Sites of Special Scientific Interest

– in the House of Commons at 8:44 pm on 18 September 2023.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Fay Jones.)

Photo of Derek Thomas Derek Thomas Conservative, St Ives 8:59, 18 September 2023

May I start by thanking Mr Speaker for permitting me to bring this debate to the House?

Sites of special scientific interest make an important contribution to the Government’s statutory targets and international commitments to halt biodiversity decline by 2030, and to meeting the goal of the 25-year environment plan to be the

“first generation to leave that environment in a better state than we found it”.

These commitments are made easier to achieve because British farmers are passionate about protecting and enhancing our great British countryside. Farmers manage more than 70% of all land in the UK, which is why they are the most critical partner the Government have in the commitment to reverse nature decline by 2030.

However, there is an elephant in the room, which is Natural England. My experience is that Natural England fails to engage, convince and partner with our farmers and landowners. It is my view that the Government’s ambition in this area is at risk because of Natural England.

I turn my attention to West Penwith moors and downs, which was formally designated as an SSSI in July this year. It was no surprise that Penwith moors was identified as a candidate for SSSI designation. The principle of the West Penwith SSSI presented farmers with no real cause for concern. After all, it is these landowners who have cared for the environment for generations. They understood—and understand—how precious it is.

Let me set out the context. West Penwith is a manmade landscape with the oldest continuously used manmade features in the world. There is a long history of agriculture and livestock grazing, with many of the 4,000-year-old field systems still used for their original purpose. To reinforce this point, during the hearing of the Natural England board, which took place on 28 June, one of the most recent members to join the board was critical during the hearing, stating that she

“was surprised that the area had not been formally designated before now”.

It was clear that her mind was made up before the hearing, which came as a surprise to me, but, essentially, she was not wrong in her assessment. What justifies such a significant designation is the careful management of this countryside by farmers whose families have farmed over multiple generations, and it is their sons and daughters who hope to follow in their footsteps, if allowed.

Why am I asking the House to consider SSSIs? In October 2022, SSSI notification packs landed on the doormats of landowners and farmers, and, contrary to our expectation, close to 1,000 acres of clean land—pastures, paddocks and land on which crops or even animal feed could be grown—was included. It also became very clear that Natural England’s case relied on scientific evidence that was not much more than desktop studies and old survey data. The risk to the viability of these farms and small holdings by Natural England’s approach was clear for all to see. For example, the notification documents that the landowners received did not include clear evidence or reasons why their clean land had been included.

From that day forward, the way that Natural England approached the designation to many of these farming businesses came across as high-handed and paid no, or scant, regard to these businesses’ long custodianship of the land. This has caused huge resentment within the farming community and undermined future landscape recovery ambitions, which I shall come on to later.

Everyone in the House recognises that viable farms and careful land management demand an important ingredient: confidence. It was confidence that took a severe beating in the months between October 2022 and 28 June 2023—the date of the hearing to confirm, amend or reject the SSSI. Any scrap of confidence left was truly and utterly obliterated for those who attended the full day’s hearing, and I include myself in that. The Minister should be aware that, when challenges were made by objectors on the day, little responsibility or ownership was accepted. Instead the chair, the legal team and senior officials sought to blame Government policy, and we were repeatedly told that it was the Government’s commitment to halting biodiversity decline that drove the actions of Natural England.

The Minister might find it helpful if I highlight some of our significant concerns following the hearing on 28 June. First, when pressed, specialists admitted that they did not have robust data or evidence to include the 700-plus acres of good pasture farm land—by that time, more than 200 acres had been successfully challenged by landowners and removed from the SSSI area. The only reason that Natural England gave, when pressed, for including that good pasture land was, “There is potential for pollution.”

Preventing excess nitrate in surface water from reaching valley mires was Natural England’s primary justification for the SSSI. It believes that that would lead to excess nutrient in the mires, to the detriment of the special fauna and flora present. Such environmental damage was highlighted as likely by Farmscoper, a desktop tool that offers generic assessment. Critically, however, the first thing that the Farmscoper tool offers is a disclaimer saying that the general results it generates should not be applied directly on any specific farm. Instead, it says that the results should be checked by on-site testing. On-site testing had not happened before designation and, as far as I am aware, Natural England has no plan to carry it out.

Other concerning aspects of the day included Natural England’s failure to assess the land properly; its failure to understand the hydrological implications of past mining, right across the Penwith moors area; its failure to communicate properly, to the extent that some landowners never received the notification and some still do not know what part of their land is under restriction; and its failure to follow Natural England’s own guidelines. The quango admitted that its own data was several years old and that officers had frequently diverged from SSSI selection guidelines. Bird surveys were undertaken for a year, not for the three to five years specified by Natural England’s own rulebook. Invertebrate surveys relied on a single year, rather than three years as the guidance specifies.

Why does this matter? Because now, following confirmation of the SSSI, farmers are subject to the same Natural England staff dictating how they operate their farms. That includes its telling farmers to stop milking cows and its imposing an arbitrary reduction in livestock, making some farming businesses unsustainable and impacting the rural economy and food security, while delivering no meaningful benefit to the environment. Farmers are already selling their businesses. It also includes refusing consent for the maintenance of utilities such as telegraph poles, and giving only time-limited consent for water abstraction and repair to the infrastructure of boreholes.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

The hon. Gentleman’s point about utilities ties in with an issue in my constituency. I understand very well what he says about Natural England’s oversight of farmers and the impact on their businesses. There are also concerns about flexibility. I live in an area of outstanding natural beauty, with a site of special scientific interest. It is important that we retain that, but it is also important that there be flexibility within the Department. However, there is not that flexibility, and it is quite clearly not there in Natural England either.

Back home in Northern Ireland, in my constituency of Strangford, we are after two things: better safety at the SSSI at Kircubbin, and better safety at Portaferry Road. Both those things have been objected to by the Department. When it comes to sites of special scientific interest, it does not matter what is safe or what is right; all that matters is the Department’s point of view. That is exactly what I think the hon. Gentleman is saying.

Photo of Derek Thomas Derek Thomas Conservative, St Ives

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, which I welcome. To be clear, the West Penwith moors SSSI was and is welcome; the problem is how Natural England has gone about it by including good farming land that risks the viability of farms without robust evidence of any real harm to the rough land, as we would describe the moorland. My experience from engaging with the Department is that it fully understands the concerns that I have raised; it is Natural England that seems to have ridden roughshod across farmers’ interests and their understanding of how to care for their natural environment. Everything has been determined by how Natural England officers would like it to be done.

Returning to water, the water supply on the farms is not just for livestock; as is often the case in rural areas such as mine where we are off grid, it is for the farmers’ homes and all the properties around them. At the moment, consent is being given for those farms to abstract water from the boreholes for a very limited time only.

I will give an example of the impact on a farm not far from where I live. I happen to live right on the edge of the moors, and it is the most beautiful part of the world; I would welcome a visit from the Minister, both to see West Penwith moors and to visit the farms and businesses impacted by the designation. This farm has two fields that have a mixture of acid pasture, ferns and heather, and grassland, which Natural England included in the SSSI with the rest of the farmland, which is already in Natural England’s higher level stewardship scheme.

The farmers objected to the inclusion of the two fields, as they were not part of the HLS scheme and were used as sacrifice ground for winter feeding of yearling Red Ruby Devon heifers that were out-wintered. Red Ruby Devons cope with the winters outside, as do many of the cattle we rear in west Cornwall, but they need supplementary food, such as bales of haylage in a trailer that is moved around every so often to avoid poaching. Visits by Natural England staff seemed to offer comfort, because of the 25 years of history that the farm has with the environmental sensitive area scheme and then the higher level stewardship scheme. Natural England acknowledged that the farm had been doing everything that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and Natural England wanted, but as there was not a boundary between the rough land and the main grass pasture, all of it was in the SSSI and hence under restriction.

Natural England would only consider allowing the current winter grazing practice to continue if a fence, priced at £2,100, was erected to divide the two areas. What was the outcome? The farm decided not to squander hard-earned cash on a pointless fence, but to reduce stocking levels, as it will not be able to keep as many cattle out this winter. That leads to reduced cattle grazing on the moorland, making way for brambles and rhododendrons to invade. We have seen that already close to where I live. If hon. Members know anything about brambles and rhododendrons, they will know that, when an area is not grazed, it is extremely difficult to get rid of those invasive species—rhododendrons in particular. It will cost the state and the council enormous sums of money to clear them away.

Given the impact on this farm and many more besides, you will understand, Mr Deputy Speaker, why I stress that the science has to be right, and not just enough to get it through to become a SSSI. It needs to be right and done over a period of time to prove its efficacy. Natural England needs scientific rigour in its actions, but it has proved incapable of functioning to that level of detail. As I have said, its officers have not even tested the water, but have simply relied on a desktop survey.

I was disappointed after the hearing, as it was evident that the entire board, including the chair, demonstrated a failure to understand the landscape from both a historical and ecological perspective. More importantly, they failed to recognise that the existing designations and safeguards, which are already there to protect the very countryside I am talking about, offered an opportunity to pause the whole process in order to properly gather the evidence and scientific data that such a significant designation demands. That option was theirs for the taking, but they refused to take it.

I personally raised two queries affecting my constituents at the hearing and was promised a written response within weeks. Instead, the only time Natural England staff have made contact with me—that is, without my initiating the conversation—since the hearing was late last week, when they suggested that I might wish for an update. I can only conclude that that was triggered by my securing this debate. However, I know what is going on, because I have kept in close contact with Farm Cornwall, the National Farmers Union, the Country Land and Business Association and the farmers themselves. It is those hard-pressed independent organisations and farmers who have been communicating, not the publicly-funded quango whose job it is to do so.

The two issues which must be clarified are as follows. First, under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 under which the designation took place, if Natural England amends or withdraws a consent, and in doing so causes a loss, it should compensate. I was told by several farmers that Natural England advised that consent would be given if the applicant amended the application to a five-year consent period. I am advised that should a time-limited consent expire and a new more restrictive consent be issued, that provision does not kick in, so any loss is not subject to compensation. It appears that Natural England may be deliberately using the five-year time limit to obviate its obligation to compensate for loss if further restrictions are deemed necessary. I pressed the chair of the board to clarify that that is not the case, and I received assurances that I would receive clarification.

The second issue is the removal of clean land—the pasture land that I referred to earlier—from the designation. Some landowners expended vast amounts of money and were successful in demonstrating that their clean land should not have been included—hundreds of acres were removed prior to the public hearing. That was not the case for landowners who did not have the wherewithal or funds to pursue such measures. I cannot see how any of us can be confident that the clean land that remains in the designation deserves to remain so. The conclusion has to be that landowners who did not challenge in that way, who find their clean land within the SSSI, and have the restrictions and requirements to secure consent that go with it, may have received a different outcome if they had, like others, spent tens of thousands of pounds.

I raised both concerns at the hearing. I was promised clarification, but, as far as I am aware, neither the landowners nor I have received it. I am not alone in believing that Natural England is unfit for purpose: it has no relationship with the land and no farmers on the board—all board members are political appointees—it makes no reference to socio economic reasoning, and it has no plan for the land or for positive management of the SSSI. What is more concerning to me and, I suspect, to the Minister, is the poor state of the nation’s SSSIs. Natural England’s own recent reporting states that only 37.1% of SSSIs are in a favourable condition.

However, we are where we are, and I want to move forward to mend some of these challenges. Prior to the confirmation of the SSSI, Cornwall Wildlife Trust, Farm Cornwall and I began to engage with landowners to rally support for a landscape recovery scheme. We met the Minister for Food, Farming and Fisheries, my right hon. Friend Mark Spencer, to propose it, and a small number of meetings have taken place to bring farmers on board. That is still moving forward, and I understand that an application will be lodged on 21 September, later this week. However, trust in Natural England has been so undermined that some farmers understandably refuse to engage.

For years, we have managed Penwith moors through a nature partnership using funds such as countryside stewardship schemes. The only way that I can see to bring those landowners back on board is for DEFRA to agree that responsibility for managing a West Penwith moors and downs landscape recovery scheme is taken away from Natural England and placed with a local partnership, such as the Penwith Landscape Partnership, which was formed in 2014 to support the understanding, conservation and enhancement of the Penwith landscape as a sustainable living, working landscape—the very landscape that we are discussing today.

I believe that the Government must go further: the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 should be reviewed to see whether it is fit for purpose now that we have the Environment Act 2021 and many other tools to ensure nature recovery. The Act gives powers to an unaccountable body that, if recent examples across England are anything to go by, threatens our ability to reverse nature decline. Natural England is driving away the very people who understand and care about the issue. Nature recovery is not a desktop exercise for quangos to pursue but the lived experience of thousands of people who depend on the natural environment for their livelihood and to feed the nation. Nor can it be that, in its consideration of SSSI notification, Natural England has regard only to the environment; surely, it must recognise the social, cultural and economic impacts in its consideration. That is clearly a weak aspect of the law that the Minister must consider in her response.

DEFRA should also review how Natural England goes about executing its responsibilities. West Cornwall is not the only part of England where serious tensions exist between Natural England and organisations and individuals who care passionately about their environment and landscape. Natural England needs to be told in no uncertain terms that any restriction placed on those who own and farm land in the West Penwith moor and downs SSSI must be backed by robust and reliable evidence, such as recent datasets and a transparent and accurate water and soil testing regime. Farmers and landowners must be informed of their rights and their opportunities to support or object to the designation; be given adequate time to review the evidence relating to their land; and be given clear guidance on applying for operations requiring Natural England’s consent.

However, the Country Land and Business Association argues—rightly, in my view—for a bespoke SSSI transition fund to provide funding for the costs incurred when a new designation is introduced or Natural England prescribes management changes. Land managers in SSSIs face potentially dramatic changes to their enterprise, with no compensatory funding available for their loss of assets, or for the need to retain staff or invest in new equipment. Also, given the grave concern expressed by so many respected bodies and the columns that have been written on the subject, I implore the Minister to set up an independent review in relation to Natural England and the West Penwith moors and downs SSSI, as has been established for Dartmoor.

In conclusion, Mr Deputy Speaker—I do not wish to keep you longer than necessary—I express my sincere thanks to the landowners and farmers who, despite being under extraordinary pressure and stress during the process of designating the SSSI, engaged constructively and in good faith, hoping that common sense with a little respect for the way they had cared for, protected and enhanced the area for years would prevail. I also thank the NFU, Farm Cornwall, the Country Land and Business Association, Cornwall Wildlife Trust and the Campaign for Rural England’s Cornwall branch for the time, effort and expertise they have expended to try to bring Natural England to a place where much of the damage that has been done could have been avoided. I look forward to hearing the Minister address as many of the points I have raised as possible, and invite her to come to my constituency to see this wonderful part of the country for herself.

Photo of Trudy Harrison Trudy Harrison The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 9:21, 18 September 2023

Yes, Mr Deputy Speaker—you have given me the opportunity to thank you for your hospitality at the wonderful South Lancashire show in your Ribble Valley constituency, which I attended. I know that you have first-hand knowledge of the farming community, because I was able to meet them during my visit.

I start by thanking my hon. Friend Derek Thomas for securing the debate. It is, of course, disappointing to hear his account, but I thank him for his continuous championing of the environment: this is not the first time that I have had the pleasure of speaking with him about the environmental qualities of Cornwall. I join him in recognising the excellent work of Cornwall Wildlife Trust, Farm Cornwall and the Campaign for Rural England, and I know that the NFU and CLA—along with many others—have also been involved and instrumental in working with my hon. Friend’s local farmers.

Most importantly, I place on record our appreciation of, and gratitude to, the farmers for their dedication and hard work. We are grateful for the unique and specialised knowledge of my hon. Friend’s farmers, who have cared for Penwith moors for some 4,000 years. I understand that the designation of 3,152 hectares of land as an SSSI, including 260 acres of perhaps more intensively farmed land, will have been very difficult. The fact that such a large area of land became of interest to Natural England, and was designated as an SSSI by its board on 28 June, is testament to my hon. Friend’s farming community and their ingrained knowledge—their deep understanding of the soil, the water, the topography, the geology and the flora and fauna, whether that be wild, farmed or native.

I would like to explain to the House part of the process for the designation of sites, and the importance of SSSIs and of our environmental improvement plan. We have committed to protecting 30% of our land and oceans, and creating or restoring 500,000 hectares of land. We need to do so because we need to halt the decline of nature. Sites of special scientific interest are our areas for nature, providing a place within which species can thrive and from which they can disperse into the wider countryside. My hon. Friend has clearly set out his disappointment and that of his constituents about the way in which the process has been undertaken, and I will take great care to review the specific points that he made.

On the point about Natural England having regard only to scientific evidence, and not to the social, cultural or economic implications of such a decision, my hon. Friend is correct in his description of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. I am from a farming family, I live in a farming community in the Lake district, and I have many constituents who farm in upland and lowland areas, often on SSSIs and other protected landscapes, so I have first-hand knowledge of the difficulties involved. It is high time that we looked at how those protections impact the economy and the social and cultural side of farming, and we will be doing just that. If we are to truly halt the decline of nature, we need our farmers to do all they can for environmental stewardship.

As my hon. Friend explained, 70% of our land in this country is farmed. We really need to make sure that our farmers can work hand in glove to provide the high- quality food we have become dependent on, as well as environmental stewardship. I accept his very kind invitation to visit him and, I hope, speak to some of his farmers and environmental groups in St Ives. I will endeavour to get there in the next few weeks to have that conversation.

Natural England has a legal duty to designate any area of land that has been assessed to be of special interest for its wildlife and geology under the Wildlife and Countryside Act. Designations are based on Natural England’s assessment of the scientific evidence and informed by Joint Nature Conservation Committee selection guidelines. The Act means that Natural England can only consider scientific evidence when designating a new SSSI. That is the subject of the conversation I would like to have with my hon. Friend’s farmers. If we do not succeed in enabling farmers to engage in our landmark environmental land management schemes, countryside stewardship, the sustainable farming incentive and landscape recovery—I am delighted that some of my hon. Friend’s farmers were, and still are, looking forward to engaging in that—we will fail on our apex target to improve nature.

To that end, we have accelerated work to tackle on and off-site pressures, from nutrient pollution to invasive species. The EIP sets out across 262 pages—unless, Mr Deputy Speaker, you have the handbag version—all the actions that we are taking in collaboration, especially with farmers, to restore our environment. So much of that will be relevant to SSSIs.

The meeting of the board that confirmed the designation was held in public session—I believe that my hon. Friend attended—to allow objectors and supporters to make their representations in person, and it took place over a full day in my hon. Friend’s St Ives constituency. In response to the public consultation, the site boundaries were amended. I am pleased that, with extra information, some changes were made to the initial designation, as I think he referenced. A five-year plan was agreed to support farmers to transition to a more sustainable farming practice. They farm 70% of our land, and it is due to their management that many of these places are considered special for their beauty and heritage value and their ecological importance.

To protect 30% of our land and water by 2030, to restore or create 500,000 hectares of wildlife-rich habitats, and to increase the tree canopy from 14% to 16.5% are all targets we have published in our EIP. To achieve that we must work with farmers. We want to improve the condition of SSSIs and marine protected areas. Through the scientific community, including Natural England, and supported by environmental land management schemes and other initiatives, I am confident we can do that. But no scientific insight in isolation and no Government policies or indeed financial incentives, public or private, can match the thousands of years of built up, deep, ingrained, inherited, unique knowledge and understanding that only lived experience provides. Perhaps it is a nigh-on indigenous knowledge, and that must be respected.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.