I seek clarification from the Minister on Natural England’s involvement with planning applications. English Nature had a role in many planning applications whether or not it was a statutory consultee. I am interested to know what the new organisation’s role will be because it would have a wider remit than English Nature. There was one of those controversial byway-open-to-all-traffic applications in my constituency, and English Nature’s point was, “Well, regardless of any damage that could be caused, if there was no damage to flora or fauna, we would not have a view on that.”
With regard to the new organisation taking on some of the responsibilities of the Countryside Agency for the environment and landscape, I presume that it will have considerably more input into planning applications. An example might be a wind farm application. Under its remit, English Nature might have said that as far as it was concerned, there was no wildlife implication from the construction of a wind farm, because it did not affect flora and fauna to any extent. However, the new organisation might argue that the wind farm could damage the landscape, and therefore the organisation would have a much stronger view on such an application.
It is also interesting that clause 4(4)(b) gives Natural England the power to intervene “on its own initiative”. I would be grateful if the Minister gave us some advice about the new organisation’s planning powers. If that matter is complicated at this stage, I would be happy to receive a letter explaining it.
One of Natural England’s major roles will be as a key independent advisor to the Government, public authorities and its stakeholders and customers. I say to the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) that Natural England will inherit the positions of English Nature and the Countryside Agency as a statutory consultee in planning and other processes. He is right in that Natural England will be expected to contribute proactively to regional plans, such as regional spatial strategies, to which we will return under clause 15. Clause 4 reflects the Government’s expectation that Natural England will provide public bodies with advice on request. I have a long and exhaustive list, which I am happy to lend to the hon. Gentleman, of all the various Acts, regulations and schedules in respect of which the various constituent bodies are already statutory consultees. One efficiency that will be gained by bringing the three organisations together in one relates to the fact that the Countryside Agency and English Nature are often both consultees in respect of the same legislation. Rather than both having to work something out and feed information back to the planning authority, for example, only one lot of work will have to be completed.
The clause gives Natural England powers to advise any person either on request or on its own initiative. In order for Natural England to become the powerful and determined environmental advocate envisaged in the rural strategy, it will also have the power to ask public authorities for a written statement should it believe that its advice has been sought and not acted on.
Bringing together the Countryside Agency and English Nature could produce one of the first examples of conflict between Natural England and the Environment Agency, which are also statutory consultees. A number of bodies have talked, particularly in the Select Committee, about clearer guidelines and clearer lines of demarcation between the responsibilities of the Environment Agency and those of Natural England. Involvement in planning consultation and regional spatial strategies are two areas in which the Environment Agency and Natural England may come into conflict.
I am grateful for the opportunity to comment on the relationship between the Environment Agency and Natural England, because it was the subject of debate on Second Reading. Their functions will remain distinct. Natural England will be able to use its incentive-giving powers, including administration of the agri-environment schemes, to complement the Environment Agency’s regulatory powers. I mentioned earlier the memorandum of understanding that is being drawn up between the Environment Agency, the Forestry Commission and the three bodies that will come together to form Natural England. That partnership working provides a great opportunity for improved environmental and land management.
That point was reinforced by the Environment Agency’s evidence to the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and by the recent parliamentary briefings from the Natural England confederation of partners and the Environment Agency, which I trust Committee members have received. The documents dismiss the idea that there will be confusion in the respective roles, and they welcome the distinct but complementary roles that they will have.
I assume that the spirit of partnership with distinct approaches will remain in respect of their roles as statutory consultees for planning. There may be circumstances in which the two bodies take a different view, and it will be then up to the planning authority—even East Cambridgeshire might be capable of making difficult decisions—to choose between the Environment Agency and Natural England.
The bodies will fulfil their own distinct purposes and functions, but I am satisfied that, through the memorandum of understanding and considering the other indications that we have had, the two will work closely together. I am meeting the chair and chief executive of the Environment Agency tomorrow, and I will pass on the concerns that the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed) has raised today.