Environment Bill DebateFull Debate: Read Full Debate
Baroness Young of Old SconeMain Page: Baroness Young of Old Scone (Labour - Life peer)
(1 month, 1 week ago)Lords Chamber
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.
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?
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.
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.