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My Lords, I welcome the commitment of the noble Baroness, Lady Young, to protected areas and was grateful for our meeting prior to today. Such areas are nationally and internationally important in terms of their environment, and all noble Lords who have contributed today, from whichever perspective, have highlighted their significance.
As the noble Baroness made clear in Committee, these areas are the jewels of our country and we agree that they need to be accorded appropriate protection. While I recognise the intent behind the noble Baroness’s amendments, which is to ensure the necessary protection for habitats and species in or near to protected areas, I assure her that such areas are already offered a high level of protection derived from EU directives transposed into domestic policy and through the planning system, as noble Lords have alluded to today. The National Planning Policy Framework, the supporting planning guidance and a government circular on biodiversity and geological conservation all recognise that there are areas designated for natural conservation and biodiversity value, including sites of special scientific interest, special protection areas, special areas of conservation and Ramsar sites, and that they should be given a high level of protection. They are clear that protected areas need to be fully and appropriately considered by mineral planning authorities when exercising their planning duties, both in preparing local plans and determining planning applications.
The planning authorities assess each application for shale and geothermal development on a case-by-case basis. For example, the National Planning Policy Framework makes it clear that development should not normally be permitted if, either individually or in combination with other developments, it is likely to have an adverse effect on a site of special scientific interest. That applies even if the development is outside site of special scientific interest boundaries.
The Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2010, which transpose the EU habitats and wild birds directives, ensure strict controls on any plan or project that might affect European sites such as special protection areas and special areas of conservation. Development cannot occur on or near such protected areas unless it can be shown to a high degree of scientific certainty that there will be no adverse impact on the integrity of the site. This is a very high bar for securing development in such areas. In addition, the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006 and the Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act 2004 place a duty on all public authorities, including the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, when exercising their functions, to have regard to the purpose of conserving biodiversity. Public bodies also have comparable duties relating to national parks, areas of outstanding natural beauty and sites of special scientific interest.
It is important to note that the regulatory system in the UK fully recognises these protections. Before any oil or gas operations can begin, operators must gain a permit from the environmental regulator, the Environment Agency or an equivalent agency. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is currently preparing revised guidance on protected wildlife sites as part of a wider project to make all the department’s guidance quicker to use and easier to understand—the noble Baroness raised that when we had our meeting the other day. This will help ensure that these requirements are clearly communicated to developers and regulators.
The noble Baroness, Lady Worthington, said that the Government looked on shale as being a silver bullet. We have always maintained that we do not see it as a silver bullet but that we see its potential for ensuring that we have home-grown supply and energy security and for helping drive down costs to the consumer. The debate should be in that context rather than shale being taken out of context in the wider arena.
In drawing the attention of the noble Baroness, Lady Young, to the robust regulatory regime that is already in place and the full recognition that the planning system already gives to protected areas, I hope that she is reassured that such areas are already accorded significant protection and, on that basis, will withdraw her amendment.