Thursday 3rd November 2022

(1 year, 5 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Jacob Young.)
16:11
Selaine Saxby Portrait Selaine Saxby (North Devon) (Con)
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Today is World Biosphere Day, and as UNESCO has said:

“With each passing year, the urgency of tackling environmental issues becomes clearer: we only have one planet, and it is in danger. Our relationship with nature and with other living beings needs a radical rethink in order to address these issues—we need to design and create a truly shared world.

Biosphere reserves have shown that it is possible to live in this world while also establishing a sustainable and harmonious relationship with nature.

The International Day for Biosphere Reserves is an invitation to take inspiration from the solutions already implemented in these spaces to build genuinely sustainable development everywhere, with full respect for nature and for the living world.”

The UNESCO Man and the Biosphere programme was launched 50 years ago as an intergovernmental and interdisciplinary science programme to research and address the conflicts between humankind and the natural environment. Under the programme, living laboratories called biosphere reserves are designated by UNESCO at the request of member states, with the designations tending to be managed by local partnerships.

There are 738 UNESCO biosphere reserves in the world, in 134 countries, and only seven of them are in the UK: Wester Ross, Galloway and Southern Ayrshire, the Dyfi valley, Brighton and Lewes Downs, Isle of Wight, Isle of Man and North Devon. We were lucky in North Devon to be home to the UK’s first ever biosphere reserve, launched in 1976—one of the first in the world—covering 5,000 sq km of land and sea and integrating land and marine management.

Redefined in 2002, North Devon’s biosphere is this year celebrating its 20th birthday alongside this first International Day for Biosphere Reserves. Birthday congratulations are also due to south-west Scotland, on the 10th birthday of its two biospheres this year.

North Devon’s biosphere is centred on Braunton Burrows, the largest sand dune system in England, which stretches into neighbouring constituencies. The Braunton Burrows core area consists of fixed and mobile sand dune systems; I feel most privileged to have been able to walk the area with a local warden and see the water germander in one of the only two locations it still survives in the UK.

The boundaries of the reserve follow the edges of the conjoined catchment basin of the Rivers Taw and Torridge and stretch out to sea to include the island of Lundy. The biosphere reserve is primarily lowland farmland and comprises many protected sites, including 63 sites of special scientific interest, which protect habitats such as culm grassland and broad-leaved woodlands. It also includes Barnstaple and Ilfracombe in my North Devon constituency and stretches into neighbouring Bideford, Northam, and Okehampton.

The biosphere links designations such as Dartmoor, Exmoor, North Devon area of outstanding natural beauty and Lundy and the land, sea and rivers between them. It is managed by a partnership of 34 organisations from national agencies, local government, non-governmental organisations and community groups. I would like to take this opportunity to thank them all for their work and commitment. I am truly lucky to be able to call the biosphere home.

UNESCO sets out three functions of a biosphere reserve: conservation, learning and research, and sustainable development. Biosphere reserves aim to create and maintain sustainable communities where people can live and work in an area of high environmental quality. These areas can then provide a blueprint for other areas to learn from. The reserve must be environmentally, economically and socially sustainable. To achieve that, the reserve oversees management of natural resources, initiatives to develop the local economy and an effort to reduce inequalities between people.

The biosphere programme delivers policy testing for Government of integrated approaches to tackling environmental, economic and social issues. These living laboratories research the conflict between human activity and our natural environment. The programme’s remit includes several large-scale projects that have been developed through the partnership. A £1.8 million improvement project along the River Taw, funded by the Environment Agency, is designed to decrease polluted surface run-off from fields and urban areas into the river. The project will restore habitats and remove obstacles such as weirs that prevent animals from freely moving between sections of the river. It is hoped that the decrease in pollution will also increase beach quality in places such as Instow, which failed water quality tests in 2012—one of only 16 beaches in the south-west to fail.

A nature improvement area proposed to protect and enhance the catchment of the River Torridge—home of Tarka the otter in Henry Williamson’s book of the same name—was chosen by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs as one of 12 nationally important landscapes that will receive funding to restore and recreate ecosystems in the area. Other large projects work to use the natural environment to offset the negative impacts of human activities within the biosphere.

The success of the last 46 years’ work shows that on land and sea, biospheres have driven a local nature recovery plan, and in our marine environments they have improved the levels of phosphates. This was the first work of its kind in the country. They have pioneered projects in the 25-year environmental plan, and as part of that they have developed natural capital strategies for the region, which are now in operation with the community renewal fund. Alongside new environmental land management scheme trials, this drive for nature encourages others. Today the National Trust has announced the largest grassland project, stretching from Woolacombe to Exmoor.

The work of our North Devon biosphere also extends abroad, with partnerships in Kenya supporting biospheres there to deliver projects and working with European biospheres to co-ordinate a network of forests. In south-east Asia, work is being done on marine planning and conservation alongside community health. As UNESCO’s oldest intergovernmental scientific programme, our global biospheres are a testament to what we as a world can achieve when we work together. Working together is the only way we are going to combat the global climate crisis, and as we pass on the presidency for COP, 3 November should stand as a reminder of the importance of international collaboration.

The path that biospheres have carved for the last 50 years shows that we can live in a sustainable way. It is not a choice between modern life or saving our planet; both can be achieved. It is up to us all to make it a reality. I thank Andy Bell for his tireless work for the biosphere and his help with the detail behind my speech. The Minister knows from her visit to my constituency how stunning our environment is, and I hope she will therefore support my battle against the disruption to our sand dunes caused by cabling from development projects for floating offshore wind that is too small to go to the main connection point. I also hope she will consider strengthening the protections for our biospheres and perhaps, as a special first birthday present for the International Day for Biosphere Reserves, give them formal status here in the UK.

Nigel Evans Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans)
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Bob Seely has permission from the mover of today’s motion and the Minister, who is nodding, to take part in the debate.

16:19
Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely (Isle of Wight) (Con)
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Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for letting me take part briefly in the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) is in competition with me and a relatively select few to deliver more than anyone else for her wonderful patch. I hear nothing but amazing reports of the work that she is doing. Similarly, I try to deliver as much as I can for my folks on the Isle of Wight. We both care so much for our wonderful parts of the UK. I thank her and the Minister for letting me contribute to the debate.

I agree with much of what my hon. Friend has said and I will stress two points. Before I do, our Island biosphere designation came quite late—we got it a few years ago after a campaign led by our area of outstanding natural beauty organisation—but I thank Joel Bateman, Councillor Jonathan Bacon and, more recently, Holly Jones and Natasha Dix for their impressive work in delivering that successful bid to UNESCO and since. There are 17 UNESCO sustainable development goals that we are trying to work into the Isle of Wight Council’s planning. We have lots of exciting projects, such as regenerative farming, carbon sequestration in soil and local agricultural, net zero homes, active travel and smart renewable grids that we are trying to do off the back of getting biosphere status.

The first valuable point that my hon. Friend made that I want to stress is that there is no similar designation in British law that achieves the same effect. I am keen for the Government to take it on board that we have this valuable designation that combines the human world, the natural world and the maritime world. That is actually quite unique; there is nothing like it in UK law, but should there be? For example, 75% of the Isle of Wight comes under some form of UK designation: there are eight separate designations and 13 distinct areas. For an island of our size—it is only 15 miles by 30 miles —that is highly fragmented and somewhat over-complex, and creates a needless bureaucracy when it comes to nature protection and planning. I would love to know how the Government could incorporate and recognise biospheres within UK law. At the moment, we have a tapestry on the Island, but we need a blanket, which is the idea that the biosphere gives.

My second pitch, in the brief time that I have, is that if the Government are going to bring in a Bill about protected landscapes, such as national parks and AONBs, which I hope they do, and if they are going to slightly fudge the difference between them and perhaps bring in new designations, one of the new designations could be a biosphere designation, which would give biospheres a status within UK law, or an island designation. If we are going to have city parks, why can we not have island parks? It is not a national park on an island but an island park that looks at human habitation, maritime protection and landscape protection as a single whole.

I would argue that an island park designation for the Isle of Wight would have AONB status throughout. We have only a finite amount of land and we cannot keep giving it up endlessly to low-density, car-dependent, un-environmentally friendly greenfield developments; we need to use land better. We could have maritime and landscape protection, as highlighted by my hon. Friend, and we could use the island park designation to attract tourism and help with our identity, as the biosphere potentially does. We could perhaps get some targeted support for agriculture, because we do not have an abattoir on the Island, so all the livestock goes to the mainland for slaughter, which adds cost and inhibits the circular economy that we need. Those are some of the ideas that an island designation or a biosphere designation could provide.

The biosphere is about human habitation, so we could also do a great deal with culture. The Isle of Wight was one of the most celebrated places in Victorian England with Tennyson, Keats and many others coming down to enjoy it and paint it. People fell in love with the place and sometimes used it as an escape from mainland Britain. Other people based themselves there, such as the Bonchurch school of artists and the Freshwater set with Julia Margaret Cameron. We also had—who wrote “Alice in Wonderland”?—Lewis Carroll, who used to hang around there back in the day hoping to catch a glimpse of Tennyson. We have had a phenomenal cultural input. Given the Island’s culture, together with its unique species and unique dinosaurs—we have more dinosaur finds than anywhere else in Europe, and in fact it is one of the leading dinosaur places in the world—and our landscape, there has to be a better way of recognising and protecting that. We could do so either by making biospheres part of UK law or, for the Island as a separate issue, having an island designation, which other islands—the Isles of Scilly, Arran in Scotland—could eventually share. It could be a very good idea to have some kind of island designation in UK law. I thank my hon. Friend so much for bringing forward this debate, and I look forward to what the Minister has to say.

16:25
Trudy Harrison Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Trudy Harrison)
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Mr Deputy Speaker, I know, because we had a little chat earlier, that you share my enthusiasm for this debate, and I cannot imagine a better way to spend the end of the parliamentary day than celebrating the very first World Biosphere Day. Let me begin by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby), for securing this timely debate—because today is indeed the day—and my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely) for playing his part today.

As my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon recognised, I have personal experience of North Devon thanks to her very generous invitation, when I was the cycling Minister last summer, to join her on a bike on the Tarka trail. So I have seen for myself the beauty of North Devon, and I absolutely appreciate why her area has secured UNESCO world biosphere status. The UNESCO biosphere programme began in 1971 and there are, as we have heard, seven accredited biosphere reserves in the UK. I would like to spend a little time highlighting the programme and its success, and also the importance of nature.

It is incredibly important that we recognise that much global GDP—more than half, in fact—depends on biodiversity. Over $44 trillion is estimated to be moderately or highly dependent on biodiversity. The loss of tropical rainforests, the collapse of global pollinators and the reduction in marine fisheries would lead to a contraction of global GDP by 2.4% by 2030. That is exactly why we are acting locally and thinking globally. Central banks are directly exposed to nature risk. The Dutch and French central banks have found that 36% and 42% of their portfolios, respectively, are highly dependent on nature.

What has occurred at the North Devon biosphere reserve in is only possible because of collaboration. There is very little that one person can achieve on their own, but I do want to join my hon. Friend with a special mention for Andy Bell, who has co-ordinated the North Devon biosphere reserve partnership. Since its designation 46 years ago—it is as old as me—the biosphere reserve has enabled the fantastic creation of four extra marine conservation zones. It has improved the water quality with habitat and on-farm actions in 34 catchments, planted over 60 hectares of woodland in partnership with landowners, created 20 hectares of saltmarsh, restored 1,500 hectares of culm grassland with the Devon Wildlife Trust and improved over 120 km of riverbank habitat.

This absolutely demonstrates the value of the biosphere programme in bringing together a broad range of stakeholders with a shared endeavour to connect people with nature, and as a mechanism to leverage funding to deliver sustainable development at the catchment scale. It is all very much in line with the principles set out by the biosphere sustainable development aims. This is through nature conservation, with the protection of biodiversity and cultural diversity, and through scientific research, underpinning development through research, monitoring, education and training. We need sustainable development that is socially, culturally, economically and environmentally aligned, symbiotically supporting each other.

The International Day for Biosphere Reserves is UNESCO’s invitation to take inspiration from the solutions already implemented in those areas, and to build genuinely sustainable development everywhere, with full respect for nature and the living world. I absolutely recognise the role that the Man and the Biosphere programme has played in achieving sustainable development goals, by sharing experiences and testing policies. That includes the sustainable management of biodiversity and natural resources, and mitigation and adaptation to climate change.

I also wish to recognise our newer biosphere reserves. Those include the Brighton and Lewes Downs, known as the living coast biosphere reserve, which covers more than 390 square kilometres of land and sea, and—my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight is in his place—the Isle of Wight, which was awarded UNESCO biosphere status in 2019, and covers 914 square kilometres of land and sea. Both those areas are undertaking similar local engagement through their respective biosphere reserve partnerships, reflecting their distinct local terrestrial and marine ecosystems. My hon. Friend called on me to recognise further protections, and we are looking at that as part of what was set out in the Environment Act 2021 for how we protect land. I know that he has already had conversations with DEFRA and Natural England about national park status, and I look forward to engaging in conversations to support that.

Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely
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It is kind of the Minister to say that. I am talking about island park designation, not a national park—some of my farmers would be very concerned if they thought I am planning a national park behind their back. It is some kind of designation under the new planning system. I would love a national park, but I think that ship has sailed.

Trudy Harrison Portrait Trudy Harrison
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I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that clarification—island park designation, indeed—and I look forward to meeting him to discuss that in more detail.

This is an intergovernmental science programme, and the key point is that we use our biosphere reserves to test our approaches for sustainable development in the real world. That is critical to inform initiatives such as local nature recovery strategies, which are a key tool to meet many of our environmental targets under the Environment Act 2021. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon said, a foundation of our new approach to sustainable development will be working with farmers and environmental land management.

Those schemes will pay for more sustainable farming practices, and improve animal health and welfare. They will also bring environmental benefits, including landscape-scale environmental changes, which will be a crucial step towards achieving our 25-year environment plan and subsequent environmental commitments, and our net zero goals. That is why we are working extremely closely with farmers and other agricultural and environmental stakeholders to help shape the new schemes through our tests and trials, including the North Devon landscape pioneer, which took place in the North Devon biosphere reserve.

One of the three main functions of biosphere reserves is the conservation of biodiversity. Under the Environment Act, we have committed to halting the decline in species abundance in England by 2030, and to setting at least one other long-term target for biodiversity. Those targets will drive wide-ranging actions to deliver nature recovery. Our three-pillar approach to restoring and improving biodiversity includes: restoring and creating habitat that is greater, bigger, better, and more joined-up; tackling pressures on species and their habitats, for example by addressing pollution—something I know my hon. Friend cares deeply about—and improving water quality; and taking further targeted action for specific, threatened species.

We are already taking action through, for example, our nature for climate fund, which provides £750 million for the creation, restoration and management of woodland and peatland habitats, and our green recovery challenge fund, which is estimated to deliver 600,000 hectares of habitat creation and restoration within and outside protected sites.

On the international front, the UK is committed to securing an ambitious outcome at COP15 to halt and reverse biodiversity loss globally by 2030. We will continue to champion the protection of at least 30% of land and sea globally and recognise that significantly increasing finance from all sources is absolutely needed to halt nature loss.

At least £3 billion of the UK’s international climate finance will go towards solutions that protect and restore nature and biodiversity. We have launched a £500 million blue planet fund to support developing countries to protect the marine environment and develop sustainable marine economies.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon once again for securing the debate, and for raising the profile of our biosphere reserves in facilitating sustainable development at the local, national and international scale, and thus their contribution to a wide range of Government objectives.

Question put and agreed to.

16:36
House adjourned.