With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments:
No. 40, in clause 2, page 2, line 10, leave out from beginning to second ‘the’ and insert ‘promoting’.
No. 41, in clause 2, page 2, line 11, at end insert
‘through the provision and improvement of suitable facilities and by other means.’.
No. 1, in clause 2, page 2, line 12, after ‘promoting’, insert ‘sustainable’.
No. 42, in clause 2, page 2, line 13, after ‘recreation,’, insert—
‘(da)working with rural communities and businesses in the achievement of its purposes,’.
No. 43, in clause 2, page 2, line 13, after ‘recreation,’, insert—
‘(da)contributing to sustainable development through the involvement of farmers and other rural businesses in the conservation and enhancement of the natural environment,’.
No. 44, in clause 2, page 2, line 15, at end insert—
‘(3)In exercising any of its functions under this Act, Natural England shall, if it appears that there is a conflict between any of the purposes including those in subsection (2), attach greater weight to the purpose of conserving and enhancing the natural environment.’.
Here we come to something slightly different; clause 2 is one of the most important in the Bill, and was the subject of considerable debate in the Select Committee. I see the hon. Member for Sherwood nodding in agreement.
The amendments deal with different aspects of the purposes of Natural England. They do not all necessarily originate from the same perspective, but because so many different organisations have expressed concerns about the phraseology of the clause and the absence of certain points—particularly in subsection (2)—I have tabled amendments that I thought relevant. Inevitably some of them may embody differing or even almost conflicting points of view, but it is only right and proper that the Committee has the opportunity to discuss them, and that the Minister is able to respond.
Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but it may be helpful to the Committee to know that I take the view that it is likely, given the scope of the amendments, that we shall cover most if not all of the content of clause 2 in the debate. Therefore we may well not have a debate on clause stand part. I tell the Committee that so that anyone who wants to speak on clause 2 may seek to catch my eye.
Thank you, Mr. Forth. I was not planning to say any more than my slightly more significant earlier contribution. This is a pretty critical part of the proposals.
Amendment No. 39 would replace the phrase “contributing to sustainable development” in subsection (1). There are different views about whether that is the right phrase, including those of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, the Country Landowners Association, the Country Land and Business Association and the National Farmers Union, who say, with considerable force, that the phrase is not sufficiently strong and that it should be replaced with “promoting sustainable development”, for example. Views have also been expressed by organisations including the group known as Wildlife and Countryside Link, the Wildlife Trusts and the Woodland Trust.
The Country Landowners Association said that it
“strongly believes that the remit for Natural England should be a more straightforward one to contribute to sustainable development. This does not weaken the primary purpose...rather it reminds the agency that true sustainability is a three-legged stool and that in order to achieve environmental objectives the agency should work within the bounds of practicalities of individual businesses.”
It goes on to refer to the development of environmental stewardship schemes over the last 10 to 15 years under Governments of both parties, which have delivered considerable environmental benefits.
The NFU said:
“We believe there is merit in placing emphasis in the definition of its general purpose on working with rural communities business and farmers,” which relates to some of the amendments. In contrast, other organisations, such as the Wildlife Trust, support the wording in the clause which refers to Natural England contributing to sustainable development; the Woodland Trust and others made similar comments.
There is a disagreement and, daft as it may sound, I am not sure which side I want to come down on—
The hon. Gentleman has discovered a third way.
I am certainly not looking for a third way, but it is important that the Committee examines the matter further—the hon. Member for Sherwood kindly nodded when I referred earlier to the Select Committee’s extensive debate on the subject. The phrase “contributing to sustainable development”, which is the Government’s choice, has several interpretations. The amendment would change the phrasing to “within the context of sustainable development”, taking it as read that sustainable development is part and parcel of what is going on, and also refers to the
“retention of viable local communities”.
In amendments Nos. 42 and 43 I have tried specifically, in different ways, to emphasise the point about rural communities and the people who work in them, be they farmers, landowners, managers or others. We cannot separate the natural environment from the communities that live within it; in many cases, they are part and parcel of its management and have an impact on it.
Events in past centuries show that the English landscape has been fashioned almost entirely by people. It is not the original natural landscape of England in the days of the wild wood; it has been changed ever since Mesolithic man began to cut back that wood some 12,000 years ago, and it has been evolving. Many of the features that the 80-odd per cent. of the population who live in our conurbations want to protect, and the flora and fauna that live in those features, exist because of man’s activities over the years. Not all those activities, judged by today’s standards, have necessarily been benign, and some may have been malign to the interests of wildlife or the countryside, but nevertheless that is why those features exist.
If one goes to the Peak district, the Lake district or the fenland in and around my constituency, one sees a landscape fashioned entirely by man. The hedges and dry-stone walls were not put there with an Arts Council grant, but because they were required to contain stock. The woods were used for feeding and sheltering stock, for timber and for many other purposes. I am trying to emphasise that we cannot look after that natural environment without the involvement of the communities who live in it.
Moving into today’s world, the development of the entry-level and higher-level schemes, both of which we support in principle as excellent schemes that do what should be done to reward landowners and farmers for positive actions to look after the environment, require the active participation of communities. That is why clause 2 on Natural England’s general purpose should refer to the importance of involving communities in one way or another.
As I said, there are different phrases in the amendments, and I will not put my hand up to say that any one is the right one. However, I would like the Minister to accept the principle behind them, which is that we need to involve communities and ensure that Natural England’s role contributes to communities remaining viable. Now is not the time for the Committee to discuss the trials and tribulations facing the farming community—let alone what the Prime Minister with or without Mr. Chirac may do in future—but we are facing serious economic problems in parts of the countryside. It is important that Natural England has a role of understanding that and working with communities.
Amendments Nos. 40 and 41 clearly hang together. They address a different aspect, which brings us back to your point, Mr. Forth, about the all-embracing nature of the debate. They refer to subsection (2)(c) and the
“facilities for the study, understanding and enjoyment of the natural environment”.
The Minister touched on this point in his earlier rebuttal of my amendment on property. The amendments refer to a critical part of the role of Natural England. As somebody who was born and brought up in the countryside and who loves it, I am for ever concerned that so many of our fellow citizens do not understand the reality of what goes on there. While different bodies make sterling efforts, the role of Natural England has to be focused on that function.
I am therefore concerned about the apparently restrictive nature of paragraph (c). I accept readily that it uses the word “includes”, which means that it is not exclusive, but the Bill refers only to Natural England
“securing the provision and improvement of facilities for the study, understanding and enjoyment of the natural environment”.
I do not see why the body needs to be restricted to the issue of facilities, which is why I have tabled amendments that would broaden its role to promoting the understanding, education and enjoyment of the countryside by any means, although I have added the provision of facilities as part of that. English Nature undertakes that work now, which is why I am puzzled as to why the clause is seemingly restrictive.
Amendment No. 44 is, in effect, a debate in its own right. It refers to the statistics and what is known as the Sandford principle, which relates to the potential for conflict between the many aspects of the general purpose of Natural England. The Select Committee was very clear that the Sandford principle should be used. On page 41 of its report, it clearly states that
“we recommend that provision be made in the Bill for the ‘Sandford principle’ to apply in those exceptional circumstances where there is an irreconcilable conflict, to make clear that the aim of conserving and enhancing the natural environment takes precedence over other purposes.”
I entirely concur with that view.
I have made my point about sustainable development, rural communities and all the other issues, but at the end of the day, Natural England has no function if it is not about conserving the natural environment. We therefore need a conflict resolution clause to deal with irreconcilable conflict, which is the phrase that is being used to describe the Sandford principle. The Woodland Trust, the Wildlife Trust, the Council for the Preservation of Rural England and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds have all made similar statements, and they are right to do so.
There are, of course, many ways in which one could phrase the principle. Again, I do not take any great pride in the phrasing that I have used. Others have recommended different phraseology, but I wanted to raise the issue in debate because it occupied a great deal of the Select Committee’s time, and I suspect that it may well engender comment from other members of the Committee. It certainly arose on Second Reading, and Ministers implied—I do not want to put words into their mouths—that they were sensitive to the issue.
I particularly wanted to identify the areas in which such conflict might arise. One can imagine all sorts of scenarios, but I believe that there is pretty widespread agreement on situations in which there is potential conflict concerning the purpose of conserving and protecting the natural environment. That brings us to paragraph (d), which refers to
“promoting access to the countryside”.
Most country people and organisations concerned about the environment recognise that there is sometimes a conflict between the objectives of increasing access and conserving nature. Access can cause erosion problems and can seriously disturb wildlife or perfectly normal economic, commercial activities that take place in the countryside. It is quite clear that a conflict could arise.
Almost coincidentally, one of the leading opponents of including the Sandford principle in legislation is the Ramblers Association, which has said that it does not believe that there is a need for a method of conflict resolution to be included in the Bill. That implies that it recognises that there is the potential for conflict, and that it does not want its objectives for access being overridden by concern for the environment. I am afraid that, in this case, I beg to differ with the association. If such a conflict did arise, care for the environment should be pre-eminent. That is the purpose of the objective.
There are, as I say, many ways of arguing the case and many scenarios that one can imagine, but there is a view that is almost universally held, with the major exception of the Ramblers Association, that the Sandford principle should be incorporated in the Bill. Study of the evidence that Ministers and DEFRA gave to the Select Committee seems to suggest that they accepted in every way that the potential for conflict existed, but that somehow it was not necessary to deal with it in legislation. This is one of the larger aspects of the Bill and of this group of amendments.
I look forward to what the Minister has to say about the amendments. They cover a number of aspects relating to the purpose of Natural England, and I accept that subsection (2) begins by saying
“Natural England’s general purpose includes” so it is not an exclusive list. We all know the problems of trying to put an exclusive list into legislation. Nevertheless, those purposes in the list will be seen as the primary ones because they are specified in the Bill. I believe that the context of sustainable development and the involvement and viability of local communities, be they farmers, sporting interests or other interests such as the forestry industry, should all be included in the Bill.
Finally, there is the question of a conflict resolution clause, which would most logically fit into this part of the Bill. Arguably, it might fit somewhere else, but I believe that it should be under clause 2, which is why I have tabled the amendment at this point. As I said earlier, I am not wedded to the particular words that I have chosen. These are important issues: the question of Natural England’s purpose has occupied a great deal of discussion in this Committee, in the Select Committee and in many other quarters. It also took up the largest part of the submissions to the Select Committee and seems to have taken up the largest part of all the submissions made by various bodies to members of this Committee. I look forward to contributions from other hon. Members, and commend the amendments to the Committee.
I want to make some brief comments in support of what the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire has said. I suspect that we have all received a considerable number of briefings from various interested groups on what is to them, and to those of us who were on the Select Committee that examined this issue, the heart of the Bill and crucial to the way it will operate, if and when it is passed.
In that context, “sustainable” and “sustainability” can sometimes mean rather different things to different people, depending on whether they approach the matter from an environmental or economic direction. Mention has been made of the three-legged stool principle, with which I entirely agree. It is clear, however, that it will be vital for positive working partnerships to be created between Natural England, rural businesses, rural communities, farmers and those who use the land. That will require considerable trust and understanding, and a certain amount of shared vision.
I think that it would be true to say that many people who live and work in the countryside, and many of those who work in agriculture, have not had positive recent experiences with Government, whether they dealt with the former Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food or with DEFRA. It is therefore only natural that when they look at these proposals it is with a certain amount of suspicion, concern and dismay. Natural England will have to recognise that rural communities and farmers—those who live and work in the countryside—will have to play an important part in trying to realise the laudable intentions behind the Bill.
The people who live and work in the countryside want Natural England, in its fullness, to be vibrant and viable, not set in some sort of aspic jelly, trying to maintain or regain a nostalgic vision of the countryside. “Natural” means something different to those who want to work and make the land productive.
The countryside is there for everyone. Natural England will have a real role in ensuring that not only those who live and work in the countryside but those who live and work in urban areas have access to it and understand it. We must ensure that our countryside is the best that it can be. The situation is similar to that of old buildings, which are often best preserved through their use for proper purposes. Buildings can go through different stages of use, which preserves them as real buildings.
May I ask the hon. Gentleman to define exactly what he means by a rural community, given that in many rural areas there is a mix of urban and rural usage? There are industrialised rural communities in many parts of the north, for instance, including in my constituency.
That is absolutely right. Many people have a rural setting around their community. Not only those who live in villages but those who live on the edge of large slices of our countryside want to ensure that it is preserved and enhanced, not just for those who live there but for those who have access to it. I agree that we must ensure that all people have an understanding of what the countryside is for. To return to my analogy, I hope that we recognise that the land will change, as the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire said. Whatever we see as natural today might not have been natural a few hundred years ago. Changes will take place.
Our amendment would insert the word “sustainable” before “access”. There is the potential for conflict in various ways where access is made available, and we need to strike a balance. The difficulty with this part of the Bill is in striking the right balance between the differing and competing interests in respect of the land. The potential for conflict is real, and I support the Sandford principle for conflict resolution because there need to be at least some guiding principles. The word “irreconcilable” is used in relation to that principle, so I take it that it will apply to the sort of cases that we hope will be few and far between. The essence of the Bill is co-operation, understanding of one another’s viewpoints and the need to share that vision. I hope that Sandford will need to be used only in extreme cases, but I believe that it should be referred to in the Bill, as suggested during the Select Committee’s pre-legislative scrutiny.
I, too, look forward to the Minister’s comments. No doubt he, too, received many of the briefing notes, if not all of them and more, that other hon. Members received. He will therefore know that there is a strong sense that this is a crucial part of the Bill in which the wording has to be right. It is sometimes difficult for Opposition Members to get exactly the right wording, as has been said, but I think that we share the same objective. The question is how the provision will be used and how Natural England in particular will conduct itself. English Nature has conducted itself in a reasonably positive way, and the Environment Agency strives to ensure that it has the right sort of relationships, but the provision that we are discussing is crucial. The wording of the clauses and the meanings behind them need to be as clear as possible if we are to develop those vital partnerships.
I am pleased to follow the hon. Members for South-East Cambridgeshire and for South-East Cornwall. Perhaps I should start by declaring an interest: I am president of the Nottinghamshire Ramblers Association. I am demoted when it comes to the national Ramblers Association, as I am a vice-president of that organisation. I shall make the association’s position on access and conservation clear later. I want first to reinforce the points that both hon. Gentlemen made.
Clause 2, on the general purpose of Natural England, is perhaps the most lively part of the Bill. There has been intensive discussion and, as has been said, conflicting views have been expressed to hon. Members.
There are conflicting views because there is conflict in the countryside. We want a living, working and changing countryside. I was struck by the example given by the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed). As a youth I often went, as I still do, up Buckden pike in the Yorkshire dales and looked down over Wharfedale. My children say to me, “It’s great; it’s never changed,” but it has always changed. The landscape is man-made—and woman-made—and it will continue to change. Changes in agriculture will drive changes in the environment and landscape even further, so there will be change and conflict.
A living countryside must have economic value. Farmers are landowners and custodians of the countryside; that conflict is brought into sharper focus by recent Government policy changes, and we must be aware of it. Natural England should have the resources and expertise to handle that conflict. Having seen the staff involved with the new agency, I think that it will have.
There are problems with access, and there can be conflicts. The Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 recognises that access must be restricted in certain places and at certain times of the year. People who walk in the countryside, particularly members of the Ramblers Association, accept the need for restrictions. They will argue about their scale, but if there is a straight conflict between conservation or biodiversity and access, they will always fall on the right side of the line.
I was interested in the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall about sustainable recreation. I would like the phrase “quiet recreation”, which is used in national parks legislation, to be used, but, much as I hate to admit it, there is scope and a need for venues in the countryside for motor cycling. Some Committee members are clay pigeon shooters—that activity also has environmental consequences in terms of noise. It is difficult to resolve those conflicts and tensions. The Select Committee considered that issue, and myriad groups have written to each of us individually and collectively on it. There is no easy answer, and we could get into a theological debate about it and argue about a pinhead, but I am confident that, with good land-management practices, good consultation and a great deal of thought, most such conflicts can be resolved on a case-by-case basis. This is not the major issue that several organisations that have written to me seem to think it is, but I accept and am pleased that the Government accept, as shown in their response to the Select Committee report,
“that in areas where the level of importance of biodiversity and landscape has been predetermined, the Sandford principle should continue to apply—for example in National Parks and AONB conservation boards.”
If that approach is good enough for national parks, it should be good enough for areas of outstanding natural beauty. We must consider the wider countryside. There will be odd cases in the wider countryside in which conflicts cannot be resolved with the best will in the world, but they will be few and far between and Natural England will be able to manage the process. Clearly, if there is irrevocable conflict, conservation and biodiversity interests must take precedence.That will probably work out in practice. There may be no need to put this provision in the Bill, but I know that the Minister is aware of these issues, as are his officials. I know that in private discussions the issues are being considered, but I do not expect that this issue, which is a pretty difficult one, will be resolved today in this Committee Room.
I say gently to the Minister that the Bill has just started in Committee and has a long way to go. I suspect that, even if he is not prepared to give commitments today, this will become a real, live issue at a later stage and perhaps in another place. There will have to be some more significant thought and, more particularly, more significant reassurances given than are on the table.
I am sure that the Minister heard that appeal. I do not see how anyone could resist such an articulate argument for the introduction of the Sandford principle into the Bill. I utterly agree with what the hon. Member for Sherwood said about there undoubtedly being occasional cases that are hard to resolve and that such a good principle should appear in the Bill.
I am less confident in what the hon. Gentleman said about the staff of Natural England being able to do the job as well as the different component parts have done until now. I hope that he is right, but some of us have doubts. We have to get this clause right. We need to worry this clause like a dog with a bone to make sure that we get it right. By the end of this clause, if we get the balance wrong between the demands of nature, conservation and so on and the necessity for those who own, manage, farm and make a living off the land, we will miss an opportunity to enhance the countryside and biodiversity.
I very much agree with what my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire said earlier. It is wrong to suggest that the principle protects bits of the countryside. We need to look at the countryside as a whole, so that we can manage the entire countryside and improve the landscape and biodiversity. The danger is that Natural England could become, if the balance is wrong, a regulatory body saying that one cannot do this or one must do that, rather than taking the broader remit of encouraging good stewardship of the countryside by those who actually work in it all the time.
My hon. Friend’s amendments are important to the Bill, because they raise the issue of the desire for sustainable development. “Sustainable development” is rather an awkward expression and not a happy one, but it is probably the best we have that lays out what we are aiming for. My hon. Friend said that he was not quite sure where he stood on the balance of looking for the third way. I am a bit unreconstructed on this point and I know where I stand. The importance of the interests of farming and of the farming community must be recognised.
Whatever happens, we have heard eloquent speeches on both sides about the changing nature of the landscape. It is important that people can make a living off the land. If they cannot make a living, if they cannot move to biomass or from farming cereals and that kind of thing, the viability of the countryside will decline. Once that happens, all the little extra things that landowners and farmers do to enhance the countryside will be lost. They simply will not be able to afford to do them.
The landscape changes and perhaps we do not like that. I mentioned earlier the huge man-made forests in my constituency that were once wonderful moors. Some of the best grouse moors in England are now planted with forestry. Some people regretted that change while others have accepted it as important new land usage, which provides jobs in the area and provides an opportunity to have a different type of biodiversity. That happens and it cannot be helped; one simply has to accept changes or we will not have the prosperous countryside that we need.
If we cannot get changes to the actual wording of the clause, it is important that we obtain from the Minister commitments that it is intended to ensure the viability of rural communities. By that, I mean the viability of those directly involved, such as the people who work on the farms and not us who are perhaps merely spectators. We want commitments that their future is not going to be damaged and that they will be allowed to run their enterprises without undue interference from the new body.
We in the north have had a reasonably good relationship with English Nature. Its staff—certainly those in the north country—have shown that they understand the needs of local communities. We have a special landscape in the north because we have large upland commons, which are grazed in an ancient system called stint-holding. I shall not give the Committee a lecture on stint-holding—the hon. Member for Workington will know a bit about it—but it is a very strange, archaic and complex system of husbandry that has existed for centuries. In the upland communities, many thousands of sheep were slaughtered as a result of foot and mouth disease, and that caused a great many problems with stock management. There was a recent case in which local stint-holders wished to put up a fence in order to stop sheep wandering over a large area of countryside. There was a conflict between those stint-holders and English Nature, but because the local staff understood the way in which the system worked, a compromise was reached.
My fear is that, in a big, all-encompassing organisation, the staff who have the expert knowledge of a locality will be transferred elsewhere and that we would lose their expertise and unnecessary conflict would arise. I approach the matter with caution, and I hope that the Minister can reassure the Committee and the wider farming community that what is being proposed in the Bill will look after their interests and will appreciate the fact that their contribution is vital for improved biodiversity and an enhanced countryside.
I have been impressed by the poetry of the discussions on the development of the English landscape to such an extent that, at one moment, I thought that Mr. Dimbleby might pop his head in to bless our proceedings.
In the context of clause 2 on general purpose, there are some things that never change, and I am sure that the Minister would want to consider whether things should change. One is the ownership of the English countryside. My constituency is one of the largest in England and, in the dukeries, the Newcastle family and the Liverpool family own the land as they have always owned it—ever since Norman times in the case of the Liverpools. They have tenant farmers, and the Bill seems to miss an opportunity to consider their right to buy and the expansion of the democratic right that is so popular with council tenants across the county. The right to buy for tenant farmers, who have managed for generations the land in my constituency, has not been included in the Bill. Perhaps the general purpose of Natural England could include the opportunity for those who work the land to have greater ownership of it.
In the development of the British countryside, we can be over-poetic. I recall in recent weeks visiting the constituency of the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire and the constituencies surrounding it. I studied the churchyards at the bottom of the coffin roads, which took millions of people out of the countryside over a period of 300 years—in that case, to work in the collieries of Merthyr and that area. They returned dead, following accidents in mines, to be buried and to fill those quaint rural chapels and churches. Constituencies such as mine have seen their development very much marked in that context.
An opportunity presents itself to the Minister in relation to those who once came from the countryside and were then put into, for example, mining villages that were near and part of the country but did not have full access to the variety of country living; he has the opportunity to visit the countryside. I find that young people, such as school pupils, who live in mining communities do not have the opportunity or the aspiration to see the full range of the country that they live in, and that has major ramifications. One of the simple ones that I have identified is the fact that the basic cooking skills of the British nation have declined. We are a burger-and-chips nation and increasingly so.
Natural England should have a broader role relating to enjoyment of the natural environment, which could reinforce other Government agendas that are cross-party, not least with regard to healthy communities and healthy people. I specifically ask the Minister to contemplate whether under the auspices of clause 2(2)(c), it is time for the Government to take a leaf out of the book of an enlightened Conservative Government of the 1930s, who, in places such as Brecon and Radnorshire and Hexham, contributed Government grants for the development of a labyrinth of youth hostels to allow young people from the cities to participate in activities in the countryside.
A number of the establishments in Brecon and Radnorshire were converted from existing buildings thanks to a Government grant in the 1930s, and they still exist today. There is an opportunity now to build on the excellent work done in the previous Government by the Minister’s predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Alun Michael), who is now the Minister for Industry and the Regions. We could take the opportunity of establishing whether grants could be given for environmentally friendly developments in the buildings that give young people in areas such as mine access to areas such as Hexham and Brecon and Radnorshire. Perhaps the Minister will consider whether additional Government assistance could be given for the environmentally friendly enhancement of those buildings. That would fit very much within the remit of clause 2(2)(c).
It is always a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Forth, and your reputation for flamboyant ties means that you will wake us up in the morning when we attend the Committee at a very early hour. I would also like to place on record my interests as they appear in the Register of Members’ Interests, not in relation to Natural England but to various other aspects of the Bill.
I knew that these provisions would engender a considerable amount of debate. Nothing is more enjoyable than being in the countryside, but talking about it is almost as enjoyable. We have certainly done quite a lot of that this morning, and my constituency has been mentioned more times in the debate on Natural England than it deserves given that it is in Wales. I will try to keep myself to the English aspects of the provisions.
It was interesting that the Sandford principle should emerge so early on in the debate. As Members will realise, that principle came to the fore when national parks were set up in this country under the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949, which was a great step forward and built on the work that had been done in America in setting up national parks.
It seems to me that the conflict within Natural England will be less than that between Natural England and other Government bodies, such as trunk road agencies and local government bodies. Certainly, the experience of the national parks is that little regard is given by Government agencies and local government to the purposes of those national parks. The Minister might like to consider whether there should be something in the Bill that puts a duty on Government bodies and local government to pay respect to the general purpose of Natural England
Reading the description of the general purpose of Natural England in subsection (2) reminds me of the purposes for which national parks were set up and the duties involved under the 1949 Act and the Environment Act 1995. I am not entirely sure whether it is the purpose of the Bill to designate the whole of England as a national park, but it seems that that is the effect. The Bill sets out very high requirements for all the work that Natural England might do in whichever part of England it might decide to operate. That is an interesting concept. Everybody is looking for higher environmental standards throughout the nation and this definition of the general purposes goes some way towards that.
I am much taken by the comments made by the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire about the importance of communities in the countryside in maintaining the environment. In the past century, there have been times when, for whatever reason, there has been an abandonment of the countryside. For instance, in the 1920s, when there was a severe agricultural recession, people could not find tenants to farm land. The result was not a huge improvement in the quality of the environment or in biodiversity; it was dereliction. Although I do not believe that there is going to be depopulation in the English countryside, people might use the countryside as a place to live and to have weekend parties without engaging in the management of the land and conserving the environment and biodiversity. It is for that reason that we ought to ensure that it is a part of the duty or general purpose of Natural England to further the interests of communities.
The hon. Gentleman talked about conserving viable communities, but my experience has sometimes been that the communities that we need to look after are the ones that are almost non-viable. They need the extra support to maintain their village school, their village shop and whatever other facilities there are. Without those facilities, the communities die and the people are not really engaged in the countryside. If they are not engaged in the countryside, they are not engaged in maintaining the environment and looking after biodiversity.
There are many issues that the Minister should take on board, but I particularly commend to him the concept of putting a duty on Natural England to look after communities, particularly in the deep countryside.
I approached this debate with some shyness because I was not involved in the pre-legislative scrutiny and I did not take part on Second Reading. It was with some joy that I discovered late last night that the Whips had joyously added me to the list of Committee members because they knew how much I would enjoy serving under your chairmanship, Mr. Forth.
I generally want to support the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire, particularly amendments Nos. 42 and 43, which relate to the need for Natural England to work with rural communities and the involvement of farmers and rural businesses. In a previous incarnation, I was fortunate enough to serve as a Minister in the Department of the Environment and also in MAFF. None of the agencies in the Department of the Environment that dealt with the countryside ever totally worked. One reason was that the farming and countryside community often perceived them as being regulatory, imposing, external, non-partnership organisations. During a natural Sunday morning conversation that I had with a landowner in my constituency this week, there was a lot of talk about “they” and “them”—people whom he felt were imposing conditions on him. I cannot understand how the Bill would be weakened in any way by accepting amendments Nos. 42 and 43 or something like them.
There have been so many organisations in recent years—English Nature, the Countryside Agency and the Countryside Commission have all come and gone. How does the Minister think that Natural England will be perceived in the countryside in three or five years’ time? To pick up the point made by the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire, does the Minister think that Natural England should be concerned about the farmer who is perhaps so stressed that he is contemplating suicide because of what is happening in the agriculture industry? Should Natural England be concerned about the village shop, post office and bus service? Is that part of Natural England’s role, or will it be seen as an external agency telling the countryside how it should behave and that it should grant access to townies? I caricature to make the point.
I suspect that we all want Natural England to succeed, but it will do so only if it is co-operative and harmonious and if everyone feels that they have a sense of ownership in it. I suggest that these two modest amendments, which make it clear that Natural England is meant to be a co-operative partnership with people living and working in the countryside for the viability of the countryside and which acknowledge that those people have a major role to play in the stewardship of the countryside, would do an enormous amount to ensure that Natural England is recognised as being a partner and not just seen as a foe.
May I first draw attention to my entry in the as yet unpublished Register of Members’ Interests? It will indicate that I am engaged in agriculture and have been involved in many of the schemes that this and earlier Governments have put in place to promote rural conservation. I look forward to filling in my form for the entry-level scheme.
I do not agree with the hon. Member for Sherwood that this is merely a theological debate and that cases of conflict will be few and far between. He alluded to the CROW legislation—the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000—in which some flexibility was shown to allow ground-nesting birds to breed. That included the grouse that live on the North York Moors national park, 60 per cent. of which is in my constituency. It is important that, while we welcome ramblers from the Ramblers Association, we recognise that they are often armed only with a thermos flask and a package of sandwiches and do not contribute the serious euros, dollars and pound notes that come to the north York moors from shooting interests, so I am pleased that that flexibility was shown.
I suspect that there will be even more conflict in connection with the 2 m strips around field margins, which I am sure that the Ramblers Association is already viewing with a degree of hopeful anticipation that ramblers may be allowed access to those bits of land. I tried to explain to my daughter at the weekend that she will not be allowed to ride her pony—a somewhat shaggy and Thelwellesque pony, I hasten to add—around those field margins because they are there for conservation. I hope that the amendments will underline the fact that conservation is the primary reason for the field margins and I hope that they will not be opened up to all and sundry to be used as footpaths.
We also have a conflict of another type in my constituency about the moors centre, which is a visitor information centre in Danby run by the North York Moors national park. Plans were recently put forward to extend the centre to encompass not only the current gift shop, but a rather large retail outlet, with a view to bringing people in by bus and reducing the number of cars in the rural community. However, the plan is viewed with great concern by local shopkeepers, who feel that the development would put them out of business. I understand that the suggestion has been withdrawn. That is another potential conflict, between the national park wishing to promote information and tourism in the area, and the rural communities that depend on the small rural businesses referred to in amendment No. 42.
I hope that the Minister will understand that we are not making theological points. Such conflicts will not be few and far between, but will happen over and over again. It is important that we have a hierarchy of precedents, between the environment and other interests that may be brought to bear on Natural England.
As a Member for another rural constituency, which includes much of the South Downs, I take a great interest in the Bill. I echo the concerns of my hon. Friends and other Members about the conflict that the Bill might create between those who seek to use the countryside for recreational purposes and those who wish the landscape to be conserved, and about the absence of any mention of rural communities and farming as general purposes. I consider that a significant omission.
I was lucky enough to be asked to go gliding in my constituency on Saturday morning, as part of the 75th anniversary celebrations of the South Downs gliding club. Gliding is not an activity that I would recommend to anyone who has taken part in a charity ball the night before, as I had. Being furnished with a parachute, as the precursor to getting into the glider, was a tense moment. However, I had the opportunity to glide over much of the South Downs on a clear day, which was a great reminder of how much we enjoy that landscape precisely because of farming’s contribution to it.
The changes under way in farming are serious and are resulting in there being far less stock in much of that landscape—there are fields in parts of West Sussex being mown rather than grazed. Nevertheless, the continuing viability and the beauty of the landscape is maintained by farming. It is therefore surprising that farming and the contribution of rural communities are absent from the general purpose to ensure that the natural environment is conserved.
There is a structural flaw in the drafting of the clause. It says that the
“general purpose is to ensure that the natural environment is conserved”.
“we expect natural England to be a trenchant champion of the natural environment, as its statutory purpose makes clear.”—[Official Report, 6 June 2005; Vol. 434, c. 1089.]
That is a noble expectation. Similarly, the Government’s response to the Select Committee’s report said that Natural England would have a duty to ensure that the natural environment was conserved. However, I do not understand how the Minister can rely on that general purpose, when subsection (2) sets out additional general purposes, which include, in paragraph (d),
“promoting access to the countryside”.
The amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire suggest that the Sandford principle should be supreme, and that where conflict arises Natural England should always have regard to the conservation of the environment over the other purposes that the Bill sets out for it. However, I have concerns about the application of the Sandford principle. Although it is right that the Bill takes account of conflict, the examples that my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby mentioned are similar to those set out by the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England in a briefing note. Giving the example of a place near Canterbury in Kent, it suggests that there is the development of “horsiculture” in an area of outstanding natural beauty and complains that
“fields are being divided up, the ground is littered with brightly coloured jumps and shelters are being erected”.
It is questionable whether that is detrimental to the landscape, and I wonder about a provision in the Bill that would prevent such activities.
I hope that the Minister will address the two related concerns in the Bill. The first is the general purpose list that includes farming and rural communities. The second is that an inherent conflict is being set up in the Bill and we are being advised by different parties that it need not be addressed or that it should be subject to the Sandford principle. I shall listen with great interest to how the Minister thinks those conflicts will be addressed in the absence of the application of Sandford.
As predicted, we have had a good, full debate on a crucial clause setting out the general purpose for Natural England. I am grateful for your advice about the stand part debate, Mr. Forth, and without following up the remarks of the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire on verbal rambling I will seek to knit together my thoughts and various pieces of paper in respect of the stand part debate and the amendments.
I will make some general comments about the clause. Subsection (1) is deliberately broad, enabling and flexible. The Government want Natural England to contribute to current environmental policy objectives while allowing sufficient flexibility to avoid restricting its ability to respond to future challenges—the future-proofing to which I referred earlier.
The new non-departmental public body is being established to ensure that the precious resource of our natural environment is conserved, enhanced and managed for present and future generations. It is about managing and enhancing places and nature and encouraging people to enjoy and benefit from them. As the Secretary of State said on Second Reading, and the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire repeated:
“Our natural environment helps to make England what it is, from our beautiful coastlines to our historic dry stone walls and hedgerows. We have stunning landscapes, rivers and lakes, set in Shakespeare’s ‘silver sea’, a unique geodiversity and the flora and fauna that rely on this rich variety of habitats and ecosystems.”—[Official Report, 6 June 2005; Vol. 434, c.1005.]
My right hon. Friend is right; in many ways the landscape is a reflection of the interaction between the natural environment and how man—in the broadest sense, in terms of gender—works the land.
We need a strong and powerful organisation to build on the successes of the past. I reassure the hon. Member for Hexham that the expertise of English Nature, which he rightly identified, will transfer to Natural England; we will not lose it. We also need to build on the strengths of the past to ensure that this wonderful resource is rich, diverse and resilient and that its potential to generate social and economic benefits, including those to farmers, are realised. It must be more than the sum of its parts.
I shall give an example of how that might be achieved. If we are to develop, for example, a new long-distance coastal footpath on a part of the south-west coastal path it will be necessary to draw on all three elements that are coming together to form Natural England. It will take the expertise of English Nature, because of the many sites of special scientific interest along the coast and the need properly to protect and enhance them while access is provided. Access is currently a function of the Countryside Agency. Equally, it will be necessary to make sure that landowners are, through environmental stewardship schemes, properly compensated for any coastal path scheme that may emerge. A single body to carry out such a scheme, if we came up with such an idea, would significantly simplify the process and make it much more coherent for everyone working on it.
As I have explained, to give clarity and focus to this broad and challenging agenda, subsection (2) elaborates on some of the activities that fall within the general purpose. I shall beg the Committee’s indulgence while I emphasise that subsection (1) sets out the general purpose
“to ensure that the natural environment is conserved, enhanced and managed for the benefit of present and future generations, thereby contributing to sustainable development.”
I want Natural England to be, as the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs said, a trenchant champion of the environment.
Subsection (2) states that the purpose should, as the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire acknowledges, include the five listed items, ending with social and economic well-being, which denotes the rural economy and communities that many hon. Members have mentioned. However, that is not an exclusive list. It is important that the House and people generally understand that the purpose of Natural England is set out in subsection (1). Subsection (2) gives examples of how it might work, which are included to reflect the three constituent bodies that will make up Natural England.
I accept, as the Minister kindly acknowledged, that the list in subsection (2) is not exclusive. However, does the Minister accept that specifying five items in the Bill would lead most observers to consider those the five main aspects of the general purpose and to view matters not listed as somehow secondary? That is why the amendments are so important, particularly as they deal with rural communities. Their exclusion implies that they are not seen as part of the primary purpose, even though the general purpose covers them. Not being specified in the Bill will lead to their being seen as less important.
I accept that that is a potential problem. My hon. Friend the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) raised the question whether Natural England would be able to grant aid to youth hostels. It is clear that it would be able to do so, if that is within the general purpose set out in subsection (1); however, we have not chosen to specify that in subsection (2).
There is a danger of what the hon. Gentleman described, and we are trying throughout this process to balance the different voices that many hon. Members have spoken of during the debate—the voices of the various non-governmental organisations, and others, that have sent briefings. Each of them is coming from a different place.
If we had left clause 2 as just subsection (1), and had not included subsection (2) with its list of responsibilities drawn from constituent bodies, we should instead be debating whether Natural England was really English Nature by another name, whether the Countryside Agency had been forgotten, and what was happening about the Rural Development Service. By including the specified matters as an inheritance from the constituent bodies we are clarifying the fact that Natural England will genuinely be three bodies coming together to form a stronger, single body with a general purpose. I hope that that helps the hon. Gentleman.
The general purpose sets Natural England’s activities in a sustainable development context. It is important to understand that. I know that the hon. Member for Hexham pointed out that some hon. Members wrestle with the question whether sustainable development is a useful term. For the sake of argument and clarity I should explain that, in my understanding, we need to have regard to three pillars of sustainable development: the environment, the economy and social well-being. We must sustain all three of those for future generations.
The Sandford principle, which I shall talk about later, is useful for conservation boards and for bodies with responsibility for, say, national parks and areas of outstanding beauty, which have embodied the principle to give precedence to the importance of biodiversity and landscape and to protect the very precious things that those bodies are set up to look after. However, if we were to apply it to all bodies that are to have due regard to sustainable development, it would not be a three-legged stool but a stool that would fall over regularly, because one leg would be longer than the other two.
Applying the Sandford principle to regional development agencies would be very difficult. We want RDAs to take a lead in the economy but with due regard to sustainable development. We must be cautious about setting up bodies with a sole focus on the environment or on the economy and with no regard for those other things, because we would be setting up institutions and an infrastructure that would be in conflict with themselves. Members have referred to that notion of conflict, and I will return to it later.
After that general preamble on the clause, I shall now discuss the amendments. I remind the Committee that amendment No. 39 relates to the retention of viable local communities. I am quite clear that Natural England will need to engage with local communities and land managers if it is to deliver its remit as an environmental body operating in the sustainable development context to which I just referred. Indeed, it would fail in its duty and its purpose if it did not do that. In doing this—for example, through giving grants for the agri-environment schemes—Natural England will contribute to the viability of communities. It will, however, be an environmental body. There should be no ambiguity about that. That is where its expertise will lie.
As an environmental body, Natural England cannot be charged with delivering viable local communities. That is a much broader issue than Natural England is charged with. It is about the delivery landscape as a whole. It is about RDAs championing the economy and economic development with due regard to the environment and society, and working with Natural England, which is championing the environment with due regard to social and economic development, for example, to deliver viable local communities. Clearly, local authorities, other Government offices and many other public and private agents have that due regard.
Local authorities have a crucial role to play in economic development and in delivering on the environment. In many cases, they also take the lead in promoting social well-being. Indeed, we have given them the general duty of promoting economic and environmental well-being in order for them to do that.
The Minister is right, and I was going to make the same point, about the remarks made by the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire. I accept that Natural England cannot have a responsibility for developing viable local communities or for turning non-viable local communities into viable ones. That is the responsibility of other bodies. Amendment No. 39, however, refers to
“the retention of viable local communities” in that context.
The objective was simply to ensure that Natural England understood that part of its function was to enable retention, by which I mean almost a double negative; not to do something that could damage the viability of rural communities. It is quite conceivable that Natural England could, using its myriad powers, do things that would damage the viability of local communities; for example, by making farming impossible in certain areas. I wanted to ensure that that aspect was covered so that Natural England realised that it must not ride roughshod over local communities willy-nilly and do things that might damage them, even though it might be the responsibility of another organisation or local authority to enhance viability. A local authority could not undo such damage if Natural England had done it.
I am grateful for that. I am sure in my mind that considering the good record that the constituent bodies—the Countryside Agency, the Rural Development Service and English Nature—come with, Natural England will want to retain viable rural communities as the hon. Gentleman describes. In Committee, we will constantly wrestle between the extent to which we trust an independent body and give it flexibility and the extent to which we prescribe what it must and must not do. There is a degree of trust involved in the relationship.
The hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) asked about how Natural England would be perceived as an organisation. Would it be a body that told people what to do, or would it have due regard to the mental health of farmers, village facilities and so on? Would it be seen as a partner? I believe that it should be seen as a partner and an enabling body working at a regional and local level with regional development agencies, local authorities, parish councils and other bodies on the ground to deliver sustainable development for communities. It will be a champion of the natural environment, but as we have said, it must have due regard to social and economic well-being through its management of that environment.
The hon. Members for Scarborough and Whitby and for Arundel and South Downs talked about the conflicting bodies, and I will return to that in discussing the Sandford principle. However, it is important that they and the rest of the Committee understand how we see Natural England working with the RDAs and local authorities to deliver with local communities at its heart. There will be negotiation, but there would be whichever way we chose to set up the body. One could specify a much purer purpose that excludes things, but that would set up a conflict at another level. Much of the conflict mentioned will be resolved internally. In my constituency, there are conflicts among various environmental bodies and between those bodies and local authorities about the delivery of infrastructure. Those are resolved internally and externally, and that is a fact of life. I hope that, on the basis of my explanation of the institutional architecture, amendment No. 39 will be withdrawn.
Amendments Nos. 40 and 41 deal with securing facilities. I listened with care to the passion that the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire used in talking about the need for Natural England to educate and provide facilities for study, understanding and enjoyment of the natural environment. Perhaps he and I interpret the language that is used in clause 2 differently, as I think that the amendments are superfluous. How Natural England takes its general purpose forward is for the future board to decide. We should not dictate that by statute; that is the point of an independent NDPB.
I know that the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire places great importance on the independence of Natural England; he and his right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset said so clearly on Second Reading. I am clear that the legislation should not be used to force the hand of the board as to how it should achieve its purpose and the decisions that it should take. We have set out clearly in subsection (2)(c) an example of how it might achieve its purpose in respect of provision and improvement of facilities for study, and we all hope that it will deliver that outcome.
However, my concern about the amendments is that, on my reading, they suggest that Natural England must be a direct provider to fulfil its purpose. That is too restrictive. I see Natural England as an enabler that will secure provision without necessarily providing it, as part of the outcome of an improved facility for studying, understanding and enjoying the natural environment, which we share as a priority.
I certainly was not suggesting that Natural England should be a monopolistic provider, but I have no doubt that it will want to be one provider of facilities for education, understanding and enjoyment. Indeed, English Nature already does that. That is the reason why amendment No. 41 has “by other means” as a catch-all at the end of its phraseology.
My concern, however, is the Minister’s earlier comment that he did not want somehow to fetter Natural England. It is interesting that subsection (2)(d) includes the phrase “promoting access” but the Minister is resisting my amendment, which would include “promoting” in terms of study, understanding and enjoyment. In one context he is prepared to prescribe, and yet he resists that in another. I am puzzled by the conflict between the Minister’s own words.
I was not focused on the word “promoting”; I was focused on the phrase
“through the provision and improvement of suitable facilities”.
It is specifying the provision that I find more difficult. I hope that that is helpful to the hon. Gentleman.
I now turn to amendment No. 1 in respect of sustainable access. The amendment was tabled by the hon. Members for Lewes (Norman Baker) and for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed) and dealt with clause 2(2), proposing that subsection (2)(d) should be amended to refer to sustainable access. As set out in the Government’s response to the Select Committee, I understand the concerns raised that references to access and open-air recreation in subsection 2(2) run the risk of Natural England promoting unsustainable activities. However, the Countryside Agency—again, I return to the record that we inherited of the constituent bodies—has the remit to promote access to the countryside, and its practical experience is that such fears are unfounded.
Returning to a familiar theme, Natural England must have the legislative freedom enjoyed by its predecessors. The legislation must not be used as an opportunity—as could be the case with the amendment—to reduce Natural England’s freedom to make considered and independent decisions. It would also be wrong to try to use the legislation as a straitjacket to prevent Natural England from making independent decisions that some of us might not like. That, of course, would detract from the point of setting it up as a non-departmental public body.
Of course, there are instances in which it is undoubtedly necessary for access to the countryside and open spaces to be controlled. Natural England will have an excellent pedigree in that respect. It will combine the Countryside Agency’s experience of promoting positive access management in conjunction with local access authorities, and of administering legal restrictions on CROW access where necessary, with English Nature’s experience of advising the agency on the need for nature conservation restrictions, and of enforcing byelaws in its national nature reserves.
Natural England’s ability to help manage less sustainable access in order to channel it away from more environmentally sensitive or valuable areas would be compromised by this amendment. Ironically, that might reduce Natural England’s ability to safeguard biodiversity and landscape.
The hon. Gentleman asked about partnership. We expect Natural England to work with its partners and believe that that will be crucial. It was a key theme of the rural strategy, which I am sure he enjoyed, as I did, and partners will include the DEFRA family. I referred earlier to the Environment Agency and Forestry Commission in respect of a memorandum of understanding. As I said, Natural England will also need to work in partnership with a wide range of other organisations, in the private, public and voluntary sectors.
In line with the flexible approach that we have applied throughout the Bill, we have not listed those partners in the Bill—because it would be a very long list and we do not want to be in a position of updating the Bill to reflect changes that might happen, for example, in the machinery of government. That is where we have left partnership.
I hope that hon. Members agree with me that all the Natural England agencies have done excellent work to date in promoting and managing access to the countryside, and are well placed to undertake that work even more effectively as a single integrated agency. On that basis, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not press his amendments.
I move on to amendments Nos. 42 and 43 in respect of working with rural communities and businesses. The amendments proposed the inclusion in Natural England’s purpose of a requirement to work with rural communities and businesses. Natural England’s purpose is all about what outcomes it is there to achieve. The amendments deal with one of the many methods available to Natural England in achieving its purpose.