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With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments:
No. 2, in clause 40, page 13, line 34, leave out ‘have regard’ and insert ‘aim to further’.
No. 127, in clause 40, page 13, line 34, leave out from ‘have’ to end of line 36 and insert
‘a duty to further the conservation of biodiversity, so far as is consistent with the proper exercise of those functions’.
No. 3, in clause 40, page 13, line 35, leave out ‘to’.
Good morning, Mr. Forth, and I welcome everyone on this lovely, bright, sunny day. What better day could there be to consider the Bill and biodiversity, which is the thrust of the clause and our amendments? I hope that the amendments that we have tabled are helpful. We welcome the duty on every public body to conserve biodiversity, but we would like it to go a little further than to “have regard” to biodiversity. Our amendments would strengthen the duty, and would have the added benefit of bringing England and Wales into line with Scotland in this respect.
We know that local authorities already have an important role in biodiversity when considering aspects of their work, such as planning. Planning is very much at the heart of local authority work these days, involving a tremendous amount of engagement with the public and business. Local authorities generally have become much more aware of the need to conserve biodiversity, and some have been proactive in that respect. When planning applications are submitted, particularly for large developments, sensible applicants already ensure that they have regard to biodiversity matters, but we want local authorities to have an enhanced role in that respect.
Many local authorities also own large pieces of land, or have control of them in one way or another. I am thinking of my own county and county farms: the way in which farm land is used where the county is the landlord and tenants are required to manage and run those farms with regard to biodiversity. When local authorities receive applications for funding for various matters, they should consider what effect those applications may have on biodiversity.
I am aware that many local authorities are excellent; they are proactive. They are looking for this role and in many respects they have already undertaken what is set out in the provisions of the clause. My local authority, Cornwall county council, has been at the forefront of that process. Some three years ago it set targets in conjunction with Cornwall Wildlife Trust on 100 identified wildlife sites, 60 of which were owned by the council with a further 40 in private ownership. Those were identified as sites that were worthy of enhancement and I am very pleased that we are well on target, so that by March next year those sites will have been enhanced and the biodiversity will be much improved.
It would be true to say that other authorities are less active and less concerned, so the picture around the country is rather patchy. There are some very good local authorities and some that are much less so. We want to bring all those authorities up to the level of those that offer best practice.
The Cornwall Wildlife Trust supports our amendments and has helpfully provided a rather useful briefing, which may have been supplied to others. It properly highlights three distinct roles for our local authorities, which I think are worth reading into our deliberations because they are important aspects. First, there is the aspect of information on biodiversity. Before a local authority can introduce beneficial policies, it needs to identify the sites and areas that are locally important, which have real potential for enhancement or restoration. That takes a great deal of work and the trust ought to be commended for the work that it has done in this respect because authorities need to have that information at their fingertips to put into place policies that they would like to introduce. The logical place to hold, maintain and provide access to this information is a local records centre, and local authorities are one of the key partners being encouraged by the national biodiversity network to support both centres and to support those collecting the biodiversity information.
The Minister will forgive me for reiterating some of what we said a sitting or two ago about the role of local authorities. Their role would be complemented if they were to undertake some of the measures that are destined for the Commission for Rural Communities.
I spoke before about sites of special scientific interest, and the Minister knows that in the previous Session, the Select Committee considered SSSIs and the way in which so many of them had been regretfully damaged beyond repair. Local authorities are advised to give a high degree of protection through the planning system to SSSIs, and that includes using policies within their local development frameworks to protect and enhance them. It is important to enhance the sites’ usefulness, and not just to protect them and keep them as they are. Protection through the planning system and through the strengthening of schedule 9 of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, coupled with a commitment from the Government to get 95 per cent. of SSSIs in a favourable condition by 2010, will create a relatively strong status for SSSIs.
However, SSSIs represent only a sample of our nationally important sites, with many priority habitats and species falling beyond their boundaries. That was recognised by Cornwall county council: it was not just the SSSIs, of which there are a considerable number in Cornwall, but many other sites that were of great interest and that needed to be protected.
Local sites have a lower hierarchical position. No significance is placed on their quality, nor on their contribution to nature conservation objectives, despite many being of equal calibre to SSSIs. For sites to be special, there should be relatively few of them in a category of special scientific interest. We all recognise, however, that underneath that category a huge number of sites are gradually being eroded or damaged. Local biodiversity action plans are an important part of any community strategy that local authorities should have a duty to prepare under Government legislation.
We welcome the clause, but if the Minister were to go that little bit further and bring us into line with Scotland, that additional duty would be provided for. Many local authorities need that extra push. Some are performing well and going well beyond what they already need to do; but many others are prepared to do only what they have to do. They may interpret some of the wording of the clause as having “regard to” it, but as little else. We would like to see the enhanced duty placed upon those local authorities.
During the previous two days of discussion in Committee, it has been interesting to hear how different Members have represented their rural communities. We have heard from the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed) about the idyll of rural communities in Cornwall, and we have heard about the tremendous variety of mining villages from my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith). May I add my endorsement of the beauties of the Sheffield area? My son is at university there, and I had never previously visited the area. We now regularly stay on a farm in the midst of nowhere outside a village called Hathersage, where we are 15 minutes from the centre of Sheffield, and it is absolutely glorious. I can assure those people who are concerned about the setting of Sheffield, that its environmental setting is a good representation of the United Kingdom’s diversity.
On Friday, I visited a rural village in my constituency. Cornelly is not what many people would think of as a rural community; there are certainly no roses round the doors or ponies trotting through the streets. Many people live in council housing and work in the steel works at Port Talbot, in the neighbouring constituency. One would not think that the word “biodiversity” was on everyone’s lips, but at a question-and-answer session with the children, who are planning to come to Parliament in a few weeks’ time, I was asked—the question was like a gift, and one might have thought that I had planted it—“What are you going to do as a Member of Parliament to protect different species?”
That might seem a bizarre question coming from someone in Cornelly, given the way in which I have described it, but I have not told hon. Members that Cornelly is on the borders of Kenfig national nature reserve, which is a European site of nature conservation. As a result, the people of Cornelly are very conscious of biodiversity and of our responsibility for protecting the local habitat; to them, it is their local habitat—their local playground. Indeed, it is also the last remaining site of the sand dune systems that once stretched along the south Wales coast. It is therefore a rare habitat, and the biodiversity is of European importance.
When I told the children about my involvement in this Committee and about the clause, they were particularly interested. For them, biodiversity is not an academic, obscure issue: it is something that they see daily as they walk around their community. For them, it is precious, and they want the Committee to take responsibility for its conservation.
In previous speeches, the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) has mentioned the role of local authorities, and the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall has reiterated the point today. However, it is perhaps not generally recognised—I received this statistic from the Association of Local Government Ecologists—that 60 per cent. of local authorities in England do not employ an ecologist or have access to professional advice and information. Despite long-standing central Government advice and guidance, many of them are still not aware of their statutory obligations for biodiversity.
That is a frightening fact. It is frightening that many development plans for managing landscape features—local authorities have had responsibility for such things since 1994—still do not include sections on the management of flora and fauna. They pay no regard to that and contain no information about the biodiversity features in the local authority.
It has been recognised that planning will play a major role in meeting European and international targets on biodiversity loss by 2010. Yet local authorities’ performance varies greatly, as the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall mentioned. Not all of them have links with their local recording groups, so they do not know who the local bird recorder, the local moth recorder or the local plant recorder is. They certainly do not have an established local records centre to co-ordinate the information that many of them need. I am very fortunate because such things are in place in my local authority, but even when they are in place, there are still battles on the planning committees.
Our local authorities do not always conduct biodiversity action planning, something else mentioned by the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall. Some areas are not even designated sites of interest for nature conservation. That can have a tremendous impact for the protection of sites when planning applications are made. An example from my constituency is Kenfig hill; whereas in Bridgend the local authority has many areas designated as sites of interest for nature conservation, across the border the neighbouring authority has none.
Hafod Heulog wood is an ancient woodland with no designated protection. An application has been made to the two local authorities for the extension, yet again, of an open-cast mine, which would wipe out the wood. The neighbouring authority knows nothing at all about what is in the site, but the local community is adamant that it wants to protect biodiversity and is aware of species that it wants protected, including butterflies and mammals. What is important—my reason for tabling this probing amendment—is that we should have a duty on local authorities not just to conserve but to further biodiversity. To date, many are not carrying out those duties. Reports to development control and planning committees contain a presumption in favour of developers. The presumption is people first.
I cannot tell the Committee how many planning committees I sat on when I was a local authority member in which the local member would say, “We don’t have to worry about a butterfly: I need this housing estate.” A member might take the same view about a particular mammal, or about great crested newts, and the reason would be, “I want a rugby academy,” or “I want my golf course extended.” I have heard all that over and over. Because there is not necessarily a demand that local authorities should have a duty to further biodiversity, many are able to disregard it.
Biodiversity is poorly integrated into other local authority departments. It is at its best in the leisure and highways departments’ grass-cutting regimes. We have, fortunately, seen an end to the sterile landscape of bowling green road verges. Increasingly, those areas are allowed to grow. Local authorities have grasped that responsibility, largely because it saves them money, but a side effect has been improved habitat opportunities. I wonder how many members of the Committee could say how many butterflies or flying insects they saw as they went about their constituencies this weekend, which was beautiful, with glorious sunshine. The increasing sterility of the environment in my constituency frightens me. It will have an effect on young people. If they do not regularly see the creatures and habitats that we know we need to protect, they will pay less and less regard to them.
I tabled amendment No. 127 because the words in the Bill will enable local authorities to have regard to a matter and then move on. They will look at the issue, then say, “No, no. That development is more important than protecting the habitat.” It is important to re-emphasise the duty to conserve and give greater strength to what we seek to protect. In Scotland, that duty is already in place. I hope that it will also be placed on English and Welsh local authorities.
With reference to the remarks that have just been made, I find it amazing that the economics of open-cast coal mining can justify environmental damage anywhere in England or Wales now, but perhaps that is a matter for Ministers other than the one present.
I have long been a supporter of the Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Naturalists Trust and am therefore instinctively predisposed to support any amendment that the Wildlife Trust puts forward. However, I am conscious that there is little to be gained from placing otiose burdens on local authorities, particularly if they are already doing the things concerned. As I understand it, local authorities already have a duty under the Local Government Act 2000 to produce local biodiversity action plans. I am bound to say that they are doing that.
If I may briefly trespass on the good will and patience of the Committee, I will describe what the local authority is doing in my constituency. Cherwell is an attractive part of England between Banbury and Oxford, along the valley of the river Cherwell, stretching across to the Cotswolds and areas such as Hook Norton—members of the all-party beer group will know it as the home of Hooky beer—and to Bicester and the Buckinghamshire borders. It is a conventional English district council authority. It has published its council biodiversity action plan and it has nine habitat action plans.
The council started that process by commissioning an ecological consultant to produce a precursor document, which councillors looked at and worked on. Priority habitats and species in the Cherwell district were detailed. The report considered the habitats and species listed in the UK biodiversity action plan and the Oxfordshire biodiversity action plan. It considered other local priorities and the work of the district council. Conservation of priority habitats and species was summarised.
However, all this is about more than just producing a biodiversity action plan. The district council has gone on not just to consult widely with local individuals, groups and organisations, which one would expect, but to fund local schemes through grant aid. For example, three organisations have been awarded grants by the district council towards local projects that are helping to improve sites for important habitats.
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has been given a grant towards habitat work on its reserve at Otmoor. If anyone ever has the opportunity to spend a little time in Oxford, they should visit Otmoor, which is about five or six miles away. It was the site that Lewis Carroll chose for the chess board in “Through the Looking-Glass”. It is an amazing area of fenland—one would never expect it so near to London. It was preserved because a lot of it was a training area for the Army during the war and afterwards. Not many walkers went there because they thought that they might get shot. That was quite a good way of preserving the habitat. It is now a phenomenal bird reserve. One would have to go up to the Cambridge fens or down to the Somerset levels or the Kent marshes to find anything comparable. The reserve is significantly increasing the amount of wet grassland, grazing marsh and reed bed in the district, all of which are important habitats in the UK. That is an example of the district council working with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds to enhance and improve an important area of biodiversity.
Banbury Ornithological Society has been given a grant towards the creation of a nature reserve with full public access, and it intends to carry out some heathland restoration as part of the project. Heathland habitat is quite rare in Oxfordshire. The society has taken an 18-acre field near Tadmarton, which is a village next to the one in which I live. The field is well used by a wide range of farmland birds, including yellowhammers, reed buntings and skylarks.
The Cherwell biodiversity action plan includes an objective relating to heathland re-creation. A specific project is to identify farmland birds that are priority species. The nature reserve will be promoted once public access has been created.
A further grant has been given to Oxfordshire Geology Trust to create a geological heritage trail based on Deddington and the Barfords, which is a group of villages in the heart of the constituency, just where the Jurassic outcrop finishes. The trail will explain how local geology has influenced the local landscape, biodiversity, industry and history. The trust will work with schools and, also as part of the biodiversity action plan, with farmers and local landowners.
The district council has provided grant aid for some 2,000 m of hedgerow restoration, involving coppicing, hedge laying and replanting. That is in addition to schemes funded by various Government agencies.
My point is that the district council is quietly getting on with meeting the wildlife challenge for the district. It is working co-operatively with farmers, landowners, wildlife and nature conservation organisations, and delivering on its biodiversity action plan. Such work does not get much coverage in the local newspapers or elsewhere, but it is the sort of thing that is of real value. The district council is actually getting on and doing everything to further biodiversity that is being asked for in the amendment, and it is much to be congratulated and, I hope, encouraged in that.
Although the amendment is valuable, it seems slightly otiose. There is no point in placing on local authorities further burdens if they are already delivering on their duties adequately—indeed, better than adequately—and seeking to ensure that the biodiversity of their district is well respected and advanced.
I support the amendment and particularly endorse the argument made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon). I should begin with a confession and admit that I have no connection whatsoever with Sheffield—I appreciate that that may put me at a slight disadvantage in this debate—other than living about 40 miles from it. I have not been to Sheffield in the past 30 years, but, after the comments from various hon. Members this morning and in previous sittings, I am determined to visit it and appreciate its beautiful countryside.
I support the amendment not as someone from a constituency located in a rural area and which has enormous advantages but as one from a constituency that is primarily urban and suburban, albeit with a hugely attractive rural fringe. I pay tribute to the work in my constituency of the Lancashire Wildlife Trust and of the local authority itself, Bury metropolitan borough council, which has a strong record on sustainable development. It was the first local authority in the country to publish its own climate change strategy, for example, and one of the few actively to support the construction of an enormous wind farm, following the lead given to the campaign by a local Member of Parliament. I should mention that the wind farm will not be located within my constituency or the local authority’s boundaries—it is always easier if they are located within somebody else’s. Nevertheless, the council had the courage to support the recent proposal for the Scout Moor wind farm, and I am delighted that the Government were also able to endorse it.
Although I fully acknowledge that many local authorities do important work in biodiversity and I also acknowledge the crucial importance of SSSIs in the national conservation of biodiversity, it is important to recognise that if we are serious about engaging more people, especially more young people, in the cause of sustainable development generally and the conservation of biodiversity specifically, that will not be done by relying on the good nature of a small number of enthusiasts or of local authorities, nor on the preservation of our existing SSSIs.
Again, I recognise the important steps that were taken in the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 to enhance the conservation of SSSIs, but the majority of people in this country live in urban or suburban rather than rural settings, and a long way from a SSSI. Most have no idea what a SSSI is, but many are concerned about local wildlife sites. They are extremely concerned about what happens in their backyard, both literally and metaphorically. That has been an issue in my constituency.
In fact, a great level of interest in local wildlife sites in a largely urban and suburban area led to the formation a few years ago of a unique political party, the Bury Wildlife party. Sadly, it was formed by two former members of my own party. They fielded candidates in elections and attracted considerable support, which was a measure of the interest in biodiversity among urban and suburban dwellers.
In areas such as mine, for 20, 30 years or more a considerable amount of former greenbelt has been concreted and tarmacked over to provide vast housing estates for affluent commuters who tend to work elsewhere in the Greater Manchester conurbation. The importance of wildlife sites and of furthering the conservation of biodiversity within such large suburban concentrations is extremely important.
There is a huge attraction for many people to move into the modern housing estates to the north of Greater Manchester on the fringe of the rural upland. Many people appreciate the convenience of living in those housing estates, the quality of the housing and the good access to the motorway network. However, living in a large suburban housing estate has its disadvantages. Increasingly, populations such as that represented by many of my constituents are beginning to realise the limits of suburbia.
The amendment would contribute to an increasing recognition of the limits of suburbia and a recognition that if we concrete over more of our greenbelt to concentrate large numbers of people in residential settings with hardly a blade of grass to be seen, we will ultimately reduce the quality of life to which many people aspire in the first place. Therefore, in addition to the significance of the national programme of conserving and enhancing SSSIs, we need to do far more work to designate and conserve local wildlife sites.
In recent years, we have had many successes in my constituency. Some sites were quite small; some were larger. Some were in areas that were protected from future development; some were in areas that were completely wild. Some were former industrial sites that have developed by accident as wildlife sites, through neglect; others were former reservoirs and mills which provided the water power for the factories that were first built in my constituency almost 200 years ago and have attracted a considerable amount of wildlife, again as a result of neglect.
The amendment is not otiose—I am generally against otiosity, if one can be. It is a constructive amendment, and it would help to concentrate the minds of more of our local authorities, particularly those in urban or suburban districts where it is too easy to assume that biodiversity is not an issue for them. I argue that biodiversity is an issue for all of us. It is particularly important that more people in the urban and suburban parts of Britain begin to understand this, and the amendment would contribute to that understanding.
I am warming to Sheffield, not least because the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon) says that she stays in a lovely farmhouse only 15 minutes from the centre. If one is 15 minutes from the centre in Cambridge, one is in the next street. Traffic must move more easily in Sheffield than it does in Cambridge. Be that as it may, Members on both sides of the Committee have made a great many important points. Like other hon. Members, I am a member of a local wildlife trust—in my case, the Cambridgeshire and Bedfordshire wildlife trust—and I strongly support the work that they do.
The hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) has just crossed swords with my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) about the word “otiose”. We do not have a problem with the desirability of biodiversity, and I am absolutely four-square with the hon. Members for Bury, North, for Bridgend and for South-East Cornwall, who clearly explained why it is desirable for local authorities to further biodiversity.
Moreover, the hon. Member for Bury, North is absolutely right about urban and suburban areas and the fact that biodiversity applies to us all. I merely flag up the slight concern as to whether it is right to push another duty on to local authorities rather than let them decide for themselves. I am taking a step back from biodiversity and looking at it from the wider perspective of letting local authorities make their own judgments and take their own decisions on all sorts of issues, which is something I feel strongly about.
I shall move an amendment later that also relates to the relationship between central Government and Parliament and the decision-making process of local government. I am a little wary of moving away from consolidating the duty to have regard to biodiversity to a duty to further the cause of biodiversity, not because I do not want biodiversity—I do—but because I am not sure that we should constantly push more definitive responsibilities on to local authorities.
Hon. Members on both sides have taken the opportunity to refer to projects and activities in their constituencies that show where local authorities are already furthering the cause of biodiversity. Like everyone else, I have my own examples. All hon. Members have probably received Wildlife Trust briefings, including one about the great fen project, which is close to my constituency and is restoring 3,700 hectares—almost 10,000 acres—of fenland from arable land to traditional fen.
The project involves Huntingdonshire district council working with the Wildlife Trust, English Nature and the Environment Agency. People often take the long way round when they are trying to restore the fen, rather than simply turning off the pumps and letting it all happen naturally, which they could do quite easily, because most of the fen is naturally drained. The only problem is that not a small number of my constituents could become homeless quite quickly, given the number of houses that are now below sea level.
The great fen project is a clear example of district councils working well and doing the job properly. I understand the impetus behind the amendment, and support the desire for local authorities to further biodiversity, but I am hesitant about Parliament imposing another duty on them and extending it further, rather than the quite proper way in which the Government are setting out to further biodiversity, which is simply to say that they must have regard to it. Beyond that, it should be a matter for local decision makers.
I start by saying that I am the vice-president of the Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust, a privilege that I share with the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), who knows a great deal more about bird life than I do. Perhaps I know more about wildlife than he does.
Clause 40 is an important new clause. I do not think that we should pass it without appreciating its significance. It builds on the work of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 and places a new duty on local authorities to have regard to biodiversity. It is the first time that such a duty has existed. That duty applies not just to local authorities but to public bodies.
Will the Minister confirm that regional development agencies are public bodies? I am sure that they are. If so, the new duty will apply to regional development agencies. A duty of sustainable development has already been placed on them, but I am not convinced that they always give that duty sufficient priority. Regional development agencies do good work. For example, the East Midlands Development Agency—EMDA—recently helped to fund the Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust’s new visitor and entertainment centre at Attenborough nature reserve’s fine building. That is a specific project.
However, RDAs are particularly driven by economics and the notion of sustainability and biodiversity does not, to my mind, have high enough priority with the agencies. So I hope that the Minister will make it clear to RDAs that this new duty applies to them.
I join other hon. Members in commending the work of local authorities. There is a new vision and impetus in local authorities to consider biodiversity and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North said, to consider local wildlife sites in particular. Some local authorities are extremely good, but a survey of them all would find them to be patchy. The issue that the amendments address is straightforward. The hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire put it well. The question is whether the duty to conserve biodiversity is a passive duty that local authorities must have regard to, a thinking duty, or whether it is more action-oriented and the duty is to further biodiversity.
I will give some examples from my county, Nottinghamshire, in which the local authority should have done more. At North Muskham, Langold, Everton, North Leverton and in parts of Broxtowe, the bat population has declined because the local authorities have given planning permission for barn conversions and old buildings to become new residences without doing the necessary bat surveys. As a result, the mitigation that is necessary has not taken place. In each case, the local authorities would say that it did have regard to the issue of bats. That is the point of the amendment. Perhaps a duty to further biodiversity would have been helpful in those cases.
Another interesting example, and one that Parliament and all the parties in it have taken an interest in, is the removal of hedgerows. We are beginning to get a grip on that issue. When they are approved by local authorities, removal notices do not define the time of year in which such work should be done. A duty to further biodiversity would be extremely helpful in that regard; the local authority would be able to specify at what time of year the work should be done, so as to avoid bird-nesting seasons.
The duty of the local authority as land manager is also relevant. Most local authorities own substantial amounts of land. All the hon. Members who have spoken in the debate have, rightly, spoken about their areas and about the beauty of them. I will talk for a moment about Sherwood forest, which has been degraded over the years. Far too much of Sherwood forest is wall-to-wall conifer. If we went back to the days of Robin Hood, real socialism and redistribution—
Not even Sheffield. I will praise Sheffield, but I will not give it that one.
If we were to return to those days, we would reintroduce more heath land and grassland. There has been some remarkable work at some of the old pit sites, such as Blidworth and Bevercotes; a piece of alchemy has transformed those mud heaps into a new greenwood—a new Sherwood forest of deciduous native woodland, and a fair amount of heath land.
It is important that local authorities acknowledge the importance of the provisions of clause 40. I imagine that there will be further debate on the matter during the Bill’s passage through Parliament. However, I look forward to the Minister telling us that RDAs are covered; and I would like to know how he anticipates local authorities having a consistency of approach when implementing the provisions.
The debate on having regard to and furthering is an echo of an earlier debate on clause 2, the purpose clause. I suspect that there is some hesitance to further nature conservation and biodiversity because of the possibility of conflict between economic and social aims. As we acknowledged earlier, Mr. Forth, good practice and good land management would help resolve many of those issues. It is an important clause. Even though interesting amendments have been tabled, it is vital that we applaud the Government for bringing forward such legislation.
I declare at the outset, as did other hon. Members, that I am a member of the Dorset wildlife trust. Indeed, I even went so far as to raise money for it by walking from one end of my constituency to the other. I took a couple of days; it was most enjoyable and a fantastic opportunity to appreciate the biodiversity of my constituency. I enjoyed it again at the weekend when I helped to organise a horse-riding event, when I followed a hare that was running along the road in front of the car, and when I witnessed a couple of skylarks on the downland above the Weymouth white horse. I enjoyed myself considerably when admiring the biodiversity in Dorset.
It will help if I sketch out exactly what clause 40 does. It places a duty on all public bodies and statutory agencies to have regard to conserving biodiversity in the normal exercise of their functions. The definition of conservation in that instance includes restoring and enhancing habitats and the populations of living species. I can tell the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire—I am grateful for his supportive comments —that it is a duty. Its purpose is to clarify existing duties and to raise the profile of biodiversity. The generic nature of the duty allows complete flexibility in delivery, and it allows public bodies to implement it in the way that is most relevant to their functions and to the opportunities that are open to them—and local authorities are accountable for that to their electors. It is intended to encourage a culture shift, so that public bodies make biodiversity a natural and integral part of the decision-making process.
I am sure that the Committee will be pleased to hear that DEFRA will be supporting the implementation of the duty—for example, through the additional allocation of £850,000 per year to support regional and local biodiversity partnerships. That will assist partners such as local authorities better to integrate biodiversity into their policies and operations. The duty will apply to England and Wales, and I can tell the Committee, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood, that it will apply to all public bodies—not only local authorities, but Government Departments and regional bodies, including regional development agencies.
The amendments, as we have heard, seek to strengthen the duty by requiring public bodies to aim to further the conservation of biodiversity. We are comfortable that the wording of the Bill goes far enough to encourage public bodies to integrate biodiversity into their functions. While the duty does not prejudge the outcomes for biodiversity—which, to some extent, the amendment seeks to do by using the word “further”—it should mean that decisions are more beneficial for the conservation of biodiversity than they might otherwise have been. I have had conversations with officers of English Nature, who would value the ability to go to local authorities or other public bodies—regional development agencies are a good example—to point out to them their statutory duty to have regard to the conservation of biodiversity.
We are, primarily, trying to tackle the instances in which biodiversity loses out because it is not taken into account. On that basis, this duty is sufficient. Local authorities have been much referred to by the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall and by my hon. Friends the Members for Bridgend and for Bury, North, and 67 per cent. of them do not include biodiversity questions on their planning application forms. The duty set out in the Bill would address that. The hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) waxed lyrical about the excellent performance of his local authority. I pay tribute to the many local authorities and councils throughout the country that work hard in the pursuit of biodiversity conservation. However, the fact that 67 per cent. do not include such questions suggests that we need to do a little more, as we have heard. I can tell my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend that councils will have to worry about the newts; they will have to have due regard to them under the new duty.
Strengthening the “duty to further” would raise difficult questions for local authorities and other public bodies. The Committee is in agreement that it is desirable to further biodiversity. The question is whether stating that as a duty will cause difficulty. Let me give an example. A local authority could be faced with a decision between two projects, one that is good for biodiversity but bad in other ways, and another that is neutral for biodiversity, but furthers things economically and socially. I would not want to make that local authority subject to legal challenge for not opting for the plan that furthered biodiversity when it could have gone for the neutral one that did no damage to biodiversity but allowed it to further some of its other aims.
The issue of Scotland is one on which we celebrate devolution—the ability of each nation to decide for itself how to interpret things and which duties to apply. I do not want to comment unduly on the effect of that; I want to concentrate on what is right for England and Wales. To introduce an extra duty to further biodiversity has the potential to cause some difficulty, and to invite legal challenges on individual decisions of public bodies. In my constituency, the Ministry of Defence does an admirable job in furthering biodiversity on the ranges at Lulworth and around the camp at Bovington—for example, by taking extraordinary steps to protect sand lizards around the tank training tracks. There are excellent examples of Departments as well as local authorities furthering biodiversity, but there may be circumstances where the Ministry of Defence, for example, needs to take actions to further its own statutory aims. As long as those aims are neutral in relation to biodiversity, we should not be critical of them and make them subject to legal challenge because they did not further biodiversity.
The body could have regard to biodiversity and choose to take another action, but it would have to be able to demonstrate that it had regard to the purpose of conserving biodiversity. If it were challenged, it would then be able to demonstrate that it had properly considered the biodiversity implications of its actions. That is the important aspect of what we are trying to introduce here, which I think all Committee members would agree is a positive step forward—although some may argue that we should go a little further.
In short, the duty to “have regard” is in my view the most appropriate approach. I have listened carefully to hon. Members and I say in passing to my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood that tomorrow I shall be launching a new woodland policy, to which I am sure he will pay close attention. I think that we have the most appropriate approach regarding duties on public bodies in relation to biodiversity, and on that basis I hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw his amendment.
We have had nearly an hour of very good, honest and straightforward debate. At the end of the day, I feel that there is not a great deal of difference between the parties or many individuals.
When I considered the clause, I immediately felt the same way that the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire felt about imposing another duty on local authorities. Local authorities have had enough duties imposed on them during the past few years and as a former councillor—as I suspect many hon. Members were—I recognise that many councils feel that they have become not much more than agents of central Government. I needed to be persuaded of the case to impose another duty on them.
I was persuaded because of two or three issues. It is rather ironic that those areas of the country that have for a long time protected the countryside through planning policies, protected biodiversity and taken the matter extremely seriously have become a magnet for people who wish to move. They have become places that people now want to go to and thus are subject to considerable pressure for more development.
The first reason that I felt that this duty was needed was that in future local authorities might value having an additional duty to give them the armoury and protection that they need to go into fights with developers over particular sites so that they can genuinely say, “I’m sorry, but we have a duty to conserve biodiversity rather than just have regard to it.” That would give them a stronger hand in dealing with development applications in sensitive places.
To a certain extent, it is a matter of value judgments, and I think that what the Minister is saying about having regard is all right, but what value do we attribute to the regard of biodiversity against what happens in a planning application, the management of an estate or whatever? Where is the value judgment? The value of biodiversity has moved from almost nowhere to way up the scale, but sometimes just having regard to it means that sites can deteriorate. They will not be maintained at their current level if planning applications are approved merely because the planning authority has had regard to biodiversity.
Then we come to those situations where local authorities, having had regard for biodiversity, properly refuse an application. In 99 cases out of 100, the applicant will immediately go to appeal. However, I suspect that if there were a duty to conserve biodiversity there would be little doubt that such applicants would not appeal and that if they did, the planning inspectors would have much more opportunity to give such value judgments the force that we all believe is right.
We have concentrated on local authorities but are talking about all public bodies, some of which have approached the situation much more proactively than others. I always smile a little when we talk about the Ministry of Defence. Having spoken on defence for a couple of years, I recognise that it does a fantastic public relations job of telling us how great it does on its ranges, while largely forgetting about the acres of land that it churns up with tanks and explosives on Dartmoor. The MOD does a great job on the margins, but in the middle, where it thunders around with huge tanks ripping up the soil, I am not quite so certain that it has regard for biodiversity.
There is a measure of agreement across the Committee that the issue is important. The clause is welcome, although even at this stage the Minister has not persuaded me that there are great difficulties. He could have given lots of examples of real conflict in Scotland, where similar proposals have been passed. My view is that many local authorities would welcome the protection that they would give in negotiations on developments in or close to sensitive sites, rather than opposing them as another duty. I would therefore like to press the amendment to a vote.
I shall not detain the Committee very long. The amendment makes a minor technical revision to subsection (5) to reflect the difference in practical interpretation of the term “authority” in England and Wales. I apologise that we had not recognised the difference, but it has come to our notice that we need to define local authorities in Wales properly. I apologise in particular to my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend and the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams), who I am sure noticed that and would have tabled an amendment if we had not done so.
Amendment made: No. 139, in clause 40, page 14, line 21, at end insert—
‘(b)in relation to Wales, a county council, a county borough council or a community council;’.
‘(b)in relation to Wales, a county council, a county borough council or a community council;’. —[Jim Knight.]
The Chairman, being of the opinion that the principle of the clause and any matters arising thereon had been adequately discussed in the course of debate on the amendments proposed thereto, forthwith put the Question, pursuant to Standing Orders Nos. 68 and 89, That the clause, as amended, stand part of the Bill.