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Conservation (Management Agreements)

Volume 76: debated on Wednesday 3 April 1985

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5.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment how many management agreements have now been concluded between farmers and local authorities since the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 came into operation.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment
(Mr. William Waldegrave)

The Countryside Commission has been informed of 64 management agreements that have been concluded by local authorities under the provisions of the 1981 Act. Of these, 38 involve no financial consideration.

Does that rather disappointing total not indicate that the Act still needs a few more teeth? Is my hon. Friend aware that in some cases habitats and landscapes can be destroyed before a local authority even knows about it, let alone has the chance to conclude a management agreement? Is not this an argument for some kind of notification procedure under which a local authority has to be given notice in advance of an owner's intention to carry out work on his land?

I do not think that these figures necessarily represent the whole story. The provisions of the 1981 Act are only a part of the battery of powers that are available. There was a recent case in my hon. Friend's constituency where a felling licence was ignored. The result was that large fines had to be paid by those involved, which should remind people that other powers are available to deal with these matters.

Will the Minister give further consideration to the point that his hon. Friend the Member for Ravensbourne (Mr. Hunt) has made, and at the same time commend those farmers who have taken part in management agreements and those who are involved in the farming and wildlife advisory group? Is it not clear that their increasing commitment to conservation is not matched in any sensible way by the present Administration?

The hon. Member will not expect me to agree with the last point that he made, which I rebut strongly. However, I am delighted to join him in paying tribute to the farmers who, in many cases, under the advisory group, are doing a very good job. The survey recently carried out by the National Farmers Union shows what is being done by those farmers who have a real care for the countryside.

Since management agreements should involve an element of positive management rather than dealing with the handing over of public money for nothing in return, does my hon. Friend have any information about how many of the management agreements include such a positive element?

I do not have the figures with me, but all the power is there for positive elements to be included in the management agreements. The fact that many Countryside Commission agreements do not involve the payment of money makes the point that there is much more voluntary co-operation than people often realise.

Is the Minister aware of the comments of the Prince of Wales this morning that far too often farmers are still exploiting the land for profit without respect for conservation? Would not an appropriate response be to reinstate, at the behest of the Government, a provision in the Wildlife and Countryside (Amendment) Bill putting a duty on MAFF to consider conservation as well as agricultural interests?

As usual, the Liberal party is concentrating on form rather than reality. We want developments of the kind to which the hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) has paid tribute and which are indeed taking place. It is not a matter of passing Acts of Parliament and feeling that we have done something clever. It is a matter of getting real voluntary co-operation, and that is what the Government are doing.