My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.
The Question was as follows:
To ask Her Majesty's Government whether it is true that the Nature Conservancy Council has declared its intention of notifying West Sedgemoor in Somerset as a site of special scientific interest as a direct result of the Minister of Agriculture's new capital grant schemes.
My Lords, the Nature Conservancy Council have indicated to the local farming and landowning interests that unless arrangements can be devised to enable them to be consulted about proposals for agricultural improvements on West Sedgemoor they will no longer feel able to justify deferring their proposed notification of a site of special scientific interest.The Government and the Nature Conservancy Council are particularly concerned about the future status of the Somerset Levels, both from the point of view of agricultural production and nature conservation.
My Lords, is my noble friend aware that I am surprised at that Answer? I thought that I would receive a more negative one. Is he also aware that I am surprised that the Minister of State for Agriculture has not answered my Question, bearing in mind that, perhaps sadly, the landowning community may believe the Answer to my Question to be a definite "Yes"? Therefore, can my noble friend say whether the Minister of Agriculture will be consulted and asked to put forward proposals now, or preferably in the proposed Countryside Bill which is to come before us, to devise a better method of designating sites of special scientific interest before the whole country becomes a site of special scientific interest, including perhaps your Lordships' House?
My Lords, I should like to remind my noble friend that I am not speaking on behalf of any Ministry but, of course, on behalf of the Government. The particular site in question was noted in 1977, since when it has always been in mind to notify it as an SSSI. The reason for the delay is the consultation with farmers and landowners, and at this moment we are awaiting the results of a Somerset County Council working party. I think that it is a little early to prejudge the MAFF scheme. It came into operation on 1st October, which was very recent. I am happy to tell noble Lords that the Ministry of Agriculture is watching developments very carefully.
My Lords, in view of the concern that has arisen over this matter, would my noble friend give urgent consideration to a consultation procedure which is rather more efficient than the one at present and, furthermore, an appeals procedure?—because as I understand it there is no appeal if an SSSI is designated.
My Lords, if we are talking about the site mentioned in this Question, I do not think that I can go along with my noble friend. There has been plenty of consultation, both with farmers and landowners, and we see no reason why this process should not continue.
My Lords, can my noble friend please answer the point I made about an appeals procedure? This would help to maintain the good but possibly deteriorating relationship between farmers and the Nature Conservancy Council over capital grants, about which we warned the Government.
My Lords, I shall bring the question of an appeals procedure to the attention of my right honourable friends, but, quite honestly, with all the consultation that takes place, I do not think that there should be any necessity for one. Once again, the Nature Conservancy Council should not be prejudged in this particular case. The scheme has only just recently started, and I am sure that the council, under its new chairman, should be given a chance to prove itself.
My Lords, will my noble friend keep a very close eye upon costs and uncertainty caused to farmers by blanket SSSIs such as that at Pevensey Level in Sussex? Further, will he consider in particular that, if compensation is inadequate or delayed, the system will earn the hostility of farmers, whose co-operation in practice is extremely badly needed in order to secure good conservation?
My Lords, of course we recognise that there is a delicate balance between the needs of agricultural production and nature conservation, and every possible effort is made to take all views into account.