside, traditional hedges are growing out to form a line of straggly hawthorn trees. When that happens, nearly all the biodiversity at the bottom of the hedge disappears. The berries on the trees may be useful to some birds, but many will lose out, especially those that live on the insects in hedgerows.
The regulations do not seem to do anything to maintain hedgerows—at least those in my constituency, where some attractive hedges remain along the river valley between Denton and Brinnington. Those that are disappearing are disappearing because of neglect. The Minister should take these regulations away, and return with regulations that will protect at least 90 per cent. of hedgerows. If the Government must produce bureaucracy, they should design it to ensure that farmers do not deliberately destroy hedgerows, rather than presenting a cosmetic proposal that will merely generate bureaucracy and will make very little change to the countryside. They should include in the regulations powers to ensure that neglected hedgerows are protected, as well as hedgerows that people deliberately try to remove.
I hope that we have seen the back of the present Government, and that I shall soon see my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Ms Ruddock) at that Dispatch Box, introducing regulations that will protect hedgerows into the next century.
It is a great privilege to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Sir K. Carlisle), who—like me, and others who are present today—served on the Standing Committee that considered the Bill that became the Environment Act 1997. His knowledge of the countryside and the environment is unsurpassed in the House, and he will be a great loss to it.
I fear that I must be slightly ruder than my hon. Friend. What we have heard today, in the dying moments of this Parliament, is the true voice of the Labour party, and the reality of their policy on the countryside. I believe that farmers in my Northumberland constituency will have listened carefully to what was said by the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Ms Ruddock), and will have been warned of what they could face in the unlikely event of a Labour Government.
The Labour party has not changed. It is still the tool of any pressure group wanting to promote an agenda. Labour will listen to it and promise to implement its proposals. The hon. Member for Deptford has forgotten the important fact that farmers have to make a living. That means that over the years they have had to change the landscape and field structures to meet modern requirements.
My hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln was right when he said that many farmers are planting hedgerows. If the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford looked at the figures properly, instead of merely taking them from the nearest pressure group, she would see that more hedgerows are being planted and that most are lost because of road construction and housing development. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) for his understanding of the matter. I agree that one of the causes of hedgerow loss is lack of maintenance. We are not debating that, but it is a problem that we must address.
I welcome the regulations, although they will be a burden on farmers who planted the hedgerows in the first place. They will face increasing bureaucracy, and they already suffer enough from that. I do not pretend that I wholeheartedly welcome the regulations, but I accept that they are a sensible compromise between the needs of those who want total protection and those who want to see economic farming from a profitable countryside.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) who took part in debates on this issue before he joined the silent ones in the Whips Office. He brokered a good deal between the interests of farmers and those of serious conservationists who wanted hedgerow protection. The result is by no means ideal for farmers, but they will accept it and honour its principles.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House for finding time at the end of this Parliament to debate this subject. Perhaps it is partly as a result of my question to him on Thursday, when I asked whether the regulations that were laid on 3 March could be debated before the close of this Parliament.
The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) said that many hedges had been destroyed because of neglect by farmers. I do not accept his argument, but if what he says is true, one of the reasons for neglect is a rural economy in disarray. Because of the way in which the economy has been managed and improved over the past 18 years—progress that would be put at risk by a change of Government—the rural economy has prospered, and that has allowed farmers to take more care of the environment in which they work.
In my constituency there is ample evidence that farmers look after the countryside. In Leicestershire there are wonderful examples of the art of cutting and laying hedges. I invite the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish to come and see what is happening in a prosperous rural constituency in which farmers pay great attention to the world in which they live and work. Instead of always attacking the rural community and running down farmers, I wish that Labour Members could come to the countryside to see the good work that is going on. My farmers do not neglect their hedges. I see a Labour Member who looks as if he has been through a hedge backwards, as have his policies.
The hon. and learned Gentleman is suggesting that not everyone in the countryside shares the concerns of groups such as the Council for the Protection of Rural England, which feel that, although some farmers have, of course, done some constructive things and indeed have received grants to do so, it is a shame that this measure could not have included some of the points that have been made by very respectable groups. Those groups represent, in some cases, farming and rural interests and rural communities, which want this measure to be properly done, rather than being rushed through with gaps in it, as at present.
The hon. Gentleman displays yet again, and unfailingly, the Labour party's attitude towards any form of positive improvement of the countryside. I wish that the public would realise precisely what they are in for if they sleep-walk into a Labour Government.
I reiterate the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Sir K. Carlisle), whose departure from the House is much to be regretted, on the benefits of the countryside stewardship scheme, which has allowed an increasing number of hedges to be planted and to be maintained in the past few years. The countryside is not to be viewed as something in aspic, destined always to remain the same.
To take another example from East Anglia, in south-west Norfolk, quite near Thetford, the part that I come from, there used not to be a hedge between our house and Ely cathedral 250 years ago. That position has completely changed as a result of farmers' need and desire to plant hedges, so the myth and the lies put about by the Labour party are much to be regretted, and will, I hope, be dealt with roundly.
I praise the co-operation of the Government with those interested in the countryside environment. It is a pity that the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Ms Ruddock) was unable to understand the need for central and local government to work with parish councils and with the farming community. That is the best way in which to achieve the best results.
May I ask my hon. Friend the Minister whether farmers will be required to pay a fee to accompany their applications, if they should make one? If so, what is the likely level of those fees?
That is all I wish to say. I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for bringing forward this measure for discussion and I trust that, before 1 June, when it comes into effect, proper and adequate consultations will be held with all interested parties.
Madam Deputy Speaker, I am grateful to catch your eye in this short debate; I will be extremely brief, as I know that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House wishes to get on to other business.
I too pay sincere tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) because it was he who promoted a private Member's Bill—
At that time, I was not convinced of the need. I am sorry for the need to bring these regulations before the House because a small minority of farmers acted totally irresponsibly. Having said that, all responsible people in the countryside want hedges to be maintained.
With the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett), who is heckling me from a sedentary position, I sat through many hours on the Environment Bill. We have fulfilled our commitment in the Bill to introduce these regulations. Having passed that primary legislation, we are now able to make these order-making powers. Indeed, the Labour party, which has been making such a fuss this afternoon, will now find it much easier to amend the regulations, if it wishes to, if they do not work in practice. I want them to work.
The Labour party is a single-issue pressure group party. It forgets that these hedgerows would not be there at all if it were not for the responsible farmers and landowners who planted them during the enclosures and afterwards, because they wanted country sports such as hunting and shooting to prosper. It is in hunting and shooting areas that we find the best hedges.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the vast majority of hedgerows were planted as a result of Acts of Parliament and in relation to getting permission for enclosures, and that Parliament laid down a condition that, if the enclosures were to take place, proper hedges were to be planted and maintained? It may be that bringing prosecutions under those old Acts of Parliament will be more effective than doing so under the regulations, but will he also admit that he was the one who wrecked the Bill of the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth), and that it was a little hard on him?
I do not accept that one iota. I tried to improve the Bill, but it was not possible to improve it to the standard that I thought was necessary. The hon. Gentleman made a good point about the enclosure legislation, and it is true that many Acts of Parliament required the planting of hedgerows. However, considerably more hedgerows have been planted since, and that is what I want to talk about.
My hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Sir K. Carlisle) rightly pointed out that he has an admirable record of planting hedges. I, too, have planted a net gain of over a mile of hedges. I plant at least 100 m of hedges a year and have done so for the past 15 years, almost without exception.
Responsible landowners want to see hedges maintained. It is my impression that farmers today are planting as much hedgerow as they are removing, and I believe that they are managing them better. As my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) said, in Leicestershire and Gloucestershire there is far more cutting and laying of hedges today than there was five years ago, and I am sure that the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish, with the amount of rambling he does, will have seen that.
I make one plea to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary. I hope that he will be able to encourage local authorities, if necessary through guidance notes, to implement the regulations with a sensible light touch. Some local authorities will implement them in a sensible way but, as with tree preservation orders, some local authorities will implement them in an overbearing, burdensome, bureaucratic and misunderstanding manner. I hope that he will be able to control those local authorities which do not implement them in the spirit that has been laid down today.
I would welcome the inclusion of economic interests. That is an important part of the regulations and is not supposed to drive a coach and horses through them. However, it is sensible that, if there is proper economic consideration, where employment and agricultural businesses are important, that should be able to be taken into account.
I commend my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, because it is his commitment that has brought this issue before the House today, despite some opposition, and I welcome the regulations.
I, too, declare an interest as a landowner and as one who has planted considerable lengths of new hedgerows and revitalised old hedgerows.
Tributes have been paid in the House to the work done by my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth), and I am sure that they are well deserved. However, I make no secret of the fact that I was the Member of Parliament who objected to my hon. Friend's private Member's Bill. It is worth reminding the House why I did so.
It was the vogue a year or two ago to draw the Government's attention to the fact that they were over-regulating. That is a feature that has already been mentioned in this short debate. As I was at pains to explain to my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey at the time, I saw his Bill as yet another piece of legislation that would add to the regulations and give more powers to local authorities and their officials, who, unlike farmers and landowners, probably have little or no understanding of the practical difficulties, problems and considerations of the countryside.
I regret that we are here again introducing regulatory legislation which gives another little rule book to local authority officials. It cuts across the spirit of much that those of us in the countryside want to do.
The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) was critical of the fact that certain hedgerows were not being maintained. I am sure that that is the case in certain parts of the country and it may be more prevalent in some parts than in others. However, only last weekend, as I was driving in the countryside in the west of my constituency and in Wales, I remarked on the fact that I have scarcely ever seen so many hedges being layered in the traditional method.
It is important to put these things into perspective and to recognise that, with or without legislation, a great deal of good work is going on in the countryside by those who have traditionally maintained the countryside in the way that it exists now and which is so widely admired and attracts people to it. We cannot get away from the fact that that is being done by the countrymen.
Time is of the essence in many such matters. Although people want to keep important hedgerows, there will be commercial considerations, such as when someone buys a particular property at a particular time of year. If a local authority does not acknowledge receipt of a farmer's notice within 42 days, the farmer tries again. How will we know whether the notice has been received? The local authority may sit on a notice for a month or so before acknowledging receipt.
I cannot answer that question. However, my hon. Friend makes his own point in his own inimitable way, and I am sure that the Minister will have noted his comments. We hark back to the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Clifton-Brown), who said that the matter now depends on how the regulations are imposed. It is to be hoped that they will be imposed with sensible and considerate appreciation of the problems faced by landowners and farmers.
Although I have conceded that much good work is being done, with hedges being layered and tendered in the traditional manner, in many instances the effect of the impending legislation has been to bulldoze hedgerows out of existence. That would not have occurred had no legislation been considered, and it is regrettable.
I shall not detain the House any longer, because I sense that Front Benchers are anxious to move on to other business. However, I did not want to miss this opportunity to say that I regard the measure as a retrograde step. It will provide local authority officials with a new Bible, which many of them will interpret in the most draconian manner, against the better instincts and judgment of landowners and farmers.
I should like to take a moment to reiterate some of the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Ms Ruddock) on the regulations. We welcome passage of the regulations, and the protection that will be offered for the first time to hedgerows in the United Kingdom—unless one takes into account the case of Filey, an interesting test case of enclosure legislation which is not mentioned in the regulations.
I should also like to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy), who has been a great campaigner on hedgerow protection. When I was first elected as a Member of Parliament, in 1987, one of the first issues in which I became involved was to support his—at that time—private Member's Bill to introduce hedgerow protection. The then Prime Minister made some promises, which were broken. Today, it is interesting to see some former wreckers of hedgerow protection on the Conservative Benches. They have suddenly turned into supporters of protection. It is always most pleasing to welcome the sinner repented.
I am sorry that the regulations could not have been passed with unanimous support—the support not only of landowners and farmers, but of countryside, conservation and green groups. That support has not been won, as the Minister knows. It is a shame that the regulations are being debated in the dying hours of this Parliament, because, like many hon. Members on both sides of the House, I think that some issues have not been addressed.
One such issue, as my hon. Friend the Member for Deptford said, is biodiversity and the way in which hedgerows are assessed. Apart from hedgerows' conservation value, there must be some sophisticated assessment of such matters as green corridors. Much work is being done, especially on protecting small and endangered mammals, and that work will be undermined unless there are links between different types of habitat.
Hedgerows are one very important link. Some good habitats may be protected, but they may be surrounded by agricultural land and not linked into other areas that provide feeding grounds and breeding areas. That issue has not been dealt with, and nor has the issue of time. Conservation groups' concerns have not been dealt with.
Although some groups feel so strongly about the regulations that they believe that we should oppose them, we feel that they are better than nothing. As my hon. Friend the Member for Deptford said, a future Labour Government will revisit the regulations. We will consult all the countryside and conservation groups—including landowners and farmers—to strengthen the regulations and to make them more workable, and we will try to reach the consensus that the Government have failed to achieve.
I welcome that qualified welcome from the hon. Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley).
I was slightly surprised by the attitude of the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Ms Ruddock): she seemed to be disappointed that we have introduced the regulations, although we were recently pressed to do so, not least in an Adjournment debate sponsored by the hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy). We were pressed to introduce the regulations to prevent some landowners from pre-empting regulations.
Very recently, we were pressed also by the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher), an Opposition Environment spokesman, to introduce regulations to safeguard hedgerows. My hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Sir K. Carlisle) described the hon. Lady's welcome for the regulations as "curmudgeonly", although I think that that impression has partly been put right.
I do not want to be unkind, but I think that the hon. Member for Deptford got it wrong when she spoke about biodiversity and suggested that the regulations contain the sum total of our biodiversity action plans. Biodiversity and protection of wildlife are important features of the regulations, but they do not contain the sum total of our plans. She knows the way in which we have fulfilled our commitments under the Rio summit and the biodiversity action plans that we have already introduced. Many, if not all, of the species she mentioned—the grey partridge, the song thrush and the dormouse—are afforded protection within the framework of our biodiversity plans.
The hon. Member for Deptford was wrong on that point, and she was wrong on other points. Not least, she was wrong when she suggested that we have rushed into the regulations; others have said that we have taken too long. To fulfil our obligation of protecting important hedgerows, detailed analysis and research, and a great deal of consultation, have been required.
The commitment is to protect important hedgerows, which are hedgerows for which no replanting could be a substitute, and which are vulnerable to being removed. I should like to tell the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett), who takes an interest in the subject, that protection is not the same as maintenance of hedgerows. Maintaining hedgerows and planting new ones is promoted under the countryside stewardship scheme and by other assistance provided to farmers. The regulations are to protect important hedgerows.
It is important first to define what is an "important hedgerow", and we took some time and trouble to do so. As the hon. Member for Deptford knows, we commissioned work from the Agricultural Development Advisory Service, which produced a report. Last year, we circulated that report for consultation. We certainly did not rush through the consultation process, during which we received more than 500 responses. We also listened to what we were told during consultation, and made changes to ADAS's proposals.
We have, for example, increased from four to six weeks the time afforded to local planning authorities to give or refuse consent to the removal of a hedgerow notified to them. We have also required authorities to consult parish councils. We regard that as important, because, as organs of local democracy, it is important that parish councils should have a say in the matter. That reform also fits in with other reforms that we have made affecting parish councils.
When possible, we have also tried to simplify the criteria. I take the point made by the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish, that, although it is necessary to protect the important hedgerows, it is important to keep matters as simple as possible. That is why there may be problems with some of the suggestions of the hon. Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe. It is important that the regulations are not so complicated as to be unworkable.
During the consultation process, we listened to what we were told about landscape. I heard the criticisms by the hon. Member for Deptford in this debate, and she will know that ADAS discovered in its investigation that landscape is a difficult issue.
However, we feel that the issue is addressed by our definition of "important hedgerows", and that many hedgerows that qualify as important, particularly under the historic and wildlife interest headings, will contribute to the landscape. After consultation, we also provided a new criterion, which recognises the important contribution to the landscape made by hedgerows along rights of way. That additional criterion will increase the number of hedgerows likely to be protected by regulations.
In our attempts to protect "important hedgerows"—as we have defined them—it has been necessary to strike a balance between bodies representing environmental and conservation interests and those representing farming and landowning interests. There is an inherent conflict, and some of that tension has been evident in our debate. We think that we have gone a long way towards getting the balance right.
Having said that, we appreciate that many farmers make a constructive contribution towards the preservation of the countryside, especially through the planting of hedgerows. We heard some excellent examples of that from my hon. Friend the Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Clifton-Brown), my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) and in particular my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Sir K. Carlisle), who has made a great contribution to the environment in his time in the House and will no doubt continue to do so, not only through the planting of hedgerows on his land, about which he told the House, but in many other ways. I am sure that everyone wishes him well in his important endeavours in that regard.
I am happy to be able to report that the most recent research conducted by the Institute of Terrestrial Ecology shows that, contrary to what the hon. Member for Deptford said, there is a net balance in favour of the planting of hedgerows over their removal, which I am sure the House will welcome. That has no doubt been substantially assisted by the countryside stewardship scheme, another successful scheme launched by the Government to protect the countryside.
On the issue of punishment, the hon. Member for Deptford needs to study the regulations a little more carefully. Contrary to what she suggested was the maximum fine for transgressing the regulations, it is the maximum only for someone tried in a magistrates court on summary trial. The regulations also include provisions for trial on indictment in the Crown court, where someone who transgressed the regulations and was found guilty of an offence would face an unlimited fine. Far from being weak, that is a strong punishment, which signals our disapproval of people who break the law in this regard.
In addition, the regulations make provision for the replanting of hedgerows to be required. People who think that they can remove hedgerows and get away with simply paying a fine have another think coming, because they will be required to replant the hedgerows. The punishment is therefore more than adequate.
The hon. Member for Deptford also mentioned the circumstances in which local authorities could take account of the reasons given for wishing to remove an important hedge and still allow its removal. We were mindful of the fact that the ability to make representations and to have them heard is a central element of the business-friendly enforcement procedure promoted by the Government.
The wording of the relevant paragraph in the draft regulations is necessarily broad. It is impossible to anticipate and make provision for every eventuality, but the regulations place a requirement on the local planning authority to issue a hedgerow retention notice unless satisfied that the reasons given justify the removal of an important hedgerow. The presumption is therefore in favour of protecting and retaining important hedgerows. As the criteria defining importance have been tightly drawn, strong reasons will be needed to satisfy a local authority that an important hedgerow should be removed.
Each case will have to be considered on its merits, but I envisage that a local planning authority might consider that the removal of an important hedgerow was justified where there were overriding arguments of public safety—for example, to make way for essential improvements to a local road which was an accident black spot, where there was no other solution to the problem. Utilities might also have strong practical or even environmental grounds for needing to remove a small section of a hedge rather than reroute a cable across an even more sensitive area.
Cases involving personal financial loss are unlikely of themselves to be sufficient to justify the grubbing out of an important hedgerow. Factors that might, however, weigh with the local authority include the effects of a hedgerow on operational requirements and whether the impact could be mitigated by other means—for example, where a new road has cut through a field, leaving a portion too small to farm. However, there can be little doubt that the impact on a business would have to be extremely serious before a local authority would begin to consider allowing the removal of an important hedgerow.
A change of ownership of land and subsequent rationalisation of holdings would certainly not be enough. The register of retention notices held by the local authority would inform potential buyers of any existing restrictions.
I should like the Minister to clarify one point, although it may be difficult at this stage. If there is a dispute between a landowner and the local authority over any economic impact, the landowner presumably has recourse to the courts. If so, will guidelines be issued to give local authorities some idea of the limits to which they can go in their definitions?
There is a right of appeal under the regulations, and we shall, of course, be giving guidance to local authorities. I hope that I have made clear the background against which we approach the matter and the principles that we think are important.
What proportion of hedgerows does my hon. Friend estimate can be defined as important? If a farm that has been inefficiently farmed changes hands, it might be good in agricultural terms to remove some hedgerows to make it more efficient. What proportion of hedgerows are potentially blighted by the regulations?
I hesitate to disagree with my hon. Friend, but I would perhaps take issue with his use of the word "blighted". However, perhaps I can assist him. We have tried to define important hedgerows. The research carried out by ADAS, which necessarily took a broad-brush approach, as it was trying to project the situation across the whole country, found that, according to the criteria in the regulations, about 20 per cent. of hedgerows would be defined as important and thus protected.
The register of retention notices held by the local authority would inform potential buyers of any existing restrictions; or, if none had been issued, the criteria are so framed as to enable owners to undertake their own evaluations and reach broadly the same conclusion as the experts. It will be a case of caveat emptor, or buyer beware. As I said, the guidance that will be issued to local authorities before the regulations come into effect will provide the opportunity to clarify such points.
I join those who have already paid tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth), who is in his usual silent mode. The tributes he has received are well deserved as a result of the private Member's Bill that he promoted. I must also pay tribute to the Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons, my right hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Newton), who takes a great interest in the environment, and is anxious to do what is necessary to protect important hedgerows.
The regulations deserve a broad welcome.
I can tell my hon. and learned Friend that the answer is no—no fees will be payable.
Opposition Members talked about the priority that they would accord to the protection of hedgerows. I must gently remind them, without being too partisan, that Labour's recent draft manifesto contained no mention of biodiversity, despite all the boasts from Opposition Members about the extent to which it would be a priority—[Interruption.] There was a mention of a free vote on fox hunting, but that is not my idea of biodiversity. When it comes to the crunch, biodiversity does not seem to have been given very great priority in Labour's literature; nor does the environment as a whole. We give priority to the environment, and the regulations are a practical example of our commitment to it.