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Natural Environment & Rural Communities (NERC) Bill that was given royal assent last week

Below are the contents of a statement from Defra.

Thursday 30 March 2006 14:44
Department for Environment, Food And Rural Affairs (National)


The Natural Environment and Rural Communities Bill, which creates two new organisations charged with conserving and enhancing England 's valuable natural environment and giving a stronger voice to rural communities, received Royal Assent today.

Margaret Beckett, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said:

"The Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act will help achieve our vision of thriving rural communities, fair access to services and a rich and diverse natural environment. At its heart is the principle of sustainable development: meeting the needs of people today while laying the foundations for future generations to enjoy and benefit from a healthy natural environment and sustainable communities.

"The Act sets up Natural England as a powerful champion for the natural environment, bringing together the strengths of English Nature, parts of the Countryside Agency, and most of the Rural Development Service to conserve and enhance our landscapes and biodiversity and importantly to help people enjoy them.

"It also establishes the Commission for Rural Communities, which will be a strong national rural adviser, advocate and watchdog, charged with ensuring Government policies are making a real difference on the ground in tackling rural disadvantage."

Jim Knight, Minister for Rural Affairs, Landscape and Biodiversity, said:

"We can now look forward with confidence to Natural England and the Commission for Rural Communities taking up their full functions in October. People throughout the country will benefit from the more integrated approach offered by Natural England, while the Commission for Rural Communities will be a powerful new rural advocate unhampered by delivery functions.

"Through this Act, we have delivered our commitment to curtail the inappropriate use of byways by motor vehicles by putting an end to claims for motor vehicle access on the basis of historical use by horse-drawn vehicles. Some of the worst damage is happening in our national parks, which is why we have given National Park Authorities the power to make traffic regulation orders.

"We have also created a duty for public and statutory bodies to integrate biodiversity into their decision-making, further protected Sites of Special Scientific Interest from damage, clarified national parks legislation, and strengthened the enforcement powers of those fighting wildlife crime."

The Act also gives the Secretary of State greater flexibility in allocating funding and delegating responsibility to delivery bodies working under Defra's remit. This will help make access to grants and services simpler and easier for customers, and enable delivery to be better tailored to regional needs.

Before the provisions of the Act become "active law", they must be commenced. The majority of the Act's remaining provisions will be commenced on 1 October 2006.

Natural England and the Commission for Rural Communities will also be formally established on 1 October 2006. English Nature and the Countryside Agency will be wound up on the same date.

Some of the Act's provisions will be commenced before 1 October, which will allow Natural England to set up the organisation ahead of receiving its full powers when taking over from English Nature and the Countryside Agency; and to make three urgent amendments to existing legislation around National Park designation procedures, Sites of Special Scientific Interest, and Rights of Way. (See below for further details.)

Notes to editors

1. The Government published its Rural Strategy 2004 in July 2004 in response to Lord Haskins' Rural Delivery Review of October 2003, which was commissioned by Secretary of State Margaret Beckett. Further information on the Rural Strategy is available at http://www.defra.gov.uk/rural/strategy

2. The Natural Environment and Rural Communities Bill and associated explanatory notes, together with the regulatory impact assessment, are available at http://www.defra.gov.uk/rural/ruraldelivery/bill

Notes on Commencement

3. The Bill directly commences the following sections two months after Royal Assent (30 May 2006):
* Section 59 (Criteria for designating National Parks)
* Section 99 (Natural Beauty in the Countryside)
These sections reinstate the legal basis for designating national parks to what it was prior to the November High Court judgment of Meyrick Estate Management Ltd v Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs [2005] EWHC 2618 (Admin).

4. The remaining sections are commenced by Order made either by solely by the Secretary of State or in consultation with Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland ministers where provisions effect the relevant devolved administrations.

5. In April the Department will commence certain provisions in the Act to allow Natural England to be established as a "skeleton body" Precise details will be provided in due course.

6. Natural England will be given an identity in law and will be able to employ staff and enter into contracts. This will give Natural England's Board and Chief Executive the powers they need to set up Natural England ready to take on its full executive functions on 1 October.

7. As a smaller and simpler organisation, the Commission for Rural Communities is already operating as a quasi-independent division of the Countryside Agency and does not need to be set up as a skeleton body in the same way.

8. At the same time as establishing a skeleton body, Defra will commence section 98 (Financial Assistance by the Secretary of State.) This will enable the Secretary of State to provide financial assistance in respect of expenditure incurred or to be incurred in any matter related to or connected with a Defra function. These grant-giving powers are couched broadly and flexibly in order to enable the Secretary of State to fund any function within Defra's remit. This will, for example, enable the Secretary of State to fund directly matters such as social and economic regeneration of deprived rural areas. At present she can do this only through the Countryside Agency or another delivery agency. This section extends to Wales and Northern Ireland .

9. Section 57 adds further protection for Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) where the relevant conservation body (for the time being in England, English Nature, but in future Natural England; in Wales, the Countryside Council for Wales) has failed to serve a notice on every owner or occupier of SSSI land, despite having taken all reasonable steps to do so. Section 56 makes a technical change to the power to denotify SSSIs. Both sections are likely to be commenced before 1st October, but further details will be made available in due course.

10. The rights of way provisions (clauses 67 to 71) will be commenced in England as soon as possible after Royal Assent. The Act fundamentally builds on the new category of highway, the "restricted byway" originally introduced by sections 47-51 of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, which have not yet been commenced. There is a need to co-ordinate the commencement and give adequate publicity to the two sets of legislation, and Regulations made under the 2000 Act. We are committed to commencing clauses 67 to 71 within as short a time frame as possible. Clause 72, giving traffic regulation order making powers to National Park Authorities, will be commenced on 1 October 2006 .

11. Clause 67 does not apply to claims for BOATS made before the Government made clear its intention to legislate on 20 January 2005 (19 May 2005 in Wales ). BOAT claims in England made before this date will be processed under existing legislation and the rights they seek will not be extinguished should the claim be successful. Any BOAT claims made after this date will be dealt with under the new legislation with two exceptions:
(a) Claims where the local authority has already reached the stage of determining the claim and has either made a definitive map modification order or declined to do so.
(b) Claims made by property owners seeking to establish a public right to their property because for one reason or another they have failed to establish a private right.

12. The Department aims to commence the bulk of the remaining sections on the first suitable common commencement date after Royal Assent (i.e. 1 October 2006).

13. Certain Sections (e.g. Part 7, which reformulates the Inland Waterways Advisory Council as a separate body) will be commenced later, when is it appropriate.

History of the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Bill's passage through Parliament:

House of Commons
First reading: May 19 2005 (HC Bill 3)
Second reading: June 6 2005
Standing Committee A:
June 21 2005 (am) , June 21 2005 (pm) , June 23 2005 (am), June 23 2005 (pm) , June 28 2005 (am) , June 28 2005 (pm) , June 30 2005 (am) , June 30 2005 (pm) , July 5 2005 (am) .
The Bill as amended (HC Bill 38)
Remaining stages: October 11 2005

House of Lords
First reading: October 12 2005 (HL Bill 23)
Second reading: November 7 2005
January 24 2006 , January 30 2006 , February 1 2006 , February 8 2006 , February 27 2006 , February 28 2006
1st day: March 15 2006 ; 2nd day: March 20 2006
Third reading: March 27 2006

Commons Considerations of Lords Amendments: March 29 2006

Royal Assent: March 30 2006

Public enquiries 08459 335577;
Press notices are available on our website
Defra's aim is sustainable development 

Tony Kempster

ARC Countryside Access Officer



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