Environment Bill

Earl of Caithness Excerpts
Monday 13th September 2021

(1 month, 1 week ago)

Lords Chamber

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Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

In conclusion, this is a critical amendment because it provides the means to achieve the end that the Bill seeks. It is critical because it would show that, in this House, we understand that we simply cannot go on imposing more and more duties on local government without providing the mechanisms by which it can discharge them. Finally, it is critical because, without these powers in the hands of local authorities, as the front-line defenders of nature, biodiversity destruction will continue, notwithstanding the many laudable intentions of this Bill. I beg to move.

Earl of Caithness Portrait The Earl of Caithness (Con)
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My Lords, I have three amendments in this group. They have a common theme because they are based on the fact that, very sadly, a lot of the good intentions of this Bill are going to fail. Although I support the Bill and support the drift of where we are going, they are going to fail because they are based on, and are building on, the existing system that is already a failure.

Let me give some examples. Since 2000, Defra has spent £10.3 billion or thereabouts on biodiversity. Agri-environment schemes have cost us £8.5 billion in the last 25 years. Roughly 28% of our land is designated for nature and biodiversity, and yet we have an appalling and increasingly bad record. Why? Because the current system is failing. Let me give just a couple of examples. Because of climate change we have gone for bioenergy and we have planted more maize. That has caused huge environmental problems and been very damaging for biodiversity. We are encouraging people to plant trees on what they call unproductive farmland, but that unproductive farmland is the haven for many of the red-list species, and we are damaging those. This Bill is going to build on those failures, and I believe we need to change tack. I know my noble friend will not accept that that is the right way to go but, nevertheless, I believe it is worth putting on the record that it is the right way to go.

We have to accept that there is more to improving biodiversity than just habitats. In the last amendment, my noble friend Lord Goldsmith said that habitats were very important and that we had to improve them. Yes, habitats are important, but they are not the only thing that is important. Equally important, as I have said many times, is winter feed, early spring feed and farming practices and management, in particular predator control. I give the example of the Allerton Project, which is entirely devoted to improving biodiversity and has hugely increased songbird numbers, but it cannot get waders and curlews back because of the lack of predatory control. We need to alter our stance on that.

I have three amendments: Amendment 92A refers to “nature-friendly farming”. These are the people who are managing the land. The noble Lord, Lord Oates, is right that the local authorities have a role, but the bulk of the land is in the hands of the farmers and we need the farmers on side. We need to encourage those that are nature-friendly-oriented. Farming and nature cannot be divided or separated; they have been separated for too long and here is a good chance in the Bill to put the farmers in the position they ought to be in.

Amendment 98 relates to wildlife conservation licences. I tweak the Bill in this respect, in that I propose the use of the word “status” instead of “survival”, as effectively a single individual of a species could be considered to be survival. Population can mean anything from an individual site colony to the total number of that species in the UK. Therefore, scale comes into any definition of detrimental to survival, as reducing the population at the local level may not actually have a bearing on the overall population due, for example, to infill from the current year’s young of the species.

My third amendment is Amendment 105. The noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, spoke on the last amendment in support of what I have said. She feared we would be going backwards if we do not get this right. The purpose of Amendment 105, which is a sunset clause, is to allow us to take a deep breath and stop us going backward if we are. My noble friend Lord Goldsmith said on the last amendment that there would be serious trouble if habitats in 2050 are not in the state we want them to be in. The purpose of this clause is to allow the Secretary of State to stand back, take a look and say “We were well intentioned, but we got it wrong. We need to change and go in a slightly different direction for the sake of biodiversity and the environment.”

We now have binding targets in the Bill but, as my noble friend Lord Benyon, who was in his place a moment ago, said on 25 May in this House:

“We are always wary of targets”.—[Official Report, 25/5/2021; col. 890.]

I am extremely wary of targets when it comes to biodiversity, because every target we have aimed at in the last 25 years has been missed. The purpose of Amendment 105 is therefore to give the Minister a chance to stand back, have a rational look and, if necessary, take a different direction.

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.