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I want to take the opportunity to raise a point that has been raised with me, and, I suspect, other members of the Committee, by the National Farmers Union. It has asked what is the point of this clause. As far as I can see, there is no dissent from the principle of what is being addressed, but the NFU thinks that the whole clause is unnecessary. The original power was enacted as long ago as 1968 as far as Exmoor was concerned. The power was included in the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, which the clause is intended to amend. The power has rarely been used. According to the regulatory impact assessment, it has been used only three times since the 1980s. Basically, it provides a cooling-off period of up to three months for national park authorities to consider a proposal, which could be extended by another nine months if the authorities decide to decline. That is a sensible approach and we do not take issue with it.
However, the clause would transfer the power to oblige notification of operations on moors and heaths in national parks from Ministers to the national park authorities. Orders would no longer be subject to parliamentary approval. The rationale advanced is that that will simplify the process and reduce the burden on the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs following the efficiency scrutiny of local authority consent regimes that was conducted as long ago as 1997. So, in truly efficient style, it has taken us eight years to take action to enable orders to be processed more quickly.
But—this is a big “but” and the point of my speech—the NFU argues that the process has been superseded. I agree with the NFU. Section 42 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act is obsolete because of the obligations that now exist. Any plan to change the use of land by bringing uncultivated land or semi-natural areas into intensive agricultural use requires DEFRA’s consent under the environmental impact assessment regulations that came into force on 1 February 2002. The contention is that the 2002 regulations have effectively made the part of section 42 that we are amending obsolete. The regulations give the Secretary of State the power to serve stop orders on anyone who starts a project without the necessary consent. If convicted, the person faces unlimited fines.
Even more importantly, those regulations go much further than the narrow clause does. They cover a much wider range of types of land—including wetlands and unimproved grassland such as down-land and scrubland not just the moorland and heath referred to in clause 59. So I, and the NFU, contend that the environmental impact assessment regulations provide much broader protection for such land than section 42 or clause 59 orders could possibly do.
It seems to me that the noble attempt by the Government to simplify the process is actually making it more complicated, because the administrative and bureaucratic burden created by having two different types of orders—DEFRA processing one type and, if the clause goes through, the national parks authority processing the other—is potentially much broader. It would obviously lead to duplication and confusion. How would a farmer in a national park know which type of order to apply for or whether to apply for both?
There is an important point. Based on the information that the NFU has provided to the Committee, it seems to me that the clause is pointless because the Government have already enacted regulations that render the power that it grants obsolete. I would be grateful for the Minister’s observations.
I am grateful that the hon. Gentleman raised the issue and has given me the opportunity to seek to clarify it.
The clause helps better protect long-standing moors and heaths in national parks from forestry operations, planning and other activities that would convert them into agricultural land and that is likely to affect the land’s character or appearance. The effect of the provision in the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 is to stop those potentially harmful activities for up to a year so as to allow the farmer and the national park authority to come to an agreement about how best to manage the land in question. Although the provision whereby the Secretary of State makes an order gives protection to threatened land, it relies, in practice, on someone else asking the Secretary of State to make the order.
In the few cases in which a request has been made to the Secretary of State, that request has always come from a national park authority. So, the Secretary of State has ended up doing something that the national park authority is perfectly capable of doing itself. Although the need for such orders is rare, when a request for an order is made, it must, by its nature, be made quickly, for example, to stop a farmer who has begun ploughing valuable unspoiled moorland or heath in a national park.
The last order in 2001 was made within 24 hours of a request being made by the Peak District national park authority. The Bill will give the power to make an order to national park authorities rather than the Secretary of State. That will save valuable time in that a park authority need not ask the Secretary of State to make an order but could make it without delay. Time is of the essence if potentially environmentally damaging activities are to be stopped and an acceptable solution found. The transfer of power from the Secretary of State to the national park authorities will simplify the administrative process and reduce the bureaucratic burden accordingly.
The hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) and, through him, the NFU have raised some questions, and I shall try briefly to answer them. There are two essential reasons for introducing the power. We are required to take action following the identification of this power in the 1997 efficiency scrutiny of local authority consent regimes. The provision will simplify that process, because at present an order is made by the Secretary of State following a request from a national park authority. Transferring the power straight to the authority clearly simplifies the process.
There are additional benefits. The potential for time saving could mean that ecologically valuable land that might have been lost will be saved. The provision will not place any additional burdens on farmers. The power to restrict ploughing and certain other farming activities on moor and heath already exists; only the body applying the power will change. The provision will not place any unwanted administrative burden on the national park authority, partly because the power is rarely used, and because it will save the authority the bureaucratic burden of applying to the Secretary of State.
The hon. Gentleman rightly raised the question of the power’s relationship with environmental impact assessment regulations, and in that context he suggested, “Why bother at all?” There are conceivable circumstances in which the power would still be required if the environmental impact assessment regulations were modified, for example on plots of environmentally valuable land below any area threshold. Not having the power at all could lead to the loss of such environmentally important but small areas.
Finally the hon. Gentleman suggested that the power may cause confusion, which may lead to abuse by national park authorities. The power has existed for many years, and it has co-existed with the environmental impact assessment regulations. The section 42 power of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 can be used in some circumstances in which the regulations might not bite. All that we are changing is that the national park authorities will use the power rather than the Secretary of State. On the very few occasions that an order has been made by the Secretary of State, the national park authority has requested it.
I trust that that clarifies matters for the Committee. In essence, we are trying to simplify and streamline the process. It is rarely required, but still, it is required.
The Minister had obviously seen the same paperwork, and I am grateful to him for seeking to respond. Will he clarify an issue about the environmental impact assessment regulations? He said that they have all existed for a long while, but those regulations have existed for only three years. The last instance of using section 42 of the 1981 Act that he quoted predated those regulations, as it was in 2001 in the Peak District national park. I am therefore still unclear about his suggestion of a hypothetical instance in which an action to destroy land would fall through a hole in the environmental impact assessment regulations. He talks about an instance if the minimum areas were changed. Are the Government planning to change them? Where is the confusion that the Minister discusses?
The environmental impact assessment regulations in section 42 of the 1981 Act have slightly different definitions of land. For example, the regulations require intensified agricultural operations, while section 42 simply refers to ploughing and other agricultural activities, such as forestry, that affect the character and the experience of land. The section 42 order can be made more quickly than the environmental impact assessment regulations can be implemented. There may be circumstances in which it is more appropriate in terms of speed to use that provision.
With regard to the size of the parcel of land that we are discussing, the regulations are being reviewed, and the threshold may be considered in that review. We want to keep open the option of the national park authority using the threshold in order to protect environmentally sensitive land.