Environment Bill

Lord Oates Excerpts
Monday 13th September 2021

(1 month, 1 week ago)

Lords Chamber

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Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

90: Clause 97, page 99, leave out lines 27 and 28 and insert “Payments received under arrangements under this section are to be retained by local authorities for the following purposes (only)—”

Member’s explanatory statement

The effect of the amendment would be that credits would be retained by local authorities for local use in promoting biodiversity rather than retained by central government.

Lord Oates Portrait Lord Oates (LD)
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My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, regrets that he cannot be in the Chamber at the moment, so I am moving Amendment 90 with his permission.

The Bill seeks to introduce measures whereby a credit system will allow the sale of proposed statutory biodiversity units when improvements on site are not possible. It currently does not require that biodiversity credits raised from developments be retained locally. The amendment that I am moving is simple. It does not seek to change the proposed approach to biodiversity credits but to ensure that the income from such credits is retained locally. Improving biodiversity and protecting nature is self-evidently something that happens in places. Central government sets the legislative and regulatory framework, but it is how local actors, and particularly local government, play their leadership roles that will ultimately determine success.

I turn now to my Amendment 94. I am grateful to the noble Baronesses, Lady Jones of Whitchurch and Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, and the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, for their support. If we are to rescue nature and biodiversity from the perilous situation that we have allowed it to get into, the local nature recovery strategy set out in the Bill will be critical. It is equally critical, however, that strategies do not become just more paper gathering dust, and that the powers provided to enforce them are not just vested in a remote Secretary of State issuing regulations from Whitehall but in local authorities, which are on the front line of the battle to save nature.

This Bill is not at all shy about imposing new duties on local authorities or in granting the Secretary of State a whole range of powers to make regulations, but it is painfully, timidly, and indeed speechlessly shy about giving local authorities any of the powers that they need to discharge those duties. Part 6 of the Bill is no exception. Clause 102(3), which governs the content of local nature recovery strategies, allows local authorities to designate areas that

“are, or could become, of particular importance for biodiversity, or … where the recovery or enhancement of biodiversity could make a particular contribution”.

Nowhere, however, is there any power for a local authority to stop a landowner from destroying biodiversity on such designated sites.

My amendment would correct this. It would allow a local authority to issue a biodiversity contravention notice to the owner or occupier of any land designated under Clause 102(3) as a site of importance for biodiversity, where it appeared to the local authority that there was a serious risk of biodiversity destruction or where such destruction had already taken place. The notice could require the landowner to provide information about their operations on the site, to allow access to the site and to comply with obligations to preserve biodiversity as specified in the notice.”

In Committee, I used the example of the Seething Wells filter bed site by the Thames, in my hometown of Surbiton, to illustrate the problem that my amendment would tackle. The land has been disused since it was decommissioned in 1992 by Thames Water and subsequently developed into a haven for plant and animal life, including birds, bats and grass snakes. It has become an important site for diversity in our borough, yet when the new owners started on a programme of wholesale destruction of nature on the site, there was nothing the council could do to stop them, despite it being a site of interest for nature conservation. The council did not even have the power to demand information about what the owners were doing on the site, let alone the power to stop the destruction. Here I pay tribute to the Seething Wells Action Group, which has done so much in our local community to raise the profile of this issue, and I know that many of its members have recently been in touch with the Minister.

Responding to my amendment in Committee, the Minister argued that local authorities either already had the necessary powers to tackle such issues or would gain them in the Bill. But when the Minister and his officials were kind enough to meet me over the summer, they conceded that the council had no powers to act in this case because the site was not the subject of any planning application and so planning powers did not apply. The Minister undertook to look into how this gap in powers might be addressed, although he questioned whether the problem was widespread and what motivation site owners would have for such destruction. Regrettably, since that positive meeting, I have heard no more from the Minister or his officials.

My interaction with local government colleagues indicates that this is indeed a widespread issue across the country, and I am pleased to say that this amendment has the strong support of the Local Government Association, as well as Greener UK. As to the motivation of landowners, that is not so hard to discern. They may simply want to make their sites easier to manage, they may regard the biodiversity on it as untidy or problematic, or they may simply not recognise its importance. Indeed, were this not a problem, there would be no need for nature recovery strategies in the first place.

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Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park Portrait Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park (Con)
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I thank noble Lords for their contributions to this debate. The Government have listened carefully to the valuable debate both here and in the other place, and I thank the noble Baronesses, Lady Parminter and Lady Jones of Whitchurch, for their drive in this area in particular.

We share the desire to make sure that local nature recovery strategies are actively used and delivered, and we entirely agree that the planning system is a key mechanism for achieving this. That is why we have tabled government Amendment 93 to make it a legal requirement for the Government to produce guidance on how local planning authorities should “have regard” to local nature recovery strategies. Local planning authorities, as part of the planning system, will have to “have regard” to relevant local nature recovery strategies, as will all public bodies. Defra is supporting MHCLG in developing proposals for planning reform ahead of the introduction of the planning Bill, including creating a clear role for local nature recovery strategies.

Turning briefly to Amendment 91, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, I appreciate that she is also seeking to ensure that local nature recovery strategies are actively used, and I know she tabled this amendment before the government amendment in my name was tabled. I thank her very much for her thoughtful response and her—was it support?—gentle support for our amendment. The local nature recovery strategies will be developed collaboratively to identify where changing the way land is managed will give greatest benefit for nature and the environment, which will also reflect local priorities. The shared vision will then guide the delivery of biodiversity net gain, environmental land management schemes, planning, use of nature-based solutions and many other current and proposed actions for nature’s recovery across the public, private and voluntary sectors. To do this, each strategy must capture potential actions relevant for all these purposes, brought together to create a coherent overall approach. The duty on public authorities to “have regard” to the strategies will require them to consider which of these proposed changes they can realistically make and then take that action. The amendment the Government have tabled will strengthen the integration of the strategies into the planning system in particular.

Turning to Amendment 90 tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, local authorities will be able to fund habitat creation or enhancement on their own land by selling biodiversity units to developers, on exactly the same basis as other suppliers on the market. Local authorities may also choose to work with other local landowners to bring additional habitat creation or enhancement opportunities to the market. Statutory credits are separate from market biodiversity units. They are intended to be sold by government as a last resort, when developers are unable to achieve net gain on site or off site, either on their own land or by purchasing biodiversity units on the market. It is therefore necessary for central government to sell credits as a last resort and use the revenue to invest in new habitat creation and enhancement.

We do not, however, want lots of money to come through the route of government-supplied credits. We want the market to provide locally led solutions, in which local authorities will of course play a key part. We intend to set the cost of government credits in a way that does not undercut the biodiversity unit market.

Turning to Amendment 94, I share the concern of the noble Lord, Lord Oates, regarding the degradation of important sites for nature. I thank him for our discussion over the summer. As he said, I recently received a great deal of correspondence from concerned residents in Kingston regarding the Seething Wells filter beds site; I have read it with interest and will respond over the coming days. However, for this debate, I must address the implications of this amendment for local authorities and the protection for biodiversity more widely.

I am afraid that I do not agree that giving local authorities such sweeping powers is the best way to address the issue. It would amount to de facto protection of the entire country, which, although on the one level it would be fantastic, could have a wide-reaching effect on land use nationwide, creating confusion over whether an area is protected. We have a system of protections for our best sites for nature and our most important landscapes. Wildlife, including all nesting birds and other rare and declining species, is protected across the country. The forthcoming Green Paper will explore specifically how these protections can be strengthened and improved.

Turning to Amendment 98, tabled by my noble friend Lord Caithness, Natural England’s assessment of licence applications will be evidence-led and based on robust science, taking into consideration the likely impact on the relevant population and biodiversity. The Government remain fully committed to our international obligations on biodiversity. The wording used for these proposed tests within a reformed Wildlife and Countryside Act is in alignment with Article 9 of the Bern convention on the conservation of fauna and flora. I agree with my noble friend that any assessment of impact should be at the scale of the population concerned. The clause in this Bill intends to do that by referring to any population of the protected species concerned, be that at local, regional or national levels.

Amendment 105 was also tabled by my noble friend Lord Caithness. As I said, the Bill introduces a comprehensive statutory cycle of monitoring, planning and reporting. Our proposed objectives for domestic biodiversity targets reflect current draft international targets being developed under the CBD. The Government are already developing an evaluation and monitoring programme for biodiversity net gain and have commissioned the first stages of delivering this. The relevant public authorities will report every five years on their actions to comply with the biodiversity duty, including contributions to net gain and local nature recovery strategies; those strategies will themselves be regularly reviewed and updated. These processes go beyond merely reviewing regulations and will ensure that the Government’s actions are both adaptive and effective.

Finally, turning to Amendment 92A, I fully agree that future farming practices should support nature recovery. We are strengthening the existing duty by requiring authorities to “have regard” to clear strategies that will include specific actions. However, having regard to a broad concept such as “nature-friendly farming” would not make the overall duty any clearer or more meaningful. Also, to reiterate the point I made in Committee, where an authority has influence over farming or has farms on its land, it already needs to consider what it can do to ensure that biodiversity is supported. The Government have already committed to aligning environmental land management farming schemes for rewarding environmental benefits with local nature recovery strategies; this should be revolutionary for our countryside and biodiversity. With the environmental land management schemes contributing to biodiversity enhancement through the provisions of the Agriculture Act and targets set in the Environment Bill, we believe that an amendment such as this is not necessary.

I hope I have reassured noble Lords. I beg them to withdraw or not press their amendments.

Lord Oates Portrait Lord Oates (LD)
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My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his response. He will not be hugely surprised to know that he has not reassured me, particularly in regard to Amendment 90 and my Amendment 94. He is wrong to state that my amendment would mean that the country was de facto covered—that is, that these local authority powers would de facto cover the whole country—as they would apply only to sites designated under Clause 102(3).

However, overall, I regret that the Government have arranged business so that a meaningful vote is not possible on my amendment tonight, and also that a number of noble Lords who would have liked to take part in this important debate were not able to. It is critical that local authorities are given not just duties but also powers to implement them. The Minister can be assured of our determination to ensure that local authorities are given these powers, which they need to protect biodiversity in their local areas, and we will seek the next possible legislative opportunity to do so. In the meantime, with great regret, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 90 withdrawn.