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I remind the Committee that with this we are discussing the following:
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.’.
Before I resume, Ms Anderson, I should like to welcome you to the Chair. It is a pleasure to see you there and I look forward to working under your direction and guidance. It has always been a pleasure to work with you during the last four years, and I know what interest you take in the matters that we are discussing today. I gather that the last Committee that you chaired considered the Identity Cards Bill; I trust that this Bill will not be quite as controversial as that one may have been, and that you will not be wishing that you had those identity cards as you gaze around a number of new Members on this Committee.
Before lunch, we were discussing amendments Nos. 42 and 43, which are concerned with working with rural communities and businesses. Hon. Members are absolutely right to place such importance on how Natural England engages with its customers. The main way in which it will carry out its business will be to deliver through others, particularly land managers and farmers, and especially via the £250 agri-environment programme.
I should stress that Natural England will not be a large landowner itself. Clauses 3 to 13 give Natural England powers and duties to work with, offer advice to and give grants to any person. It will therefore be well placed to work with farmers, rural communities and businesses, in any way that it chooses. The motivation behind the amendments, working with those elements, concerns things that Natural England will be able to do and that one would expect it to do. The bodies that will make up Natural England have a strong track record of engagement with stakeholders.
Hon. Members may take reassurance from the 2004 Rural Development Service customer survey, which found an 87 per cent. overall satisfaction rate, backed up by ratings of 90 per cent. and above for individual attributes of customer service such as courtesy, helpfulness and professionalism. Like their colleagues in English Nature and the Countryside Agency, RDS staff, many of whom have practical farming experience or backgrounds, have an excellent record in face-to-face work with farmers, providing environmental and scheme-related advice on farms and through workshops. I hope that that is the experience of members of the Committee who have a farming background, and that it demonstrates to the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry), who has temporarily vacated his seat, that we want to carry through the notion of partnership into the new agency.
I have been very impressed with the culture that I have seen being established within the three bodies that will make up Natural England. As the Committee will know, since April they have been operating as a confederation of partners, meaning that they are increasingly working as a single body. From the start, the three bodies looked for early gains that could be made in making things simpler and more effective for customers. They are managing the aggregates levy sustainability fund from a customer perspective, as a single scheme. They are progressively transferring sites of special scientific interest wildlife enhancement scheme agreements—I hope that I do not have to say that again—into the higher-level environmental stewardship scheme. They are establishing only one contact point for all agreement holders. They are piloting a single regional voice in the area of the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) in the eastern region, and hope to follow suite with all other regions by the end of the year. Those are just a few examples where the three bodies have already been coming together to try to create a more coherent, simplified interface for the people for whom they work.
I hope that hon. Members will be as impressed as I am with the speed and energy with which the confederation has already gone about making those changes so that they can properly engage with and work in rural communities and businesses. I have mentioned—I may begin to sound like a stuck record in this Committee—that because Natural England will be an independent non-departmental public body, I am strongly of the view that it will be for its board to decide how best to further its purpose. At this stage, requiring Natural England to adopt a certain method of achieving its purpose on the face of the Bill, such as to work with communities and businesses, whether they are rural, urban or coastal areas—we must not forget that the body will not work exclusively in rural areas—would therefore not be appropriate. On that basis, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw those amendments.
That takes me on to the critical issue of conflict resolution. Amendment No. 44, the last one that I need to discuss in this grouping, proposes the introduction of a conflict resolution clause. The issue was discussed in the Government’s response to the Select Committee—I am happy to see my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping) back in his place. That I address the issue here is obviously very important.
Much mention has been made of the Sandford principle. For clarity, I can tell the Committee that the Sandford principle states that every effort should be made to reconcile any conflict between conservation and promotion of access or recreation, but where there is irreconcilable conflict, greater weight should be attached to conservation.
I can reassure the Committee that the Sandford principle will continue to apply to national parks, to areas of outstanding natural beauty and to conservation boards. In those areas the level of importance of biodiversity and landscape has been predetermined. That the Sandford principle should remain, to allow those bodies to protect that predetermined biodiversity and landscape importance, is important. Similarly, in nature reserves and sites of special scientific interest, there is a strong presumption that biodiversity considerations will take precedence. However, I would argue with the Committee that it would be inappropriate to apply Sandford automatically to all land.
The view of the Government and of the affected bodies is that including a conflict resolution clause in Natural England’s purpose, applying to its work outside the designated areas that I have just been talking about, would seriously constrain its independent decision-making ability. For example, that Natural England’s role in managing the environment would automatically take precedence over promoting access and recreation is not intended. The rural strategy made it clear that the objectives are mutually reinforcing.
Natural England will, of course, be operating in our urban green spaces, as well as in our rural areas. It would be difficult to justify tying its hands so that it always had to give nature conservation priority in urban areas. We must bear it in mind that the primary motivation behind the creation of some of those green spaces is to give access to people who live in those areas—to give them some room to pause and reflect and to enjoy a natural environment.
I reiterated that sustainable development will provide Natural England’s decision-making context. Natural England will actively seek long-term economic and social benefits and avoid unnecessary negative economic and social impacts. A conflict resolution clause would effectively be a legislative straitjacket eroding Natural England’s ability to make independent decisions on a case-by-case basis. I put it strongly to the Committee that we should allow Natural England to sit as an independent body with the ability to make those independent decisions.
I shall respond in a little more detail to some of the points that were made in the debate. The hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire talked about the conflict between nature conservation and access rarely being irreconcilable. Conflict can normally be handled through management techniques, but what is far more common is to find conflict between different types of access and recreation, where the Sandford principle does not achieve anything.
This morning we heard about instances of conflict between nature conservation and access, but it may be helpful to point out to the Committee that the Sandford principle applies only to instances of irreconcilable conflict between nature conservation and access; those instances are rare. The hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Goodwill) suggested that they might be becoming more and more common, but I can tell him that the latest English Nature figures about access on SSSIs show that more than 55 per cent. of them are on open-access land. They show that there are no SSSIs in access lands in England where preventing access to protect flora and fauna all-year round is necessary. Only 0.3 per cent. of SSSI access land has a partial all-year-round access exclusion, and only 1.06 per cent. of SSSI access land has seasonal exclusion. English Nature’s evidence shows that occasions on which there is any kind of irreconcilable conflict are few.
We ought to put it on record that a large amount of England has not yet been opened up under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, and nobody has had that access for more than nine months. It is terribly early to rush to judgment about the potential conflict between access and the environment. I accept that those are the presumptions that English Nature has made, but we should wait a bit longer before we immediately assume that there is no clash.
I am willing to accept that point. I look back with fondness to being party, five weeks ago, to the opening up of access to the North Yorkshire moors, which happened on the same day that 2,000 square miles was given open access. That was a great achievement of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act. These are relatively early days, but the substantive point remains.
I thought that the Minister was making a different point about SSSIs, which have been established far longer than the CROW legislation and over which there are few conflicts. In the Peak District national park—the biggest and most visited national park, where there has been access for nine months—there have been no conflicts between access and conservation because of good, thoughtful management practices.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that most helpful intervention, which requires me to add nothing more. I am sure that all members of the Committee will have taken that on board, and it reinforces my point that conflict is much more likely to arise between different types of access and recreation. We will, of course, discuss the rights of motorised vehicles and rights of way, which is a perfect case in point where real conflict is already occurring in the countryside. The Sandford, or any other, principle does not provide a conflict resolution mechanism in those instances—I wish that it did.
The hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby mentioned the CROW Act and ground-nesting birds. That was an example of an agreement being made to accommodate access and nature conservation. Sandford was not needed in that case and the agreement has worked well.
Following the wise words, as ever, of my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood that the subject will probably not go away and given that we are at the relatively early stages of consideration of the Bill, I will reflect on his comments and those of others. I do not think that I will want to amend the Bill, but I would like to give further thought to whether, in a non-statutory form, the guiding principles by which Natural England will be governed should be published or made available to the Committee. That might help and reassure the Committee without constraining the ability of that independent body to make its own decisions. In some ways, the guiding principles that come from that independent body as it is forming might be a better indication of how it wants to work.
In summary, the general purpose of Natural England is set out clearly in subsection (1). Subsection (2) informs the general purpose and should not be seen as separate from or different to it. I reiterate that Natural England will principally be an environmental body and will contribute to sustainable development. It will need to have due regard to landowners, rural communities, sustainable access and everything that we have discussed in relation to the amendments. However, I request that the amendment be withdrawn because I do not want to constrain Natural England or its board by dictating too closely in the Bill the outcomes of its work or how we want it to deliver those outcomes.
I begin by adding my welcome to you, Ms Anderson. During all the years you and I have been in this House, this is the first time we have served together on a Committee. It is certainly the first time that I have served under your chairmanship, and I welcome that.
I am grateful to the Minister for the way in which he has responded to the amendments and to hon. Members from all parties who have spoken to them. As I intimated at the outset, this is one of areas of the Bill that is subject to the most discussion, and we have had the discussion that I envisaged. I shall not pretend that I am entirely satisfied with everything that the Minister has said, but I shall return to those points.
With the wise words just referred to by the Minister, the hon. Member for Sherwood said that conflicts will be few and far between. They are both right; they will be few and far between, but as the hon. Gentleman concluded, they may well occur and we ought to have some mechanism in place. I have an example from my constituency. It relates to English Nature, and not Natural England—because it does not yet exist—but the principle is the same.
I am referring to the Wicken Fen nature reserve, which is in the centre of my constituency and two or three miles from my home. It is the oldest such reserve, which has been protected for 105 years. There was a proposal by Sustrans to build a cycle track across the fen and they wanted to use asphalt for its surface. English Nature opposed it for understandable reasons with which I would concur—the damage that the necessary foundations and the substance itself might cause to the habitat—and proposed using crushed limestone, a more local and natural material, as an alternative. That position was supported by the Wildlife Trust, the National Trust and others.
When East Cambridgeshire district council considered the issue at the beginning of April, they gave permission for the track to go ahead, subject to English Nature and Sustrans reaching an agreement. That took place three months ago and I understand that an agreement has still not been reached. I offer that to the Minister as a local example of conflicts that arise; there should be some mechanism to resolve them.
Other hon. Members referred to issues relating to the earlier amendments, such as the issue of rural communities and working with farmers. I accept what the Minister said and I hope that the general ethos of Natural England will be to work with local communities, farmers, land managers and everyone else with an interest in the environment, the landscape and the countryside, and the urban and coastal areas as well. I readily accept that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury referred from his own wide experience to the perception in many quarters that these bodies are not there to help but to regulate, and sometimes to interfere. There are such occasions; my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby referred to the north Yorkshire moors, but he did not pick up on the point that I thought he might. There has been discussion—I use the word mildly—about English Nature’s attitude to heather burning, which is a traditional and essential part of managing moorland, but English Nature has been quite opposed to it on occasion. Again, we have seen conflict, which emphasises the need for some sort of conflict resolution but also the need to work with communities. In this case, my hon. Friend referred to the important, albeit localised, economic activities associated with grouse shooting on heather moorland.
My hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Mr. Herbert), who is not with us this afternoon, questioned my amendment on conflict resolution and referred to the issue of “horsey” culture and whether Natural England would get involved in preventing the use of brightly coloured jumps and so on. I am not sure that Natural England would have a role in that. However, the important issue that he identified takes us back to the question of working with local communities and of economic activity in the countryside, which is part and parcel not just of the creation of the landscape and the countryside, but of maintaining and nurturing it and, often, generating the resources to look after it. People sometimes seem to forget that it costs a lot of money to manage the countryside. A great deal of that management has been done, in effect for nothing, by farmers and others through their other activities. We must not ignore that.
I am quite disappointed by the Government’s response to amendments Nos. 39, 40 and 43. However, as the hon. Member for Sherwood said—the Minister confirmed this—we are at an early stage and I am obviously just raising issues that are of concern. I would be prepared to wager that the Minister will decide to concede on some of those issues during the passage of the Bill. On the issue of the Sandford principle, he almost appeared to make a concession at this point. The other issues will be the subject of major debate at later stages in this House and certainly when the Bill is considered in the other House. I would be prepared to wager that amendments will be made about the issue of local communities, in one way or another.
On amendments Nos. 41 and 42 and the question about the promotion of
“study, understanding and enjoyment of the natural environment”,
I intervened on the Minister this morning when he was responding to this point. I identified the fact that he suggested that I was proposing that Natural England would simply have a monopolistic position. That certainly was not the intention of the amendment. As I have said repeatedly, I am not wedded to the words of an amendment, and if what he suggested was the case, clearly the amendment would need to slightly change. However, in his response to my intervention he conceded that he had missed that the key is amendment No. 40, where I propose that Natural England should have the responsibility for promoting the
“study, understanding and enjoyment of the natural environment” just as it has the responsibility for promoting access. The Minister said that he did not particularly want to constrain what Natural England did, but he is telling it to promote access and I do not see why he cannot also do what I have suggested.
I appreciate that, but the Minister will know when he checks what he said this morning that he was suggesting that changing the wording would in some way constrain Natural England, whereas I am talking about broadening its responsibility. The amendment is not about promoting the provision and improvement of facilities. That would all be taken out. I was simply suggesting that Natural England’s responsibilities should be to promote
“the study, understanding and enjoyment of the natural environment”.
That would broaden its responsibility rather than restrict it. I hope that the Minister will take that idea away and look at it again because, as I said—he kindly referred to my emotion earlier—I passionately worry that so many people in this country do not understand the countryside and many of the aspects of wildlife and nature, and all the things that go with that.
That brings me to the Sandford principle and to amendment No. 44. I have already used the example of my constituency and there are others. In effect, the Minister, in his last few words, conceded that he will have to reflect on this issue. I suspect that the hon. Member for Sherwood carries more weight than the whole lot of us on the Opposition Benches on this matter, but I do not begrudge him that at all in terms of encouraging the Minister to have another look at this issue, because we are all interested in getting the Bill right.
I am not sure whether the Minister is happy that that has gone on the record, but it is there now. I look forward to the day when he is as sensitive in public as he clearly is in private; I will add that he has been sensitive when talking to me, too, in private.
This issue is clearly going to take up more time during the passage of the Bill through Parliament. The Select Committee’s position was absolutely clear and the Minister understands that. He referred to the debate that we are yet to have on vehicular rights of way and suggested that the Sandford principle would not affect them. However, I suggest that it would because although there is a conflict with other users, there is also a big conflict with the environment, so the Sanford principle would have a significant locus.
We have had a good debate. It has been by far the biggest yet, and will probably be the biggest of all this Committee’s debates on the Bill. I am grateful to hon. Members and to the Minister, who accepts, I hope, that all these amendments were tabled with the genuine intention of improving the Bill or of drawing out aspects of it. I am grateful for his responses, to which we will return at a later date, but it is early days, so I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.