Environment Bill

Baroness Young of Old Scone Excerpts
Monday 13th September 2021

(1 month, 1 week ago)

Lords Chamber

Read Full debate Read Hansard Text
Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Lord Krebs Portrait Lord Krebs (CB)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, in moving my Amendment 84A, I will also speak to support Amendments 85 and 87 in this group in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, to which I have added my name along with the noble Baronesses, Lady Parminter and Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb. I thank the Minister for his time in discussion with me, and officials at Defra and Natural England for going into considerable detail in subsequent meetings.

I will be very brief, in view of the late hour. To cut to the quick, the biodiversity metric, which is what this amendment is about, is the measure by which developers and planning authorities calculate whether biodiversity off-setting produces a net-positive outcome for nature. Of course, if we think back to Clause 3, which we debated last week, this net gain concept will be crucial if the Government are to succeed in delivering their target of halting species decline by 2030.

However, as I said briefly in Committee, the metric as currently proposed by Natural England and Defra is, in the view of at least some leading academic experts, practitioners and end-users, deeply flawed for the following reasons. First, it does not adequately consider the requirements of key species. Secondly, it uses an oversimplified classification of habitat type and quality as a surrogate for species abundance. Thirdly, it does not adequately incorporate the so-called Lawton principles of bigger, better, more connected habitat, which are the accepted gold standard for protecting biodiversity.

I will illustrate these flaws with an example. A few hundred metres from my home in Oxford, there is a city council nature reserve called Burgess Field, known locally for its rich biodiversity. Many species of birds, butterflies and other insects, as well as wildflowers, thrive there. Yet, as my colleague Professor Katherine Willis of Oxford University points out, this nature reserve would count as “poor” habitat if it were assessed by the metric. This simply cannot be right.

Defra officials and Natural England acknowledge that the metric is a work in progress, but they argue that a great deal of work has gone into its development —of course, the fact that a great deal of work has gone in in the past does not mean to say that more work cannot easily be done in the future—and that it has to be kept simple to make life easier for developers. I think it should be made more difficult and life made easier for nature. My amendment simply asks the Government to reconsider the metric and to revise it yet again. My ask is a modest one—to review the deficiencies and continue to improve the metric. I very much hope that the Minister will confirm his commitment to doing this.

I will leave it to others to speak in more detail to Amendments 85 and 87, which ask the Government to extend the lifespan of net gain from 30 to 125 years, but I will make two very brief points. Having spoken to Defra officials, as I understand it—I hope I am wrong and that the Minister will correct me—there are two lines of argument for defending the 30-year, rather than a 125-year, limit. First, if the requirement for the duration of net gain were too onerous it would be an obstacle to development because no one would want to commit their land for a long time for preserving biodiversity. It is said that the experience from other countries demonstrates this, although I have not been able to find the evidence. The second argument is that if at the end of 30 years valuable habitat has been created, that habitat will be protected by other regulations, such as a designation as an SSSI. These two arguments seem self-contradictory. On the one hand it is important to tell developers that they can have their land back after 30 years, but on the other if they do a good job of creating new habitat for net gain they cannot have it back. I look forward to the Minister’s reply. I beg to move.

Baroness Young of Old Scone Portrait Baroness Young of Old Scone (Lab)
- Hansard - -

My Lords, bearing in mind the hour, I shall speak briefly to Amendments 85 and 87. It is a pity that it is late, because these are terribly important amendments. I have been sitting and thinking: how long does it take to create a habitat? The noble Lord, Lord Krebs, just said that at the end of 30 years we may have rip-roaring habitat, but the likelihood is that we will not have rip-roaring habitat for many habitat types.

There are some instant habitats: wetlands, for example—just add water and you get birds. It is instant habitat creation. There are some middling habitats, such as meadows, where you can grow grass and wildflowers, but it will not be a complex meadow ecosystem, certainly not SSSI quality, by 30 years’ time. As for woods, a wood will not really get into its stride in 30 years. You will have canopy formation by then, but it will be a fairly limited wood. Of course, many habitats are very long-term: ancient woodlands take 400 years. Long-standing woods, which the Government have said they are now interested in protecting, are complex assemblages of habitat and we do not yet know how long standing “long standing” will be, but it is certainly more than 30 years. Peatlands take 1,000 years, so 30 years for newly created habitats for biodiversity gain, planning gain or conservation covenants is a bit pathetic; in fact, it is pretty useless. Destruction of these biodiversity gains and climate change carbon sequestration at 30 years will be unacceptable to the public and it makes no sense to create and then destroy.

Longer periods do not discourage landowners and farmers. I draw attention to my interest as chairman of the Woodland Trust. We regularly deal with farmers on woodland creation schemes. What farmers and landowners want is clarity for the future, so that they can make decisions. The current woodland carbon code requires woodland sites for carbon storage to be in place for at least 100 years and we have no shortage of people banging on our doors wanting to create at least 100 year-old woods, so I ask the Minister to accept this amendment.

Lord Bishop of Manchester Portrait The Lord Bishop of Manchester
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I draw attention to my interest as a Church Commissioner, as set out in the register, and I wish to support what the noble Baroness just said: 30 years is rather a short period of time. I am grateful for the way the Minister, in proposing Amendments 86 and 88, is showing us the possibility of some flexibility in the future, but may I just tempt him a little further? What he is proposing would allow a future Government, by regulation, to change that period of 30 years—one would hope that it might go up to 50, 60 or perhaps even 125—but if they did, there would be nothing to prevent a subsequent Government reducing it back to 30 again. If we are to have a direction of travel in how long a site needs to be protected for, it should be one-way, without the possibility of going back down again. That could create a sort of planning blight, whereby somebody, particularly towards the end of a government cycle, might feel that, rather than making some land available for development, they can wait and hope that the period will be knocked back down to 30 years by the incoming Administration. Would the Minister be willing to think again so that, whatever period we set, any future changes would have to increase it rather than potentially allowing it to decrease?

--- Later in debate ---
Earl of Dundee Portrait The Earl of Dundee (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, for moving the amendment so ably. Its consensual premise is that agroforestry development usefully contributes towards afforestation targets. Although most of the target of 30 million trees that the Government have committed to plant will apply to upland areas, through agroforestry an increasing proportion could be planted on lower ground, which is otherwise, nevertheless and for good reason, often the sole preserve of agricultural production.

Yet, conversely, agroforestry itself, where deployed on lower ground, can much assist afforestation targets as a result of designing fields of agricultural crops with trees planted at certain wide intervals between them. Through agroforestry, as carried out on United Kingdom farmland, it is estimated that 920 million trees could be planted in fields and, in so being, would cause our agricultural output to reduce by only 7%.

The practice brings huge benefits for biodiversity, climate and nature, as well as financial advantages for farmers. Thus, not least, it is strongly backed by informed land bodies including the Woodland Trust, the Soil Association, the Nature Friendly Farming Network, Sustain, the Landworkers’ Alliance and the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission.

My noble friend Lord Caithness has just correctly lamented how many projected targets of all kinds we fail to attain. However, in this case, in seeking to plant enough trees, we are all the more likely to achieve our aims by encouraging agroforestry. I am sure that my noble friend the Minister will therefore agree that, as the amendment urges, agroforestry should now be part of legislation as a very welcome and balanced mechanism for public authorities to meet their biodiversity objectives.

Baroness Young of Old Scone Portrait Baroness Young of Old Scone (Lab)
- Hansard - -

My Lords, I shall speak to Amendment 104 in the name of the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, who, alas, cannot be with us at this late hour. With his permission, I shall lay out his amendment, which would reduce the importation of tree disease by ensuring that all trees planted by or for the Government would adhere to a biosecurity standard.

Over the last 30 years we have imported more and more plants and trees, and plant diseases have gone up correspondingly. We have at least 27 new pests and diseases recorded with impacts on native plant and tree species. Wales alone is set to lose more than 6.7 million larch trees because of the spread of phytophthora ramorum—one should not have to say that at this time of night. Sweet chestnut blight is spreading like wildfire. Ash dieback is well recorded, and its impact will see something like 90% of our native ash trees going and a cost to the economy of £15 billion by 2050.

On the continent, xylella fastidiosa is rampaging through the lands and is as near as the Netherlands and Denmark. It eats everything, basically—over 500 species of tree and plant so far. If it arrives in the UK, the effects on our native species could be devastating, so this is a really important issue. However, we do not need to do what we currently are doing, which is to import a very large proportion of our tree and plant supplies. We could be growing these trees in particular here in this country. The Government are one of the biggest purchasers in the market for trees so, if we are to change the way in which trees are sourced and minimise the risk, it is only right that the Government take the first step. The new biosecurity standard that the amendment calls for would set a new standard in sourcing of trees by government agencies and third parties from UK growers, thereby curtailing the risk of importing diseases on tree stock and at the same time delivering investment that would see hundreds if not thousands of new jobs created. I hope that the Minister can consider this amendment.

I support Amendment 92 on agroforestry, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, and declare my interest as chair of the Woodland Trust. To give one example, we did a very interesting experiment in Wales with electronic sheep. It is true to say that shelter belts protected the electronic sheep. Now that we are doing it with proper sheep, those protected by tree shelter belts produce bigger lambs with less lamb and ewe mortality. Therefore, there are all sorts of benefits for animal welfare and biodiversity, and I am sure that the Minister is clear about their benefits of hedgerows and very short trees. Farming needs agroforestry, but nowhere is it enshrined in statue as the desirable way forward, and this amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, would do just that.

Amendment 103 in the name of the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, whom I have just usurped from introducing his own amendment before I speak to it, is a great amendment. The noble Earl has been doing wonderful work on the UK Squirrel Accord. We really must take effective action on animal damage if we are to see a big increase in protection of ancient woodlands and the increased creation of woodlands that climate change requires. Deer management, for example, is failing in many parts of the UK because of a lack of the co-ordinated action by all landowners in an area that must happen if proper control is to take place. Amendment 103 would ensure that all public authorities play their role and encourage other private landowners to do so in that co-ordinated, area-based way which is essential.

Earl of Kinnoull Portrait The Earl of Kinnoull (CB)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, a note to self is to employ the noble Baroness, Lady Young, as my speechwriter.

I shall speak to Amendment 103. Before I make my few remarks, I thank the Minister and his Bill team, who met me. We had a productive exchange of views. I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Colgrain, and the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, who have supported this amendment, along with the noble Baroness, Lady Young. I declare my farming interests, but also particularly my interest as a trustee of the Blair Charitable Trust, which not only has substantial landholdings in the north of Perthshire but runs land on behalf of a number of other substantial landholders, and therefore is one of the largest forestry concerns in Scotland. There are no grey squirrels in north Perthshire but my gosh there are a lot of deer, so I do know about that.

I also chair the Squirrel Accord, which is the coming together of 40 organisations across the whole of the United Kingdom to try to deal with the grey squirrel problem: its killing of broadleaf trees in Britain, preventing fresh broadleaf plantations in, for the example, the south of England being made today simply because the trees will be destroyed before they reached maturity. The Squirrel Accord includes all four Governments of our country and their nature agencies, the major voluntary bodies and the major private sector bodies. No one who has ever been asked to be a part of the accord has said no, and we are a number of years old.

As I said, the accord deals with the grey squirrel problem. Therefore, I am pretty familiar with that. The problem is simply that these animals will destroy the trees before they reach maturity. Therefore, all the planting that we need to do, for admirable climate change purposes, will simply not succeed if we do not put in place a good management system so that the trees can see themselves through to adulthood. As I mentioned in Committee, the Royal Forestry Society surveyed its membership and got 777 responses this year. The grey squirrel was noted as the number one threat to the planting of trees. I meet the Deer Initiative every now and then. It is similarly trying to promote a UK-wide way of handling this.

The Squirrel Accord has a good plan for how to manage everything. It is a plan that involves plenty of science, and the major science for fertility control, which is just one element of it, is being done at Defra’s own laboratories. It is now three years into a five-year project and going well. We have good science and good connections to deliver the product of that science in various ways into the countryside of Britain to deal with the problem. However, if there are refuges then we will get nowhere, because the responsible landowners and land managers will do everything and those who are not interested will do nothing. The purpose of the amendment is to try to cater for that and to make sure that the Government not only have the powers to handle it but will exercise those powers.

At this late hour I will not make many more points, but in the meeting I had with the Minister and his Bill team there was mention that the Government felt that they may have the powers. I, with my rather elderly wig on, felt that those powers probably needed to be newly minted, but it would be helpful to hear from the Minister whether he believes that he really does have those powers, and to hear comfort that those powers will be exercised so that there can be no giant refuges and so that all the work of the Squirrel Accord and the Deer Initiative, which I hope will be reinvigorated, and the work of those up and down the land who are trying to promote the ability to plant trees, particularly our native trees again, will not go to waste.