Environment Bill

Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Excerpts
Monday 13th September 2021

(1 month, 1 week ago)

Lords Chamber

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Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Baroness Parminter Portrait Baroness Parminter (LD)
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My Lords, I hear what the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, says, but I still think the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, raised some real concerns that this House deserves answers to, and I hope the Minister, in his summing up, can give the reassurances the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, has asked for. I wanted to briefly add my voice to the others in support of Amendment 87, which deals with the issue of perpetuity versus the 30 years for the biodiversity net gain.

I will not add to the other arguments people have made, but I just wanted to remind noble Lords that in Committee, in response to a question from the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, the Minister said that the Government wish to introduce biodiversity net gain

“in a way that requires developers … to bear as little cost as possible.”—[Official Report, 7/7/21; col. 1377.]

It seems to me that overriding constraint is as much relevant in terms of this debate, because this is not about worrying that there will not be enough landowners coming forward to provide the amount of nature conservation that we need. It is really about limiting the liability of developers. That is at the heart of this, and that is why I support the amendment.

Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Portrait Baroness Jones of Whitchurch (Lab)
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My Lords, I am speaking in support of Amendment 84A of the noble Lord, Lord Krebs. I will then speak to my Amendments 85 and 87. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Parminter and Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, for adding their names to my amendments.

First, the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, has raised important points about the quality of the metric currently being developed to implement biodiversity net gain. Over the summer he was kind enough to share the paper to which he referred by his colleague Professor Katherine Willis. I have to say that it shocked me, as it shows that we are in danger of drifting into a new system which, far from being a positive asset, could be highly detrimental to the environment. This is why I am not reassured by the use of words such as “progressing”, “virtuous” and “improving” by the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra. We could be going backwards if we do not get this right.

We therefore support the amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, that would set up a process of review of the metrics within six months, taking into account the broad range of factors that determine the ecological importance of sites. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, has been in dialogue with the Minister about these concerns, and I hope that, in his response, the Minister will provide sufficient reassurance that this matter is being addressed.

My Amendments 85 and 87 address the length of time that any habitat enhancement agreed through the planning process should be protected. As it stands, Schedule 14 to the Bill defines this period as 30 years. After that, the habitats could be destroyed, losing any ecological gains or carbon storage benefits. This goes against the grain of ecological best practice, which emphasises the need to let nature recover for the long term.

In recent advice, Natural England has said:

“Mitigation measures will need to be secured for the duration over which the development is causing the effects—generally 80-125 years.”

The building developments on the land where the displacement takes place will clearly be expected to last more than 30 years. For example, MHCLG has issued advice on property that makes it clear that a long lease is usually 125 years. So it is right that the creation of any new habitat, in compensation, should also last a lifetime. Our view was echoed in the recent Environmental Audit Committee report, Biodiversity in the UK: Bloom or Bust?, which stated:

“Nature recovery does not happen overnight and must be maintained and built upon for generations. The proposed 30 year minimum to maintain biodiversity net gains will achieve little in terms of delivering long-lasting nature recovery.”

In Committee, we tabled an amendment that would have protected habitats in perpetuity. There was considerable support for our position, but there were also questions about how perpetuity could be measured. So in our new amendment, we have now defined this period as 125 years, which was the only legal definition of the concept, as set out in the Perpetuities and Accumulations Act 2009. We believe that this is the right length of time to create and maintain long-term species-rich habitats to compensate for the destruction of existing established habitats elsewhere.

In Committee, the Minister made it clear that the provision of 30 years was a minimum requirement. He has now tabled further amendments in this group that would give the Secretary of State a power to increase the 30-year period and keep that duration under review. However, we do not believe that this gives the guarantees of long-term habitat protection that we need. There is no indication in the Government’s amendment of the criteria that would be used to vary the duration. I am also grateful to the Bill team for their recent advice that this variation, if introduced, would apply at a policy-wide level and not on an individual project basis. However I do not see where in the Bill this would be assured, since the Government’s amendment just gives a general power to vary the time period and could therefore, in my reading, apply to particular building developments.

The Minister has also raised concerns about whether sufficient landowners would make their land available for a longer term period, but surely landowners who contract to create these new habitats would have to be there for the longer term, otherwise our very fear that the habitat would be destroyed after 30 years becomes a reality. We believe that the long-term timescale of 125 years, as set out in Amendment 85, gives landowners certainty and would ensure that habitats which are destroyed could be recreated for the long term on a like-for-like basis.

This is an important principle which is necessary to legitimise the process of biodiversity net gain. Otherwise, the truth is that it would just be delayed damage. On that basis, I hope the Minister is able to give further reassurances, and I look forward to his response.

Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park Portrait Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park (Con)
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I thank all noble Lords for their contributions to this important debate, in particular the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, and the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, for their detailed conversations on this over the summer.

I am pleased to confirm that the Government have brought forward Amendments 86, 88 and 89 on the long-term prospects of biodiversity gains. The Bill currently introduces a 30-year minimum period for biodiversity net gain agreements, and these new government amendments will place a duty on the Secretary of State to review the duration for biodiversity net gain agreements and provide legal powers to increase the duration—that could be up to 125 years, for example, or it could be less. This process will be informed by the biodiversity net gain monitoring and evaluation programme, and will apply at a policy-wide level. These amendments will ensure that an extension of the duration is actively considered in future, supporting the long-term protection of our habitats.

Amendments 85 and 87, proposed by the noble Baroness Jones of Whitchurch, while welcome in intention, would, we believe, deter landowners in key areas from offering land for conservation. Based on the engagement, consultation and evidence-gathering that we have undertaken, setting a requirement for biodiversity enhancements to be secured for 125 years now means that we are less likely to see land offered for enhancement in the right places at the start of biodiversity net gain roll-out. That would mean that we were less able to create the coherent ecological networks that we need and may end up with money for net gain sitting unspent.

If restrictions placed on biodiversity net gain funds are too stringent from the start, landowners are unlikely to commit to the agreements we require. There is strong evidence from international practice that this might lead to the Government being unable to invest biodiversity gain funds and achieve the benefits we want from the policy. For example, in the environmental offsets framework for Queensland, Australia, a shortage of appropriate projects has meant that the state Government have been unable to spend much of the money collected for habitat enhancement. In addition, Ermgassen et al published a paper in Conservation Letters in June this year which sets out an academic assessment of the ecological outcomes of mandating biodiversity net gain that very much supports our position.

The amendments that the Government have introduced strike a fine balance between robustness and managing these risks of land supply. Clearly, I, my colleagues in Defra and everyone involved in the Bill want the habitats created and enhanced through net gain to thrive forever. That is where we all start, but it would be a mistake to let our desire for perfection in future undermine our first and more important steps on this policy. We need to get going.

I have almost been deterred from raising this argument by the introductory remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, but it is fair to say that after 30 years of improvement, a new habitat would benefit from a whole range of protections that already exist in legislation. If those protections have not continuously improved and evolved over the next 30 years and, in 2050, we find that new, beautiful habitats paid for through this scheme can be easily grubbed out in the way that has been predicted or feared by a number of Peers speaking today, frankly, we are in a whole heap of trouble. The world will be a very different place in 2050, and today it is waking up to the urgency. If we have not properly woken up by 2050, this discussion is nothing more than an exercise in academia.

In summary, we need a supply of land in the right places to see biodiversity gains delivered. Setting a perpetual, or 125-year, minimum agreement duration from the start in a newly created policy context creates a serious risk of deterring landowners from offering their land for net gain. That would be a terrible outcome for nature and for society, so we have been careful to design biodiversity net gain in a way that mitigates this risk and maximises the chance of success.

On Amendment 84A, from the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, we will publish the biodiversity metric for mandatory biodiversity net gain soon. The Bill’s provisions rightly require proper consultation on the final biodiversity metric before it is published for mandatory application. I can assure the noble Lord that the quality, diversity and function of habitats is already the focus of Natural England’s work on the metric and, as he knows well, our understanding of biodiversity is constantly evolving and improving. I can confirm to him that the metric will be regularly reviewed to take account of the latest scientific evidence and user experience. We will consult on a timeline and metric next year; after that, we expect to suggest a review every three to five years.

I also highlight that we are already on our third iteration of the metric and will consult next year on the version to be formally published for mandatory net gain and on the timeline for subsequent updates. The Government absolutely recognise the importance of species, as well as microhabitats, and the need for connectivity across our landscapes. The biodiversity metric’s habitat scoring is fundamentally linked to the value of habitats to priority species. The net gain regime will work alongside our existing regulatory framework for protected and rare species. This is already embedded within planning policy and practice, and will act in addition to biodiversity net gain.

I would also like to address the way in which the Lawton principles of “bigger, better, more connected” underpin the entire design of net gain, not just the metric. Net gain aims to improve the size and quality of habitats delivered through development; that is the whole point of the policy. The net gain percentage increase of 10% underpins that principle. Natural England’s latest update of the biodiversity metric also includes a strategic significance multiplier, which places a higher value on biodiversity enhancements supported by local nature recovery strategies, providing a wider strategic blueprint for nature investment. We will, of course, consider the Lawton principles when updating the metric and wider policy in future. They are inseparable from the key goals of this policy.

Finally, I highlight to the House that the Government have listened to the points raised by noble Lords about biodiversity net gain and brought forward government amendments on multiple occasions in response. We have extended the biodiversity net gain regime to cover nationally significant infrastructure projects, from major roads to new railways. We have provided for the option to bring marine development in scope of biodiversity net gain in the future, and today I am moving government amendments to ensure our biodiversity net gain policy is protecting our habitats for as long as possible. I hope I have been able to reassure noble Lords and ask them not to press their amendments.

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Earl Cathcart Portrait Earl Cathcart (Con)
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My Lords, this is the first time that I have spoken on this Bill. I know that convention says that one should not speak on Report if one has not been involved in the previous stages of a Bill, but there are mitigating circumstances. I have such appalling broadband strength in Norfolk that though I can send and receive emails, due to the lack of broadband, invariably they are not received on the day they are sent, so Zooming is out of the question. I came down during Committee to speak to a number of amendments, only to be told that I could not speak, as I should have put my name down 48 hours beforehand.

Before I start, I declare my interest in woodland and my farming interest in Norfolk. I support Amendment 103, moved by the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull. I fully concur with what was said in Committee about the awful damage that deer and, in particular, squirrels do to young plantations. My noble friend Lord Lucas said in Committee that he had a cumulative tree loss of about 60% due to squirrels. With this in mind, is it any wonder that the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, said this in Committee?

“In my part of the Chilterns, a large forestry management business is refusing grow beech again until the grey squirrel is controlled.”—[Official Report, 12/7/21; col. 1652.]

If nothing is done, future trees planted using government grant funding will be destroyed by grey squirrels at a wasteful cost to the taxpayer. But squirrels do not just damage woodland. An overpopulation of squirrels will not only bark strip young trees but steal the eggs and fledglings of our songbirds. We are told that broad-leafed woodland can have up to 18 squirrels per hectare if nothing is done. Where they get that figure, I do not know. I have a wood on the edge of my farm in Norfolk of about 1 hectare. Last year, we dealt with about 25 squirrels in that wood, and this year we have so far accounted for over 40 in that same wood. One must wonder what all these squirrels are going to eat, and where they have all come from. As far as their eating is concerned, they are not only going to bark strip young trees, but they will also steal songbird eggs and fledglings, which are easy pickings. They have been known to eat adult songbirds if they can catch them.

We are constantly told that certain species of songbirds are in decline, and the blame is being put squarely at the door of modern farming practices. I would argue that squirrels also have a detrimental effect on songbird populations, and if we want to have a healthy songbird population, we must control the squirrels. In answer to my second question of where these new 40 squirrels have come from, I would argue that after catching 25 in the first year, we have created a vacuum, and it takes only a few weeks for that vacuum to be filled from neighbours who have no squirrel control programmes. They are also prolific breeders.

It would be helpful if the Government, even if they cannot accept this amendment, took steps to ensure that all landowners, and especially government and public body landowners, control their squirrel numbers. I argue that the damage to squirrels is twofold: by bark stripping our trees, and decimating our songbird population. I support the amendment in the name of the noble Earl, and hope the Government does too. By accepting this amendment, they would be killing two birds with one stone.

Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Portrait Baroness Jones of Whitchurch (Lab)
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My Lords, we have had some excellent contributions this evening, and I am sure that because of the lateness of the hour, your Lordships do not need to hear my views on this. The Minister will be much more enlightening in his response to the debate.

Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park Portrait Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park (Con)
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I offer many thanks to all noble Lords who have contributed to this debate. Protecting trees and woodlands is a priority of the Government, and I hope my response will reassure your Lordships on this.

I start with Amendment 92, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Teverson. There are numerous ways for public authorities to fulfil the biodiversity duty, such as creating habitats for pollinators or other threatened or declining species. However, it would not be appropriate to prescribe each one on the face of the Bill. We want authorities to identify where there are opportunities to make a change, but we do not want to force public authorities to have regard to a particular form of land use that in many cases will not be relevant to their functions. We will provide detailed guidance to support public authorities with both what they should do to comply with the biodiversity duty and what they should report on.

Our environmental land management schemes are about giving farmers and land managers an income for the environmental public goods they provide. We are considering how more environmentally sustainable farming approaches, including agro-ecological approaches such as agroforestry, should fit within environmental land management. Turning to the noble Lord’s Amendment 102, I share his enthusiasm for agroforestry systems, which will undoubtedly play an important role in delivering more trees into our farmed landscape, improving climate resilience, and encouraging more wildlife and biodiversity in our farming systems.

We have outlined support for agroforestry within the England Trees Action Plan, which sets out our aims for expansion, investment and research in agroforestry systems. That includes commitments to support agroforestry across the sustainable farming incentive, local nature recovery and landscape recovery schemes. The England Trees Action Plan also laid out the intention to develop the evidence base for agroforestry, further aiding responsible authorities to invest in agroforestry systems.

Agroforestry systems compatible with basic payment scheme support have been defined in the publicly available Rural Payments Agency guidance document Agroforestry and the Basic Payment Scheme. As the commitment to support agroforestry and definitions of it have already been published, I very much hope that the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, feels reassured and I ask him to withdraw his amendment.

I turn to Amendment 103 from the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, who I thank for meeting me over the summer. As I mentioned when debating the amendment in Committee, woodlands created using public funding must conform to the UK forestry standard for woodland creation management plans. Such plans include steps to reduce grazing from browsing mammals, including through active management, barrier protection, and the development and monitoring of deer management plans.

In the England trees plan that I mentioned earlier, we announced a number of commitments to go even further to protect our woodlands from browsing animals such as deer and grey squirrels. They include updating the grey squirrel action plan, which we will publish next year. We will be consulting with the signatories of the UK Squirrel Accord as part of that update process. We are also working with the UK Squirrel Accord to support the ongoing research into grey squirrel management.

Very briefly, I say to both the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, and my noble friend Lord Cathcart that the Forestry Act provides a legislative basis for the management of pests affecting woodlands, which is a core part of management for anyone who receives public money. Given the ongoing work and progress in this area, I do not believe that we require new legislation to ensure that newly planted trees are protected from browsing animals.

Turing to Amendment 104, I thank the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, for his amendment, and the noble Baroness, Lady Young, for presenting it. The Government are committed to increasing biosecurity, and we support the plant health management standard and certification scheme—an independent, industry-backed biosecurity standard available to the market and international supply chains.

Our existing biosecurity legal framework already implements a comprehensive range of measures to address and minimise biosecurity risks. Recognition of the importance of domestic production to meeting our planting commitments is clearly a very big part of that. We engaged with the nursery sector to inform our England Trees Action Plan and we have provided support for the nursery sector. In the plan, we committed to fund nurseries and seed suppliers to enhance the quantity, quality, diversity and biosecurity of domestic production. We will help the sector to better plan for sapling supply and demand, ensuring that suppliers can produce the right stock at the right time, with all the economic benefits that the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, mentioned. A further published strategy is not necessary to ensure that this is delivered.

I thank noble Lords for their valuable contributions at this very late hour, and ask that they not press their amendments.