Lord Krebs Portrait Lord Krebs (CB) [V]
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My Lords, one could argue that what is good enough for Sir David Attenborough is good enough for this Bill. Sir David’s 2020 TV programme “Extinction”, in which he talked about biodiversity, was watched by 4.5 million viewers on its premier. Those people, and the millions more who have watched it subsequently, will have some idea of what biodiversity is.

Although I do not support this amendment for the reasons that my noble and learned friend Lord Hope of Craighead so clearly articulated, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, for tabling the amendment, because it provides me with an opportunity, following the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, to ask the Minister to clarify precisely what the Government mean when they talk about biodiversity. As my noble and learned friend Lord Hope of Craighead said, words do matter. If the Government are to maintain the term “biodiversity” in this Bill, which I hope they will, please could they explain what it actually means?

I am now going to get a little bit technical. Ecologists recognise a number of different, but interrelated, meanings of the word “biodiversity”. At its simplest, it refers to what is called “species richness”—simply the number of species inhabiting a defined geographical area, such as England. A more sophisticated variant of species richness takes into account the relative abundance of different species. On this measure, an area populated by one extremely common species and, say, five very rare ones will be less biodiverse than if all six species were roughly equally abundant.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, has already said, biodiversity can also include genetic diversity within a species. For instance, one might be particularly interested in preserving subspecies that are unique to this island, such as the native pied wagtail, motacilla alba Yarrelli. Furthermore, biodiversity might encompass the genetic distinctiveness of species, by placing a premium on species with no close living relatives on the planet, or on endemic species, such as eudarcia Richardsoni, a micro-moth found only in Dorset.

Finally, biodiversity might encompass the diversity of habitats, such as woodland, heath, peatbog and intertidal marshes, found within a geographical area. Many ecologists distinguish between what they call alpha diversity—species richness within a habitat—and beta diversity, which is diversity between habitats.

I hope that the Minister, in his response, or afterwards in writing, will explain what the Government mean when they talk about biodiversity. At the same time, it would be helpful if he could explain the difference between biodiversity and species abundance, as introduced in Amendment 22, which we will debate later.

Baroness Hayman of Ullock Portrait Baroness Hayman of Ullock (Lab)
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My Lords, this has certainly been an interesting discussion around the proposal of the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, to change the wording of the Bill to use the term “nature” instead of “biodiversity”. I can understand why he would want to propose this change, as it is an easier concept for many people to grasp and understand, as many noble Lords have said during our discussion. However, the Minister did explain in his winding-up speech on Second Reading that the two terms are not exactly the same. The noble Earl, Lord Caithness, referenced the example that the Minister gave:

“Planting a Sitka spruce monoculture might give us more nature, but it would not give us more biodiversity”—[Official Report, 7/6/21; col. 1308].

A number of noble Lords have talked about definitions and the definition of “biodiversity” as opposed to the definition of “nature”. I would like to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, and the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, for providing us so much information. I have learned an awful lot more in this debate than I was expecting. A number of noble Lords have looked at dictionary definitions, so I thought I would add to this by having a look at what the Oxford English Dictionary has to say. It describes “nature” as

“The phenomena of the physical world collectively; esp. plants, animals, and other features and products of the earth itself, as opposed to humans and human creations”

whereas—I would be interested to discuss this further with the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, at some point—the dictionary describes “biodiversity” as

“the variety of plant and animal life”.

So these things are different, and my thinking is that the Oxford definition seems to show that “nature” is a broader concept and “biodiversity” fits within that. Therefore, I am not quite sure how helpful Amendment 261 will be.

This is a really important Bill, and, as my noble friend Lord Rooker said, clarity as to exactly what is meant by the wording and terminology in this Bill—and in all legislation—is essential to avoid confusion and potential legal challenge. I am sure that the Minister will be able to provide us with more detail on the wording used and the way that the decisions have come, but noble Lords have requested more explanation of exactly what is meant in the Bill by “biodiversity” and what is going to be demanded of improvements to biodiversity as we go through implementing what the Environment Bill is looking to do.

In short, I have enjoyed listening to the debate, but we are happy to retain the use of “biodiversity” in the wording of the Bill.

--- Later in debate ---
I look forward to the Minister’s response on green lanes. I hope that he, with his colleagues in other government departments, will see a way forward to improving access to the environment, making that access better but also greater. However, I come back to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, that where we can make the most of this is in the smaller, urban and suburban spaces, and we should not just concentrate on the countryside.
Baroness Hayman of Ullock Portrait Baroness Hayman of Ullock (Lab)
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My Lords, this has been an extremely interesting debate on a very important issue. I will concentrate on Amendments 8 and 56, which are both in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Needham Market, but also in the name of my noble friend Lady Quin, the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, and the noble Lord, Lord Teverson. As we have heard, these would require rather than enable the Government to set legally binding, long-term targets to increase public access to and enjoyment of our natural environment.

First, however, I will say a few words about Amendment 58 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, which addresses the issue of motor vehicles driving for recreational purposes on unsealed tracks. I thank him for his introduction and for bringing this important issue to the attention of your Lordships’ House and of the Minister. I have been involved with the Green Lanes Environmental Action Movement, or GLEAM, and with Friends of the Lake District. Both are concerned about the deterioration of a number of these lanes due to the large increase in motor vehicle usage over the past 20 years or so. These lanes are an important part of the Lake District’s cultural heritage and were of course originally made for pedestrian and horse-drawn traffic. The noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, himself mentioned the problem in the national parks, and it is only getting worse.

Friends of the Lake District believes that there is a strong case for introducing traffic regulation orders, or TROs, to restrict motorised use of the lanes to preserve their natural beauty and tranquillity. The noble Lord, Lord Cameron, also mentioned this and talked about how TROs could be used effectively. However, I was also interested to hear from the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, who believes that we need to look at other solutions. Will the Minister listen sympathetically to the concerns that have been expressed about the damage that is being caused? This may be quite niche but it has a big impact.

The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, introduced Amendments 9 and 57, which have the important aims of connecting people to nature. He also talked about getting their buy-in to the behaviour changes that may be needed. Perhaps we do not pay enough attention to this.

Amendments 8 and 56 were ably introduced by the noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Needham Market. I was interested to hear her idea of creating a new national framework for access to open spaces and nature, so that we properly enable public access. She also made the important point that we need to make sure that we pull together different parts of policy and legislation. For example, ELMS, planning and health and well-being all need to come together. I was also interested in the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, on this area.

I am very fortunate in that I live right on the edge of the Lake District National Park, so I have some of the most beautiful countryside in the UK right on my doorstep. I can regularly enjoy fell walking with my family and my dog. This means that I also know that our personal experiences with nature are powerful. As the Committee has heard, numerous studies have demonstrated how important being active and getting outdoors in the fresh air are for both our physical and mental health and well-being. The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, focused on the public health elements and the importance of access to open space. This is especially true when we are young, with nature acting as both an active playground and a place for curiosity and learning. Whether children are active in nature or not links to childhood obesity and to their mental health and happiness.

The Covid pandemic has shone a spotlight on our need to be outside enjoying nature. For those who have been less able to get outside, for example people without gardens or with less access to parks, the impact on mental health can be severely detrimental. The pandemic has also highlighted the fact that, for many people, easy access to the great outdoors and enjoyment of nature is far from guaranteed. The noble Lord, Lord Addington, made the point that, if you want a fitter and healthier society, access is clearly important. On the subject of the pandemic, I refer to what the noble Viscount, Lord Trenchard, said about the need to enjoy the countryside responsibly. It has been pretty appalling in the Lake District, with a huge increase in litter, fires, trees being chopped down and campsites abandoned. It is very sad for local communities when that happens. I get so frustrated: they come here because it is beautiful, so why have they trashed it? This brings me on to the points made by my noble friend Lord Young of Norwood Green. We really need to educate people and teach them the countryside code. The noble Earl, Lord Devon, also mentioned the importance of education about our natural environment.

For many years, the connection with nature has been steadily declining for parts of our society. Fewer than a quarter of children regularly use their local patch of nature, compared to over half of all adults when they were children. This lack of access to nature is exacerbated by inequality. The noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, made an important contribution to the debate by bringing the Committee’s attention to the statistics in Natural England’s people and nature survey, which support this. He also made an important contribution on what we need to do to try to turn this around. We know that, in urban areas, the most affluent 20% of wards have five times the number of parks or general green spaces, excluding gardens, per person that the most deprived 10% have. Similarly, in areas where more than 40% of residents are black or minority ethnic, there is 11 times less green space than in areas where residents are largely white. The noble Lord, Lord Randall of Uxbridge, talked about access for those who had difficulty in getting out and about in the countryside. He particularly mentioned people with disabilities, though there is no guarantee that we can all have this access.

Clearly, we need to address this. The Government’s 25-year environment plan, which is due to be incorporated, as we know, as the first environmental plan, includes a policy aim to ensure that the natural environment can be used by everyone. Why is the opportunity not being taken to address this more directly in the Bill? Does the Minister accept that these amendments would go some way to start to improve access to nature for everyone, not just those like myself, who are fortunate to live close to nature or who can afford to go out and enjoy green spaces.

The changes brought about by these amendments would ensure that access to nature is a core consideration in the development of future policy. I think that they are needed because, as published, the Bill fails to commit the Government to act. I urge the Minister to give these proposals serious consideration.

Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park Portrait Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park (Con)
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I thank noble Lords for their contributions and agree that the Covid pandemic has underlined the important role of nature in our health and well-being in so many different ways. Before I go any further, I sincerely apologise to the House for not having been in my place when the debate began. I extend my apologies to everyone taking part.

Regarding Amendment 9, tabled by my noble friend Lord Lucas, and Amendment 8, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Needham Market, on environmental targets, the Government considered adding enjoyment of the natural environment as a priority area for setting targets. However, there are substantial uncertainties, as numerous noble Lords have pointed out, over how to objectively measure these areas to be able to set a meaningful and achievable target now.

While there is evidence that engaging with nature can and does benefit people’s health and well-being in many ways, the evidence necessary to support setting a legally binding target for this area is still developing. For example, increased footfall may reflect not increased access but increased human population in an area. The Government are researching how to objectively measure this area and the best mechanisms to drive change. However, I reassure noble Lords that the Bill’s framework allows for long-term targets to be set on any aspect of the natural environment or people’s enjoyment of it in future, if the evidence base develops.

Before I move on to Amendments 56 and 57, I acknowledge the comments of my noble friend Lord Lucas, echoed by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, on the need to secure consent in relation to policy of any sort, particularly environmental policy. It is so important that, when we arrive at solutions, they are thought up in such a way as to bring people with us. If we fail to do that, the risk is always there that we exhaust the public appetite for environmental policy. I have seen that on numerous occasions, where good initiatives have met with public opposition because of the manner in which they have been introduced. It is so important that we get that right.

Amendments 56 and 57, tabled by my noble friend Lord Lucas and the noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Needham Market, are on environmental improvement plans. Connecting people with nature to improve health and well-being is a core objective of the 25-year environment plan. We anticipate that the plan will set the benchmark for future environmental improvement plans, as outlined in Clause 7 and the Explanatory Notes. However, the primary purpose of the environmental improvement plans is to set out the steps that the Government intend to take to improve the environment. Therefore, we do not necessarily want to give equal prominence to people’s enjoyment in environmental improvement plans, although, in practice, future Governments are absolutely free to do so.

Public access to, and people’s enjoyment of, the natural environment can in some instances have negative impacts on it, as my noble friend Lord Randall and the noble Earl, Lord Devon, explained. For example, too many visitors to beaches can negatively affect wildlife and their habitats, including through the litter that is so often infuriatingly left behind. The noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, made this point in relation to the Lake District, and it is something that I have seen myself. When I was Member of Parliament for Richmond Park, I saw piles of fast-food packaging left in the most beautiful spots in the park, which were chosen precisely because they were beautiful. It is mind-boggling and tells us that there is a need for some form of education, combined with incentives or disincentives, when it comes to leaving litter in the natural environment. Our enjoyment of nature cannot take precedence over our stewardship of that environment for the future.

I turn to the point made compellingly by my noble friend Lord Trenchard about the tensions that can exist between different groups. It is worth emphasising that Defra’s work to improve access always seeks to balance the needs of users and landowners. The Government work closely with stakeholders, representing as many interests as we possibly can, and landowners can formally object to proposals to create national trails across their land. Rural communities—this is a point worth stressing because it is not always about people coming in from miles away—can benefit from improved access, according to our evidence. Recent surveys show that 51% of walkers along the coast are local people, not those coming from miles away.