asked the Secretary of State for the Environment whether he has any plans to extend the funding of the Nature Conservancy Council.
The NCC's grant-in-aid has been increased from £18–1 million in 1984–85 to £22–7 million in 1985–86. Requirements for future years will be considered in the light of the NCC's corporate plan.
Those increases are welcome so far as they go, but if it becomes clear that the NCC is unable to complete the renotification of sites of special scientific interest by the end of calendar year 1986, will the Minister consider providing extra funds for that? Does he accept that the new responsibilities visited on the council after 1 April this year, in terms of the farms structure and regulations that encourage farmers to leave intensive farming, have put an additional burden on the NCC? If that proves to be a problem, will he produce extra finance to enable that programme to proceed smoothly?
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's support. We increased the Nature Conservancy Council's funding by 36 per cent. between 1983–84 and 1984–85, and by 25 per cent. in the next year. I am happy to be able to tell him that the NCC recently confirmed that it could bring forward the substantial completion of the SSSI programme from 1987 to the end of 1986, which is a satisfactory outcome in response to the additional money that it has received.
Does my hon. Friend accept that the Government deserve credit for increasing the funds of the NCC so substantially? However, does he also accept that the NCC now has the capacity to deal with the vexed problem of marine nature reserves? Does he agree that we must set up the first marine nature reserve without delay, and that, if we wish the voluntary principle to survive, we have no excuse for failing to do so?
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend's remarks. During our debates on the Bill of the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark), I made it clear that if there is no measurable progress on marine nature reserves within the next 12 to 18 months the Government will wish to reconsider the matter.
What does the Minister mean by "measurable progress"?
If we have not achieved an agreement to have a marine nature reserve during the next 12 to 18 months, I would regard that as sufficient evidence to cause us to reconsider the law.
Will my hon. Friend do more to persuade the NCC to explain the excellent work that it does to a wider public? Is it not important that it has the support of the broader constituency?
That is right, and the support that the NCC is increasingly obtaining from the farming community is important in enabling it to achieve that end.
Would it not be a sound idea to establish strong funding so that emergency action could be taken if an area recommended as an SSSI were threatened by unnecessary and ill-thought-out commercial expansion? Does the Minister realise that such an area in the Orwell estuary is already threatened? Has the NCC made any recommendations to his Department, and, if so, what is his response?
I shall write to the hon. Gentleman about the Orwell estuary. With all-party support, the House moved to block the three-month loophole, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State showed himself ready to move quickly to make conservation orders where necessary.
Although we are all grateful for the increase in NCC funds, does my hon. Friend accept that there is an increasingly fine line between the establishment of SSSIs and other sites of special interest, which may be more archaeological than agricultural? Does he agree that additional funding may be necessary from other sources, for instance, to save some of the finest water meadows in Britain—an example of which is at Britford near Salisbury—some of which have already been ploughed up?
My hon. Friend is right to say that we must mot make the mistake of concentrating only on SSSIs. However, it is open to local authorities to make management agreements for sites of the sort to which my hon. Friend refers.
In order to publicise the work of the NCC, will the Minister consider making its papers available to hon. Members? In view of the suggestion made by the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) about the draining of wetlands, is the hon. Gentleman aware that a soil survey has shown that pH has fallen to as low as 2·5? Will he therefore be prepared to increase the funding of the NCC and ask it to undertake a full comprehensive soil survey of the East Anglia area in particular?
I shall consider the hon. Gentleman's latter suggestion. A great deal of other work is going on into the sources of changing acidification in water. I shall certainly consider that suggestion as well as the other one that he made.