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Isle of Wight: Island Designation Status and Landscape Protection

Volume 733: debated on Tuesday 6 June 2023

I will call Bob Seely to move the motion, and I will then call the Minister to respond. As is the convention for 30-minute debates, there will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered Isle of Wight island designation status and landscape protection.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Latham.

Islands have a unique place in the identity of the British Isles. We are a collection of islands, and some are bigger than others. Our islands are marked out by their sense of history, their sense of community and the uniqueness of their geography, their wildlife and, in some cases, their geology. For my constituency of the Isle of Wight, I will make the case for a specific island designation. I do not propose to have a national park on the Island, but a new designation in UK landscape protection, which I believe should be introduced not just for the Isle of Wight. It would be of considerable benefit to other islands in the UK, and it certainly could be seen as a UK-wide designation, because many Scottish islands may wish to take part. So too might Anglesey and the Scilly Isles, so it would stretch across Scotland, Wales and England.

My plan for an island designation for the Isle of Wight is supported by the Isle of Wight Council and our area of outstanding natural beauty partnership. It would effectively put into law a landscape designation given to us by our UNESCO biosphere status, even if that was initially a shadow designation on the way to becoming something more legally binding in the UK—as we know, the UNESCO biosphere is not legally binding. I know the Minister has heard my argument very recently, and I am looking forward to seeing her on the 13th. I officially invite her to the Isle of Wight, so that she can see with her own eyes some of the points that I am trying to make about the physical unity of the Island. I would be most grateful if she did so, and I look forward to seeing her on the Island very soon.

In support of my argument, I will explain why the Island has an exceptionally rare diversity of animal life, marine habitat and geology, and why I feel it should have been much more valued over the years for its uniqueness and value to the UK than it has been by policy makers. Let me kick off my argument by saying that the Isle of Wight is pretty much geographically unique. In the words of our AONB, it is a microcosm of the whole of England. The east resembles Kent and Sussex, with its thick hedges, copses and woods. The stone walls and small sandy bays in the south, around the undercliff, feel rather like Cornwall. Where I live in the south-west, the windswept chalk downs that roll to the sea resemble parts of Dorset, and the creeks of Yarmouth, Newtown and Wootton in the north of the Island resemble those in Devon.

To pull all that into terms that geographers might recognise—I apologise for repeating what I said in a recent debate, but I want to get this on the record, because it shows the variety of habitats in the Island—we have a broad mix of new woodland; maritime cliff and slope, including our unique chines; soft sandstone, which has been moulded and shaped by waters and rivers as they flow to the sea; low calcareous grassland; our coastal and flood plain; our grazing marsh; lowland meadows; reedbeds; and lowland dry acidic grassland. We have fens on the island, as well as saline lagoons and mudflats. We have coastal sand dunes, coastal vegetative shingle and the lowland heathland. Beautiful chalk downs, with their rare flowers, insects, adders and lovely things like that, provide the Island’s spine, which runs from Bembridge in the east, past me in Mottistone and Brighstone, and all the way down to the Needles in the west.

All that is in one compact island, which is 30 miles from east to west, and 15 miles from north to south—from Cowes at the top to beautiful St Catherine’s down at the bottom. It is one of the most diverse areas of England and one of the three most diverse areas in the south-east of England, along with the New Forest and Surrey heaths, and I would respectfully argue that our variety of wildlife and habitat diversity is greater than in both of those two places—not that I wish to be critical of them, because they are unique and fantastic as well. Our English landscape in miniature, and our range of habitats, means that we continue to be home to species that are unique to the Island or, perhaps more importantly for the UK as a whole, are not flourishing on the mainland but are either less threatened or better off on the Island. We do not have grey squirrels, although one once got on a ferry and the ferry had to be stopped. We do not have escaped mink or escaped deer, but we do have red squirrels, dormice and water voles. I thank Helen Butler of the Isle of Wight Red Squirrel Trust for the important work that she does.

We have some of the UK’s rarest bats; I thank our wonderful Isle of Wight Natural History and Archaeological Society for listing all 17 bat species. We have some unique and highly rare ones, such as the greater horseshoe bat, Bechstein’s bat and the grey long-eared bat. Mammals aside, I asked Natural England for a list of rare species of insects and flora and fauna. It came back with 28 species, which include early gentian, field cow-wheat and wood calamint. On rare insects, the Island is the sole British location for the Glanville fritillary butterfly as well as the reddish buff moth. I thank Jim Baldwin for his excellent work in cataloguing the many moths that we have on the Island—not an easy job, but somebody has to do it.

For our birds, the Solent is a Ramsar-designated site, and we have wetlands of international importance of both sides of the Solent. I hope that the Minister will be interested to note that, on the Island specifically—in Brading, Newtown and Western Yar—marshes and estuaries are highly important for migrating birds. We have five that are rare or threatened, including terns, teals and a variety of plover. Brading marshes is a site of special scientific interest, a special area of conservation, a Ramsar-designated wetland and a RSPB nature reserve—it is not in the AONB. Forestry England and the Roy Dennis Wildlife Foundation reintroduced sea eagles in England on the Isle of Wight, and I thank Steve Egerton-Read, Forestry England’s project officer for the sea eagles, for showing me around Barding marshes, I think about a year ago, when we spotted—I think—a female sea eagle perched on a tree looking for breakfast. Buzzards, once rare, are relatively plentiful, and we have a healthy population of adders.

As regards our marine environment, the area surrounding the Isle of Wight is protected by maritime conservation zones, special protection zones and special areas of conservation. Again, I asked Natural England for a list of species that I should be aware of. It said that there are 26 species around the Island that are nationally scarce or globally vulnerable. We are a relative haven for many different types of species, whether on land or on sea. That is an important part of an island designation for me, because it would include the marine environment, human environment and landscape environment—a bit like a UNESCO biosphere but in UK law.

I shall not list all the very rare marine species, because I am respectful of people’s time, but they include native oysters, both our varieties of native seahorses—the short-snouted and the long-snouted—varieties of jellyfish, rays and other species. We also have seagrass meadows in Osborne bay, Yarmouth and Bouldnor. Indeed, those seagrass meadows are being used to transplant seagrass to the other side of the Solent—into the Beaulieu river—so the relative strength of our natural world is being used to support others. We also might be doing a project to reintroduce UK crayfish back into the Isle of Wight, because the UK population of indigenous crayfish has been decimated by the American crayfish, which, like the grey squirrel, was imported and proved to be far more aggressive and predatory.

Geologically, along the south-west of the Island, we have a near complete exposure of cretaceous coast. We have this stuff called wealden rock. It is orange and it produces dinosaur bones. In most of the UK, it flows and undulates well underneath the surface, but it sticks up in the south-west of the Island over an area of about 11 miles, and there is a little patch in Sandown in the east as well. The sea and tides gently wash away that coastline, and that is why we have the richest dinosaur finds in Europe. I mentioned a family dinosaur last time—I will not go there again, because we do not have time. The undercliff, a breathtakingly beautiful part of the Island on the south side, is the most geologically unstable part of Europe.

What does all that mean? I am not just listing this because I want island designation for my constituency—everyone could say something similar about their constituencies, although clearly the Island is unique and special. I am making the point that our variety, diversity and depth of habitats and our different types of wildlife, flora, fauna, insects, and marine and animal life are pretty much unique in the UK.

The Island should have had a special and unique role in this country’s protected landscapes, but it has not. Our landscape and natural world has been celebrated by many different types of artist over the years. J.B. Priestley, one of the great 20th century authors, who lived on the Island, said the Island should be Britain’s first national park. Sadly, we missed that boat. I am not arguing for that; I am arguing for an island designation. Even before Priestley—he wrote “An Inspector Calls” when he was living in the village next to me—our Island’s uniqueness was celebrated by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and by Keats, who wrote in Endymion:

“A thing of beauty is a joy for ever”,

allegedly about Shanklin chine—one of our wonderful geological chines. Britain’s greatest artist J.M.W. Turner sketched and painted on the Island. Algernon Swinburne, another great Victorian poet, lived in Bonchurch. Indeed, the Freshwater and Bonchurch sets of the 19th century were heavily influential in the UK. Julia Margaret Cameron pioneered early portrait photography on the Island in Freshwater. In 1850, the daughter of William Makepeace Thackeray said:

“Is there no one who is commonplace here? Is everybody either a poet, or a genius, or a painter”?

I am tempted to say, “Yes.”

The Island has one of the most painted coastlines in Britain, along with north Yorkshire and Cornwall. We have not done enough with our artistic and cultural heritage. Sadly, we have forgotten far too much of it since world war two—that is another story.

We have a single Island-wide designation: the UNESCO biosphere, which was awarded to us in 2019, and I thank everyone involved in that, including Joel Bateman, Richard Grogan and many others, but it comes with no legal standing in the UK. The problem is that instead of being treated as a single whole, we had some guy from the Ministry turn up in the mid-1960s and parcel the Island out into five blotches of AONB. I found that incredibly frustrating because people can go to considerably larger AONBs on the mainland, for example, driving through bits of the Cotswolds, and some of it is pretty flat and quite ordinary and boring, but it is part of a greater whole. It is included because it is part of a greater whole and there is a greater beauty around it.

I find it bizarre because if anywhere should be treated as a single whole in the UK, it is a relatively small island, even if it has lots of different types of habitat. It is a single whole with many habitats within it, all of which feed and function off one another. The Isle of Wight has been parcelled as 52% AONB, which is almost entirely focused on lowland heathland. The extraordinary Brading Marshes and the dryland around them were not included in the AONB, and many other parts of the west and the south were not included and are now under development pressure.

We are a relative refuge for wildlife, but we are also more vulnerable than parts of the mainland because we are finite and not that large. As Natural England notes, finite landscape is being damaged at pace. Its report says:

“Urban development is spreading, with waste disposal sites, extensive holiday and industrial developments and caravan parks blurring the edge of settlements.”

In the past 50 years, we have lost some species. The extent to which rural landscapes have been disturbed on the Island by urban development has increased by nearly 30%. That figure was applicable until 2007, and it is worse now. Some of our rivers have been badly modified and damaged.

Even when we are protected by the AONB, we have seen that sometimes that is not enough. There is something I am working on that I will mention because I want the Minister to be aware of it and I have written to the Secretary of State about it. Under section 191 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, there are time limits on the enforcement of planning conditions that prevent planning authorities from taking action on historical breaches of planning. Even if that breach is minor, immunity can then be granted from planning conditions as a whole, which then permits development that should not take place.

On the Isle of Wight, we have one pretty awful development that exemplifies this problem: Chine Farm. A minor breach of condition years ago involving camping in a field not specified by planning conditions has now been leveraged to permit the siting of static caravans all year round. That is in a site of special scientific interest on a heritage coastline in an AONB. I have written to the Secretary of State on numerous occasions about closing this damaging loophole, which affects me and others.

The purpose of the Island park designation would be to cover the entirety of the Island. It would treat the Island as a single whole. It would unite maritime and landscape protection in one designation, and common sense suggests that on an island this is the sort of unified approach that we should be taking not only to landscape management but to supporting farmers. If all my farmers on the Island could, for example, have Farming in Protected Landscapes funding, they would be able to do things like planting more hedgerows and planting copses, to join up our natural realm into a single whole. We would have these natural corridors, whether hedgerows or copses. In fact, I saw some of those being planted last weekend, at the Isle of Wight sheepdog trials. It was great to see that, and I thank Ian Wheeler very much for his work.

An island park would assume a basic standard, when it came to planning and housing, akin to that of an AONB. If the Minister is asking what an island designation should consist of, the basic building block is AONB throughout—unless there is an exception for development. That is the first point. The second point is better, more traditional standards in planning and beautifying, which is an important part of our planning and housing ideas anyway, of our towns and villages, to respect the traditional building methods, whether they involve traditional Isle of Wight stone, which is pretty much unique to the Island—we see it a little bit in west Dorset—or patterned red brick, as seen in Newport.

That means that large-scale housing development, completely inappropriate for islands, would be banned in favour of small-scale development in existing communities. Pleading an exceptional circumstance, which I hope we have negotiated with the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, would allow the Island to focus overwhelmingly on finding homes for our local population and not have to fit into arbitrary targets, which take absolutely no account of the fact that the Isle of Wight is separated by sea and is an island.

An island park designation would also serve as branding. There are 56 food producers on the Island. It would help them to brand their products better, and it would help with tourism if people saw that they were going somewhere that valued nature and had an extraordinarily rich natural world.

How would this come about? The Glover review recommended

“a wider range of…systems of landscape protection”.

I hoped that that was going to mean primary legislation. Might it mean primary legislation? If not, a second option would be to amend the Isle of Wight County Council Act 1971—if I came high up in the private Member’s Bill ballot, would that be an option? A third option would be to extend the AONB, but that is incredibly time-consuming; it takes, seemingly, years—up to five to 10 years. Therefore I am wondering whether there is another way of looking at this by getting some kind of shadow designation, so that if the Government introduced further environmental Bills and Acts in future, island parks, akin to an AONB and meaning higher standards—with opt-outs for job creation, because that is really important on islands—would be something that could appeal, not only to the Isle of Wight but, potentially, to the Isles of Scilly, to the Western Isles of Scotland and to Anglesey. This is potentially a really attractive idea.

To sum up, the Isle of Wight is unique. I do not think it has been valued enough in the last 50 to 60 years. We should have been a national park—we are not—but our natural habitat is unique. The variety of our habitat is unique. The wildlife that we help to protect and that finds a refuge from the mainland of the UK is relatively unique. Our tourism could really do with the sense of the Island being an island park—that is not a national park; it is a different designation. I think that if we could work towards that, it would be of huge benefit. I do not want to see the Island becoming overdeveloped in the coming decades, because that will ruin what is unique and special about it, certainly for as long as we are separated by sea from the mainland.

I will leave the Minister with a final thought. The Government are committing to designating 30% of land as protected. I know that we have our patchwork of protections, but a single, encompassing whole would, I think, enable the Government to meet their targets. In the Island’s case, it is absolutely deserved, because of our contribution to the natural world through our different habitats and our geology. Therefore I look forward to the Minister coming down to the Island very soon to talk with me further about this and I look forward to discussing it with her when we meet on 13 June.

It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Latham. It is always a pleasure to hear from my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely), as he speaks with such adoration, pride and passion but, most importantly, a deep understanding and knowledge of his constituency of the Isle of Wight.

Once again, he has powerfully and effectively set out his case for an island designation. We are looking very closely at that in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and we will discuss it in far more detail when we meet in about a week. My hon. Friend makes it impossible to do anything other than accept his kind invitation to visit the Isle of Wight. I will endeavour to go during the summer recess to visit some projects. I would like to meet Helen Butler in particular; my hon. Friend referenced her work in preserving the red squirrel colony on the Island.

Let me set out some reasons why the Isle of Wight is so special. We have already heard incredible insights about the species, but I also reinforce that we have 41 sites of special scientific interest. We have a national nature reserve at Newtown Harbour that is managed by the National Trust, eight local nature reserves covering over 1 sq km and around half of the Isle of Wight’s coastline of approximately 45 sq km is defined as a heritage coast at Tennyson and Hamstead. In addition, all of the waters around the Isle of Wight are designated under a network of marine protected areas, covering 331 sq km and including three special areas of conservation: south Wight maritime, Solent maritime, and Solent and Isle of Wight lagoons. There are three special protection areas at the Solent and Southampton water, also recognised as Ramsar sites. There are also three marine conservation zones: Bembridge, Yarmouth to Cowes, and the Needles. They represent just some of the unique features of that wonderful place. I look forward to visiting it, especially after a good conversation with officials about the proposals that are the crux of this debate.

I am happy to confirm that we have a meeting to discuss the proposals in more detail and we will be able to understand the landscape and the coastal areas in particular. All of England’s landscapes are important, but our 44 national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty are the most iconic and beautiful places. Covering almost a quarter of England, they contain over half of the SSSIs in England, around 542,000 hectares. Many of our most threatened species live there, such as the red squirrel—which has a stronghold on the Isle of Wight—the curlew and the water vole. Protected landscapes represent our shared heritage and national identity, and are also home to our most special rural communities and businesses. I am biased because I live in the English Lake district and know from first-hand understanding, having always lived in Cumbria, just how important protected landscapes are. They are one of the reasons that I am so supportive of the farming in protected landscapes fund, which we are extending and which is open to farmers in areas of outstanding natural beauty and national parks.

Our current and future protected landscapes can play an important role in recovering nature and, by doing so, contribute more to our commitment to protect at least 30% of land by 2030. We absolutely expect them to do so. Over 262 pages, our environmental improvement plan, published on 31 January this year, sets out 10 goals of legal targets on how we will improve our soil quality, air and water quality; how we will increase tree canopy cover; and increase the size of habits for our vital species in order to achieve the apex target of halting nature’s decline and increasing nature’s abundance after 2030.

We are developing a new outcomes framework and strength and management plans for protected landscapes. One of the most important additions we are making off the back of the Environment Act 2021, however, is the local nature recovery strategies, which will be rolled out soon across all upper-tier local authorities. I recommend that my hon. Friend engages with the LNRS team, and I am very happy to make that introduction. The LNRS will be the critical linchpin for connecting landowners, farmers, environmental non-governmental organisations, charities, people working with nature, organisations across the island and local authorities and reinforcing how we will achieve the apex target of halting nature’s decline. What better place to achieve that than on the Isle of Wight?

We are continuing to make great progress in taking forward an ambitious new protected landscape programme, which was announced in 2021. A couple of the success stories from that are the Yorkshire wolds and the Cheshire sandstone ridge, which are being considered for designation as areas of outstanding natural beauty, along with extensions to the Surrey hills and the Chiltern AONBs. Natural England is fully committed at the moment with its current list of designations, but that is not to say that we will not consider new designations. I cannot imagine a more powerful argument than the one my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight set out. I will work closely with him to advise on the process, and give any hints and tips that may perhaps help him and his island residents.

I understand the challenge of overdevelopment. My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight set out some poignant cases, and I look forward to working with the local nature recovery strategy teams, Natural England and his local authority to see what we can do. I, too, value the contribution that small developers can bring to the island, by helping to achieve the priorities that my hon. Friend set out around the designation of an island park or AONB across the island, as well as building homes for local people. Of course, those are also priorities for this Government. The right homes, in the right places, with the right sense of place, are so important; it is important that we have beautiful homes that are sustainable and that feel like homes that belong on the Isle of Wight. My hon. Friend set out his argument about the 56 food producers, and the importance of the visitor economy for the island, as effectively as always.

We will use the all-England strategic landscape mapping tool, published in October 2022, to identify those landscapes and improve nature and access. That is a personal priority for me, and it is also my responsibility in DEFRA to improve people’s access to nature. That is why we have the commitment that everybody, wherever they live, will be able to access a green or blue space within 15 minutes. It is why we are increasing access to walking and cycling, and working with Active Travel England and the Department for Transport.

We will identify further conservation needs across England, including any remaining places that may be suitable for future designations. We will take into account all the information that my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight brings to our meeting in the next couple of weeks. I assure him that we will consider the proposal for potential new approaches, alongside other priorities, through the all-England strategic landscape mapping tool, as we drive forward action, most importantly, to deliver on our environmental improvement plan. We have goals for a growing and resilient network of land, water and sea that is richer in plants and wildlife, and enhances the beauty of the natural environment. Ultimately, we set out to leave this place in a better state than we inherited it.

I look forward to the meeting on 13 June, where we will discuss all the options, especially the role of local nature recovery strategies—and in particular, those on the Isle of Wight. We will discuss how we ensure that the valued landscape and coast of the Isle of Wight is safeguarded, as well as my future plans to visit my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight on the island this summer.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.