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Hedgerows: Guidance On Protection

Volume 597: debated on Thursday 18 February 1999

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3.8 p.m.

Whether advice and guidance on the protection of hedgerows and other field boundaries will be included in the proposed code of conduct of good agricultural practice.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food
(Lord Donoughue)

My Lords, the Government are working on a draft code of good agricultural practice and conservation. It will include advice and guidance on the protection of hedgerows and other field boundaries.

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that reply. Does he agree that the current flow of hedgerow regulations needs to be considered urgently and that the significant report of the Commons Select Committee on field boundaries merits serious consideration? Will my noble friend also look at the implications of the Flamborough judgment which leads to the conclusion that many of the hedgerows in the 4, 000 pre-1840 Inclosure Acts enjoy perpetual protection? Should not farmers be urged not to take down such hedgerows? Where public money has been granted to support their removal over the past 30 years, will steps be taken either to restore the hedgerows or get back the money?

My Lords, getting money back from farmers is a task that I would prefer to leave to others. On hedgerows, I agree wholly with the drift of my noble friend's Question. Immediately on coming into office, the Government announced that they would revise the 1997 regulations on hedgerows which, I think, was the last Act of the previous administration. The Government have responded to the Select Committee in a very positive way. A group is considering what our specific recommendations will be. It is currently pursuing research—it is quite a complex area—on defining what is an important hedgerow according to various criteria. When that research has been completed, we shall come forward with our proposals. I can assure my noble friend that they will be in the direction of supporting the conservation and restoration of hedgerows.

On the Flamborough judgment, which my noble friend spoke about, and the Inclosure Acts, there will be a recommendation in our statement that landowners bear in mind their obligations under the Inclosure Acts. However, it is our view that the Inclosure Acts are a rather inadequate support for the protection of hedgerows; for instance, there has to be an interested boundary partner who takes action. We would rather revise the regulations and make them operate in an effective way on a contemporary basis.

My Lords, when do the Government expect that research to be concluded? At the moment, there is some considerable urgency about it. There is a decline in the bird population in the countryside, a decline, largely through neglect in some cases, of field boundaries and the need to help farmers who cannot at the moment afford to do practically anything, let alone what is needed. When is that research expected to reach a conclusion?

My Lords, it is currently well advanced. It is the responsibility of the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions and not MAFF. We are hopeful that by the spring the results will be made available and we shall publish them.

My Lords, may I congratulate the Minister on confirming that MAFF is working on the proposed code of conduct for good agricultural practice? Perhaps I can press him further. The department seems to have been working on it for a considerable period of time—not quite since the Inclosure Acts, but almost. Could my noble friend encourage the Minister to tell us when the proposed code of conduct of good agricultural practice will be available? I understand that his department is finding it difficult to allocate resources and time to that issue at the moment.

Yes, my Lords, a number of other issues have recently occupied some of our time and resources. However, this issue is being pursued vigorously by my honourable friend Elliot Morley and his group. Following our conclusions, we shall need to consult, but we would hope that during this year the benefits of those considerations will be available.

My Lords, if the hedgerows are so important for the good look of the countryside, will the Minister establish them on the downs?

My Lords, I am not sure that that is wholly within my power. I am equally not sure to which downs the noble Lord refers. If he is referring to the High Weald near the South Downs, I can assure him that the proposals now being considered for that area contain proposals for afforestation and. where relevant, hedge-growing.

My Lords, will my noble friend note that the inclosure protection does not differentiate between important hedgerows and other hedgerows? Where the protection is local, it applies to all.

My Lords, my noble friend is correct. It is a feature of the 1997 regulations, and consideration of improvements to those regulations, that they involve a definition of an "important hedgerow" and a hedgerow that is "important for environmental reasons". The Inclosure Acts appear stronger than that, but it is our view that they do not form a practical basis. We would encourage all farmers, all landowners and all local authorities to bear in mind their obligations under the Inclosure Acts, but our judgment is that they are not an ideal basis for pursuing the environmental objectives which my noble friend has. I also want to congratulate him on the work that he has done through a long career, over many years, in this area.

My Lords, given that hedges do not grow overnight, would the Minister please ensure that insurance companies adequately compensate farmers after a car has roared through one of their hedges, removing 50 years' worth of growth, and ensure that they do not receive just small compensation for that?

My Lords, I am sure that those companies read the Lords' Hansard every morning. I hope they take note of what is an important, practical point, but a little beyond my power.