Environment Bill

Baroness Parminter Excerpts
Monday 13th September 2021

(1 month, 1 week ago)

Lords Chamber

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Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Lord Blencathra Portrait Lord Blencathra (Con)
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My Lords, I declare my interests as on the register. I want to comment briefly on two amendments. First, I welcome my noble friend’s Amendment 89; it is important to keep under review the amount of land available for the net gain register.

Secondly, I want to comment on Amendment 84A from the noble Lord, Lord Krebs. I say this to him: I do not think it is necessary. As he said, this is evolving. The metric as published by Natural England is not set in stone. It will be an evolving measure, and as further and better particulars come along, it will be changed and amended. An annual review by the Government is not needed for that to happen.

The other point I want to make is this: yes, of course, the metric could be made more complicated. Some on the Climate Change Committee condemn it, because it is just a biodiversity net gain metric. They want an environmental net gain metric, which would be an all-singing, all-dancing super one, but incredibly complicated to produce. No one is capable of doing it properly at the moment.

If we bring in lots of other factors, which would no doubt make this much better in biodiversity terms, we would be faced with an industry and builders that have not a clue how it would work. Net gain is terribly, terribly important. It will be one of the greatest improvements to planning and the environment we have ever seen in this country. But it is a completely new concept; it is innovative. For it to happen, we have to get developers on side, working with it. At the moment, they have not a clue how it works. They have a couple of years, I think, to get that right.

I am concerned that we keep this initially simple. The current metric, which is still doing a good job and can evolve and can change, will not be detrimental to biodiversity; it will be a big improvement to biodiversity. But I am certain that in a couple of years’ time or a year’s time, it may be tweaked again to improve it. As developers and Government and Natural England bed this down, I am certain it will become more sophisticated and more perfect from a purist environmental point of view.

So I say to the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, who is incredibly able and thoroughly knowledgeable in this matter—he is 10 times more knowledgeable than I am, though I am practical—that we have to start somewhere. There used to be an army acronym KISS: “Keep it simple, stupid.” We have to keep it simple to begin with, and we can make it a lot more complicated as we get used to it.

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.

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Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Portrait Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle (GP)
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My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, whose passion for improving the Bill from the government Back Benches is evident even at this hour. I commend him for that. I declare my role as a vice-president of the LGA and the NALC.

I shall deal with Amendments 90, 91 and 94 together. Amendment 90 appears in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, and is also signed by the noble Lord, Lord Oates, while Amendment 94 is also signed by the noble Lord, Lord Oates, and my noble friend Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb. They all deal with the fact that the people who know best about a local natural environment are local people. We confront again, as we do in so many different areas, the fact that the UK—and England in particular—is one of the most centralised polities on this planet. That has many negative effects for people, but it also has negative effects for nature.

On Amendment 90, as the noble Lord, Lord Oates, said, we keep giving local government responsibilities but, through a decade of austerity we have seen fewer resources in local communitiesw available to deal with those responsibilities. We have gone through a cycle where local authorities barely have enough funds to meet their statutory responsibilities—those dictated from here in Westminster. They do not really have enough funds for that, let alone to reflect local priorities and desire for action.

The amendment signed by my noble friend Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb is particularly telling. We can think of so many case studies; the noble Lord, Lord Oates, gave one. I was also struck thinking about the case of the River Lugg in Herefordshire last year, where we saw trees felled, the river bridged and a reprofiling of the riverbanks along a 1.5 kilometre stretch, to the shock and horror of local people. Investigations are still ongoing, so I will not go too far into this, but the country was alerted to this through local people using social media and through the local media outlets picking up this story. Of course, it was at local level that the knowledge arose, and perhaps at local level some action could have saved some biodiversity or nature there.

I was up in Kendal a few years ago in a village that was struck by flooding, and the vehicles driving along a particular road were pushing flood water into people’s homes. The local people were shaking with anger and frustration; if they had been allowed to close that road, they could have stopped those homes being flooded, but they were told they would face police action if they did so. That is the kind of emergency situation where we need to ensure that local people are able to act, whether it is a biodiversity emergency or a flooding emergency affecting people’s homes.

I really hope that we might see some progress on Amendments 90, 91 and 94. I also want to mention Amendment 92A, in the name of the noble Earl, Lord Caithness. The Nature Friendly Farming Network represents a really activist group of farmers; I have met quite a number of them. They are doing some very strong things at that nexus between acknowledging the need to produce food and looking out for nature. Here we have a very modest addition to the Bill that would acknowledge and put on the statute book recognition of, and support for, the important work of nature-friendly farming. I hope that we will hear from the Minister about that amendment.

Baroness Parminter Portrait Baroness Parminter (LD)
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My Lords, my Amendment 91 in this group seeks to give some bite to the nature recovery strategies, which are a very welcome addition into this Bill by this Government. As they stand, however, local authorities will be producing them but they will be almost irrelevant in terms of the planning process, because they would not be a material consideration. My amendment therefore seeks to ensure that local authorities have to act in accordance with them rather than just take account of them.

I am grateful for the support for the amendment from Members from all Benches, and to the Minister and his team for discussing the matter with me. I am also grateful for government Amendment 93 that has been produced as a concession, but saddened that it is still just guidance. I suppose that I should not have really expected the Government to compel local authorities to do anything. It is also a necessary step, given that the pilots for the nature recovery strategies showed that local authorities said: “These won’t work unless we get more guidance,” so the Government had to do something. However, it is a step in the right direction, and it will help local authorities to ensure that nature recovery strategies are used properly in the planning system.

I am particularly grateful for the letter that the Minister sent to Peers, which said specifically just how important nature recovery strategies would be within the planning system as a tool for protecting the environment. That is an important statement, and I am grateful for it. Clearly, we have expectations for a planning Bill some way down the road; we are not sure quite how much of it will survive, if we are to believe the newspapers over the weekend. However, there will be a planning Bill, so without prejudicing what might come in future, I accept gratefully the concession that the Government have offered. We might have to return to this issue when we see what those planning changes are, at which point, we will be happy, I am sure, to take up the cudgels again.

Lord Khan of Burnley Portrait Lord Khan of Burnley (Lab)
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My Lords, I rise to speak to a number of amendments which have been debated at this late hour in your Lordships’ House. I will make my comments brief.

I turn first to Amendment 90 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, on supporting local authorities to be able to keep funds as they are better placed to promote biodiversity than people sitting in Whitehall. My noble friend Lady Jones of Whitchurch mentioned the Environmental Audit Committee’s recent inquiry, Biodiversity in the UK: Bloom or Bust?, earlier this evening. This report highlighted that funding shortfalls and a lack of in-house ecologists in local authorities means that they may not have the capacity to deliver some of their statutory duties under the Bill, specifically biodiversity net gain and local nature recovery strategies. Local authorities are essential to the successful implementation of many of the Bill’s provisions. However, their effectiveness relies on the resources and expertise they have available to deploy these crucial tools.

Moving to Amendment 91 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, I absolutely agree that local councils need to be empowered. I look forward to hearing the response from the Minister to see how he will reassure the noble Baroness, who made some pertinent points in this area.

I also agree with the concerns of the noble Lord, Lord Oates, in Amendment 94. It is important that strategies do not become just more paper gathering dust and that the powers provided to enforce them are not controlled from Westminster but in local authorities, which are on the front line and know better how to save nature in their localities.

I am also grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, for raising a number of important points, and I appreciate his efforts and sincerity in wanting to improve this landmark Bill.

Finally, the Minister will be glad to know that we are happy with government Amendment 93. It is good to see that the Government have listened to the concerns across your Lordships’ House and accept that local authorities require more support and information concerning the conservation and enhancement of biodiversity.

In the same spirit in which the Minister has presented Amendment 93 to address cross-party concerns expressed in Committee about empowering local authorities, I hope he can address the concerns of noble Lords who have spoken on the various amendments in this group. I look forward to his response.

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Lord Teverson Portrait Lord Teverson (LD)
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My Lords, I declare my interest as chair of the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Local Nature Partnership. Following the Sunday Telegraph article yesterday, I should declare my “not-at-all” interest in and non-membership of climate—forgive me—

Baroness Parminter Portrait Baroness Parminter (LD)
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Extinction Rebellion.

Lord Teverson Portrait Lord Teverson (LD)
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Yes, Extinction Rebellion. That was not where the emergency amendment that we debated last week came from. I will speak to Amendments 92 and 102, and I thank very much the noble Earl, Lord Dundee, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, for their support.

As the amendments specify, their purpose is to strongly raise the profile of agroecology, which is very important for the way agriculture moves into the future. It is very striking that when we think about trees in a rural context, we think of forests and also farmland that on the whole does not have trees or may have trees around the boundary, young trees as part of hedgerows, or maybe the odd copse in the middle, at the sides or in the corner of a field. But that need not be how we practise our tree planting and growing and our harvesting of the products that come from trees.

At the moment we have that divide, but agroforestry is very much a combination of those types of agriculture; it is farming with trees, not farming and forestry. There are great benefits to this. Clearly, it is not right for the whole of the British countryside—I would not argue that at all—but some strong benefits come from it. Those are that we can plant more trees, and more diverse types of trees, and they are not necessarily trees just planted within meadows or pastural land; they can be, for instance, a grove of hazel trees within an arable field too. There are a number benefits from this, in terms of climate change, sequestration, water management, soil health, animal welfare, shade and retention of water. Clearly, there is also the extra income to farming from what those trees can produce, such as fruit, nuts or timber, from the types of wood that can be used for timber, then replanted and replenished. There is a wide range of benefits to using agroforestry and bringing it much more predominantly into farming systems in this country.

In 2016, a survey showed that, in Europe generally, agroforestry accounted for some 9% of land use, whereas within the United Kingdom that was down to 3%. So the purpose of these amendments is to raise the profile of that form of agriculture in England by way of the Environment Bill, but also to have the benefits that flow from it.