Second Reading (Continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:00 pm on 15 December 2008.

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Photo of Lord Davies of Coity Lord Davies of Coity Labour 5:00, 15 December 2008

My Lords, I am delighted to contribute to this important debate. The Marine and Coastal Access Bill is long awaited and is to be commended. Our maritime heritage is so rich and unique that it must be protected. Our fisheries, coastlines, ports and harbours are extraordinary resources that we as an island nation have always treasured. We must preserve the seas and coastal environment and guard them for the use and enjoyment of future generations.

I draw attention to the importance of protecting existing marine facilities and the environment of the estuaries and stress the need for clear understanding of the obligations imposed by this legislation. I shall illustrate that point by referring to the ongoing and important debate on the use of the Severn estuary as a renewable energy resource.

The Bill contains provisions designed to safeguard the marine environment. Clause 99 even goes so far as to prevent licence holders from carrying out approved activity by enabling the issuing of stop notices. By virtue of Clause 108, the Secretary of State can intervene only in issues designated as national security matters. Part 4 deals with marine licensing and Clauses 66, 67 and 68 set out the need to have regard to the protection of the environment, to protect human health and to prevent interference with legitimate uses of the sea.

Further guidance on the meaning of "environment" helpfully says that it includes the local and global environment, the natural environment and any site of historic or archaeological interest. "Natural environment" includes the physical, chemical and biological state of the sea and the seashore. "Legitimate uses of the sea" mainly, but not exclusively, concerns the safe navigation of ships. These are most important provisions, which I fully support, but I seek clarification on how they might work in practice.

My noble friend Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, who introduced this important debate, has an unenviable task. In addition to his responsibilities at Defra, he represents the Government in your Lordships' House on renewable energy and carbon savings. I am very concerned about the potential conflict that will arise if the Government decide to proceed with environmentally damaging marine policies when to do so flies in the face of the Bill's purpose. That may be a hypothetical point but I should be interested to hear how the Government would deal with such a conflict in practice, should it arise.

That brings me to the massively controversial scheme to build a barrage across the Severn estuary. Supporters claim that such a barrage can contribute 5 per cent of the UK's renewable energy-generating capacity for electricity. That may or may not be the case, but this is not the occasion on which to dwell on such issues. I shall save my comments on that for a more appropriate time.

However, the overwhelming evidence of comprehensive and widespread damage across every category set out in Clauses 66, 67 and 68, together with the limited powers to prevent such damage offered by Clause 99, deepens my concern. All the environmental agencies and representative bodies believe that a barrage would be an unmitigated ecological disaster. I have statements from the RSPB, Friends of the Earth Cymru, the World Wildlife Fund, the National Trust and the Wye and Usk Foundation. Water quality, flooding and sewage are other very real concerns. The archaeological damage would be immense and the interruption to navigation on the Severn could be fatal to the ports of Bristol and Gloucester. The Government's advisers, DTZ, have said that the barrage would threaten thousands of jobs and create an economic deficit of around £500 million.

Where does the balance lie? If the Government are really serious about this Bill, as I believe they are, they must declare now that they will not immediately undermine it by promoting such schemes as the Severn barrage, whatever our energy experts or climate change philosophers argue.

To conclude, this is a courageous Bill, which I support. It is of paramount importance for the conservation of our marine resources. However, the Government must recognise their overwhelming obligation, however inconvenient, to enforce the legislation, even if it means killing off one of the schemes favoured by another part of government. That is the dilemma that the Government face.

Annotations

Tony Moore
Posted on 17 Dec 2008 8:22 am (Report this annotation)

I support Lord Davies of Coity's remarks and trust that the Government will take heed of his deliberations.