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Report (3rd Day)

Part of Infrastructure Bill [HL] – in the House of Lords at 6:37 pm on 10th November 2014.

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Photo of Baroness Young of Old Scone Baroness Young of Old Scone Non-affiliated 6:37 pm, 10th November 2014

My Lords, I am slightly nervous about speaking to Amendments 113H and 115 in my name on the Marshalled List. The mood of the House appears to be that if you dare to utter a word that strengthens environmental protection in any way you are immediately regarded as an anti-fracker. In my case, nothing could be further from the truth. I hope that my track record in having managed a good balance between business and the environment for many years in the Environment Agency and before that is an example of how environmentalists can be keen on ensuring good levels of protection, while not then getting in the way of progress or commercial activity.

The two amendments are about the need for protection of our most important conservation areas. Amendment 113H is similar to one about which we talked in Committee but has some significant differences. I thank the Minister for meeting me last week to discuss my concerns and to debate the best way forward in addressing them. The reality is that there are possible impacts on nature conservation and biodiversity as a result of fracking. We know about them; in terms of water abstraction and pollution, and habitat damage and disturbance, they have been rehearsed adequately here and in another place.

I will give an example—which I am sure is absolutely uppermost in your Lordships’ minds every minute of the day—and that is pink-footed geese. The pink-footed geese in this country in the winter comprise about 85% of the global population. We are hugely important for the survival of the species on a global basis. They are highly dependent on three parts of the UK for their wintering grounds and at least one of those, if not more, is a key site for shale gas extraction; that is, the Bowland area in the north-west. We really have to get this one right, not just for us and the pink-footed geese but for global conservation. If we expect other countries to look after their biodiversity in order to prevent species going extinct, we have to play our role with those species for which we have a huge international responsibility.

That is the whole purpose of some of those protected areas, to ensure that important habitats and important species are not put into jeopardy as a result of other activities. So there are areas where, when push comes to shove, their biodiversity importance has to take predominance. Less than 12% of the area currently potentially available for shale gas extraction comes under such designations, so we are not talking about huge areas. The amendment is seeking to demonstrate that we need to make special provisions and avoid extraction in those areas or where it would impact on land that is functionally linked to those areas, which would also create detriment as a result of that linkage.

Apart from the biodiversity and conservation importance of the amendment, it is vital to try to put up front what the key requirements are so that the industry is clear about what it needs to steer away from. In the very early stages of the offshore wind debate there were a number of sites in the North Sea that were, quite frankly, barking in terms of their biodiversity impact. To give them their due, organisations interested in biodiversity conservation and the industry worked together to identify the areas where it would be crazy to try to get offshore wind developed and, therefore, the areas where by default it was a sensible idea to press ahead. That good piece of work demonstrated very clearly where the industry could get ahead, get licences and start to generate power in a way that was not going to be stultified by conflict with the conservation movement. That is the approach we should be taking with shale gas extraction, to ensure clarity about those areas where it is really not a good idea to be proposing this, so that people can get ahead and move much more quickly in the areas where there is not that potential for conflict.

That is Amendment 113H. I know that the Minister is not inclined to accept it but there it is, for what it is. I am sure the Minister will say that there is the National Planning Policy Framework, which puts in enough controls, and that there is other European-linked legislation that will put in other controls, but I believe that it is worth putting it in the Bill, in one place, so that nobody is in any doubt about the areas that both the Government and the public would like shale gas extraction steered away from so that other areas can be much more rapidly exploited.

Amendment 115 is a fallback proposition—plan B, as it were—should the Minister not be inclined to accept the list, which is actually a shorter list than in my original amendment in Committee; I have taken out all the local wildlife sites and kept only the nationally and internationally important sites. If the Minister is not too thrilled with Amendment 113H, Amendment 115 might be a more practical proposition.

There is already precedent. There is planning guidance that the Government, in a very welcome fashion, have put down with regard to applications for development within AONBs—areas of outstanding natural beauty—and national parks. What I am asking for in Amendment 115 is a degree of consistency across all the landscape and conservation designations, with other protected areas being brought into that planning guidance. If not, there will be a feeling in the industry that if the Government think it is so important to give planning guidance for AONBs and national parks, and since they have not thought it as important to give planning guidance for SACs, SPAs, Ramsar sites and sites of special scientific interest, there is some sort of hierarchy and that the areas of outstanding natural beauty and the parks are more to be steered away from than the other designations because the Government have given additional guidance on them.

It would be useful if the Government would acquiesce to Amendment 115 and expand the planning guidance that has already been given to some protected sites to others in order to send a signal that the Government believe—and I absolutely accept that they do—that all these protected sites are important. I beg to move.