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Marine Special Protection Areas

Volume 791: debated on Monday 21 May 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what consideration ministers give to present and future transport services through new or extended Marine Special Protection Areas when they assess, under the Birds Directive and the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017, whether to accept recommendations from Natural England to classify new or extended sites as Special Protection Areas.

My Lords, the aim of the regulations is to work in support of transport activities and developments while ensuring that international conservation interests can be secured. The focus is on making sure that any adverse impacts are avoided or mitigated. Although only ornithological and scientific considerations are taken into account in classifying special protection areas, this should not be a barrier to existing or new commercial transport services.

I am grateful to the Minister for that Answer but this clearly did not work in the port of Milford Haven. That is an SPA and it has been struggling for 10 years to make two small changes to jetties to allow a new business. After 10 years, the customer gave up and went away. Now the Government want to put an SPA around the whole of the Isles of Scilly, which must be one of the best-protected and most-studied bird sanctuaries in the country, and if anybody wants to start a new ferry or air service they will have to do the same bird count, probably costing £60,000, and they may never be able to open it. Does she not agree that it is time to review the boundaries of these SPAs, as has been done on the continent, to exempt access to ports, which after all form the main economic activity of these places?

My Lords, as I have already said, the focus of the regulations is not on stopping development or transport proposals. Even where there is an adverse impact, there are alternatives; for example, if there are no feasible alternatives, the transport will be allowed, if there is an imperative reason of overriding public interest and compensatory measures are secured. Obviously, I cannot comment on the specific case of Milford Haven but it seems to me that there are the right adverse impact get-outs in place.

My Lords, will my noble friend take this opportunity to review the perpetual protection of certain species, such as bats, badgers and certain birds? Why are rights given in perpetuity to protect these species? Should these rights not be reviewed based on whether a species is actually endangered?

My Lords, we have spoken about bats in the belfry in this House a number of times recently. I agree with the noble Baroness that perpetuity is potentially not correct and a review may need to happen in due course. But it must be remembered that population changes and impacts on population can sometimes happen over decades and we must never be too hasty.

My Lords, the Government are to be congratulated on the fact that they have established some of the largest marine protection areas on the globe around British Overseas Territories. But if you establish a protection area, you have to patrol it and enforce it, and no thought whatever seems to have been given to the ships and boats necessary to do that. The same applies in UK waters. Has any consideration been given to the exact number of ships and boats required for this and other tasks post Brexit?

It would not be a Question about the sea if there was not an intervention from the noble Lord, Lord West. I am very pleased to be able to tell him that Defra is working very closely with the Marine Management Organisation, the IFCAs, the Royal Navy and the Border Force to make sure that appropriate arrangements are in place. Noble Lords must remember that surveillance matters as well. There are three different types of surveillance: vessel monitoring systems, electronic reporting and data systems, and remote electronic monitoring. Although we talk about the Royal Navy ships as patrol vessels—and we should note that they are indeed being upgraded—these ships are not just wandering around looking for people doing bad things; they are responding to the surveillance. Therefore, perhaps we should call them response vessels instead.

My Lords, this sounds like a sledgehammer being used to crack a nut. The economy of the Scilly Isles depends on their peaceful beauty, and the sea-birds there are abundant. The islanders rely on the birds as part of their economy because they are so important to tourism. Is there any evidence of the need for additional protection for the birds on the Isles of Scilly? If that evidence has been found, will the Minister publish it?

The scope for extending the SPA in the Isles of Scilly is being considered at the moment. So far, there has been informal dialogue with stakeholders. Natural England has asked Defra Ministers for permission to extend the SPA and they are considering it. It is our understanding that the proposals before Ministers will protect the foraging grounds of the assemblage of 20,000 sea-birds on the Isles of Scilly. However, Ministers are unlikely to increase the regulatory burden over and above what is currently required. It must be remembered that a number of SPAs have been in force in the Isles of Scilly since 2001, with a further expansion in 2005. The Isles of Scilly have long been protected and they should be in future.

My Lords, despite what the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, said about Milford Haven, I cannot think of another instance where commercial navigation has been adversely affected. Does that not suggest that the mechanism set up under the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009 is working in the way that was intended?

I agree with the noble Lord. We are not aware of any major impact on plans or projects from the regulations currently in place.

My Lords, I remind my noble friend that there is a Bill before your Lordships’ House dealing with the appalling damage caused to our parish churches by bats. Will she look very sympathetically on those provisions, because our parish churches are as important to tourism as are the Isles of Scilly?

My Lords, it was my great pleasure to be the Whip on the Front Bench for that Bill on that Friday. I listened to the arguments. It could not have escaped anyone’s attention that the Bill did not receive support from any of the Front Benches.