My Lords, as we have heard, the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Bill implements a key part of the Government's rural strategy. We are all aware of the very serious problems that now face agriculture and many aspects of rural life. Some people might say that the proposed bureaucratic untangling and redesign in this Bill come rather in the category of shifting the deckchairs on the "Titanic". I do not agree with this rather cynical view. The Bill is important and, if we can get it right, the new agency and commission will have a vital role to play in dealing with the environmental, social and economic problems of the countryside.
The Bill is a little unusual in that Clause 2 is a purpose clause. Purpose clauses used to be quite common, but they rather fell out of favour with parliamentary draughtsmen as it was felt that such clauses might introduce a degree of inflexibility of operation and possibly give rise to a judicial review of later actions by government. As a former business manager, I know that they tend also to produce a Second Reading debate in Committee. This view is illustrated by the briefing that we have all received regarding the wording of Clause 2. Should the purpose of Natural England be to "conserve", to "protect" or to "protect and conserve" the natural environment? I am attracted to "protect and conserve" as a general purpose, but the Government made a fair point in response to the comment in the EFRA Select Committee's report; that is, that "protection" could imply that Natural England could not support necessary and desirable progress in developing landscapes—from recreating heath land to reforming the impact of agriculture. This matter, I am sure, will produce an interesting debate in Committee, as will consideration of the Sandford principle, which states that the aim of conserving and enhancing the natural environment should take precedence over all other purposes. At first sight, that also seems an attractive proposition, but, again, as the Government pointed out in their response to the EFRA Select Committee's report, Natural England will have a remit which will extend far beyond designated sites such as national parks and AONB conservation bodies, where the Sandford principles certainly apply. Its remit will cover the majority of England's landmass. Can it be logically argued that the Sandford principle should apply to everything that Natural England will do in such circumstances?
Time does not allow a detailed consideration of all aspects of this important Bill, but I shall deal briefly with the proposed Commission for Rural Communities and the rather bizarre name of the new agency, Natural England. The new CRC is intended to retain the existing functions of the Countryside Agency which relate to rural advocacy, expert advice on rural matters and acting as an independent watchdog—the so-called "rural proofing" remit. I understand—and I have heard it said in speeches today—that the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats have some reservations about, and indeed oppose, this part of the Bill.
Having read the debates on the Bill in the Commons, I find their arguments rather confusing. They seem to be saying at the same time that there is no need for the CRC, but that, anyway, it can all be done by local authorities. A number of Opposition speakers in the Commons debates called in aid the original proposal of the noble Lord, Lord Haskins, to abolish the Countryside Agency. The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, and the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, made that point earlier. At this point, perhaps I may congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, on her being named Farming Personality of the Year at the Food and Farming Industry Awards last Friday.
It may be worth quoting what the noble Lord, Lord Haskins, said about the concept of the CRC in his evidence to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee at column 51 on
"I was quite happy to see the policy advisory responsibility of the Countryside Agency continue. The argument was whether that was done through a revised Countryside Agency or through the Rural Affairs Forum. On balance, I think the Government was probably right to go for the Countryside Agency because I think it is more structured to give the sort of policy advice that is necessary".
So the noble Lord supported the concept of the CRC.
It flies in the face of reality to assume that local authorities would be able to fulfil the proposed functions of the CRC. We would end up with a patchwork quilt of functions across the country. How on earth could local authorities "rural proof" policies? What body would do that? Who would be the rural advocate with direct access to the Prime Minister? I know that Defra has been mentioned as the right body to rural proof policies, but anyone with any experience of government will know the interdepartmental trading that goes on when policy issues are discussed. Would Defra be expected to rural proof its own policies?
The 2005 report produced by the CRC, State of the Countryside, is 153 pages of enormously valuable material relating to the social and economic problems of the English countryside. There is also the annual rural proofing report. Perhaps when the noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose, and the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, reply, they could tell the House who under opposition proposals would be responsible for producing that vital information, who would do the rural proofing and who would be the rural advocate. They could also tell the House which of the nearly 20 organisations that have briefed us support their views on the CRC.
The Liberal Democrats moved an amendment at Report in the Commons, supported by the Conservatives, to review the operation of the CRC after five years with a view to deciding whether its responsibilities should be transferred to the appropriate local authorities. It may be that the opposition parties have it in mind to move a similar amendment in this House, but I would ask them to think very carefully before they do so. The principal concern that we have all had since the Haskins report in 2003 has been that the expertise in English Nature, the Countryside Agency and the Rural Development Service should not be lost. Those three organisations are in the middle of a period of substantial change, with all that that means for finding and keeping competent staff. I cannot imagine anything more disruptive to the best use of skilled resources than to have a five-year axe hanging over the CRC.
It is of course entirely right that there should be proper parliamentary scrutiny of the work of the CRC. There is a convention in this House that we have a debate each Session on defence. Perhaps there could be a similar convention with an annual debate on CRC reports on the state of the countryside and rural proofing. That would provide an annual opportunity to examine the work of the CRC. I am sure that my noble friend the Minister is thinking that former Chief Whips go native very quickly.
Clause 18 sets out the general purpose of the commission and Clause 18(4) requires particular regard to be given to the needs of people in rural areas who are suffering from social disadvantage and economic underperformance. I cannot really imagine that such a function could be carried out effectively by a multiplicity of local authorities, as many of them would have a strong urban bias.
On the curious name for the new organisation, Natural England, I wonder if it occurred to those who dreamed it up to look at the Oxford English Dictionary for the definition of "natural". The dictionary says:
"Existing in or derived from nature; not made, caused by, or processed by humankind."
If anyone thinks that the English countryside, landscape or environment fits that definition, they should remember that the countryside that we enjoy has largely been created by farmers. It is the very reverse of natural, as it was,
"made, caused by, or processed by humankind".
The bucolic vision of cows safely grazing means in fact groups of closely bred animals grazing on heavily fertilized leys and giving 5,000 to 6,000 litres of milk per annum or more, which is certainly not natural. The natural yield is probably about 1,000 litres. That lovely field of wheat without a weed to be seen, yielding 8 to 10 tonnes per hectare, is heavily fertilized and treated with pesticide to remove the natural fungi, weeds and insects. The natural yield would probably be less than 4 tonnes per hectare.
I could multiply the examples many times over.
Why not just call the new agency the "Commission for the English Rural Environment", to distinguish it from the Commission for Rural Communities? We would then have two agencies with distinct but related titles and functions. Or, perhaps, the "English Rural Environment Commission", which, I admit, has an acronym that sounds rather like "earache". Almost anything would be better than Natural England, which describes the exact opposite of the true function.
This is an important Bill, and we can look forward to some interesting debates in its latter stages. It deserves the support of the House.
My Lords, as a new Member of your Lordships' House, I begin by expressing my appreciation for both the general warmth of welcome and the many specific acts of kindness I have experienced since coming here. I note particularly the unfailing courtesy and assistance I have received from the Officers and attendants of the House.
It is my privilege to serve the beautiful and largely rural county of Devon, not only as its Bishop, but as the chair of its county strategic partnership. As such, I naturally welcome the intention of this Bill to provide structures that will deliver social justice for all, tackle social exclusion wherever it occurs, and provide fair access to services and opportunities for rural people. However, my experience teaches me that to achieve such laudable aims requires structures that facilitate partnership working not only at the national level, but at a local level too. At present this can be difficult.
In Hatherleigh, for example—where the cows, whether they look at the clocks or not, produce the best tasting beef in the country—we have recently commenced building the £1.6 million Hatherleigh community and enterprise centre, one of the vanguard projects of the post-foot and mouth recovery plan for that small market town, which was devastated by that crisis. It has taken four years of intensive local community effort, including raising a contribution of £260,000 from the local community itself, to bring it to that point.
The process has involved successful bids for no fewer than seven separate sources of public funds, all ultimately coming from the ordinary taxpayer: the south-west RDA, European funding through Objective 2, SureStart, Sport England, Devon County Council, West Devon Borough Council and Hatherleigh Town Council. Reconciling the contrasting objectives of these funding bodies within a single coherent project has been an almost full-time occupation for the one community development worker. Moreover, some public bodies have failed to provide funding, and the search is still on for finance to support the renewable energy aspects of this development.
Will the Bill help to simplify this kind of process? I am concerned that it will reorganise the institutional arrangements at a national and regional level, but perhaps do little to simplify and co-ordinate at the local level. I fully acknowledge that the Government are committed to simplifying rural delivery, but for many in my diocese it is still not clear how this will happen. The workings of the new arrangement will need to be monitored carefully.
That brings me to the proposed Commission for Rural Communities. The CRC is intended to have an important watchdog and advocacy role. There is a need for a body that can hold the Government to account on the nature of rural policy and the delivery of that policy. Some in my diocese have expressed concerns that this body will lack independence and be largely a creature of Defra and the Government. There is no reason why that should be the case. There are many cases of tough-minded, independent commissions set up by government; the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution and the Sustainable Development Commission are good examples. A robust CRC, with commissioners drawn from the rural communities themselves, as well as from the voluntary sector and from those academic institutions with their fingers on the pulse of rural England, could highlight issues as they emerge in rural areas. But the engagement of those who are actually already deeply involved in rural community development—including, perhaps I may say, the churches—is absolutely vital.
In the south-west we face a number of key issues relating to the development of rural communities. They are well known: affordable housing; a low-wage, low-skill economy; poor transport connections; and lack of access to modern information technology. The addressing of these issues requires strong partnerships. In Devon, I constantly hear the demand for mechanisms that will build successful and robust partnership between existing rural agencies, the local authorities, the regional development agency, the government office and similar bodies. There is also a demand for mechanisms that will produce strong advocacy, rapidly grab hold of emerging issues and bring them to the attention of departments and Ministers.
I am aware that the CRC, as a division of the Countryside Agency, has already highlighted to good effect issues surrounding rural disadvantage and housing. With no responsibility for policy delivery, the CRC could be able to roam across a wide range of rural issues. By conducting or commissioning the necessary research, it should support the evidence-based policy that we very much need. But for that to happen, and if the CRC is to come into being, I hope we would all agree that the commission must have robust independence, truly representative membership and resources adequate for the task, and, most of all, enable effective local delivery—especially in the most remote and sparsely populated rural areas of our land.
My Lords, I know that the whole House will wish to join me in congratulating the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Exeter on his most authoritative and deeply sympathetic speech. With his background of having been a rural priest and now as chair of the Committee of Rural Affairs in the General Synod and member of the Carnegie Commission for Rural Community Development and as Bishop for the Exeter diocese, it is not surprising that he speaks with such authority and deep understanding of the issues facing the grass roots of the rural community. I am sure that many others will be echoing the very sympathetic words that we heard from him throughout the rest of this debate. We hope that we hear from him very frequently in the future.
I should start by declaring an interest. I was at one time chairman of the Joint Nature Conservation Committee and I am therefore a pensioner of English Nature. Until recently I chaired the South East Rural Affairs Forum, one of the six regional forums set up two or three years ago. I instinctively support any attempt to try to simplify delivery in protecting biodiversity and enhancing the landscape. Therefore, my attitude at first blush to the Bill is to be supportive. I think that many of us who have spoken often about the complicated arrangements for rural delivery must take this opportunity to recognise that the creation of an integrated agency is certainly going to be in the Bill's favour.
We have a particular responsibility to deliver biodiversity policies as well as landscape policies that deliver social and economic benefits. If the two new non-departmental public bodies can deliver those policies they will have served their purpose. We are, after all, signatories to the Convention on Biological Diversity. We have a great obligation to the rest of the world to demonstrate that although we do not have a lot of biodiversity in this country—which is not our fault but an accident of the ice age; some of our overseas territories the size of the Isle of Wight have more biodiversity than we do in the whole of the United Kingdom—that makes it all the more important that we get our act together and have joined-up policies that address the issue of how to conserve and indeed enhance biological diversity, always remembering the complication that sometimes what we want to do with biodiversity is reduce it, not increase it.
The moorland, for example, enriched by nitrogen oxides, is producing grasses and the like which is precisely what we do not want. Let us be clear when we talk about biodiversity that it is not always quite as simple as we would like.
I turn to the real disaster with regard to biodiversity in the United Kingdom. It is not the terrestrial biodiversity which is greatly at risk—whatever you hear about agriculture and the common agricultural policy—it is the marine environment. Throughout Europe, and certainly in our own coastal waters, the marine environment is a disaster area in terms of biodiversity due to overfishing and inappropriate development. Although the Bill sets out to provide a platform for protecting biodiversity, I very much doubt whether the new body will be any different from English Nature. English Nature would agree that it has been hampered by the lack of a marine Bill in delivering the marine protection and enhancement of our biodiversity which is greatly sought. Having said that we should welcome the Bill, we should recognise that until we get the marine Bill we shall still have to explain carefully to those around the world whom we criticise for lack of appropriate biodiversity policies why it is that so much of our own biodiversity in the marine environment is not adequately protected.
The noble Lord, Lord Carter, anticipated that some of us would be less than enthusiastic about the Commission for Rural Communities. I am enthusiastic about anyone who supports rural causes and rural advocacy. However, I have some concerns—which I have heard expressed—whether that commission will be the organisation which we are looking for to champion the rural cause. When I read in the policy statement on the Bill that it is to,
"undertake a programme of thematic studies and inquiries, to investigate particular issues affecting rural people",
I simply say to myself, "Good gracious, yet again. Haven't we done that already? Haven't we had report after report"? We know what is wrong in rural communities. Time and time again we identify the relevant issues that arise from having an overcrowded island whose agenda is usually determined by urban rather than rural interests.
As I explained earlier, I used to chair the South East Rural Affairs Forum. We dealt with the usual issues that other regions dealt with such as, first and foremost, affordable housing, the difficulty of finding work close to where you might be lucky enough to live in the country, the difficulty of siting your business, lack of transport, lack of shops, the cost of goods in small shops compared to the cost of goods in city centre shops and the lack of access to hospitals and further education. Those are the issues that, surprise, surprise, the thematic studies and inquiries will identify. I echo very much the words of the right reverend Prelate—for goodness sake, let us now start championing people who demonstrate best practice. Let us have a delivery organisation based on local best practice. I believe that is roughly what the right reverend Prelate said and I certainly go along with it. There are people out there with examples of affordable housing—shared equity and the like—who are doing an excellent job. That could be rolled out elsewhere, but you need local involvement and funding; you do not need a talking shop. I am afraid that I see the commission ultimately as a talking shop. I am not saying that something like it is not needed, but I would be much more interested in determining which body will deliver what we seek, how it is to be funded, how it will engage with local communities and how it will be relevant to those people who are at the sharp end of these issues about which we hear so much.
I share my noble friend's anxiety that the Forestry Authority is rather detached. If you want to demonstrate how rural communities can be self-sufficient, establish combined heat and power plants using local forestry byproducts. That is a demonstration of best practice. The Forestry Authority could demonstrate best practice by showing that its laboratories were heated and powered by its own products. Those are examples of best practice which have been rolled out in small communities elsewhere in Europe. I hope that the Forestry Authority will demonstrate how that is done. The Environment Agency will have to deliver the water framework directive. Stakeholders in each water catchment area will be encouraged to think through the consequences of the sustainable use of water. All those are practical issues which we need to address. I am not entirely sure that the Bill gives us guidance as to how they will be delivered.
My Lords, I congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Exeter, with whose wise words of wisdom of warning I most heartily agree, on an excellent maiden speech.
I have considered the Bill, and some parts worry me. I declare an interest as I am married to a farmer, and in my spare time I end up getting dragged in to help with the paperwork, so I would welcome anything that smacked of simplifying the current arrangements for telling those who manage the countryside and the land what to do. I am not sure that the Bill has achieved that. We seem to be getting a new body that will have lots of powers—in some cases greater powers than those of the police when it comes to entry and search—and I am not sure that checks and balances are there, so it does not look too good on those grounds.
I also looked at Clause 2 on "General purpose" and there are lots of things about the Clause 7 "Management agreements" imposing their will on people managing the land. They are binding on the person who has an interest in the land. It does not say that it is binding on the agency as well and they cannot just get out of their agreement on one side. There is another problem with these binding management agreements driven from the centre. What if they get it wrong?
The points made by the noble Lord, Lord Carter, at the start of his speech were particularly important. It made me think of the Communications Act, which may seem completely different, but Ofcom has been successful in many ways. As the Communications Act stated in respect of Ofcom, so might this Bill state in respect of Natural England:
"It shall be the principal duty . . . in carrying out their functions . . . to further the interests of citizens".
The second part might be "to further the interests of land managers in ensuring that the natural environment is conserved". At the end of the day, it is not the agency that will be carrying it out; it is the people who manage the land. You need to worry about that. Then there are the general purposes of protecting biodiversity and so on.
The Communications Act has another provision which this Bill should have—because all agencies should be transparent. Section 3(3) of the Act states:
"In performing their duties under subsection (1) , OFCOM must have regard, in all cases, to . . . the principles under which regulatory activities should be transparent, accountable, proportionate, consistent and targeted only at cases in which action is needed; and . . . any other principles appearing . . . to represent the best regulatory practice".
Those are good safeguards to have in such a Bill, where we are putting all our eggs in one basket.
I am also worried about the powers. Clause 8 covers compulsory purchase to carry out experiments. How about returning the land to the people who owned it previously if the experiment has failed or the land is no longer needed afterwards? The Government did that after the Second World War when they had to appropriate land, and it would be fair in this instance to do the same. We have seen compulsory purchases, and we have seen some of the letters that local authorities are sending out already when you have problems with builders trying to repair your houses, which you may have tenanted normally. Local authorities may threaten compulsorily to purchase them—under the Housing Act that was recently passed. They are already sending out rude letters, and you cannot help it if the builders do not perform. We must be careful about powers being misused.
The Bill is supposed to result in fewer inspections. I am delighted with that idea, but will there be fewer inspections? Will there be fewer inspectors? I doubt it, because Natural England is taking on some of the jobs of the RDS; presumably some of the issues under the Countryside Stewardship and Environmentally Sensitive Area Schemes. But presumably the mapping functions—the RPA and RLR functions—will stay with Defra, which means that all the measuring and that part of the inspection will stay over there. I do not think that the agency will take on all the farming cross-compliance under the single farm payment, probably only the environmental part of it. In that case, Defra will still be doing that work, which means that NVZs and pollution inspections will still be done there. You must watch out for inspectors coming along with other powers.
I have seen an NVZ inspection take place where a chap took away computer printouts on the amount of nitrogen, which is what he should have been there to worry about. He then went and inspected the farmyards and when he looked at the diesel bunds he did not happen to like the way that they had been built—up to insurance company specifications two years earlier—and he said that he wanted electric motors and all sorts of different things.
Ten thousand pounds later, someone said, "But if you'd been across the border, next door in Cambridgeshire, they don't insist on that at all. They just point out that it's an insurance risk and that you could get fined and locked up". You will still have those problems. The health and safety inspectors will still come along. If you run a medium-sized arable farm, you will have 150 tonnes of fertiliser, so you will still have the fire brigade and police inspections. If you have animals, you will still have all those inspections as well. I am not sure how the Bill will reduce the number of inspectorates.
It is the land managers who will have to pay for all this biodiversity and everything like that. What worries me is the cost, because we need to get money out to the sharp end—to the coal face. How many employees will this agency inflate itself to? How many employees are already in Defra and all the other agencies and departments that will be there behind it? Someone has to pay for all this biodiversity. In the CAP funding debate, the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, said that nowadays to farm or manage land you must have an outside source of income. That was perfectly true; I heartily agree and have always believed that such income has to be necessary and has been throughout the ages. But people do not realise that, and think there is a bottomless pit of money that they can drain to fund their wildest schemes. We have to be careful of that. I hope that the agency will have a lot of balance and common sense, and will take into account the financial needs and sustainability of its proposals for the rural environment in future.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Earl, Lord Erroll. Debates such as today's gain immensely from Cross-Bench participation.
The German scholar Wilamowitz once asked his Oxford contemporary Cyril Bailey what a spoonerismus was. Bailey, replying in Latin, answered with a Horatian echo, "transponendarum litterarum curiosa felicitas"—a curious felicity in transposing letters. One of Warden Spooner's own mangled texts—
"We are all but as clay in the ponds of the hatter"— would serve us admirably today, not least on a Bill that the consenting parties are already describing as a NERC Bill, a transposition of letters that recalls the old acronym for the Natural Environment Research Council.
I should declare four relatively de minimis interests—first, as a former Minister for the NERC that I have just mentioned; secondly, as a life member of the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust; thirdly, as a vice-chairman of the All-Party Group on Wildlife and Conservation; and, finally, as a vice-president of the London Wildlife Trust, an office I hold representing my party in Parliament. The latter is perhaps the most relevant to mention in the context of the Bill, as it underscores the Bill's urban perspective. One of my most satisfactory achievements in the other place was to play a reasonably salient role in securing large-scale charitable funding to computerise the London trust's biodiversity base.
The Bill and its consenting parties exude harmony—even trust. I cite as an index of the latter an egregious spelling mistake in their joint briefing, which implies that the three merging bodies were content to use one proof-reader rather than two or three. However, what is not clear from either the Bill or the consenting parties' briefing is the nature of the chemistry between them. Too many mergers fail because of transplant rejection; I speak as one who, once upon a time, was the nation's first ever headhunter. Natural selection also applies to mankind.
I am delighted to learn implicitly from the consenting parties' briefing that the new organisation will be well resourced. That will make it the envy of its conservationist confreres at English Heritage, whose funding slips further and further down the list of DCMS priorities. I am however concerned that, too often, the furtherance of conservation in the Bill is subject to those hoary old words, "have regard to"—that most facile of amulets against judicial review—and that there is insufficient reference to necessary action. Clause 1 tells us that:
"Except where otherwise expressly provided, Natural England's functions are exercisable in relation to England only".
"to further the conservation of biodiversity".
I also hope that the application of regionality in the Bill will be highlighted in Committee. Much of regional policy in England, especially after the fig-leaf of referendums was ripped aside on 4/11 last year, is conducted through shadowy and insubstantial bodies, among which the environment has difficulty in asserting its importance. It is mildly ominous that one of the Secretary of State's statutory, rather than permissive, roles in Clause 15(1) is that he must give Natural England guidance as to the exercise of any of its functions that relate to or affect regional planning and associated matters.
The subject of climate change will occupy your Lordships' House on Thursday, when we shall judge the Bill retrospectively on its relevance. Some of us have had our knuckles rapped in the past for going on about housing in the flood plains, but this very weekend has seen insurance companies warning that in future cover may not be sustained in areas vulnerable to flooding.
On rights of way, I echo my noble friend Lady Byford. A bridle path in the next parish to our own in Wiltshire is under threat. In the short time since I took an interest in the matter, the number of applications to the county council has leapt from 87 to more than 150. Can the Minister tell us whether local authorities are being given any extra resources to cope with this separate version of flooding, or will the council tax payer be expected to meet the bill? In the same spirit, when we come to deal with invasive non-native species, will the Minister be prepared in Committee to tell us what his noble friend Lord Whitty, whom I see in his place and to whom I express no disrespect, declined to do on the Hunting Bill—namely, the Government's intentions towards the control of wild mink, which have practically eliminated the English water vole?
As to guidance and directions, the latter of which in Clauses 15 and 16 are described by the consenting parties as a "last resort", my mind goes back to a British employee going out to run the Australian operations of a multinational company, whose boss at headquarters told him, "I shall not interfere; I hope I shall not have to intervene". Is the general language of these clauses legislative boiler-plate or does it envisage particular contingencies? The issue is at the very heart of independence.
In the same vein, I am less sanguine than the consenting parties that there are not contradictions in the general purposes expressed in Clause 2(2). In the Barker report debate last year, I alluded to the six households on our lane in Wiltshire, two miles from the nearest shop. Five of the six are permanently resident. The sixth house was then rented out to a London family, who were occasional visitors. They were understandably absent during the foot and mouth crisis, during which our own two dogs, apart from using our small orchard for exercise, were for three months confined to walks on leads on tarmac. Within an hour of the London family arriving for their first visit since the crisis broke, they went straight into the fields with their dog. On having reality gently pointed out to them, they said that there were no notices and they could not be supposed to know.
I suspect that the Bill underestimates how far ignorance of town about country will prevent recreation going wholly harmoniously hand in hand with conservation. I remember the Greater London Authority Bill in another place and asking Glenda Jackson, the Minister, what would happen if the multitude of mayoral strategies that the Bill laid down were in conflict with each other. "Oh, but the Bill won't let them be", she said.
West Wiltshire has lots of footpaths and bridleways. On one such last spring, a Defra notice commended the welfare of ground nesting birds on the set-aside where the bridleway ran. The aim was commendable but, unless you closed the bridleway, frankly it was academic. It is on such points of detail that I hope the Committee stage of the Bill will properly fasten.
My Lords, I greatly welcome the Bill. I am sure that the independent integrated agency, Natural England, bringing together, as it does, the functions of English Nature and some of the functions of the Countryside Agency and the Rural Development Service, will be better placed than the previous bodies to have care for conserving, enhancing and managing England's natural environment for the benefit of current and future generations.
It is hoped and expected that Natural England will be a powerful organisation and will strongly champion the cause of access and recreation, alongside its work in promoting nature conservation, protecting biodiversity and conserving and enhancing the landscape.
I strongly support the representations of the Ramblers' Association, among others, in stressing the importance of access and recreation in the countryside and wishing these aspects to have equal weighting with the other purposes of Natural England, as set out in Clause 2. Natural England should be able to exercise significant power to bring to bear on those local authorities that fail in their statutory duties to maintain access on public rights of way, as well as being able to provide incentives for those wishing to improve. Access is fundamental to the social and economic health of rural areas, a fact which was clearly illustrated during the foot and mouth crisis. I hope the Minister will be able to assure the House that the Government recognise the importance of that issue and that, in setting the framework for Natural England, it will be emphasised. I am encouraged in this regard by his announcement earlier that Sir Martin Doughty is the chairman-designate. I am sure that this appointment will be well received.
One other aspect of the Bill that I would particularly like to raise, to which a number of noble Lords have already referred, is the vexed issue of the increasing degradation of green lanes. I have received extensive briefing from many organisations in advance of this debate—far too many to mention. I take the points made by the Green Lanes Protection Group particularly seriously, however. Well before it contacted me, I was aware from my own experience of walking in the countryside, and the experience of friends who live in some of the worst affected areas—Wiltshire, Hampshire and Dorset come most readily to mind—of the exponential growth of motor vehicles using green lanes. These issues were well rehearsed when the Bill was being considered in another place, and I am glad to say that representations to do something about the problem came from across the political spectrum.
The Government have addressed this problem in Part 6 of the Bill, the purpose of which is to limit those vehicular rights that can be recorded on English and Welsh local authorities' definitive maps and statements showing public rights of way. It does this by halting implied creation of rights of way for mechanically propelled vehicles, preventing post-1930 use of a way by a mechanically propelled vehicle giving rise to any future public right of way and, subject to certain exceptions, extinguishing existing public rights of way for mechanically propelled vehicles if those rights of way are not already recorded on the definitive map and statement.
That is excellent and very important. There are many who believe that the opportunity should now be taken for the issue of existing rights which are recorded on the map, but are now being abused by "recreational" mechanically propelled vehicles, to be revisited on the overriding grounds of environmental considerations. The Minister is, I know, aware of the sensitivity of this subject.
The Minister will also be aware that there are now a huge number of claims, mostly very recent, which have been submitted to the relevant authorities. There is every expectation that the claims will continue to multiply even while the Bill is under consideration in your Lordships' House. It has been suggested that such claims could take up to 20 years to process. It would be a tragedy of the greatest proportions, and the damage to the environment would be most severe—to say nothing of the shattering of the peace and quiet of the countryside and the danger to residents and visitors alike—if the use of these green lanes by motorised vehicles is allowed to continue until such claims are heard. They are claims, nothing more. Many are completely preposterous.
It is not a matter of human rights, or retrospection. It is certainly not a matter of access. It is, however, a matter of the practice, if not intent, of elevating one use of a byway above all others, to their effective exclusion. Walkers cannot walk, horse riders cannot ride and people and wildlife alike are endangered by the use of 4x4s, motorbikes, quad bikes and the like on green lanes. The lanes are churned up and ruined, often irreparably. That that should be allowed to happen in national parks, SSSIs, AONBs and so on is incomprehensible to most people, and the problem worsens daily.
It is imperative that the provisions come into force at the earliest possible moment, ideally the date of the Bill's publication. If that is not possible, surely it is not asking too much for the enactment of the legislation to coincide with its Royal Assent. I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure the House on that point when he shortly reveals the text of the amendments promised in the debate in the other place.
My Lords, I welcome the main thrust of the Bill, particularly the amalgamation of English Nature and the bulk of the Countryside Agency. In so doing I declare an interest as a landowner in the north of England and an ex-member of the English Nature council. I hope that the combined package will provide a more efficient, streamlined and cost-effective body that will command the respect of rural communities and provide a forum by which environmental policies can be delivered in partnership between those with a statutory responsibility for carrying out such duties and those on the ground who must make them work in practice.
In passing, I am bound to say that I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Carter, that the name Natural England is what I might describe as somewhat naff. Given that the English countryside is one of the finest examples of man's endeavours, notwithstanding the problems and challenges that we all face, there is very little of the natural about it.
The real theme of my contribution revolves around Clause 2 and the general purposes of Natural England. Although I support the formation of this large new statutory body, with its new size will come additional responsibilities, and with those will come an even greater need for sensitivity and the requirement to carry the respect of those whose hopes and aspirations will be affected by the actions of such a body.
Clause 2 covers the general purposes of Natural England, which broadly concerns the promotion of nature conservation, access and the enhancement of landscape—all perfectly desirable objectives. However, paragraph (2)(e) talks about,
"contributing in other ways"— whatever that means—
"to social and economic well-being through management of the natural environment".
That appears to demonstrate an inherent assumption that management of the natural environment automatically delivers social and economic benefits, whereas in practice it will depend on how the land is managed and what other factors are taken into consideration. As the Country Land and Business Association, in which I declare an interest as a member, put it,
"for Natural England to succeed in achieving its environmental objectives—which must be its priority"— everybody agrees with that—
"it is essential that it works in partnership with land managers and with the grain of rural business".
I entirely subscribe to that view, for there is no point in attempting to drive forward environmental and nature conservation objectives if, in the process, the future of the individual or the enterprise is undermined to the extent that no one can deliver the original objectives. As the noble Lord, Lord Bach, said, often we are talking about small, vulnerable businesses; we must take that into consideration.
To that end, therefore, I feel that the Bill and Natural England's position would be enhanced if it had, as part of its remit, an obligation to have regard to the social and economic well being of those who live and work in rural areas. I appreciate the scepticism demonstrated by my noble friend Lord Brooke about the term "have regard to" but I believe that it is appropriate in this case.
I am fully aware that some conservation bodies argue that there are already sufficient government-funded bodies with an economic brief and that it is vital that we have a strong independent statutory body to champion the environment. I agree with that, but such bodies usually have an environmental duty within their statute, as is the case, for example, with the regional development agencies, which have to contribute to the achievement of sustainable development within the UK. So I see no logical reason why Natural England should not have a similar requirement to take heed of the rural economy when making its deliberations but which would not undermine its principal objectives. It would simply ensure that some form of equilibrium was maintained. Surely that is what joined-up government means.
Before discussing the Commission for Rural Communities, I should like to say something about Clause 3, which requires Natural England to discharge its functions having regard to the common standards established under Clause 4. The common standards guidance for SSSIs is produced by the JNCC, and it is on the back of that guidance that Natural England will carry out its monitoring of such sites, make its environmental assessments and ultimately produce its management plans. From my experience of actively managing part of a moorland SSSI, I am bound to say that this process is far from satisfactory. I will not go into detail, but there appears to be no opportunity for consultation between the JNCC and practitioners on the ground, or their representative organisations, before the common standard guidance is produced.
Furthermore, the criteria on which such guidance is produced appear to contain a rather high degree of hypothetical theory. Indeed, I asked one English Nature scientist to give me the basis on which a management plan was based, and he replied, "Ecological instinct". With the best will in the world, that is not good enough.
While on this theme, we should not lose sight of the fact that the CROW Act demands that a VAM—views about management—is to be produced by English Nature on every SSSI prior to January next year, so once again I find myself wondering with some degree of trepidation on what criteria these will be based. It strikes me as odd that views on management can be produced without consulting the manager.
I am aware that there is some scepticism about the future role of the Commission for Rural Communities, but I take the view that, provided that the rural advocate is properly focused on assessing, advising and, where necessary, criticising government performance in relation to rural England, it could have a useful role. It is important that it does not end up as a moribund research organisation simply undertaking endless surveys and academic studies that gather dust in some departmental corner. The Government must expect Parliament to be given direct access to the commission, and its reports should be debated in both Houses of Parliament, thus giving it the credit it deserves. Only time will judge its effectiveness, but the ingredients are there if they are used effectively.
I particularly welcome Clause 58, which removes the expenditure constraints on national park authorities with regard to their duties to foster the economic and social well being of their local communities. This dovetails with my previous comments about economic development being an essential plank for a healthy rural economy from which sound environmental goals can be achieved.
Finally, I have a quick word on the additional enforcement powers afforded to wildlife inspectors under Clause 51. These powers will be greatly enhanced, and there is deep concern that they go too far. It is to be regretted that there was no formal consultation on this proposal. I have no difficulty with the principle, providing that such individuals are fully trained in the same way as, for example, trading standards officers or environmental health officers who belong to professional bodies and are subjected to three years' training. I am bound to say that, to date, the record of such individuals is mixed, to say the least, as they sometimes tend to be rather over-enthusiastic in their determination to bring a prosecution. This is an emotive subject, so it is essential that the legislation is properly drafted to ensure that professionalism and fairness prevail.
This is a large bill, and it is easy to get carried away by any one of its many clauses and schedules. What I hope for is an improved system of environmental and wildlife delivery, based on a healthy respect between the public and private sectors. Both have their part to play, but this system can work effectively only if there is genuine consultation and respect on both sides and a mutual understanding of each other's aims and objectives. There is still much to do in this respect.
My Lords, I, too, congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Exeter on his maiden speech. He and I have worked together on regional and rural issues in the south-west. I know that he will continue to contribute wisely, as he has done today, to the work of this House.
First, I declare an interest as a past rural advocate and as an ex-chairman of the Countryside Agency, as well as being a farmer and landowner. Secondly, let me say how much I welcome the Bill. It will, I hope, bring to an end a very long period of uncertainty for all the bodies involved—a period now of some years of what I would call distracting change management, which I believe has taken everyone's mind off the agenda. I hope that we can ensure a speedy resolution of that uncertainty.
I should like primarily to touch on two areas of controversy which arose during the Bill's passage in the other House. First, there is the statutory purpose of Natural England. This body now has to consider people and communities as well as the environment. Its remit includes access to the countryside, responsibilities for the broad sustainable management of designated areas as well as the ongoing need to understand the practicalities of making a living off the land while at the same time protecting the natural environment. Personally, I think that this broad agenda is a good thing. Nothing to my mind has done more to bring the environment into mainstream thinking than the sustainable development agenda. It is only by making the environment relevant to people's lives, socially and economically, that it gets their backing and their votes.
Thus I believe that the principles of sustainable development—economic, social and environmental—should be spelt out slightly more clearly in Clause 2. However, I can see why the Government do not want to go there and why they have avoided a conflict resolution clause. Our man-made countryside, as others have referred to it, has always been the result of conflict and changing need. I believe that it is right that these conflicts should continue to occur on the Natural England board, without Defra or the Bill setting out how it should respond. Each conflict will have its own solution with decisions quite often being taken on a localised basis.
The real debate here of course should be about Schedule 1 and the appointments to the Natural England board. This board must not be made up predominantly of environmentalists and scientists. It must include land managers, access representatives, national park or AONB managers, community leaders and so on. If it is to be a truly effective environmental body it will need to be able to relate to and work in partnership with the groups I have just mentioned, and it is crucial that the board is able to help forge and maintain those partnerships. I hope that the Government can give us some assurances about the make-up of the Natural England board.
Turning to another issue that arose in the Commons, I would like to underline the crucial importance of the Commission for Rural Communities—the CRC. It is vital that this body exists to carry out research and to speak out strongly—I emphasise the latter part—on behalf of those who live in our countryside, particularly the less well off who might otherwise have no real voice within the system.
Will rural quality of life be properly catered for by the urban-focused resources of the Department of Health, the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department of Trade and Industry and so on? Can we even rely on the largely urban-based staff of Defra? Can we trust the all-too-often urban-centric local authorities and RDAs?
I heard last week that the new in-phrase is to refer to the "city region", meaning that the best way to deliver the regional agenda is to focus largely on the main city or cities within that region. One can only assume that under this philosophy the rural areas go hang.
I believe that a nationally based, independent voice for the countryside is now more important than ever. There is a school of thought that this independent voice could be represented by local authorities. Even on a local basis, apart from one or two notable exceptions, I am not certain whether they have a very good record in this field. All too often the majority urban members do not really understand rural problems, do not give them priority and, without really meaning to, tend to hijack the allocation of resources to the urban problems.
Meanwhile, of course no local authority can possibly act as a nationally based rural watchdog—carrying out national research and providing national proof to government that such an issue is not simply a local problem. When I was a rural advocate the rural commission of the Local Government Association often used to lobby me to make the case for the countryside on issues it felt were important, but where it was constrained by the urban majority of LGA members. It was always grateful that the Countryside Agency was able to take its local issues and put them authoritatively on to the national governmental radar screen. The CRC's role in that respect would, I believe, be enhanced by the fact that it is not a delivery body. It does not any more have to be part of the solution, unlike local authorities.
The other school of thought is that the work of the CRC should be done by Defra. But how many civil servants would reckon that it was part of their job to stand up and name or shame other departments, or even other Ministers? It just could not be part of their job spec to take a publicly independent line and to speak out and not to take "No" for an answer.
Funnily enough, there was much discussion in the Commons about the independence of Natural England—as there has been today—but to me it is the independence of the CRC that is really important. I am glad that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Exeter supported me on that. The CRC has to goad. It has to probe. It has to get under the skin of government at all levels—from central, through regional to local. We need a nationally based body more than ever now to challenge others, or to champion others on rural issues and one that is capable of rural-proofing every aspect of our life.
The countryside is going through a period of great change. Over 100,000 people move from our towns to the countryside every year. The rural population is growing at three or four times the rate of urban Britain. Farming plays less and less part in the rural economy and rural employment. More and more high-tech businesses are choosing to base themselves in the countryside and the growing and ageing population there depend more and more on efficient service delivery, which, by its very nature, has to be approached differently from delivering to the towns. Meanwhile, under this Government, the main delivery bodies, such as the health service, the education service and its agencies such as Connexions and the Learning and Skills Council, the business links, the police, the job centres and so on, seem to be undergoing permanent restructuring and change. Even the local authorities do not escape. Last year there were local public service agreements and this year there are the local area agreements. There seems to be an obsession with continuous change.
My point is that amidst the chaos that these changes engender—and in some cases it really is chaos—never has a national rural proofing body and a rural advocate been more needed to ensure that centralists and centrally based planners, with, frankly, no concept of life in the countryside, do not leave the less well off people in rural England as second-class citizens. The CRC will not have an easy task—believe me, I know—but I hope it will have the support of this House.
Finally, I, among others, look forward to seeing the Government's promised amendments to Part 6 to ensure immediate commencement, without exemptions, of those clauses concerning mechanically propelled vehicles on rights of way.
My Lords, I join my noble friend Lord Selborne and others who have said how much they welcome the contribution made in this debate by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Exeter. It was indeed a contribution which came from the heart and an understanding of the problems we face.
We are very fortunate in your Lordship's House to have such contributions from the bishops. I remember a while ago one bishop, who came from the south-west, saying, "Yes, the situation in farming is so desperate at the moment, that they really do need—as they have said so often—a level playing field. At the moment they need a level praying field". That was said, I know, with some feeling.
I declare my interests as a farmer involved in many rural organisations, and as a past president of the Cotswolds Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), which is equally as beautiful as the south-west, now of course the Cotswolds Conservation Board. It has proved itself in its work during the past five years in an area that covers the vast rural area from Bath up to the Warwickshire border. In its reports of restoration work in that area, it has proved the benefit of its effort to restore important grassland sites, in training and restoration of dry stone walling, of landscape character assessments and of farming studies. Above all, it has created a partnership with many organisations and local authorities. It is an example of the dedication of much voluntary work, especially from voluntary wardens, who are themselves country people who understand the importance of land management and wildlife. As my noble friend Lord Selborne said earlier, it is an example of the need for best practice.
If, therefore, Natural England, which, as the noble Lord, Lord Carter, said, is a strange name, is to streamline the functions of the present component agencies as set out in Clause 2, is the ultimate intention to try to include all bodies concerned with environmental issues, including the work of local authorities in that area? Will it really lead to a better focused source of land management advice for government and its agencies, as well as its primary customers, operating more efficiently and cutting costs, or will the integrated agency become yet another layer of bureaucracy and expense, which the countryside can ill afford? Already, we have an army of advisers ready to move in to help the farmer or those who are concerned with country affairs.
Like others, I have many doubts, which will come up in Committee, about many of the provisions in various chapters, including those in Part 3 concerning wildlife and pesticides. In Part 8, I ask what is really meant by "flexible administrative arrangements". That could mean anything to anyone.
I also hope that in his reply the Minister can reassure your Lordships that all representative interests will be consulted before proposed change orders are made. In his opening statement, the Minister referred to that point and said that it is intended that stakeholders, who have already been consulted as the Bill has been drafted, will be consulted again before the final draft is agreed.
So, as a countryman, I hope that I may be forgiven for believing that, in the past, too much policy-making by government has been conducted with a strong bias towards urban citizens. We need a Commission for Rural Communities with a strong and independent voice for rural people represented by rural people. The much improved relationship between conservation advisers and land managers depends entirely on close contact. Farmers, for example, need assurances that the advice that they receive on SSSIs and the management of such from English Nature will not be subject to charges in future.
There is concern that Natural England will not realise its full potential for delivery through its proposed two boards while still focusing on its own internal structure. If the object of the exercise is to follow the proposals for simplification so rightly proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Haskins, the Bill must make it clear that the agency will be the chief adviser on policy for the natural environment across government activity as a whole and Ministers must have due regard to its advice. There is concern about Clause 14, which provides for the Secretary of State to grant aid Natural England, enabling the Secretary of State to influence how it should be spent.
An example of some of the problems comes from the Cotswolds. Provisions are intended to ensure that the electricity distribution companies are required to have regard to AONB purposes but fail, as the border is crossed, to require the same of British Telecom. In that area, planning authorities required a developer to underground the wirescape but, when it crossed the boundary, BT insisted on wires going overground via poles. That is one of those silly illustrations, an example of the sort of thing that makes nonsense of the work being undertaken at present. I hope that that can be improved. That is a landscape benefit lost.
Finally, Clause 2 proposes that the agency should have a general purpose of ensuring that the natural environment is conserved, enhanced and managed. The general purpose focuses solely on conservation and is silent on the agency's importance as an adviser. If it is to be a strong and independent voice, surely it should be made much clearer that its responsibility is to advise on policy for the natural environment across all government activities and that Ministers must have due regard to its advice. It must be more, not less, independent. I hope that its main function will make the countryside free from more bureaucracy and red tape.
My Lords, I speak today as president of a wildlife trust, vice-president of the RSPB and as a former chairman of English Nature. Those of your Lordships who have been around for some time and have long memories—a characteristic of your Lordships' House—will recall that on two previous occasions a similar merger of English Nature and the Countryside Agency or the Countryside Commission has been proposed. On both those occasions, I must confess that I—and several others—fought like tigers to prevent such a merger because we were concerned that the interests of wildlife and conservation would be submerged in a bigger body.
I am a turncoat and today support the Bill and the creation of Natural England as an organisation whose time has now come. The organisation will have the scale, working shoulder to shoulder with the Environment Agency—I should declare an interest as chief executive of the Environment Agency—to be an effective champion for wildlife and landscape and for their enjoyment as a vital part of the rural economy.
Although I support the Bill and the creation of Natural England, I am keen to obtain reassurances on two points if I am to support the new body wholeheartedly. I mentioned the argument that this will create a body with sufficient scale to be an effective champion. Natural England will be blessed with considerable spending power in the form of the agri-environment funding and will use that to achieve benefits for biodiversity, landscape and natural resource protection. I make no bones about the fact that when my noble friend Lord Haskins was writing his report, I expended considerable time and blandishment on him to try to persuade him to give agri-environment funding to the Environment Agency.
My noble friend Lord Haskins said that he had listened to my arguments and gave me his understanding. But, alas, it was not his understanding that I was looking for, it was his money, and we did not get that.
It is fundamental for the future that those agri-environment funds, which Natural England will control, need to deliver not only for the objectives of biodiversity, landscape, access and recreation laid out in the Bill, but also for the Environment Agency's objectives of protecting the natural resources of air, land and water. I hope that the Minister can give reassurance that Natural England will be given clear guidance on using the substantial agri-environment funding—currently, in excess of £300 million—to deliver across both its and the Environment Agency's objectives.
The second area where I seek reassurance has already been raised. I am afraid that I rarely disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, but I do on this occasion. Clause 2 lays out clear purposes for Natural England. They are well written, distinctive and complementary to the purposes of the Environment Agency, which was a concern in early drafts of the Bill. I am grateful to the Minister for the clarity which emerged in successive drafts. The Bill gives Natural England a clear primary purpose to conserve, enhance and manage the natural environment and, thereby, contribute to sustainable development. It then elaborates those into five elements, which it is not beyond the bounds of possibility could come into conflict. Although the conflicts between the elements of the Natural England purpose should be rare, I hope that during the passage of the Bill we can have reassurance that in those very few cases where there is a conflict—say, between access duties and the protection of priority species, sites and habitats or important landscapes—the first two elements in the list of five of the Natural England purpose should have precedence; namely, those that cover biodiversity and landscape.
Why should those two elements have priority? Although people who live in rural communities might not believe it, on looking at the history of the English countryside over the past 200 years, generally, social and economic issues have taken precedence. As a result of built development, changes in agricultural practices, impacts—including pollution from economic activity and the growth of our settlements—and the increase of our road system, wildlife has dramatically reduced in numbers and extent. According to the Government's published figures in the biodiversity action plan and progress reports, quite a number of our most important habitats—salt marshes, reed beds, wet meadows, flower-rich meadows, heathlands and good-quality upland habitat—have been reduced to tiny percentages of their former extent—in some cases to less than 10 per cent—and, in some habitats, to less than 1 per cent of their previous extent. Many of our priority species of birds, plants, fish and mammals are reduced to tiny populations that are often beleaguered in open air zoos that we call nature conservation protected sites, which will be under pressure from development, recreational pressures and, increasingly, climate change.
I believe that history speaks for itself. Despite the protection given through the national protected site series—the sites of special scientific interest, the special areas of conservation and the special protection areas—and much of the effort put into the biodiversity action plan, we have not seen the restoration of both threatened populations and threatened habitats to anything remotely approaching their former extent. Much of our wildlife is drinking in the Last Chance saloon. Indeed, the extent and quality of landscape outside national parks and AONBs is often similarly threatened. So there is a real, evidence-based case for the priorities of biodiversity and landscape being the principal ones for Natural England.
I thank the Minister for his commitment today to Natural England being a trenchant champion for the environment. In another place, much stress was placed on the vision and judgment of the chairman and the board of Natural England. I very much welcome the appointment of Sir Martin Doughty as chairman. But chairmen do not last for ever, although I earnestly hope that Sir Martin will, and the board is yet to be appointed. We need firmer assurances from the Minister in the specific area of conflict between the purposes of English Nature, so that when push comes to shove—to use a technical term—important biodiversity and landscape will take priority. I stress the word, "important". I am not talking about every occasion, every sparrow, every view, or every urban green space having to obtain prior consideration, but, in broad terms, about the sorts of minimal priorities that were laid out in the biodiversity action plan by the Government.
I will finish with another issue that, again, has been touched on by many of your Lordships; that is, the impact of some sorts of recreation on biodiversity and landscape and their quiet enjoyment. I welcome the assurances made by the Minister about mechanically propelled vehicles and the Government's commitment to addressing that issue. But biodiversity and landscape, and the quiet enjoyment of the natural environment, can be vulnerable to other forms of open-air recreation. There needs to be clarity from the Government that in such disputes Natural England will take the role of championing the natural environment. There is considerable evidence that in some circumstances access, disturbance and recreation can damage biodiversity and landscape. Again, if push comes to shove, there is always somewhere else to go for recreation. But once biodiversity and landscape has been damaged or gone, most often it cannot be reconstituted.
I hope that in the years to come we can look back on the provisions of this excellent Bill and the creation of a powerful force in Natural England for the natural environment. I would simply close in pondering on the name of the body that several of your Lordships have undertaken. In the early stages, there was a proposal that we should perhaps call it the "Natural" Environment Agency, which I can assume was only to distinguish it from the concept of the "Unnatural" Environment Agency.
My Lords, for my sins I have been the chairman of one non-departmental public body, the deputy-chairman of a second and the chief executive officer of a third. I should like to pursue a point that has been raised by many noble Lords, including, notably, my noble friend Lord Brooke, on independence—in particular, for Natural England with its 2,300 employees. Indeed, we have had another assurance from the Minister that it will be powerful and independent. I would like to look at that proposition from the point of view of the staff. What do they see as they read the Bill?
The staff will first see that it is a wholly grant-aided body. The Secretary of State can fix the grant as she thinks fit. Of course, the staff will be aware that behind the Secretary of State lies the Treasury. There is an annual round and they will remember that he who pays the piper tends to call the tune. Secondly, they will look at the provisions for the appointment of the board. The Secretary of State will appoint the chairman, may appoint a deputy chairman and will appoint the other six to 13 members of the board. Currently, there is no term of appointment in the Bill and those members may or may not be reappointed. Of course, the Secretary of State is also taking a power to change the number of the members of the board, which could be useful in troublesome times.
The staff will see that not only the board but also they—the staff—will have their pay—their remuneration—determined by the Secretary of State. It will not be a matter of proposals being put forward, as has often been the case with NDPBs, for approval by the Secretary of State, but straight determination. I am not concerned today to argue that all of those arrangements are bad or, indeed, good, but simply to try to throw light on the proposition that this body is independent and powerful.
The staff will also see that there are the usual powers for the Secretary of State to make orders by statutory instrument, which are of course subject to parliamentary scrutiny, as well as powers to give approvals and take initiatives. But Clause 15 goes on to state that the Secretary of State has a duty to give Natural England "guidance" on its functions, and that the body must pay attention to such guidance. There is to be consultation, but the staff may ask, "Where is the leverage when the consultation takes place? Are we really independent?". I suppose that independence does have to mean being independent of Defra, otherwise I can attach no meaning to the description.
Finally, in the following clause, the Secretary of State is to take powers to give "directions", both general and specific. Those are very wide-ranging powers. Perhaps other noble Lords will guide me on this, but from my past experience of a non-departmental public body, I do not know of an instance where the Secretary of State has taken such potentially wide powers. The Government may respond by saying, "Yes, we have the powers because we had to make a lot of decisions. This is a complicated measure and we did not have time to work everything out. We will not use these powers unless we really have to". That does not offer much comfort because once the powers are in the Act, they will become the law and they can be used.
Of course it may well be that the Government always intended that this body should not be independent. The staff would be right to conclude that it was a controlled subsidiary of Defra and, under these powers, could be very tightly controlled. Indeed, my noble friend Lord Selborne suggested in his remarks that it might become only a talking shop. Looking at it from the point of view of the staff, it might be a very sensible conclusion for them to reach. They can then think whatever they want to think and they can give advice in whatever way they want to do so, but given these arrangements I think they would be cautious about how far they could go when talking to officials from Defra.
If, on the other hand, the Government really do intend this body to be independent, the Bill is going to need substantial amendment. At present there seems to be no middle way, unless of course we were to follow the prescription of Humpty Dumpty. Noble Lords will recall that Humpty Dumpty had a conversation with Alice:
"'I don't know what you mean by "glory"'. Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously, 'Of course you don't, till I tell you. I meant that there's a nice, knock-down argument for you!'
'But "glory" doesn't mean a nice, knock-down argument', Alice objected.
'When I use a word', Humpty Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less . . . The question is, which is to be the master—that's all'".
I hope that Her Majesty's Government have more time to read the Oxford English Dictionary and less time to read Lewis Carroll.
My Lords, first, I should declare my interests as the president of the Friends of the Ridgeway. I am also an Oxfordshire county councillor, a member of the Thames Valley Police Authority and a member of a wildlife trust. I would like the Minister, in his summary, to clear up once and for all the basis on which BOAT status—that is, by-ways open to all traffic—is in future to be claimed. This goes to the heart of Part 6 of this Bill. I know that the Minister has said that negotiations were still taking place—
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. It may be hard for noble Lords to believe it, but it is true to say that since I made my opening speech this afternoon, the information that the noble Lord and other noble Lords have sought during the course of this debate has now gone through the various departments of government. Given that, I will be able to make an announcement in my closing remarks which I hope will satisfy the requests made by noble Lords.
I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, does not mind me interrupting him with that information at this stage in his speech, but I do not want him to speak under a false premise. I will have an announcement to make.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his statement and I shall not pursue the point, except to say that there is a huge backlog of applications, an issue to which a number of noble Lords have referred. However, local authorities have many responsibilities relating to rights of way—for instance, footpath diversions, various developments and so forth—which have nothing to do with this Bill. They are all enormously time-consuming. So despite what is alleged, local authorities are not sitting around doing nothing and the amount of time that can be devoted to addressing the issues now before us is necessarily limited.
It has already been said in the debate that most people want to have quiet enjoyment of the countryside. Despite the vociferous representations made on behalf of several groups which drive 4x4s, quad bikes and motorcycles for fun along rights of way and on green lanes, a very much larger majority of people value the quiet enjoyment of the countryside. Those people do not believe that their rights should be interfered with by the wishes of a very small minority.
On Saturday an article published in the Daily Telegraph touches closely on the issues now before us. Many noble Lords may have read it. However, the article totally misrepresents the position of those of us who want to protect rights of way. It talks about how access for the disabled would be compromised. That is not our intention because I do not know of many disabled people who ride quad bikes and motorbikes over rough terrain. It also states that rural householders and businesses will find themselves landlocked because their access rights will be taken away from them. That is manifestly untrue.
I raise one other issue to which the Minister may turn in his response; that is, the new national parks and the country wardens to be employed by those parks and, in some areas, by the counties. The national parks will be able to produce their own traffic regulation orders. However, as we all know, enforcement of the law is the most difficult task. Even when a route is prohibited, there can be a considerable amount of illegal use. Will the Minister ensure that the officers appointed as wardens by the national parks will be vested by chief constables with the same powers as those held by community service officers—the semi-policemen we see around Westminster—so that they can report to the police any breaches of the traffic regulation orders? In that way, enforcement activity, which is currently so limited, would be enhanced.
Beyond those remarks, I shall await the Minister's announcement when he sums up the debate. We shall be able to return to this business at a later stage.
My Lords, I am glad to have the opportunity to add my congratulations to my friend and colleague, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Exeter, on his excellent maiden speech. Between us we have, by my calculation, over 1,000 parishes in our two dioceses. That is a sign of just how many distinct rural communities exist, as well as the still unparalleled scale and reach of the Church of England as a rural organisation. That is the experience we heard reflected in the maiden speech of the right reverend Prelate and I am sure that his clarity of mind will be of great benefit to this House.
I must declare an interest as for almost five years I have been a board member of the Countryside Agency. As the passage of the Bill will result in the abolition of that agency, it is an interest that is in the final stages of terminal care. The agency and its staff have been in the departure lounge of quango life for a long time now, a fact to which the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, referred. I wish to pay tribute to those staff who have continued to do their jobs with remarkable dedication and commitment during a long period of uncertainty. As we shift the pieces of the rural jigsaw around, it is easy to forget that people's lives, families and relationships are being affected. I believe that the staff of the Countryside Agency—and I am sure this is true for the staff of English Nature and the Rural Development Service as well—deserve public gratitude for the way in which they have stuck to their task and prepared for a future in which some of them may not have employment at all.
That being said, I support the general aims of the Bill. My plea, however, is that once this restructuring is complete, the Government and any successor to them, may leave it in place long enough to do its work. I have previously commented from these Benches on the itch to restructure that has characterised the Government in their rural policy in recent years. What we have before us today is the consequence of the Government's rural strategy, announced in July last year, itself a response to the rural delivery review, chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Haskins, set up three years ago. By the time Natural England, or whatever it will be called—I suppose it could have been called English Nature, really, but that was probably impolitic—and the Commission for Rural Communities are vested, four years will have passed since the rural delivery review was established. That is precisely how long the Countryside Agency existed before its foundations started to be examined—and it came into being, of course, only as a result of an earlier restructuring whereby the Countryside Commission and the Rural Development Commission were brought together.
Having planted quite a few trees in recent years, I am advised that it is not always a good policy to dig them up, examine the roots, leave them lying around for a year or two and then replant them again if you want them to grow strong and healthy. The itch to restructure and the longing to legislate seem to be regarded nowadays as marks of reforming, dynamic government. But mature institutions that serve the needs of people rather than desperately seeking to prove their own utility are not produced overnight.
Rural England needs continuity and stability in rural policy. It needs a policy that brings together social, economic and environmental issues to deliver sustainable development, and the Bill goes a long way, through the creation of Natural England, towards providing an appropriate structure. But I doubt we are ever going to achieve that much-vaunted sustainable development if the bodies charged with delivering such a goal are themselves fragile and short term. I can think of nothing worse than the suggestion in another place that the CRC should have a five-year guillotine hanging over it. I ask the Minister to assure the House that the structures will be left in place for a decent length of time once our work on the Bill is complete.
In the remainder of the time that I have left, I wish to refer to the Commission for Rural Communities as I find it hard to understand the objections to it. It certainly exists in shadow form already as a division of the Countryside Agency, but that is not because it is some kind of survival of what that agency presently is. It will have less than a tenth, I suspect, of the budget of the Countryside Agency at present, and, of course, the Haskins review suggested that policy and delivery should be separated. Everything that the Countryside Agency does is still reckoned to be necessary. It is simply that the jobs are being parcelled up and delivered elsewhere. But there will be a big hole in the rural strategy without the Commission. It is the Commission that will take forward the work already done in rural proofing, which in fact needs strengthening.
I hope the Commission will continue to publish the State of the Countryside report. This provides a wealth of information, which sometimes, I suspect, is insufficiently used. I note, for example, in this year's report, that the richest 40 per cent of English households provide 75 per cent of the residents of our villages, hamlets and isolated dwellings. When that is coupled with the disparity in rural areas between local income levels and house prices, it shows how the less well off in rural England are becoming more disadvantaged or forced to move into urban settlements. That raises some very serious questions about the growing spatial separation of the rich and the poor in our society.
The proposed SIPPs pension arrangements may only make this worse unless something is done to enable the rural housing supply to grow. We all look forward to whatever the Affordable Rural Housing Commission will have to say in March next year.
Rural England is a place where the law of unintended consequences is powerful, and we need an independent and robust commission concentrating on rural disadvantage. It needs to be independent not only of policy makers—or, indeed, of those who deliver policy—but also of single-issue lobby groups, for which rural England provides such fertile soil. The chair of the commission will, of course, be the rural advocate, with direct access to the Prime Minister and Secretaries of State. I hope that no one in the House will think that that is a position which ought to be abolished in the interests of rural England. If anyone is to be really effective in the job it is imperative that he or she has the expertise, the networks and the logistical support that the proposed commission would provide.
If there was no commission, I wonder who would monitor the new regional delivery of rural policy, especially through the RDAs, and who would speak out if that proved inadequate. If government policies for public service reform overlooked the rural dimension, who would say so authoritatively if we had no national body to do that work?
Those who make and deliver policies—whether government departments, local councils, primary care trusts or RDAs—almost always have mixed rural and urban constituencies, and usually they are dominated by the urban mindset. The case for a body whose remit is solely rural and focused especially on the most disadvantaged in our rural communities, is very strong. In the hope that it may indeed both take root and be robustly independent, I wish it and the Bill well.
My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord Carter, I also have doubts about the title, "Natural England". The noble Lord and I share, at least in part of our education, a common institution, so perhaps it is not so remarkable that he and I should find agreement on this. It calls to mind that during my studies there was an agricultural research institution still then in existence called the Rothhampstead Experimental Research Station which, a century before, had put a field on one side and left it to see what would happen. After a century it had become oak forest. It was beautiful, completely unproductive for most human purposes and, if you stood in the centre of it, you had a very restricted view. Running through today's debate there has been a real concern that what is now called Natural England should not finish up like that. I hope the Minister will agree that this is possible and that we should do something about the title, which is a little unfortunate.
Clause 2 states that Natural England's general purpose is,
"to ensure that the natural environment is conserved, enhanced and managed for the benefit of present and future generations".
That is fine. But whenever the Government are advancing a case about which they have some slight doubt, they add the wonderful catchphrase,
"thereby contributing to sustainable development".
I have never discovered with any satisfaction precisely what sustainable development is. I took the trouble to refer to the dictionaries before this debate. Both the Concise Oxford English Dictionary and Chambers Dictionary stated:
"Capable of being maintained at a set level".
Clearly, that does not work. The Brundtland report of 1987 contained a better definition:
"Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs".
That is admirable—I have no quarrel with that—but the trouble is that we are not doing it. Whether we like it or not, we have set in process the awful problem of global warming. We have destabilised the atmosphere and we do not know what the consequences are. The truth is that the natural environment has always been in a state of evolution in any event. Therefore, that catchphrase is unfortunate. I would prefer to see it taken out of the Bill all together. In fact, if the Government were wise, they would cease to use the phrase at all.
As Clause 2(1) states, we can,
"ensure that the natural environment is conserved, enhanced and managed for the benefit of present and future generations".
But the environment in 50 years' time will be very different from that with which we are familiar today and if we are to beat the problem of global warming, we shall have to do things which some people will think are an offence to conservation. Solutions such as intensive production of crops for biofuels are at least as offensive from the point of view of the environment as any other form of intensive agriculture, but we are going to have to do those things—so there is good reason for concern.
I have two other points of concern which are worth raising at this stage. I read in Clause 4 that Natural England—I will continue to call it that because that is the only name we have at the moment—
"may give advice to any person on any matter relating to its general purpose".
Under Clause 11, it is given the power to make charges. What worries me is that it has the power to give advice to people who have not requested it. Can it charge people for giving them unwanted advice? That is an interesting prospect. We will be exploring these matters with great care and in great detail in Committee, but that is an interesting juxtaposition of words.
Worse still, Clause 13 states:
"Natural England may do anything that appears to it to be conducive or incidental to the discharge of its functions".
When one looks at what its functions are, that is fine, but what worries me about that provision is that, under a different jurisdiction, in a different part of the world, it would be an invitation to malpractice of the most appalling kind. We need to examine what is meant by "anything". It has to have a restrictive meaning, because otherwise it could invite improper practice. The noble Baroness, Lady Young, is looking at me as if I had suddenly developed horns and a forked tail. I know that no proper English agency would ever behave in an improper way and that there are restrictions on its doing so, but we have to deal with the law as we are writing it and we ought not to be writing that kind of language into the law.
These are small, but important, matters. A number of others will unquestionably arise at later stages. The principle of the Bill is not to be quarrelled with too much, but we need to recognise that we are doing yet another lap around the course of administrative superstructure between the Government and the countryside. We do these laps with monotonous regularity. I am afraid that my conclusion is that this is a race that will never end. There is no satisfactory outcome. There will be no winner. There is, however, a potential loser. As the control of the countryside moves from the countryside to centralised administrative structures, the potential loser is the countryside itself. That which the Government are seeking to conserve could end up being destroyed.
My Lords, this has been an excellent debate. It is one of the best debates in which I have spoken during my five years in this House. I should not be surprised, because every participant has brought expertise—some of the best expertise in this country.
I support the Bill. It is a good Bill. In that respect, I go along with the latter points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, who said that he welcomed the Bill with certain reservations—I paraphrase. I think that that, in a sense, is the mood of the House. The Government have done everything correctly. They put the Bill out to a form of pre-legislative scrutiny. The Bill has been before the Select Committee in the other House. There was a full debate in the other House, which I am sure most of us have followed very closely. And there has been a more general debate in the public arena.
I support the Bill, I guess, for the simple reason that I believe that it can improve the delivery of services in rural areas and wider. I emphasise "and wider", because the Bill is about not only rural areas but urban areas. Natural England will have a remit in the urban area as well as the rural area.
I have been encouraged too by the Minister's announcement—I hope that I am going to be even more encouraged by his announcement later—that Sir Martin Doughty will be chair designate of the new organisation. I think that we all trust Sir Martin. He will be independent in matters of concern on both sides of the House, and he will be a sturdy champion of Natural England.
I also pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Haskins. I have known him for 20 or so years. I am very proud of the fact that I brought him into government in 1997. I appointed him as chair of the Better Regulation Task Force. He was superb at that. He brought an incisive, invigorating and reforming approach. Most of all, he came forward with a pragmatic approach to balancing and reducing the number of regulations that we all find so burdensome. So I pay tribute to the noble Lord. I believe that his report of October 2003 was the genesis of the Bill that we are discussing today.
I shall not speak from the notes which I have prepared because this is a debate. I have said how good a debate it has been and it is right and proper to respond to some of the points that have been raised. In declaring an interest as chair of the Forestry Commission, I ought at least to make some initial response to the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, and the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, who both asked why neither the Forestry Commission nor the Environment Agency is in this new quango.
There are a number of reasons. It was something that the noble Lord, Lord Haskins, looked at, and he made the recommendation that the Forestry Commission should be either aligned to or part of the new agency. That was something that the Government obviously considered and they came down in favour of alignment for the simple reason that they believed that it was the best way in which to preserve the special qualities of the Forestry Commission and what it had brought to this country over the past 80 years and that it would attain and help the objectives of the new agency. The noble Earl rightly made the point about biomass and wood-fuelled central heating; that is something that we are working on very hard—and indeed, at our headquarters in Kielder, we have just established one such wood-fired central heating unit that heats not only our office but the local youth hostel and some of the local community buildings as well. We are working with an organisation called SembCorp, which is establishing and building a full-sized wood-fired power station on Teesside. The critical mass of that wood will come out of our forests.
The lesson that I have learnt from the noble Earl this evening is simply this: the one thing that I find difficult in working with foresters—and I do not find much difficulty in doing so—is that they find it a problem to explain to people what they do or, to put it crudely, to sing their own praises. They are naturally people who get on and deliver. Almost the key finding of the report of the noble Lord, Lord Haskins, was just that—that there was a great deal of satisfaction with the Forestry Commission and the way in which it works. Paragraph 6.54 of the noble Lord's report states:
"If Ministers pursue the option of fully integrating forestry functions in England with the proposed new agency"— that is the key issue; it is never highlighted but it is in words of one syllable—
"I would advise against transferring the management of the estate (by Forest Enterprise England) as well".
In other words, the noble Lord is saying, no matter what you do with the Forestry Commission, with the regulatory aspect he would advise against transferring the overwhelming majority of the activity of the commission to the new agency. That was his recommendation.
When I point out to noble Lords certain things that my foresters would not point out—that there are 350 million visits a year to Forestry Commission land, which is many more visits than to the seaside, and that there are 22,000 kilometres of tracks in forests used for cycling, which is enough to go half the way around the world; and when I say that we have dedicated for access in perpetuity 130,000 hectares in the past 18 months, I am making the point that the Forestry Commission delivers as it is. The figure of 350 million visits to our forests, which are free—gratis, for nothing—for the benefit of the citizens of our country, has been estimated not by us but by independent assessors. It means that we bring in almost £2.5 billion to the local economy. That money does not go to the Forestry Commission; it goes into the local economy.
An example that is very dear to my heart is that of the ospreys in Cumbria, which attract more than 100,000 visitors a year, just to watch the two birds. It has been estimated that the amount accruing to the local economy is more than £2 million a year, just for those two birds, which were attracted because some clever foresters saw the ospreys going up to Scotland, chopped the tops of the pine trees, built a platform and a nest, and applied the white paint to make it realistic—and that attracted the ospreys down. That is innovative thinking from the Forestry Commission, and innovative thinking with which I hope the new commission will be affected, by working alongside us, because it is the innovative thinking that is necessary if we are going to improve the delivery in the rural areas, as we need to.
My Lords, in my earlier contribution I was not decrying what the Forestry Commission does, and I do not believe that the noble Lord has taken it that way. In fact, I am someone who walks in Dunwich forest and in many other areas. Our concern, which will presumably come up in Committee when we debate the matter in detail, is whether there was an overlap between the two causes. That is the area on which I could not go into further detail today—but I thank the noble Lord for his contribution.
My Lords, I shall limit my remarks to Part 6 of the Bill, which deals with the issue of rights of way. I certainly support the overall thrust of that part—as have all noble Lords who have spoken on the subject—and the way in which the Bill addresses the abuse of quiet rural unmade roads and tracks by motor vehicles, motor cycles and so forth. There is certainly a problem, and I agree that it needs to be addressed. But as ever with legislation, the law of unintended consequences has struck and struck hard.
The consequence of changes proposed in Section 47 of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act and in Part 6 of this Bill is that it will become an offence to drive to properties adjacent to restricted byways unless property owners have either acquired a prescriptive right to do so or have the benefit of a private right to drive over the restricted byway. I declare an interest in that my family owns a property in exactly that situation and have accessed the property for getting on for half a century without any objection. Indeed, the ownership of the track over which the property is accessed is lost in the mists of time. In the past, it was quite common for the sales of properties along RUPPs, which will soon be restricted byways, to be concluded notwithstanding the lack of either an express right of way over the RUPP or the existence of a prescriptive right of way, because it was not then an offence to drive over those roads. However, when the law changes such properties may be difficult to sell—and there have been some recent examples of that.
The problem is of some scale. In the district of Wokingham, in Berkshire, alone, the council estimates that there is £100 million-worth of property that could be so affected. That may say something about property values in Wokingham, of course, but if one extrapolates around the country one can say that perhaps some billions of pounds—or at least £1 billion—is affected. It is a serious, if narrow, problem. I understand that there are similar problems across the country; for example, in Hampshire and Oxfordshire, with more than 300 RUPPs behind them. That was clearly not the intention behind either the provisions in this Bill or the provisions in the CROW Act, and I understand that the Government are sympathetic to the case. When the CROW Act was drafted, Defra officials were clearly not aware of the issue.
I repeat that I support the overall objective behind this part of the legislation, but there is a serious problem here. I understand that the Government are sympathetic to the issue and that a commitment was made in another place that they would introduce an amendment of their own in this House, in response to the one tabled by my right honourable friend the Member for Bracknell. If the issue is not addressed, it would be a substantial injustice and would compound the rush to convert or reregister RUPPs as byways open to all traffic—so-called BOATs. That is not what any of us who have spoken in today's debate would want, but I suspect that is what will happen if it is the only alternative for people to guarantee access to their properties. But I hope that the Minister introduces an amendment and look forward to seeing it in due course.
My Lords, I ask for your Lordships' indulgence, particularly that of the Minister. I have a long-standing engagement that will make it impossible for me to attend his winding-up. This is a particular disappointment, in view of his intervention earlier on the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, but I hope he will not regard this as a discourtesy.
It is my lot to speak after my noble friend Lord Goschen solely on Part 6 of the Bill. Here I congratulate the Government on a refreshing and radical concept, which is to be warmly welcomed in the interests of protecting the environment. However, there are some lacunae in this part of the Bill, as my noble friend and others have noted, in particular my noble friend Lady Byford. I compliment the noble Lord, Lord Haworth, on his explicit exposition of the problems lying behind the issue of exemptions.
I contend that the tidiest way to give effect to the new Bill is to give no exemptions at all—the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, has made this abundantly and unequivocally clear—and for the Minister to confirm that all new claims will be dealt with under the new legislation. I find the words at Third Reading of the Minister in another place, Mr Jim Knight, encouraging. He said that,
"if there is the flood that we fear as a result of my announcement about commencement, I will seek to take as aggressive a stance as I possibly can from that legal advice on how outstanding claims are to be dealt with".—[Hansard, Commons, 11/10/05; col. 228.]
I was encouraged by the Minister's opening remarks, and I hope your Lordships will be further encouraged by his closing speech as a result of his intervention.
Evidence from the Green Lanes Protection Group suggests that BOAT claims made in the three weeks following Third Reading in another place totalled 183. That compared with 284 for the whole of 2005 up to that date, but with only 100 for the whole of 2003. These figures must be treated with caution for a number of reasons, not least that different authorities have differing procedures for dealing with incompletely submitted claims. Some are returned to claimants; others accepted conditionally. These figures, however, indicate an increasing trend, and there is evidence that a large number—in the Minister's words, "a flood"—of claims are being held pending clarification by the Government. This is borne out by the number of applications for claim forms that have been received by several authorities.
I am sure it is recognised in all parts of your Lordships' House that there are conflicts between users of MPVs on the one hand and conservators and landowners on the other. It will be the wish of the House that at least this part of the Bill is as consensual as it can be. I have made my views clear: there should be no exemptions. If the Minister finds it necessary to have a cut-off date, however, this does not amount to retrospection. I have had advice from counsel to the effect that terminating the procedure for recording a right under Part 3 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 does not of itself offend the presumption against retrospection. I hope the Minister will bear this in mind should he find it appropriate to fix a cut-off date.
To that end, I suggest two possible options. The first is that claims should be exempted where a DMMO has already been made by the highway authority but the process has for some reason not been completed. This has the clear attraction of exempting older cases where evidence has been considered and reliance placed, at least in procedural terms, on the existing law. But it would mean that exemption would not be granted in recent cases made after the notice of change in the law has been given, most of which claims will have been made to beat the clock.
The other, simpler option is that exemption should be granted for all claims made before
This part of the Bill is sensible and equitable. As it stands, its intentions are capable of being neutered. I am sure many of your Lordships will have seen a photograph, reputedly taken in the Yorkshire Dales, of a Land Rover buried almost up to its bonnet in slurry, with a queue of others behind it waiting to "enjoy the fun". This is the massacre of the ancient byways of England and Wales that this Bill is designed to protect, and I urge the Government in this respect not to fall at the last hurdle.
My Lords, sadly we have got used to thinking that the present Government have little interest in, or concern for, the environment, the countryside and the people who live it, and the landscape in what is left of our green and pleasant land. A few days ago I saw a report that two government agencies, the Countryside Agency and English Nature, had denounced Mr Prescott's plan to build half a million new houses in the south-east of England as "environmental vandalism". Under his plans, houses are to be built on flood plains and in environmentally sensitive locations. There are to be 67 new road schemes, concreting over much of the south and south-west.
All this is against the background of a prolonged crisis in farming, when dairy farmers can no longer get a price for milk that covers their cost, supermarkets prefer to buy cheap Brazilian beef instead of high-quality British beef, and Deloitte's annual survey of farm incomes says that the only rational response for farmers to present prices should be to get out of producing food. If farming as we know it is to remain unprofitable, the role of farmers in looking after the countryside will be lost, causing a huge deterioration of the countryside, which will be a devastating loss to each and every one of us.
After all this, it was a rare pleasure to come across this Bill, and to find it contained so much that could be warmly welcomed. It was introduced with a persuasive speech by the Minister this afternoon. I was particularly glad to see that it has been welcomed by leading NGOs dedicated to wildlife and the environment: Wildlife Link, of which I once had the honour to be chairman; the RSPB, on whose council I once sat; the Wildlife Trust, with which I am associated as president of one of the smallest of their trusts, that for Radnorshire; the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England; and a number of others. Natural England, despite its odd and not very satisfactory title, on which I agree with Lord Carter, needs to be a tough, effective force. If it is, it could be valuable.
Defra is to be congratulated on arranging for the draft Bill to be scrutinised by a Commons committee, which produced an admirable, detailed report. I read it and the Government's response, which accepted most of the committee's recommendations, with much interest. Most of the environmental NGOs gave evidence to this committee, and I have read their latest briefing notes, which are helpful. There are still one or two unresolved points, though, on which the Commons committee and most NGOs are agreed but the Government are as yet unpersuaded. It is these points on which we should concentrate when we come to the Committee and Report stages.
Looking at the Government's response, I found that three of the principal recommendations—including one on the level of independence and one on flexible delivery—received a positive response from the Government, on pages 20 and 23. A number of important recommendations, however, received a negative response, particularly those on conflict resolution, regarding what happens when environmental and other considerations—for example, access—come into conflict; on the question of a role for protecting the landscape; on quiet recreation; and on future environmental charging.
Two of those points are important. Conflict resolution is desirable, but needs to be addressed only in the last resort. It should not come up every day. There are, however, situations in which there is no agreement between the environmental imperative and the economic—or, conceivably, social—argument on the other side. In those circumstances, it should be laid down in the Bill that the environmental consideration should prevail.
On the question of protecting landscape, it has been pointed out that there is provision in the Bill for biodiversity to be protected but not landscape. If that is left in the Bill as such, it will send a signal to everyone outside that Parliament is less interested in the landscape than in biodiversity. That would be wrong and misleading. The arguments put forward by the committee and by a number of NGOs that the word "protect" should be used for landscape should be adopted primarily for that reason.
On the question of quiet recreation, I have heard the Government's arguments, which I understand, but I am sure that some other form of words could be devised, perhaps at the next stage, that would cover that point.
There are one or two smaller points. It is, I think, important that there should be a duty in the Bill on the Secretary of State to deal with the question of non-native species that have a devastating effect on our own biodiversity; creatures such as the mink or the signal crayfish come to mind. It must be possible for the Government to take effective action to stop them coming in and spreading. The CPRE has also raised the question of the lack of any provision in the Bill for protecting and enhancing the extent and quality of the countryside, which it thinks is possibly an oversight in the drafting of the legislation. So it argues, and I think that it is right, that,
"the acknowledgement of the countryside as a source of open-air recreation in the Bill is matched with a recognition of the importance of retaining its extent and quality".
On rights of way, I agree very much with the points that have been made very powerfully in the House on the need for urgent action to stop the spread of BOATs by a recreational minority who are more interested in the challenge of driving 4x4s over soft ground on old green lanes than anything else, which is doing immense damage. I look forward eagerly to hearing what the Minister has to say about that. The noble Lord, Lord Haworth, spoke very eloquently about the issue and I agree with everything that he said. The need is for action to be taken quickly before things get out of hand.
One of the factors that is really effective in preserving the landscape is land ownership. It is the most effective way in which the interests that we all have at heart can be protected. Perhaps the greatest single example of what has been done is the work of the National Trust in the Lake District, where the acquisition of land begun at the turn of the century by Canon Rawnsley and Beatrix Potter has now resulted in the trust owning or leasing nearly all the central area of fells and major valley heads, six of the main lakes and much of their shorelines—140,000 acres in all, with 87 farms, 15 of them bequeathed to the trust by Beatrix Potter. If it had not been for this magnificent effort by a private voluntary organisation, the Lake District would undoubtedly now be ruined by commercial development.
Public bodies which own or manage land can very often do something effective in that degree. For example, the Wildlife Trusts has pointed out that the Prison Service has carried out surveys and produced its own biodiversity action plan because a lot of the land surrounding prisons has a wealth of wildlife. It has produced this biodiversity action plan with the help of English Nature and the Wildlife Trusts. That seems to me thoroughly commendable. There is obviously a need for the new organisation to work very closely with farmers and other land managers. That, I am sure, it will do.
My Lords, like most landowners and caretakers I have been a client of numerous government agencies, not only complying with their aims but also receiving funds to help achieve them—an experience not always to be recommended. Like other noble Lords I welcome the establishment of Natural England—NE—and its aims of managing and enhancing the natural environment from seabed to mountaintop, more efficiently and with lower costs, we hope. There has long been too much overlap between English Nature, the Countryside Agency, the Forestry Commission and the Rural Development Service. Consolidation will provide a simpler interface for the clients and a clear list of objectives. Most important are the promotion of natural conservation and protection of biodiversity, the improvement of facilities for studying and enjoying nature, the promotion of sustainable use of the countryside through access and recreation, and the contribution to economic well-being through the management of the natural environment—at less cost to the taxpayer and client, one hopes, than has been the case recently. However, there are three points that I should like to raise.
First, there is currently no recourse in the Bill to arbitration should a landowner or caretaker disagree with the remit of NE. Given that many such disagreements could easily be resolved through arbitration, it would seem economically and practically prudent to put such a system in place rather than forcing every such challenge to be addressed directly to the Secretary of State, a complex procedure that is not available to many owing to the cost.
Secondly, it is important that landowners be given some flexibility in carrying out the wishes of NE while accepting the need to conform to the aims and directions of NE. Too heavy a hand in the minutiae of execution is rarely productive. In short, while NE should set the aim, the client should be allowed to achieve the aim in his own way. Clients usually have great experience in their field and derive much enjoyment from the challenges of management. Indeed, as the noble Lord, Lord Carter, said, most of our countryside is man made. The maker is surely well qualified to manage it.
Finally, the NERC Bill fails to clarify whether enhancing or conserving the environment should be considered the priority. Indeed, what is the definition of "enhancing" and "conserving"? I am sure there will be a discussion—a little discussion—in Committee. Likewise, there is some ambiguity about whether wildlife or human access to the countryside should take precedence. The Woodland Trust and the CPRE are among others that would like to see a conflict resolution clause that makes it clear that when there is a serious or irreconcilable conflict between open-air recreation and conserving the natural environment, NE will give the greater weight to conserving the natural environment. I listened earlier to the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, articulate similar views. On the other hand, the Central Council of Physical Recreation believes that,
"access and recreation [should] . . . be given equal consideration as conservation and biodiversity".
I therefore believe that the Bill would be the better for clarification in this important area.
My Lords, in view of the fact that the Minister said that prior to the election I was responsible for the Bill, it will come as no great surprise to your Lordships to hear that I strongly support it. In so far as it has been changed since I relinquished responsibility for it, it has been vastly improved.
Much has been said already about the Bill and I do not intend to repeat much of it. However, I wish to make two points that I do not think have been made, certainly not while I was in the Chamber or watching the debate on the monitor. First, as a former waterways Minister, I very much welcome the establishment of the independent waterways council. Waterways are a very important feature of our rural and, indeed, urban landscape and their contribution to recreation and biodiversity is very important. Secondly, I also welcome the contingency powers to implement recommendations arising from the review of the agricultural levy boards. I am at one with the NFU and the farmers' organisations that we need to update the whole role of the levy boards in an era when we are moving to single farm payments and a more homogenous approach to farming more generally.
As regards the main provisions of the Bill, I believe that generally there has been a huge welcome for the creation of Natural England, with the rather important caveat of doubt about its title. I was not personally responsible for the title. It was subject to a competition among the staff and others during the early period of discussion and consultation. It rather reminds me of when I was a trades union officer and we had to change the rather old-fashioned name of the National Union of General and Municipal Workers. We had 100,000 replies with the consensus being that it should be called the General and Municipal Workers Union. To some extent, the name Natural England has a slight problem for the reasons given by my noble friend Lord Carter and others, whereas "nature" is a slightly wider term. Nevertheless, any changes that need to be made to the name will have to be consequent on the body's activities and on the passage of the Bill.
I believe that everything else in the Bill has largely been welcomed. One of the reasons it has been welcomed is the very substantial constructive engagement not only of the staff, boards and chairs of the agencies involved—I wish particularly to put on record our thanks to Sir Martin Doughty and my congratulations on his appointment—but of stakeholders more widely, the Environment Agency, the Forestry Commission and the staff of the parts of Defra which are being passed on to the new organisation. Those efforts and that constructive approach in a period of difficult and anxiety-inducing change have greatly improved the provisions which are now reflected in the Bill.
There seems to be a wide consensus on the overall intentions and objectives of the new agency although there has been some argument about its general purpose. The drafting of the relevant clauses was subject to considerable consultation and ingenuity. They may not be absolutely perfect but they reflect a better balance than is now being urged by some. On the one hand, those who say that we should give equal weight to economic and social objectives in sustainable development miss the central point that this is essentially an environmental agency. While it has to recognise that it has social and economic outputs—I hope that those will be positive—the central role of the agency will be environmental. On the other hand, I do not accept the argument put by some of the environmental lobby groups that the references to social and economic outputs should not be included at all and that the body should be seen purely as an environmental organisation. In fact, the role of sustainable development constitutes a wider philosophical and political argument but we need a balance here—it is primarily environmental but it must pay attention to the social and economic implications for the countryside of its aim of protecting biodiversity and the landscape.
The noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, alluded to the importance of the new agency working very closely with the Environment Agency. That is particularly important in the areas which will become of increasing significance in the countryside as we move more resources of the agri-environment schemes into Pillar 2 of the CAP, to which she referred. I refer also in that regard to the management of water in our countryside. The catchment areas and their effect on farming, agricultural practice and the quality of water will become increasingly important and have a significant effect on biodiversity and, indeed, in some instances on the landscape itself. That requires all the agencies to co-operate, and to co-operate with the farming community, to ensure that we achieve the objectives of adequate quantity and quality of water without having a negative impact on wildlife.
The more controversial area concerns the role of the CRC. I am almost entirely at one with the views of the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, on that matter. I do not understand the position of noble Lords who have indicated that because the protection of rural communities is such an important issue somehow we should not have a CRC as proposed in the Bill. The logic of that escapes me. The noble Lord, Lord Cameron, is right to say that the Countryside Agency in its previous incarnation as a delivery body was partly hamstrung by the fact that it was a delivery body and had to deliver through its rather limited resources in conjunction with other bodies while at the same time performing a cross-government role on rural proofing, rural advice and rural advocacy. I support the removal of those delivery obligations and the creation of a stronger countryside representative body, arguing across government. People argue that this is Defra's responsibility but the whole point of the CRC is that it will be an organisation influencing all areas of government which affect rural communities.
There are huge social and economic problems in many of our rural areas. We have established a separate commission responsible for affordable housing. However, there are other social problems of great significance in rural areas, not least of which is the problem of inequality in income and wealth and access to services such as transport, education and health. Therefore, it is important to have a CRC that is sufficiently independent and cross-government and operates at regional, local and national level to ensure that all policies are assessed in terms of their impact on rural communities in England. There is a very strong case for having a CRC as proposed in the Bill. It must be strong and independent and its membership must have a broad vision regarding the future of our countryside.
However, I acknowledge that there are caveats. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, and others, I should have liked to see a slightly bigger role for local government. However, I suspect that is not a matter for this legislation; it is a matter for the broader policy which surrounds it and which I believe will deliver a better future for our countryside not only through its rationalisation of the agencies but also through better co-operation between those agencies, local government and the RDAs and other rural and regional instruments of policy. I greatly welcome the Bill. I wish it God speed through this House although I suspect that we shall have substantial discussions in Committee. I wish it well.
My Lords, as deputy president of the Countryside Alliance, I consider that this Bill is a distraction from the real issues facing the countryside today. I am certain that the Minister recognises it—he knows much too much about the rural community—but he has been landed with this Bill, which is nothing more than a new layer of bureaucracy.
Does the Bill deal with the devastation of the countryside by wind farms? They produce very little electricity and when sited offshore cost more per unit than nuclear power stations, as was made perfectly clear in our debate last week. Does the Bill deal with the fact that every local newspaper is full of advertisements for new agricultural machinery because farmers are now contracting out their cultivations in the hope of trying to survive? Does the Bill deal with the squeeze that supermarkets are having on farm prices, the removal of subsidies and the ever-increasing red tape made worse by this Bill?
Does the appointment of Sir Martin Doughty achieve anything? He has refused to meet or listen to the Countryside Alliance, which is a major player in the countryside today. We should spare a thought also for the rural community as a whole. It and the family farm are fast disappearing.
Natural England would provide a single focus for those who manage and protect our countryside and green spaces. It will only be effective if it incorporates all dimensions of land management. We need a proper balance between social, economic and environmental priorities. The Bill offers greater protection to wildlife, but not in the right way. It does so by increased penalties, which is not the way to go. We have had a compromise reached on cormorants nesting inland. We have come to an agreement about the culling of Canada geese. We have to reach an agreement about hen harriers—some form of translocation. The economic and social consequences of an increase in the harrier population are unacceptable. The Bill concentrates on compliance rather than making a commitment to work with local land management committees. This is contrary to the Government's commitment to work with local communities to attain sustainable development.
I am, as others were, particularly concerned about Part 6 dealing with rights of way, which seems to have been tacked on to the Bill without proper consultation. If a path has been freely used by the public for 20 years, it becomes a right of way. That can only be stopped if a legal procedure is followed. The issue of rights of way for mechanically powered vehicles has caused considerable trouble over the years. That is because of the status of the path and partly because of the increasingly powerful vehicles, which have a disruptive effect that is much more than was originally envisaged. Clause 61 would prevent a new right of way for mechanically propelled vehicles being created.
There are many complex issues in the Bill, and its impact could be fatally compromised by trying to do too much. Will it make a difference in protecting and delivering for wildlife, landscaping and ensuring a better way of life in rural communities? I doubt it very much; it is another layer of bureaucracy that will achieve very little.
My Lords, it is now several hours since my noble friend Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer said that she was looking forward to the speeches in the debate. While that was chronologically a true statement, it was also an accurate statement in terms of the quality of the debate that we have had. In particular, we are grateful to the Minister for his clear and interesting—these matters are not always interesting—exposition of the Bill. We were privileged to hear the maiden speech from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Exeter, who has such important local knowledge of his own part of the country, which is at the opposite end of England to mine, and we look forward to hearing further contributions from him, I hope, on the remaining stages of the Bill.
I cannot continue without commenting on the speech made by the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, who in his new role of gamekeeper-turned-poacher—a very friendly poacher—showed that he has lost none of his knowledge and expertise in this matter. Again, we are privileged that he considers it important enough to come back and share his knowledge and experience, despite the fact that he no longer sits on the Front Bench.
The previous Bill on which I spoke at Second Reading was the Commons Bill, when I welcomed the Minister to the interesting experience of a Defra Bill in this House. The fact that he now has two Bills on the go at once suggests that he has a dedication beyond the normal and reasonable call of duty, and we hope that he bears up under the strain.
My noble friend said that we welcomed the move to improve the natural environment, and of course we do, but we have some concerns about the Bill. We have to start off by asking, "Is it right in principle?"; "Is it sensible in practice in general?"; and, "Will it actually work?". The matters that the Bill covers are, by and large, right in principle. We have some concerns about the way in which it is proposed to deliver the provisions, particularly, as has been discussed, on the proposed CRC. We will have to discuss in considerable detail in Committee whether it will work. That is what we are there for.
An overall concern, which was alluded to by the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Norwich, is what some people have called the Government's "re-organisation mania". Re-organisation is not always bad, and the re-organisation into Natural England makes a great deal of sense. However, there is a sense that the Government have the view that they must reform—"reform" is the word of the day—and that they do so simply by re-organising the deckchairs. I am not by any means suggesting that Defra and its associated quangos resemble the "Titanic", but there is a sense that, to quote the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, the chaos engendered by that process is counterproductive if you do too much of it. There is an obsession with permanent change that causes us a great deal of concern. We would certainly go along with the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Norwich in his plea that when these changes have taken place they are given a considerable amount of time to settle down and to work in practice over a large number of years. We do not want people coming back in another four or five years wanting to throw it all up in the air again and see where it lands.
My noble friend, who expressed concerns relating to Chapter 2 of Part 1 on the CRC, said that we were looking for—this is an apt metaphor—a grass-roots-upwards rural policy. There is a feeling that the quango structure that is proposed is top-down. In the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, we have to consider carefully in Committee whether it will take away more accountability from locally elected lay representatives. The noble Lord, Lord Carter, asked why we are against what is being proposed. It is really down to a view of the nature of democracy and the nature of public policy-making and public administration in a democracy. It seems to us that a more grass-roots-upwards approach—a more democratic approach—is required, rather than the top-down approach that is being put forward. That is not to say that the top-down approach will not work in practice; it may work and if it comes about we will do whatever we can to help.
Various noble Lords have discussed the rather strange title, "Natural England". We are told that it was the result of a competition among the staff. That is an argument against naming new quangos in that way, because it is always likely to come up with something odd. It is an odd name, although no one has yet suggested a different one. Perhaps someone will suggest one before we table amendments in Committee. It is the kind of title that the Government seem to like, which half means what it says but is not very clear about it.
At least it is fairly clear what the Commission for Rural Communities is about; it is a name that people will understand and remember. The noble Earl, Lord Peel, suggested that "Natural England" was naff. That reminded me of the old slogan that people used to wave: "MAFF is naff". It was generally thought that that was why the department was called Defra instead of MAFF when it was reorganised. The noble Lord, Lord Rotherwick, wants to call the body NE. I am not sure that that is a sensible idea. If it is to be called Natural England, let us call it Natural England, and not call it NE, which seems naffer than ever. It will all come out in the wash.
One concern is the term "natural environment". As a number of noble Lords have pointed out, very few environments in these islands are genuinely natural once you get outside the marine dimension—it was mentioned by the noble Baroness—in which some are arguably natural. Perhaps the summit plateaus of the Cairngorms are more or less in the condition in which they would be if there were no human beings on this island, but there are few others. "Natural environment" is not defined in the Bill, which simply assumes that we know what it means. I suspect that it is not defined because, if the Government tried to do so, they would get into all kinds of difficulties. We are really talking about vegetation and wildlife, but also about landscape. It is therefore a fairly vague term.
The general purpose of Natural England and the five provisions set out in Clause 2(2) seem fairly sensible. They are sufficiently general not to require a detailed debate on which purposes should be superior and inferior. If we start getting into that debate, we will start to get into difficulty. They are sufficiently general that they can be applied in a sensible way to provide the necessary balance in particular circumstances, locations, pieces of land or local environments. I was a little alarmed when the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, started trying to put access on one hand against the environment on the other. There are enough safeguards in existing legislation, notably in the Countryside and Rights of Way Act, to resolve those problems when they occur in particular circumstances. In one or two things that she said, she mixed up fairly low-level access—ramblers, climbers and people like that—with dramatic development, ruining the view and all the rest of it. We have to avoid getting too carried away with that, although I suspect that, in almost all circumstances, if she and I got together to resolve a situation on the ground, we would do so quite happily. There is not a great deal between us, and we should avoid trying to build up an ideological dispute on the subject when there really is not one.
A number of noble Lords talked about the changes in the common agricultural policy and agri-environment schemes. I thought that I knew how the new system would work until I heard various noble Lords with different interpretations of it. Perhaps the Minister can help on exactly which of the Defra functions—the Rural Development Service, agri-environment schemes and so on—will be transferred to Natural England, and which will remain with Defra. We may need to go into that in rather more detail in Committee, so that we understand how the new system will work and, if we think it is wrong, we can say so and try to change the Government's mind.
I was going to say a great deal about the Commission for Rural Communities, but it is probably best if I save that until Committee. There is clearly a lot to be said in Committee about Part 6 and rights of way; my noble friend Lord Bradshaw will lead on that so far as we are concerned, but that is another part of the Bill that we have to understand, get right, and make the necessary changes to. We look forward to the new government proposals on that.
The only other question on which I want to comment is that of flexible administrative arrangements, agreements with designated bodies and the whole of Part 8, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, and the noble Lord, Lord Plumb, referred. Part 8 seems to be a recipe for the Government—together with their friendly quangos—being able to do what they want in the area how they want, without coming to Parliament and without anyone apart from them agreeing to it. That is how it reads. The Minister is shaking his head; again, we look forward with some interest to the debates on that in Committee.
This is an important Bill. It is a very technical Bill in many ways, but it raises considerable issues of important public policy. We understand that the Government have not yet decided whether they will take it on the Floor of the House or in Grand Committee; the Liberal Democrat Benches would be very strongly of the view that we ought to take it in a Committee of the whole House, given its importance, its range of issues, and the public interest in it. No doubt appropriate discussions will take place between the usual channels in due course about that. Having said that, we give the Bill a broad welcome—parts of it with great enthusiasm, and parts of it with reservations. We look forward very much to the Minister's reply and to discussions in Committee.
My Lords, this has been a most interesting and wide-ranging debate. We have benefited a great deal from the expertise shown. In particular, I congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Exeter. With his maiden speech, he showed us the depth of his understanding and drew on his wide experience of rural matters. We very much look forward to hearing him again. The Bishops' Benches have always contributed in a way that we find worth listening to carefully because of the experience and expertise that the bishops bring to us. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Norwich also gave us some useful information and views about the Bill and how it should go forward.
I began to wonder whether we should congratulate the Minister on having his brief expanded to include rural affairs. The noble Lord, Lord Carter, worried that we on these Benches did not entirely support the idea of the rural advocate, but we had been worried that there was no Minister in this House to do with rural affairs. These things will all be settled in due course.
The Bill contains much of interest to me, both as a land manager and as a student of our devolution settlement. I get the feeling that my understanding of those concepts as it is now will not remain the same when we have finished with the Bill. I was grateful to my noble friend Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville for expressing his admiration for some items in Scottish legislation on nature conservancy, but the ambition of this Government when they set out to tackle such problems never ceases to amaze me. Once bold ideas are reduced to words in legislation, the outcome usually fills me and many others with a bit of disappointment.
By way of declaring my interests, I should say that I live in a recognisably beautiful part of the country. It has never been a particularly rich or productive part, and presumably my ancestors recognised that when they bought into it 300 years ago. They looked after it in ways that suited their intentions and, as a result, there are numerous ways in which I have to declare my interest in parts of the Bill—particularly when I have figured out which ones apply to Scotland. The land that was formerly our estate has been designated a national park and an area of outstanding natural beauty. I am still the owner of a national nature reserve that borders on a Ramsar site. I manage three additional SSSIs, one SPA, one SPC—the House must forgive me for using all the acronyms; it is probably easiest—and a designated landscape, all in an area in Scottish terms that is fairly small and limited.
That reflects an aspect which was well drawn to our attention by my noble friend Lord Peel and which is in danger of being overlooked in the framework proposed by the Government—that is, given a chance to exercise their own initiative, individuals are readily interested in looking after their environment, and they are prepared to put money into it provided that they are allowed to earn and keep a sufficient amount.
Perhaps one of the tussles that the Government are currently having with their Back-Benchers should not be lost on the House. As I understand it, after having been determined that all education should be directed and, if necessary, funded by government, they are now putting forward the idea that certain areas can be improved by enlisting the initiative of those who would like to put their personal money into education.
In so far as the Bill is concerned almost entirely with environmental aspects of land management, that puts me firmly in the picture. I also participate as a farmer in environmental schemes related to the single farm payment, and those will no doubt form an important part of the delivery that is intended. But I ask whether enforcement, as allowed for under the Bill, in order to ensure compliance is really the way to achieve the variety and diversity for which this country is renowned.
Reinforcing the point that I made earlier about the role of individuals, the Countryside Alliance voiced a useful criticism in its brief with regard to Clause 2 of the Bill, detailing the general purposes intended for Natural England. That fails to single out the fact that the economic contribution of the land may have a marked effect on the environment as well as on the sustainability, and that should receive adequate recognition.
We have just come through the 50 post-war years when Europe has squeezed agriculture economically and the route offered for survival has been to increase production and increase the claims on government subsidy. Now, as the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, mentioned, the mid-term review has dramatically altered that. Production subsidies are in the past. Now, farmers can increase production but that will tend to be with the risk of being penalised if they exceed cross-compliance criteria, and the only government assistance that will be paid will be for the delivery of environmental benefits. That is a huge change of emphasis.
Just last week, I experienced my first cross-compliance and second British Cattle Movement Service check within one year. The inspector's pro forma for good farming practice ran to 10 pages and the cross-compliance criteria took 20. That is for a herd of 109 cows and their youngstock. For the BCMS, we had to check their passports, their dam's identity and the identity of every animal that has moved on to the farm since 1990, and, finally, the inspector required someone to hang on to each cow's head while he checked the ear number. With every ear number being composed of 14 digits, I reckon that by the end of the day we had checked 29,000 digits, and I hope we got them right. There was the added confusion that one cow went missing in the summer—probably in a flood—and it was only by a process of elimination that we could be certain which one it was.
The noble Lord, Lord Plumb, was concerned about what the countryside can afford in all these schemes that are being dreamt up. One hears of wonderful statistical gymnastics relating to the fact that the common agricultural policy takes 43 per cent of the Community budget and that that supports only 4 per cent of the working population. Only with considerable difficulty did I unearth the fact that the money that British agriculture received from Brussels in recent years was 0.57 per cent of the total United Kingdom government expenditure, to which the UK added 0.13 per cent from Treasury coffers to give a grand total of 0.7 per cent. I simply warn the noble Baroness, Lady Young, that, if she wishes to raid this rather generous pot, she will obviously have a hard job to see what she can get out of it.
The farming industry in my part of the country is still trying to fathom the meaning of the new support structure for their individual businesses. What was threatened during the summer as a possible exodus of farming from the hills has not materialised, and most are sitting tight while they try to figure out what to do. My general impression is that much of what the Bill sets out to achieve in terms of the environment will come about under this new economic regime without many of the more draconian provisions that the Bill contains.
Like my noble friend Lord Dixon-Smith, I think that in Committee we shall want to explore in a little more detail what the Government see as the areas in which Natural England will expect to charge for its advice. What is the meaning of "licences" mentioned in Clause 11? When drawing up a management agreement for an SSSI, will the time spent by its staff be regarded as advice given? Similarly, when a request is made for carrying out listed operations on that same SSSI, will the granting of the approval come under the heading of advice? It will be rather strange if, in one case, it becomes the source of the advice for setting up the agreements and, at the same time, is the body to which the scheme is submitted for approval.
As other noble Lords have mentioned, Clause 43 is another area where we would like to see a little more information about the Government's thinking on the level of pesticides that will be on the Secretary of State's list. Can the Minister give us any details of those? There would appear to be every chance that the Minister will list every chemical that could conceivably be a poison and then leave it to those who possess them to know under which of the pesticide Acts they can argue for their legitimacy. I can only think that there would be a great howl of dismay from gardeners if methiocarb appeared on that list, as they would be left having to rely on using up their beer supplies to top up traps made of jam jars, and so on, when they catch slugs.
Like my noble friend Lady Byford, I should like to ask the Minister what thought has been given to possible conflicts of opinion between the two new organisations that are proposed and how they will be resolved. The Commission for Rural Communities will obviously be giving advice to the Secretary of State, who presumably comes under the heading of "a relevant person", and, from discussions in the other place, I see that the Minister was allowing that the rural advocate would speak directly to the Prime Minister. But that will merely relate to the social and economic needs of persons in rural areas. At that rate, the commission will presumably regard itself as having authority not just equal to but perhaps greater than that of Natural England. When the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, talked about the efforts to achieve a proper title for the body that was being set up, I wondered whether some wag thought that Natural England conjured up views of a large bunch of people running about covered with nothing else than a liberal coating of woad.
Natural England has a whole clause laying out to whom it is likely to be required to give advice, but there is no mention of government or Ministers, although presumably that is whence its authority emanates.
Social and economic well-being is only one of the five purposes of this body, and so it is almost bound to view things from a different perspective. It is therefore proposed, as my noble friend Lord Rotherwick suggested, that any and all differences will fall to be resolved by the Minister. If so, will she be required to inform Natural England if its advice has been rejected, as provided under Clause 5(3)?
Like many speakers in the debate, we welcome considerable parts of the Bill but we have severe concerns over certain aspects of it. We look forward to being able to raise our worries, particularly on the Floor of the House.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this excellent Second Reading debate. The fantastic expertise in the House on this issue has been mentioned and well illustrated during the debate. I, too, draw particular reference to the speech of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Exeter. We all listened to his maiden speech with great interest because he spoke with real expertise on the subject before us today.
Looking at his curriculum vitae, it is clear that he has spent a number of years in Warwickshire, the county next door to the one in which I live. It happens, unfortunately for it, to be in the west Midlands rather than the east Midlands, but is still a beautiful county where agriculture plays an important part in people's everyday lives. We all enjoyed his speech and look forward to hearing from him on many occasions.
My Lords, that makes me even more convinced that it was tongue in cheek. It seemed to take the attention of other noble Lords, however. I can confirm that the name "Natural England" was proposed by the chairmen of the three predecessor bodies, following consultation with staff and stakeholders. The problem with his alternative, "the commission for rural environment" raises quite an important point which has already been mentioned. Natural England's remit will cover rural, urban and coastal areas from seabed to mountaintop. It will be empowered to take an integrated landscape-scale approach to sustainable environmental management. So "the commission for rural environment" will not do, but I advise him against putting down an amendment to call it "Unnatural England".
The noble Earl, Lord Selborne, mentioned the Marine Bill. We very much agree with what he said on that, and it is our intention, everything else being normal, that we will have such a Bill before Parliament in the next Session. Of course, he knows that that is not a guarantee, but it is our intention.
The Natural Environment and Rural Communities Bill is the foundation for our plans to achieve the agenda set out in the rural strategy and the rural manifesto. It will provide the legislative framework to help us realise our vision of thriving rural communities, fair access to services for all in the countryside and rich, diverse landscapes managed and enhanced for current and future generations.
I was delighted that there seems to have been general support in this House this afternoon for an important Bill. It has not been universal, and, of course, all the support had some reservations, as it no doubt should. I do not think anyone listening to this debate, however, could say that there was anything other than general support for the Bill. It will benefit rural businesses, rural people and people enjoying the countryside and the coast, with Natural England providing a single co-ordinated approach to access and nature. It will benefit the environment through better sustainable management. Last but not least, it will benefit the taxpayer, with more efficient and effective administration. Implementing the change programme as a whole will save roughly £21 million each year by 2009–10, and more beyond.
The Bill will provide a flexible delivery framework that is both fit for purpose today and able to evolve. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Norwich wanted this Bill and the organisations to stand for some time. That is our clear intention. We will not be revisiting this year on year. Rather, we want these organisations to stand the test of time. If they do not, of course, any government will have to come back and mend the situation, but that is our intent.
Of course, I recognise from the debate today that there are areas of the Bill that noble Lords will want to give very close scrutiny indeed. I look forward to discussing these in closer detail in Committee. In the available time, I shall now address some of the points made during the debate. No doubt time will prevent me from covering everything.
The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, wanted to know why there was so much in Schedule 11, with all these minor consequences. The reason is simple. The large number of minor, inconsequential amendments contained in that schedule is needed to substitute references to English Nature, nature conservation councils and the Countryside Agency by references to Natural England. We have taken the valuable opportunity, with this important Bill, to tidy up the statue book. The department has assisted the House with reproducing the changes within the five main Acts of Parliament, by placing the Acts as amended by this Bill—a document known to noble Lords as a Keeling schedule—in the House Library.
The noble Baroness asked when noble Lords will have copies of the review of levy boards. The noble Baroness and her colleagues on the Liberal Democrat Front Benches will be invited to the event on Friday, when Rosemary Radcliffe will announce her report. I hope that copies will be available for all noble Lords in the usual way, either on Friday in the House or on Monday next week.
I was asked about the Forestry Commission not being included in Natural England. We have heard today about the excellent work done by the Forestry Commission from its chairman, the noble Lord, Lord Clark of Windermere. We thought carefully about that recommendation. We thought that incorporating the functions of the Forestry Commission, a body with a very wide range of responsibilities across Great Britain, as we have heard, including managing the public forests estate, would have added a further level of complexity and risk. So we decided not to take that course.
Why did we not get rid of the Countryside Agency, as recommended by the noble Lord, Lord Haskins? The noble Lord's criticism of the Countryside Agency was that it was unwieldy, poorly focused and expensive. That no doubt reflected widespread feeling at the time of the review. The Government's decision to establish the CRC to take and build on some of the agency's functions, however, is a bold measure that will address the needs of rural communities and those who live and work in them. There is a role for a strong and independent rural advocate to advise on issues affecting rural communities. Therefore, the Commission for Rural Communities will be a small, expert body, to provide strong, independent and impartial advice to the Government, and act as a watchdog.
I was asked why the Environment Agency was outside the remit of the review of rural delivery of the noble Lord, Lord Haskins. It was not. The noble Lord's terms of reference were very wide, relating to delivery arrangements for Defra's rural policies in the round. They included, in Annex 9, looking at the activities of the Environment Agency in so far as their work relates to the delivery of Defra's rural policies. Recommendation 17 of the review relates to the Environment Agency and the relationship it will have with Natural England.
How will English Nature's independence be preserved? This is an important issue, raised by many noble Lords, starting with the noble Baroness, Lady Byford. I repeat what I said earlier: Natural England will be no less independent than its predecessor bodies. However, like its predecessors, as an appointed rather than elected body, Ministers remain accountable to Parliament for Natural England's effective and efficient use of public money. Directions provide an important part of this chain of accountability. There is nothing new here. In fact, the briefing issued by the bodies that will make up Natural England is quite illuminating. They welcome the reassurance given in Clauses 15 and/or 16 by the requirement to consult the transparency of publication and specificity of the obligations set out therein. They say that these reassurances are, if anything, greater than those currently applying to English Nature and the Countryside Agency, which have never been accused of lacking independence, and have a strong track record of influential policy advice.
Why are the RDAs not part of Schedule 7, or in the Bill? The Secretary of State may delegate functions to regional development agencies under Section 6 of the Regional Development Agencies Act 1998. It is already in legislation.
The noble Earl, Lord Selborne, raised important points—as did other noble Lords—about the CRC. He said that we know what the real issues are, and that what we need is a delivery body which will focus on championing best practice, not a talking shop.
The CRC needs research powers to be able to undertake its functions of representation, advice and monitoring. It needs to be able to investigate particular issues affecting rural people so that its pronouncements are evidence-based and objective. I remind noble Lords what the Secretary of State said in her first response to the Haskins report. She pledged that the CRC would be,
"reporting on best practice in the delivery of the Government's rural policies".
The CRC will need to inform and engender debate, but that is not a talking-shop role; it is about exercising influence and applying its knowledge and expertise. I was grateful for the quite wide support for the CRC from all sides of the House, including the noble Earl, Lord Peel, the right reverend Prelates, the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, of course, and others.
The noble Baroness, Lady Miller, asked why the CRC, not local authorities, would have responsibility for rural policy and delivery. In acting as an advocate for rural communities, the CRC will seek to establish a national position that, frankly, would be beyond any individual local authority, and will have a single-minded focus on rural matters. It will need to challenge local authorities as deliverers of those services and to work with local partners to draw on their specific experience and expertise as appropriate. We do not think that that function could be easily picked up by local authorities.
My Lords, I hope that it is brief because I want to finish within 20 minutes.
My Lords, I understand the noble Baroness's point.
My noble friend Lord Carter asked, without the CRC, who would monitor the rural-proofing activities of Defra, other government departments and local authorities. We agree with him: who else would do it?
I have already spoken on costs but I will write to the noble Baroness with more detail. The noble Baroness, Lady Young, raised an important debate about conflict resolution, and other noble Lords joined in. Earlier I said that I wanted Natural England to be a trenchant champion of the environment. I hope that noble Lords will find it reassuring that the Sandford principle will continue to apply in national parks and that in nature reserves and sites of special scientific interest the strong presumption that biodiversity considerations take precedence will continue. That is vital in those important areas, where the value of local biodiversity and landscape has been clearly identified through due process.
However, Natural England's remit extends outside those areas to cover England's entire land mass. The general purpose gives Natural England the role of ensuring that the natural environment is conserved, enhanced and managed for the benefit of present and future generations. No one reading that purpose can doubt that Natural England is an environmental organisation. Natural England's decision-making context will be sustainable development. Through its environmental work, Natural England will actively seek economic and social benefits. In response to the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, our aim is not to restrict the membership of Natural England to a narrow group of interests. I know that that matter concerns him.
I told noble Lords that I would say something about byways, and I hope that noble Lords will forgive me if I spend the rest of my time bringing them up to date with information that came to me after my opening speech. I said that I hoped shortly to be able to make an announcement on commencement of the rights of way provisions and how we intend to deal with outstanding claims for byways open to all traffic. I am pleased to say that we have completed our deliberations and to make the following announcement. We propose to commence the provisions at the date of Royal Assent. We intend to deal with any claims for byways open to all traffic submitted to local authorities before the commencement date as follows. Our aim is to prevent local authorities being inundated with byway claims to defeat the legislation. However, we must also take into account that there are byway claims outstanding simply because it takes an appreciable amount of time to process them. Also many have been outstanding for some time because some local authorities have not processed them as quickly as they might.
Given those circumstances, we consider it fair and reasonable to limit the transitional provisions for byway claims so that only claims submitted prior to the Bill's introduction, on
We recognise that those transitional provisions will leave a significant number of outstanding BOAT claims in some counties, particularly Wiltshire, Hampshire, Derbyshire and Somerset. There is no reason why traffic regulation orders cannot be put into effect before motor vehicular rights are established. Those authorities should look at how to make the best use of those powers to manage any problematical use of those byways while claims are being processed.
That is our present intention. I have no doubt that the matter will be raised in Committee, where it would be appropriate to do so, but I hope that the House feels that it has up-to-date information. Once again, I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this Second Reading. I look forward to meeting all of you, some of you, or maybe even more, in Committee in due course. I commend the Bill to the House.
On Question, Bill read a second time.