Environment Agency and Water Levels in the Sankey Canal

Derek Twigg Excerpts
Tuesday 12th July 2022

(1 year, 11 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Derek Twigg Portrait Derek Twigg (Halton) (Lab)
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I am most grateful to Mr Speaker for granting me this debate on such an important issue to my constituency, and particularly to those who live in my home town of Widnes. I want to raise the perilous state of the Sankey canal, also known as the St Helens canal and, to many of the older generation among my Widnes constituents, the Cut.

In my maiden speech in this House 25 years ago I said:

“Mine is a constituency of many waterways—the river Mersey, the Manchester ship canal, the Bridgewater canal and the St. Helen’s canal.”—[Official Report, 10 June 1997; Vol. 295, c. 1036.]

Those waterways have played a significant part in my parliamentary work over my time here, much of it on the successful campaign to secure a second Mersey crossing road bridge. In the past few years, I have raised and supported the ongoing Unlock Runcorn campaign to restore the link between the Bridgewater canal and the Manchester ship canal and the restoration of the locks. I now find myself needing to raise the future of the Sankey canal in this place.

I was born and bred in Widnes and have never lived anywhere else. In my early childhood I lived in the Newtown area, only a short distance from the canal. I know how important a role the canal plays in our community and its importance to my constituents and many others who enjoy it and get great pleasure from it—of course, I am one of them.

There are several reasons why the matter should be debated in Parliament, not least because it was three Acts of Parliament that authorised its construction and extensions. The Sankey canal, initially known as the Sankey Brook navigation and later the St Helens canal, is a former industrial canal that was opened in 1757. It was England’s first of the industrial revolution and the first modern canal, even before the Bridgewater canal.

The canal was opened in three stages. The first Act of Parliament authorising the construction of the navigation was passed on 20 March 1755. It was entitled “An Act for making navigable the River or Brook called Sankey Brook, and Three several Branches thereof from the River Mersey below Sankey Bridges”. The second Act of Parliament was obtained on 8 April 1762, amending the earlier Act, and was entitled “An Act to amend and render more effectual, an Act made in the Twenty-eighth Year of the Reign of his late Majesty King George the Second, for making navigable Sankey Brook, in the county of Lancaster, and for the extending and improving the said Navigation”. The Act authorised the extension of the navigation to Fiddler’s Ferry on the River Mersey.

To counter competition from the new railways, another extension was planned from Fiddler’s Ferry across Cuerdley and Widnes salt marshes to Widnes Wharf, on the west bank of the River Mersey near Runcorn Gap, creating a second connection to the Mersey and another basin. That extension was authorised by a third Act of Parliament, granted on 29 May 1830. The almost 2-mile section of canal that is in Widnes opened in July 1833 and was for many years known as the New Cut, reflecting the fact that it was the last section to open.

Thereafter, well into the 20th century, the canal continued to play an important role in the transport of goods and materials essential to industry and the economic wellbeing of our country. It closed completely in 1963 and became derelict. British Waterways sold it to the respective local authorities and parts of it, in Warrington and St Helens, were filled in.

Between 1979 and 1983, a cosmetic restoration of the canal was carried out between Spike Island in Widnes and Sankey Valley Park in Warrington. Two marinas were also created at Spike Island and at Fiddler’s Ferry. A water supply for these works was an issue; the original way in which the canal was kept in water, via feeds from the St Helens area including Carr Mill dam, which was constructed to supply water to the canal, no longer functioned because of the infilling that had occurred.

An agreement was reached with the Central Electricity Generating Board to pump the water that was a by-product of their electricity generation at Fiddler’s Ferry power station into the canal. The CEEB agreed to do so for free, and for almost 40 years that was how the canal was kept in water.

It was known for many years that Fiddler’s Ferry power station would one day close and the water it put into the canal would no longer be available. Halton Borough Council has told me that that is why work on trying to identify, and most importantly fund, solutions began several years ago. The council has advised me that numerous bids and initiatives were made or embarked upon, but all either failed to attract money or were found to be unworkable.

All the realistic solutions that could supply enough water would have to be undertaken in Warrington. Therefore, Halton council has been working in partnership with Warrington. In 2019, Halton was told that the power station would close on 31 March 2020, which it did. It was informed that the water supply would cease and says that the main stakeholders were also informed. The council match funded engineering reports, which Warrington Borough Council commissioned, and provided a share of the cost.

Just as the covid crisis began, Fiddler’s Ferry power station agreed to carry on pumping for a while longer, after which Warrington, in partnership with Fiddler’s Ferry, embarked upon some temporary pumping, which lasted until March this year and then ceased.

From April 2022, water levels in the Halton section of the canal began to drop. Halton says that its efforts were stepped up to see where Warrington was up to with a permanent water supply solution, but for many reasons, including the pandemic, progress has been slow and is still ongoing. The partnership with Warrington is very important. Halton tells me that there is nothing that it can do in the short to medium term with regard to the water supply. I have challenged this. It says that it is

“very reliant on Warrington for that. It is also essential that any water supply that is found is both sustainable and affordable.”

Halton Borough Council has also commissioned a design that will seal the locks and make areas of our canal more watertight. While this, if the works that are carried out, will not in itself sort out the water supply issue, it will help in future to hold more water back. In addition, it will be undertaking some infrastructure repairs along the route of the canal, which it says it was unable to do when the canal was full of water.

The solution favoured by Halton Borough Council and the Sankey Canal Restoration Society would be to reconnect the original historical water supply sources and let them feed the canal by gravity. This will be supplemented by new sources from developments that are starting to take place along the canal. Another option that it may be possible to deliver more quickly, although Halton Borough Council believes that even this could take up to a year, would be to use the former power station pumping facilities to withdraw water from the River Mersey. This, again, would be too long. From information I have been given, it is estimated that the cost to operate this annually would be about £1 million plus the energy costs. Halton tells me that Warrington Borough Council is exploring this option. The previous pumping arrangement put 2 million gallons of water per day into the canal. With that amount of water going in, Halton Borough Council and Warrington Borough Council did not have to worry too much about the high volumes of leakage that occurred from along the length of the canal. Halton Borough Council tells me that to make the best use of whatever water will be available, the canal will need to be more watertight than it ever was historically.

We are faced with the stark reality of a canal that is an important part of our national industrial heritage almost drained of water. Boats are left high and dry. It is having a catastrophic impact on wildlife. Despite the fantastic efforts of residents to rescue some of the fish, many fish are now dead. From viewing a video taken today by local reporter Oliver Clay, I have seen very disturbing scenes of hundreds, possibly thousands, of dead fish. Birds have been badly affected, especially the many swans. Some are also injured because of the drop in water levels and have become tangled with debris and rubbish at the bottom of the canal. Again, local people have done all they can to help to rescue the swans.

I cannot stress too much the importance of the canal to the whole character of the town and our borough. It is as much part of our identity as rugby league, the River Mersey, and the bridges that cross the Mersey between Widnes and Runcorn. The canal runs into Spike Island, which is a local beauty spot with fantastic views across the Mersey and of the bridges. It is hard to believe that it was once at the centre of the British chemical industry during the industrial revolution. After it was abandoned by the chemical industry, it became one of the finest land reclamation projects anywhere in the country. It is visited by many thousands of people each year. It has parkland, woodland, wetlands, footpaths, and so much wildlife. The Stone Roses held a famous concert there in 1990. The canal is an integral and crucial part of Spike Island and its ecosystem.

I cannot emphasise enough the importance to local people of the canal—the pure enjoyment of being near it, leisure walking, being close to nature, fishing, and of course mental health. People come from far and wide to visit Spike Island. It also forms part of the trans-Pennine trail. The Catalyst Science Discovery Centre and Museum sits by the canal. Visitors from around the country, including many schoolchildren, come to this award-winning museum and many spend time visiting Spike Island. At the top of the museum there is a wonderful glass viewing area with panoramic views of the Mersey and Spike Island. Imagine now having to look down on an empty canal!

While I understand the financial issues facing one of the smallest local authorities in the country, I believe that Halton Borough Council has got this wrong. It should have been more dynamic, bold and innovative in finding a solution and funding to sustain and maintain water levels and secure the canal’s long-term future. As I said, this has turned out to be a catastrophe. It appears that the council has lost control of the situation. I have witnessed few issues during my time as MP for Halton that have caused such widespread concern, distress and anger across my community. That is why I have had to step in, with help from the hon. Member for Warrington South (Andy Carter), and call a meeting with all key stakeholders later this month who can have an influence on solving this problem. I want to see everybody in the same room at the same time, so that we can get to the solution as quickly as possible. As I have said, I am grateful to the hon. Member for his support.

I have to say to the Minister that we also need help and support from the Government, as well as from the Environment Agency and United Utilities, which will be at the meeting. I urge the Minister to give a strong steer, as a solution needs to be found and there can be no more delays. The canal is a national asset that is important to our natural environment and ecosystem. I invite the Minister to come and visit the canal to see for himself, and I may also ask him for a meeting to discuss in more detail the challenges we are facing.

Given the challenges of flooding, which take up a lot of the Government’s time, not least in areas such as Blackbrook in St Helens, the canal provides an option to take away excess water and could be an important asset in helping to alleviate flooding. More planning consideration must be given to the canal so that any new developments built close to it feed the service water run-off to it. There should be much more outrage about what is happening to this historic canal, not just as we have seen locally but nationally. This canal forms an important part of the industrial history of our country. It was the first canal of the industrial revolution. If this was happening in London, the national media would be all over it. The Government speak a lot about levelling up, but I can say to the Government that this is a great opportunity to literally level up, and I urge the Minister and his Department to work with me and the local authorities to find the resources needed to save the historic Sankey canal.

I will finish by quoting a few of my constituents who have written to me. Many hundreds have been in touch with me. One said:

“I moved to Widnes from Manchester and could not believe how beautiful this town is. I only discovered Spike Island when I mithered my partner to show me the place where the Stone Roses played. From the moment I arrived I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the place.”

Another resident said:

“Spike Island has been a godsend for me with my mental health, its peace and tranquil beauty has always calmed me.”

A local psychologist who works with vulnerable people said:

“I often deliver walk and talk therapy and Spike Island is a safe and convenient venue.”

Another constituent said:

“We rescued another 10 swans tonight that were stranded in the thick silt. These swans are unable to fly away”.

A constituent in Runcorn said:

“Apart from the historic value of the canal and the huge number of birds, wild fowl and mammals that have a habitat there, it is a hugely popular area with locals.”

There is huge support for the canal and Spike Island, where the canal runs through. This issue is vitally important, not just in my constituency but for the wider region and nationally, given the historic importance of the canal. I urge the Minister to do all he can to put his support behind finding a solution, and I look forward to meeting him at some point in the future.

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Steve Double Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Steve Double)
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With your permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I would like to begin by placing on record my thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), who, before the events of last week, would have been the Minister responding to this debate. While I am incredibly honoured and delighted to have this role, there is no doubting the commitment and passion for the environment that she brought to it during her time in office. She should feel rightly proud of all that she achieved and, indeed, she will be a very tough act to follow.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Halton (Derek Twigg) on securing this debate on what is clearly a very important matter to him and many of his constituents. Our canals are a highly valuable feature of our national landscapes. They are the most visible demonstration of our country’s industrial heritage. They are green corridors, sometimes in areas with little other space for nature, as well as a place for leisure and relaxation for so many people, such as boaters, anglers, joggers, cyclists and ramblers. They are rightly treasured across our country, and there is understandable concern when their future is at risk, as in the case he has highlighted tonight. It is important to note, however, that our canals provide all this despite, or perhaps even because of, the fact that they are run not by central Government but by our 30 navigation authorities across the 3,400 miles of regulated inland waterways in England and Wales.

The Sankey canal is an historic part of our industrial landscape. It was the first modern canal in England, with the initial section opened as long ago as 1757. Built to carry coal to Liverpool, it is 16 miles long, although less than 1 mile is used by boats today. The hon. Member for Halton laid out the history of the canal and its importance to the local industrial heritage very well. I understand that a long-term restoration project is under way, led by the Sankey Canal Restoration Society, working with the relevant local councils and the Canal and River Trust, which together own various sections of the canal.

Until recently, the water supply for sections of the canal came via pumps at the Fiddler’s Ferry power station, but with the closure of this plant in 2020, the supply ceased. This is, of course, an issue that local councillors have been aware of for some time, with Halton and Warrington councils reportedly working on a solution for over a decade. The Environment Agency is the regulator responsible for water resources management and compliance with water quality requirements, and it has been doing what it can to support the local councils with advice. In June 2022 the Environment Agency granted an abstraction licence to Warrington Borough Council to abstract water to supply to the Sankey canal.

The Environment Agency has been working closely with Halton Borough Council on fish rescue work that has been undertaken in recent weeks, attending the site to provide advice on the removal and relocation of fish. The hon. Member for Halton highlighted some of the recent concerning events there and I am pleased that the Environment Agency is assisting in that.

While the Environment Agency will continue to support the local councils where possible, this is not an area where we have dedicated departmental resources. DEFRA gives an annual grant to the Canal and River Trust, the independent charity established in 2012 to manage over 2,000 miles of waterways. The grant to the Canal and River Trust provides some financial support for the charity as it establishes itself and develops new revenue streams while working towards self-sufficiency. The current grant stands at about £52 million a year, with £10 million of that dependent on the trust meeting performance criteria covering principal asset condition, towpath condition, and flood management. The funding for the Canal and River Trust is specific to that charity and not a general fund.

Derek Twigg Portrait Derek Twigg
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Given the scenes filmed today showing that hundreds or possibly thousands of fish have died, will the Minister go back to the Environment Agency and ask exactly what it is doing to advise and help save the fish in the canal?

Steve Double Portrait Steve Double
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I had a meeting with the Environment Agency today and received an update on its work. It assured me that it is providing help and support to address the situation the hon. Gentleman highlights with regard to fish and wildlife, but I will happily go back to it in light of today’s debate and ensure that that continues to happen.

Last year 743 million or so visits were made by people to the Canal and River Trust canal towpaths for a wide variety of reasons including walking, cycling, and deriving health and wellbeing benefits from being close to water. DEFRA is undertaking a review of the current Government grant funding, as required by the 2012 grant agreement with the trust. The review is assessing the trust’s performance over the past 10 years for value for money, and gauging whether there is a case for continued Government grant funding after the end of the current grant period which expires in 2027. The review is nearing completion and we expect to announce a decision in the autumn.

On the issues the hon. Gentleman raised about the Sankey canal, I absolutely believe that he, working with colleagues, including my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (Andy Carter), with local councils, and with the tremendous enthusiasm of volunteers like the Sankey Canal Restoration Society, can make a huge difference here. Right across the country, volunteer groups, supported by local councils and their MPs, have led the way in fundraising and in delivering fantastic infrastructure projects to restore and improve canal systems. I have every confidence that the hon. Gentleman can do the same in his constituency.

Agriculture Sector: Recruitment Support

Derek Twigg Excerpts
Wednesday 25th May 2022

(2 years ago)

Westminster Hall
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Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner (Cambridge) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Twigg. I congratulate the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) on securing the debate, and introducing it in such a calm and measured way. We have heard excellent speeches, and the point raised by the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron), about the failure to introduce a scheme to bring people into farming, having introduced a scheme to get them out, speaks volumes.

The hon. Member for North East Fife was calm, but frankly I think we should be angrier because what is going on is a shambles. The front page of the Farmers Guardian this week says “Exodus”, because of the people leaving. Vegetable growers are planning to switch out of vegetables to go into cereals, which is exactly the opposite of what we would like to see. The Government should hang their heads in shame, although not this Minister, as I think the problem lies mostly with the Home Office, which is a Department that seems always to be capable of making a bad situation worse.

This afternoon, we are electing a new Chair of the EFRA Committee. Before Christmas, the previous Chair was incensed by the performance of one of the Home Office Ministers, who was incoherent on the language requirements. Frankly, some of this is so bad one could not make it up. The Conservatives were once the party of business, but they are now the party driving business out of the UK.

The severity of the crisis has been clear for a long time. In August last year, a group of many major organisations—the NFU, the Food and Drink Federation and so on—commissioned a report from Grant Thornton, which pointed out that there are over half a million vacancies out of 4.1 million jobs in the food and drink sector. That situation is only getting worse. We have heard some of the figures, including a 75% shortage of seasonal workers in parts of the UK. As has been said, the situation has now been exacerbated by the tragedy in Ukraine, as last year 67% of seasonal agricultural visas went to Ukrainians and 11% to Russians and Belarusians, so the situation will get worse.

There is an irony in all this, in a sense, because it looks as if we will have to turn to other parts of the world, which will mean bringing people into the UK from further and further afield. These are not people who are returning to the UK as normal, with the requisite skills, which adds to costs and makes things even more difficult for businesses.

Let me focus on a couple of sectors. We have often talked about the pig sector, which was one of the first to feel the problem. Partly because of the lack of pork butchers, we have ended up with 200,000 pigs backed up on farms and 35,000 healthy pigs culled. That was caused by a mix of factors, but frankly it was because the Government waited too long and were too slow to act, exactly as has been said by other hon. Members.

The horticultural sector is suffering enormously, with some businesses reporting workforce shortages of between 20% and 50%, which is far worse than in the first half of the year. I visited one of our major rose growers in the east of England, which was at pains to point out just how much it depends on a few, key skilled people, whom it cannot get nearly as easily now, because of the difficulties in getting in and out of the country. What will that grower do? It will move production somewhere else—not in this country. That is quite incredible. As we come up to the pinch point for the soft fruit industry this year, I fear that the same will happen again.

We have heard many of the figures. It is extraordinary how slow the Government were to act when they were warned. Looking back at discussions before Christmas, it is extraordinary that some decisions were left right up until the verge of Christmas itself. The number of visas available was much discussed and negotiated, but it was still nowhere near the number that we need.

The Horticultural Trades Association and the EFRA Committee have called for an additional 10,000 visas. The NFU says demand could be as high as 55,000. We are told that another 10,000 visas may be available at some point, but businesses will have to wait until the end of June to learn more. Even when they are allocated, I am told by many in the industry that it takes a long time for issues to be resolved and for people to get here. Unite the Union has told me about the poor treatment experienced by many seasonal workers. Will the Minister comment on what her Department is doing to check on this long-standing problem, which is not getting any better?

We need a better plan for the agricultural labour force; we cannot go on like this. Surely we have to start by having a discussion with employers across sectors in order to know the workforce requirement. I am afraid that we are seeing a failure of workforce planning in so many areas; we see it in the health service, but also in the agricultural sector. We need to take into account the workforce that our businesses need.

Of course we want to encourage the indigenous workforce, but I am afraid that we saw the limitations of the Pick for Britain scheme a couple of years ago. It was mired in rhetorical flourishes, but when push came to shove, it did not work. We have to be realistic about these things. It is no good waxing lyrical and pretending that somehow we will magic up a workforce. The choice will be quite simple: if employers cannot find the workers, as in the hospitality sector, businesses will go elsewhere. We are seeing it with our own eyes, so we need to analyse what is needed, have a proper discussion and ensure that we have the skills the country needs. We will then have a vibrant rural economy. If not, we will be relying on imported food in the future, and that is not a good idea.

Derek Twigg Portrait Derek Twigg (in the Chair)
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I confirm that the debate should finish by 5.43 pm. Of course, the hon. Member in charge of the debate should have some time to wind up at the end.

Hedgehogs

Derek Twigg Excerpts
Monday 5th July 2021

(2 years, 11 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Derek Twigg Portrait Derek Twigg (in the Chair)
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I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to the normal practice in order to support the new hybrid arrangements. Timings of debates have been amended to allow technical arrangements to be made for the next debate. There will also be suspensions between each debate. I remind Members participating physically and virtually that they must arrive for the start of debates in Westminster Hall and Members are expected to remain for the entire debate.

I also remind Members participating virtually that they must leave their camera on for the duration of the debate, and that they will be visible at all times, both to each other and to us in the Boothroyd Room. If Members attending virtually have any technical problems, they should email the Westminster Hall Clerks’ email address, which is westminsterhallclerks@parliament.uk. Members attending physically should clean their spaces before they use them and as they leave the room. I should also like to remind Members that Mr Speaker has stated that masks should be worn in Westminster Hall.

Members who are not on the call list but wish to intervene can do so only from the horseshoe. I remind Members that those on the call list have priority for spaces on the horseshoe. Those wishing to intervene should not prevent a Member from the call list from speaking.

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Liz Twist Portrait Liz Twist (Blaydon) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Twigg. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers) on speaking so eloquently on behalf of the petitioners. A remarkable number of people signed the petition, started by the British Hedgehog Preservation Society. That shows how much people in the UK really care about hedgehogs and protecting the nature around us. As I went to the Library to print out my speech, I was accosted by one of the staff who found out it was about hedgehogs; she insisted on showing me a photograph of the hedgehogs in her garden.

The issue is everywhere. In fact, the hedgehog has been voted Britain’s most popular wild mammal in several surveys over the years. As we heard, since 2000 hedgehog numbers in the UK have declined by half in rural areas and by a third in urban ones. According to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the main reasons for the decline are the destruction of their shelters and habitats, increased levels of traffic, poorly planned roads and the use of pesticides. Those are all things that we can and should work to prevent. The hedgehog has been listed as vulnerable to extinction in the UK, conceivably within the next decade if nothing is done to reverse the decline.

I recently visited Sandra Lowe, who lives in Woodside in my constituency. Sandra operates a hedgehog rescue called Hope for Hedgehogs. When people bring hedgehogs to her, she works tirelessly to ensure that they are properly treated. She works with local vets to ensure they get the right medication and does everything that she can to keep them. For the little ones, that involves getting up three times during the night to feed them the appropriate food. It certainly is a labour of love, and thankfully there are people who will help her with that. Sandra funds the endeavour entirely by herself, and she says it costs around £50 for each hedgehog to be treated and released. The organisation is entirely self-funded, which is why I am supporting her efforts to obtain funding to create a hog hospital, so that she can treat hedgehogs properly.

A lot of people, such as Sandra, are doing amazing work to help protect hedgehogs, but it is not enough to rely on the work of volunteers. The Government must commit to protecting our wildlife. Most of all, we know that Sandra and all the other volunteers want to see the prevention of injury, damage and deaths of hedgehogs as the priority. That is the important thing. Real consideration for nature and wildlife must be at the core of our planning decisions and many other decisions.

I and many others, including the British Hedgehog Preservation Society, are concerned by the proposed changes to the status of many of our widespread species in the United Kingdom, including hedgehogs. The Joint Nature Conservation Committee review will provide recommendations to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. As far as I understand it from Sandra and others, the upcoming review seeks to change the eligibility criteria of the hedgehog, currently listed on schedule 6, if that is the recommendation. Sandra tells me the review proposes that statutory nature conservation bodies will retain protected status only for species that are in imminent danger of extinction in Great Britain. That is clearly too low a bar to set, and I hope the Government will be much more ambitious. The effect of the proposed changes could be that rather than increasing protection for hedgehogs, as called for in the petition, their current lower level of protection could be removed. Sandra tells me that she has concerns about the impact of the quinquennial review, so I hope that the Minister will be able to assure me and Sandra that there will be increased protection and no diminution of it.

The Government’s national planning policy framework has a chapter on conserving and enhancing the natural environment. It opens by setting out how planning policies and decisions should contribute to and enhance the natural and local environment. Priority species are defined in the NPPF as those included in England’s biodiversity list, which is published by the Secretary of State under section 41 of the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006. As I have set out, the list currently includes hedgehogs.

With some narrow exemptions, the Environment Bill of 2021-22 contains provisions intended to make it mandatory for housing and development to achieve at least a 10% net gain in value for biodiversity, and a requirement that habitats for wildlife must be left in a measurably better state than before the development. Many of us know that although we can see the words on the page when it comes to planning policy guidance, we need to see the impact on the ground. We are seeing too many hedgerows lost as well as other biodiversity losses, even now. In today’s debate, we are calling on the Government to increase the protection offered to the hedgehog under the Wildlife and Countryside Act by moving it to schedule 5 as a first step in helping to protect our precious wildlife.

Derek Twigg Portrait Derek Twigg (in the Chair)
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Just to let Members know, I intend for the Opposition spokesperson and the Minister to start winding up at no later than 5.40 pm. Given the great deal of interest and the number of speakers, please keep your contributions to around four and a half minutes, which will ensure that everybody gets in. I ask for your indulgence in that.

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Derek Twigg Portrait Derek Twigg (in the Chair)
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I remind Members to wear masks while in this room, if they are not speaking, please.

National Tree Strategy

Derek Twigg Excerpts
Wednesday 16th December 2020

(3 years, 6 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Derek Twigg Portrait Derek Twigg (Halton) (Lab)
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I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) on securing this debate and on his speech which set out some important points. As a Twigg, I am not sure whether I should declare an interest in this debate, but I did think that, as a Twigg, I should participate. I stress that Twigg, in my sense, has two g’s at the end.

In my constituency, Widnes, west Runcorn and Hale village are not blessed with large areas of woodland—most of the woodland only covers fairly small areas. The north of England has significantly less woodland cover than the rest of England, despite being home to 30 million people. We have just 7.6% woodland cover, which is significantly lower than the England average.

The Woodland Trust is working with the Mersey forest, City of Trees, the White Rose forest, HEYwoods and the Community Forest Trust to create a new Northern forest. This will increase woodland cover, while bringing endless benefits and opportunities to the people of the north. The Northern forest is already in progress, and once completed it will help tackle climate change; encourage nature-rich landscapes; reduce the risk of flooding, which has already been referred to; create thousands of new jobs; of course provide cool and clean air in our towns and cities; and improve health and wellbeing.

This is all very positive, but we know much more has to be done. In the time I have, I want to talk mainly about how more can be achieved to increase woodland cover in northern towns, such as the ones I represent in Runcorn and Widnes. In the last century, places such as Widnes, have faced a devastating environmental impact from the chemical industry, which dominated the town. People said Widnes could be smelt before they got to it. There were many chemical factories nearby to the Newtown area, where I am from and which was demolished in the slum clearance programme in the 1960s, well into the 20th century, but there were no trees to speak of. All my family members tell me that they cannot recall hearing or seeing any bees or, for that matter, many flying insects.The chemical pollution had seen to that. I am pleased to say that the old, polluted Widnes has now been transformed, since the early 1970s—not least because of the work of Halton Borough Council. It is now a place that people want to move to and live in

The Mersey forest project and Halton Council have made some welcome improvements in the number of trees in recent times, especially in street and urban tree planting. However, why should urban areas such as Widnes and Runcorn have to be content with only street planting, and small public space tree planting? Of course those are important, but we need to plant many more trees to increase woodland and create a new and significant woodland with native British trees. It is a question of woods that people recognise as woodland.

The Halton local plans, including the delivery and allocations local plan, are very much based on housing and industrial development, but do not seem to give the same weight to tree planting and developing forest and biodiversity. Why should current green and green-belt land be taken for development, rather than for the creation of larger woods with all the community and environmental benefits that that would bring? One of the largest areas in my constituency is a private golf course, which has a lot of trees. There is a proposal to use a significant part of that land for housing. That should never be allowed. It is right in the heart of Widnes. We want more trees and more space for our communities.

I see that today the proposals for controversial planning reforms in England have been revised—according to the local press—after the new housing targets prompted a backlash among many Conservative MPs. We also hear from the press that a computer-based formula used to decide where houses should be located has been updated to focus on cities and urban areas in the north and midlands. If that is true it is appalling. That brings me back to the point about whether it is okay for urban areas such as Runcorn and Widnes to be concerned with tree planting schemes, but not for them to create new significant woodland.

Yesterday the all-party group on gardening and horticulture wrote to me, and I think what it said was important. The group told me:

“A large proportion of the UK’s horticultural industry is concerned that growers may not have the ability and confidence to increase the production of young trees to the levels required. They need to feel confident that there will be an increased market of significant volume at the end of the growing cycles. Competing environmental schemes may lead to landowners perceiving greater benefits from taking other initiatives (such as solar panels) rather than planting trees. Some Government policies and structures are standing in the way of growers having such confidence”.

Promoting tree establishment is very important.

“The right trees need to be planted in the right place to maximise the long-term environmental, social and economic benefits of urban trees, as well as ensure that they do not perish and can survive. This means that species are identified, sourced, and planted in the environment best suited to their needs in order that they may flourish. The planting of the tree is a crucial part of the process, but it is but one part: tree establishment is equally as important. In particular, young tree maintenance is essential to enabling a newly planted tree to establish and thrive.”

How often do we see that newly planted trees are struggling because they have been through drought or have not been watered properly?

“Tree officers, for example, are the custodians of our urban trees, but years of under-investment in public sector tree management have left many of them struggling.”

Of course, some local authorities do not have tree management officers to speak of.

“Trees planted in urban settings need maintenance which has not always happened in the past, as responsibility is often passed between local government departments. Ensuring that local governments have the capabilities to maintain trees in the long term is crucial to ensuring that planting efforts are not wasted. The right professionals with the right resources are needed, but under-investment in the industry in recent years has left many struggling.”

It is a matter of quality, not just quantity, in native trees. We want biodiversity and hedgerows as well. We have seen commitment from the various political parties, which talk about hundreds of millions—in fact, billions—of trees over the next 10 to 30 years. We do need billions of trees to be planted in that period.

Councils should be at the forefront of the re-wooding of our communities, especially in towns such as Runcorn and Widnes, which are highly urbanised but still have enough land within the borough boundaries to accommodate and sustain significant tree planting and, therefore, the development of woods in the future. Developments in my constituency, such as the towns fund initiative in Runcorn—if that proposal comes off—will give opportunities for more tree planting. Again, there are opportunities with the Unlock Runcorn canal initiative, to restore the locks and the links to the Manchester ship canal, but we need the funding to do that.

In summary, Mr Hollobone, the main ask is that Government, working with local authorities, fund significant new sustainable tree planting and sustainable woods. We want people to see what they know and recognise as woods, and for every single town that has the space, to be able to have a wood planted and see it become sustainable and develop over the years. These are new woods, which people with no access to a car can easily get to and enjoy, where they can have the boost to their wellbeing that we know being among the trees brings.

From the pandemic that we have been through, we know how important it is for people to get out walking. I want to see that happen. It is key that every town should have a new wood, where they have land available; most towns have that land. The northern towns should not be lumbered with having to build lots more houses and industrial developments because the leafy parts of the south have risen up against us, as we have seen in the press today.

My final point is that local authorities should have funded tree officers. Schools and local organisations should be at the heart of tree planting, working alongside local authorities.

Oral Answers to Questions

Derek Twigg Excerpts
Thursday 21st February 2019

(5 years, 3 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove
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My hon. Friend is right to point out that there can be confusion as a result of labelling. There has been leadership from the very top of the Government in pointing out that, when it comes to salt or jam, it is perfectly possible to consume healthy and nutritious food uninhibited by some of the nannying regulations and pointless bureaucracy of the past, and to eliminate waste.

Derek Twigg Portrait Derek Twigg (Halton) (Lab)
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What discussions have the Secretary of State or his officials had with local authorities, for instance, about how they can help with this strategy?

Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove
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We have had extensive discussions with the Local Government Association and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. We want to move towards mandatory food waste collection across all local authorities, and we intend to ensure that resources are available to help them to do just that.

Oral Answers to Questions

Derek Twigg Excerpts
Thursday 19th January 2017

(7 years, 4 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Thérèse Coffey Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Dr Thérèse Coffey)
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We as a Government continue to invest in flood defences right around our coasts—a feature that my hon. Friend and I share in our constituencies. I reiterate our thanks to our emergency services and the military who helped people at risk last year. We continue to invest so that fewer homes and businesses will be at risk in future.

Derek Twigg Portrait Derek Twigg (Halton) (Lab)
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I was originally told that the study by the Small Area Health Statistics Unit investigating the potential link between emissions from municipal waste incinerators and health outcomes would be published in 2014, then 2015. In October last year, through a parliamentary question, I was told that it would be published this year. Is the Minister confident that it will at last be published this year?

Thérèse Coffey Portrait Dr Coffey
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That is a timely reminder from the hon. Gentleman. I will look into the matter straight away and write to him.

Sale of Puppies and Kittens

Derek Twigg Excerpts
Thursday 4th September 2014

(9 years, 9 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Robert Flello Portrait Robert Flello
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This shows the danger in trying to make a very short speech, because a speech on this issue could easily cover several hours. However, my hon. Friend makes an extremely good point.

--- Later in debate ---
Robert Flello Portrait Robert Flello
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I will come to the hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman); I am working my way round to him.

Derek Twigg Portrait Derek Twigg
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I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate and on his excellent speech. Many constituents have contacted me about this issue. I would like to see more regulation, but I was struck by one thing when listening to him: is one problem the fact that we are just not getting the information out to people so that they can understand what the situation is and we can prevent this from happening in the first place?

Robert Flello Portrait Robert Flello
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Information is important, but someone may have the best information in the world and yet happen to be buying a container of goldfish food from the local pet shop with their family and see a cute puppy or a cute kitten—that is when a problem arises and there is an impulse purchase. However, my hon. Friend makes a good point. I will now take the intervention by the hon. Member for Hexham, but I am not going to take further interventions for a short while after that so that I can make some progress.

Oral Answers to Questions

Derek Twigg Excerpts
Thursday 27th March 2014

(10 years, 2 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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George Eustice Portrait George Eustice
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I would be more than happy to come and visit a Thorntons factory. Thorntons is a fabulous chocolate manufacturer and a great success story in the UK. My hon. Friend is right: the food and drink industry is our biggest manufacturing industry in the UK. There is great potential for export opportunities, which is why the Government have an export plan and why we have prioritised exports and done a huge amount of work to open new markets.

Derek Twigg Portrait Derek Twigg (Halton) (Lab)
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Following on from the earlier question from the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith), 18 months ago there was a fire at a JL Sorting site in my constituency that took weeks to put out, but since then nothing has been done to remove the many tonnes of debris on the site and that is causing great concern as it is an eyesore and might lead to health problems. Will the Minister look again at how he can bring about change through the Environment Agency to ensure quicker enforcement to get rid of such debris more quickly?

Dan Rogerson Portrait Dan Rogerson
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The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Things have not always been done as we should have liked in the past, and we are therefore investing an extra £5 million in tackling waste crime. I have asked the chief executive of the Environment Agency and Lord Smith to come back to me—as they are doing—with proposals for improving the position by toughening up regulation. The hon. Gentleman may wish to write to me about specific issues relating to the case that he has raised.