Holly Lynch contributions to the Environment Bill 2019-21

Wed 26th February 2020 Environment Bill (Commons Chamber)
Money resolution: House of Commons
Ways and Means resolution: House of Commons
3 interactions (1,249 words)

Environment Bill

(Money resolution: House of Commons)
(Ways and Means resolution: House of Commons)
Holly Lynch Excerpts
Wednesday 26th February 2020

(6 months, 3 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Bill Main Page
Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Mr Owen Paterson Portrait Mr Owen Paterson (North Shropshire) (Con) - Hansard
26 Feb 2020, 5:05 p.m.

It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Cardiff North (Anna McMorrin). I endorse much of what she said about the horror that plastic presents to the world and the nonsense of exporting it. She might be interested to know that one of my sad failures as Secretary of State was failing to persuade our coalition partners to introduce a price incentive for a genuinely biodegradable plastic bag. Our charge, which came in shortly after I left but which I legislated for, has reduced the number of bags from 8 billion to 1.1 billion, according to the House of Commons Library, but the ideal is to develop a biodegradable plastic that does not cause this horror in the seas and all the terrible issues she raised.

We have heard many very good maiden speeches and I think there are more to come, so I will speak briefly. I see all this enthusiasm in the Chamber, all this youth, all these excited people wanting to take action as Members of Parliament and benefit their constituents, yet a pillar of the Bill, which I strongly support, is the creation of a quango. When I was Secretary of State, my four key priorities were: to grow the rural economy; improve the environment, not just protect it—which is built into the Bill; and save the country from animal disease and plant disease. The Bill is the basis on which to deliver that. It is not all in there—it is partly an enabling Bill—but I strongly support its clearly stated aims.

The only aspect I would really query is that we do not need another quango. We already have Natural England and the Environment Agency. My right hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), when he took the Bill through in its early incarnation, said that the staff of the OEP would only number 60 to 120. That dwarfs what we already have in Natural England and the Environment Agency. What we want are strong Ministers. I am delighted by the appointment of my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) as a Minister and of my right hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), who was my junior Minister, as Secretary of State. They are knowledgeable, competent Ministers bringing forward policies that will benefit our farming and marine industries and the environment, both terrestrial and marine.

What we want is a strong mechanism by which Members can question Ministers, ensure that whatever they decide is put into practice and pull them up if it is not. What we do not need is another quango. A quango is not the answer. I have direct experience of that. We had the most terrible floods in Somerset when I was at DEFRA. Why was that? It was because of a very misguided policy. Why was it misguided? It was because the Environment Agency was led by a model quangocrat. Baroness Young of Old Scone had spent seven years as chief executive of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, she had been vice-chairman of the BBC for two years, and she was chief executive of the Environment Agency for eight years. I am sure she would score many points among all those speakers on the Opposition Benches—of course, she was also a Labour Whip.

The policy of Baroness Young in the Somerset levels was to put a limpet mine on every pumping station, and when it came to categories, she wanted policy option 6 for the levels, which was to increase flooding. The result was an environmental catastrophe, costing, according to some estimates, more than £100 million. The water died—the water went stagnant—and all aquatic life disappeared. I went down and talked to some experts on the levels who really understood the local environment, and they said that they had never seen so many wild birds disappear until that year.

What we want is local management. North Shropshire looks as it does thanks to generations of private farmers and private landlords taking huge pride in what they do. What we are doing now on public goods in the Agriculture Bill—and there are more measures in this Bill—is giving people the chance to improve their local environment. I should like the Minister to look at the benefits of nature improvement areas, built around catchments, where we could pool the resources from the landowners’ payments for public goods, from public grants and from other moneys, possibly local, for the purpose of long-term targets. We could concentrate on local species which need building up again. That would deliver real environmental outcomes.

Creating at national level a quango with 60 to 120 busy- bodies who are, for some reason, independent of this House is not the way. We have had enough: we have had 40 years of the European Union telling us what to do, and doing it badly. Following directives designed for polluted European rivers, not our own—that is not the way. The answer is to write laws in this House, and regulations in this House, and set targets in this House, and then control them in this House. That is what we were elected to do. Creating a parody of the European Commission—which is what the OEP is—is emphatically not the answer.

I am looking at the clock, but I will very briefly mention a couple of other issues. I mentioned catchment areas earlier. I should like the Minister to look at the issue of abstraction, because we have to balance the need to grow food and provide adequate water with the need to keep food production going. Food production is vital, and it is still the primary function of the countryside. I should also like the Minister to look at the balance between the precautionary principle and the innovation principle. In the European Union there is an insane hostility towards modern technologies, which has caused real environmental damage. What we should be doing is growing more food on less land, and freeing up land for recreation and planting. We have heard a lot of talk about trees, all of which I entirely endorse, especially in view of the floods. We should be growing more trees in the upper parts of the catchment areas. That is the balance: we will only do that with modern technologies.

Lastly, I want to touch on the subject of endangered species, as did my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling). I am very proud to be wearing the tie of the Red Squirrel Survival Trust. We now have a wonderful opportunity to legislate for the species in this country which really are endangered. We do not have a problem with crested newts—although they have caused terrible problems for our building industry—but we do have a problem with red squirrels and certain crayfish, and those are what we should be targeting.

The Bill presents us with a great opportunity, and I support it, but will the Minister please make sure that it is Members of Parliament in the driving seat?

Holly Lynch Portrait Holly Lynch (Halifax) (Lab) - Hansard
26 Feb 2020, 5:13 p.m.

It is a pleasure to follow such a passionate speech from the right hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson).

It will probably not surprise Members to learn that I shall be focusing my comments on part 5 of the Bill, largely because extreme weather is starting to pose an almost existential crisis to us in parts of Calderdale. The water levels that we saw in 2015, and again earlier this month, presented an immediate threat to life, and a more long-term challenge to the viability of communities alongside the river and the canal.

An ongoing challenge for us in flood-affected communities throughout the north, in particular, is that the legislation and regulation that underpin the role of water companies are heavily weighted towards mitigating drought risk. The climate change adaptation work reflected in both the 25-year environment plan and the Bill, while recognising flood risk, does not provide the same level of seriousness in legislation relating to the risks of both flooding and drought, and I should like to see a rebalancing of those challenges.

In July last year I presented a ten-minute rule Bill, the Reservoirs (Flood Risk) Bill, which—in a nutshell—sought to give the Environment Agency additional powers to require water companies to manage reservoirs to mitigate flood risk. The Bill followed years of conversations between the Environment Agency, Yorkshire Water and Calderdale Council about the role of the six Yorkshire Water reservoirs in the upper catchment in the Calder Valley. In the winter of 2017-18, Yorkshire Water and the Environment Agency started a trial to manage the Hebden Water reservoirs down to 90% of their usual top storage level, with the aim of assessing the potential of utilising the reservoirs as a more long-term flood risk management option. Maintaining the reservoirs at 90% instead of the usual percentage created an extra 10% capacity to hold more water in the upper catchment during periods of heavy rainfall. Although the reservoirs were placed under nothing like the pressure during the trial period that they experienced during Boxing day 2015’s Storm Eva or more recently Storms Ciara and Dennis, the report was able to conclude:

“The lower reservoir levels did provide a significant impact on peak flows in Hebden Water for largest events observed during this period”.

The report was clear that the scheme had a positive impact on flood mitigation, and that a managed and collaborative approach would be complementary to ongoing flood protection work in the area. This approach is not just happening in Calderdale; similar conversations are happening right across the country, including at Thirlmere reservoir in Cumbria, at reservoirs in the upper Don Valley and at Watergrove reservoir in Rochdale.

The Environment Bill recognises that climate change and extreme weather will place additional pressures on water availability, and although it legislates for a requirement on water companies to work regionally to publish joint proposals to mitigate drought risk, it does not seem to place the same expectations on water companies to mitigate flood risk. Drought risk and flood risk seem to be perpetually at odds with each other throughout legislation, although both are expected to occur with increased frequency. So while I very much welcome a more regional approach, I would like to see a rebalancing of both those risks, alongside the investment in infrastructure that would give whole regions the flexibility to move water with ease and to manage the risk, making us more resilient to too much water as well as not enough.

In relation to the role of reservoirs, I will be looking to table amendments to part 5 of the Bill that would set out the transfer of powers to the Environment Agency and the framework in which such arrangements between the EA and water companies, in consultation with local authorities and communities, would work together to put localised plans in place for managing down pre-designated reservoir levels during periods of heightened risk.

As we know, this is just one piece of the enormous jigsaw that needs to come together if we are to bring the ongoing risks that we face in Calderdale under control. Given the vast scale of the moorland in the upper catchment, natural flood management schemes will be instrumental if we are to hold and slow water before it reaches homes and businesses down the valley. Last summer, I visited Dove Stone nature reserve in High Peak with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, where a comprehensive peatland restoration project is under way. We were planting sphagnum moss, which not only helps to manage flood risk by locking in water but promotes biodiversity, prevents wildfires and stores carbon.

Slow the Flow in Calderdale promotes natural flood management, and with a group of volunteers with an impressive collective skillset, it has been working with the National Trust, the Environment Agency and Calderdale Council since 2016 to use the natural environment to build leaky dams, stuff gullies and promote sustainable drainage and natural attenuation schemes. This work disrupts the flow of water as it makes its way down the valley, forcing it to spread out and slow down, and holds as much water up in the crags for as long as possible.

The really impressive thing about Slow the Flow is its determination to measure its outcomes, its desire to take an evidence-based approach to what it does and to crunch the numbers to demonstrate the real value of its work. Its work on attenuation ponds, which are designed to hold water in the event of heavy rainfall, suggests that if the 43 attenuation ponds identified as possible sites by Calderdale Council were delivered at a cost of £600,000 for 29,000 metres cubed of water storage—bear with me—this would equate to £21 per cubic metre of storage, compared with the £1,270 per cubic metre cost of the storage delivered by the hard flood defences in Mytholmroyd. The truth is that we need both, but we can see how cost-effective natural flood management is. It is 61 times more cost-effective per cubic metre of water storage.

I therefore very much welcome the local nature recovery strategy in the Bill, building on the notion of natural capital and acknowledging the very real, tangible benefits for people and communities if we can store and slow water in the upper catchment. However, I would like to see the Bill include hard and ambitious targets for recovering moorland and peatlands in particular, and not only for flood alleviation purposes; nature-based solutions will play a critical role in mitigating climate change. Peatland currently covers 12% of the UK’s total land and contains more carbon than the forests of the UK, France and Germany combined. However, it is currently in poor condition. If we look after and manage our peatlands, we can continue to lock in that carbon and absorb more, but if degradation continues we risk not only missing that opportunity but releasing the carbon already stored.

I will briefly turn to the issue of Cobra meetings, because I have been at the deep end of flood crises in Calderdale twice during my time in office. While we cannot legislate for Cobra meetings as part of this process, I have just seen the Secretary of State’s comments to the “Ministers Reflect” series last year. When asked whether Cobra meetings make a difference, he replied:

“Yes, they do, because Cobra is designed to try give everybody a kind of proverbial kick up the backside and get things moving.”

Can I ask for that approach once again in relation to the damage that we have sustained in Calderdale?

Mark Pawsey Portrait Mark Pawsey (Rugby) (Con) - Hansard
26 Feb 2020, 5:20 p.m.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch), who told us about the situation that her constituents are facing. It has also been a pleasure to listen to the maiden speeches, and I observe that today must be “west midlands day”, because I have heard many excellent speeches from new colleagues from the region. I welcome the Bill and its protections, which will improve air and water quality, restore habitats, create the Office for Environmental Protection, and introduce measures to deal with the impact of plastic waste, on which I will focus.

As somebody who spent 30 years in the packaging industry and as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for the packaging manufacturing industry, I recognise public concerns about litter and where plastic waste ends up. I heard about that on the doorstep during the general election, because litter in our communities has an impact on local environments and the plastic waste finding its way into the oceans has an impact on the global environment. Both are harmful, but both represent the waste of a valuable resource. I have heard many Members today talk about the harm and damage caused by packaging ending up in the wrong place, but I want to take a moment to consider the role of packaging, because we sometimes forget what it is for.

Packaging enables the safe transfer of goods, particularly of food items, ensuring that they are received by the customer in peak condition. The second important role of packaging is not only to provide customers with convenience when picking up their daily food needs, but to give them information about what the product contains. That is of particular importance for food, given concerns about food allergies, nutritional content and sell-by dates, but instructions for use are important in respect of other items. However, that information is absent when people fill their own containers, for which there is a trend in retail.

The final role of packaging is to prevent food waste. Recent innovations, such as resealable packs for cheese and meat, are important in enabling households to get the most out of their food budgets and ensuring that purchased food is consumed. We must not forget that the disposal of food waste is a problem because it creates gases. There is a case for suggesting that the harmful gases given off by food waste cause more environmental harm than an inert plastic product bobbing about in the ocean. I am not suggesting that that is desirable, but we need to consider the relative harms.

If we accept that there is a role for packaging, we need to consider the steps to minimise its impact. The Bill encourages a reduction in the amount of packaging and refers to recycling. There has always been an incentive for manufacturers to use the least amount of material to do the job that the packaging is being asked to do, and the industry has undergone a process called lightweighting over many years. For example, starting in 2007, Coca-Cola worked with WRAP to reduce the weight of the 500 ml bottle from 26 grams to 24 grams, saving 8% of raw material and reducing the need for 1,400 tonnes of PET a year.

A large part of the Bill is about improving recycling in several ways. First, it extends producer responsibilities by increasing obligations on packaging manufacturers. The industry accepts that it needs to do more and has transformed its approach since the days when I worked in the sector, when there was little regard for what happened once the product had been used.

Consistency in local authority domestic waste collection is also important. People are confused by what goes where, and variation leads to confusion. That needs to be addressed, and I support the intention to simplify labelling on packaging so that what can and cannot be recycled, and which bin to put things in, becomes clearer to consumers. There also needs to be consistency in the use of terms. Why say that something is recyclable if the facilities do not exist to recycle it?

Part 3 addresses deposit return schemes. There are details to consider, but almost all producers in the industry accept DRS. Coca-Cola has an ambition to ensure that all its packaging is recovered so that more is recycled and none ends up as waste or litter, and in early 2017 it confirmed its support for a well-designed DRS.

A DRS must consider a number of items. It must have clear objectives, and it must increase the quality and quantity of the material collected. Quality is about making sure that there is less contamination, and I disagree with my right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson)—biodegradable plastic is not helpful, because it is a contaminant in the waste stream.

Secondly, on increasing quantity, there is no point incurring the costs of a DRS—reverse vending machines cost up to £15,000 each—if it does not increase the amount of material recycled. There is real concern about displacement and the fact that people who currently put bottles in their domestic household waste stream will take them to the supermarket to get their deposit back, which will not increase the amount that is recycled.

We need to consider the number of return points and whether there will be one at all sales points. Will cafés and restaurants be included? Will the scheme provide an exemption for small retailers that lack the space to install a reverse vending machine? There are serious questions for the Minister about who will pay for it. Given the lower volumes from smaller retailers, how will we make certain that it is cost-neutral for them? The Minister needs to sort out what happens to unredeemed deposits. Not every bottle deposited will be redeemed, so where will those bottles go? Who will manage it?

Finally, we need to ensure consistency with Scotland. I did not hear the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock) say that it would make much more sense and be better for consumers, retailers and beverage producers if we had a UK-wide system. Britvic, which produces soft drinks in my constituency, says that it will otherwise need two separate stock units, one for Scotland and one for England and Wales, which does not make sense.