I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to set biodiversity and other targets for 2040; to establish a Natural Capital Committee;
to require local authorities to maintain local ecological network strategies;
to identify species threatened with extinction;
to make provision for access to high quality natural green space;
and to include education about the natural environment in the curriculum for maintained schools.
The idea of our green and pleasant land is more a part of the Great British identity than of any other country I know—more than the rainforests of Borneo or the rolling savannah of the Serengeti. In recognition of the importance of our environment, the House has pioneered laws that have changed the world by protecting nature. Even as the bombs of the second world war were falling, MPs from all parties were debating how recovery would depend on protecting and restoring our natural landscapes. Looking back in Hansard, I found that hon. Members were urging the Government, especially in view of the new national health crusade, to take action on
“the countryside and its amenities, including the reservation of areas of natural interest against disorderly development and spoliation and the improvement of their accessibility to the public.”—[Hansard, 9 December 1936; Vol. 318, c. 2132.]
Even a century ago, people knew that our countryside was vital to people’s health and well-being.
With cross-party support, visionary MPs introduced the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 to protect our national parks and areas of outstanding beauty. Since then, the House has legislated to protect thousands of species, in the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, and to provide countryside access for everyone, in the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, and it was the first in the world to create binding national targets to tackle climate change. I congratulate the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition for reaffirming those vital commitments last week. That announcement was reported and commended around the world.
Today, I am proposing a nature and well-being Bill to take us further. We are the generation of David Attenborough and “Springwatch”. We are also the Danny Boyle generation—probably the only people in the world to understand why the Olympic opening ceremony started off with a flock of sheep and some farmyard geese. We all understand that nature is a part of our lives and a part of our identity, but we are also the generation that could preside over a terrible loss. We know that 60% of our native species are in long-term decline and that more and more of our countryside and wildlife are disappearing. Unless we do something about it, many of the next generation will never see a house sparrow in London, hear the song of the turtle dove or cuckoo, or smile at a hedgehog snuffling along their garden path.
Ultimately, nature’s loss is our loss too. No Government can meet their social and economic objectives at the expense of nature, and it is impossible to create a sustainable economy while we continue to take more from our natural world than we put back. Perhaps the most obvious example is our fisheries. Restoring our fish stocks to the levels of 50 years ago could bring in £1.4 billion a year and revitalise our seaside economy—one has only to ask the fishermen whose lines come up empty because the sea has been trawled to ruin. Or think of the bees. The Environment Secretary has rightly recognised the importance of nature’s pollinators to our farming sector—the biggest manufacturing sector in Britain—and I understand that she even has bees on the roof of DEFRA.
Neither will we ever have a truly fair society with a decent standard of living while environmental inequality remains, because it is the poorest and most vulnerable people who live along the most polluted streets, with no access to green space. It is a travesty that people still die years earlier in some places than in others because the air they breathe is dirtier and they have no safe green places to walk in or exercise. Natural England has estimated that we could save £2.1 billion for the NHS every year if everyone had decent access to nature.
We all want nature because, frankly, it is brilliant, but we also need it for our livelihoods. The first thing to do is to admit there is a problem and then make a commitment to change. I know that targets might not be in vogue in this House—there are people who do not always agree with them—but people outside this place understand what they mean, and I want to tell people that we will be the first generation ever to turn around nature’s decline. I want us to make that promise and to set targets for wildlife sites and species, with regular reporting to Parliament. In the next 25 years, we should ensure that British biodiversity is richer than today, measured by an index of wildlife. We should make sure that our most precious landscapes—places such as the north Norfolk coast, which I was lucky enough to visit last week—are in better condition than today.
We all know, however, that targets are pointless unless they help to change the way we behave, which is why I am also proposing new ways to put nature at the heart of decision making.
The present Government created the Natural Capital Committee, and the last Government conducted the national ecosystem assessment. That amazing work has begun to show how crucial our natural world is for our businesses and communities, but we routinely ignore our need for nature in the way in which we make decisions. I want to do what the Environmental Audit Committee recommended and set the Natural Capital Committee on a legislative footing, giving it new independence and new powers to report on progress. Its duty will be to ensure that when we make new law, the importance of nature is taken into account.
However, it is not enough to create new-fangled accounting mechanisms without changing what is actually happening in our countryside, and also in our towns and cities. One inspiring example is Wallasea Island. Crossrail has recycled 4.5 million tonnes of earth from its works to build a new island, which I hope will be home to some amazing birds such as the spoonbill. Thousands of ducks and geese are already enjoying the site. Moreover, the development is expected to save £650,000 in flood defences, create new jobs, and protect the existing jobs that are supported by the fisheries and dockside businesses in the area.
We shall need a great many new homes over the next few years, so let us ensure that we provide them in a way that works for nature. The best businesses are already thinking about that. Barratt Developments has just teamed up with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds to build 2,500 homes in Aylesbury. Some 50% of the development will be green space, and RSPB scientists will monitor the site over the next 20 years to ensure that we end up with more wildlife than we started with. That is good for nature, good for the people who live there, and good for business, but it must not be the exception. We need to make sure that we reward the businesses that look after nature, and that we set the right standards to help to give people what they need. That is why I am also proposing new ways in which to plan for nature at local level. Sir John Lawton has shown how important nature networks are in linking big green spaces, and the Wildlife Trusts have shown how mapping those spaces in local plans can help to speed up planning decisions and improve important services such as natural flood defences.
Today, our children are more cooped up than they have ever been before. The average distance between the areas where they play and their homes is a fraction of what it was a generation ago. We should set basic standards for access to green space so that everyone has a chance to enjoy nature. Of course, that does not mean that every house can have Richmond Park down the road, but it does mean that when planning decisions are made, we should consider how nature can improve people’s health, mental health and education. In built-up areas, that might mean planning for a new road bridge, or planting wild flowers to bring a patch of grass to life.
I am not alone in calling for a Nature Act. More than 20 organisations have joined the campaign for a Nature and Wellbeing Act, including the RSPB, the Wildlife Trusts, the Green Alliance and the Ramblers, as well as health and mental health charities. They recognise that even in tough times—perhaps especially in tough times—people need nature, and nature needs us.
Let me end by reminding the House that there are always great challenges for society to face. Today we are recovering from an economic challenge, but we are also planning to meet huge challenges for our NHS, and we are looking for ways in which to build enough homes. Let us follow the example set a century ago by those Members of Parliament who knew, even in wartime, that if we were to meet our biggest challenges, we would have to look after our natural world. Let us be the first generation to make a commitment in law to turn around nature’s decline, for its own sake, for our economy, for our communities and for our children. We should do that not only because nature is special—here in the House we can look at the peregrines that nest on the top of Victoria Tower, and I can see them from my office window—and not only because we need it for our economy and our health care, but because it is a part of who we are.
This will be an issue for the next Parliament, and I shall be watching all Members then. I commend the Bill to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That Sir John Randall, Nick de Bois, Michael Fabricant, Richard Harrington, Rebecca Harris, Dr Julian Huppert,
Simon Kirby, John McDonnell, Dr Matthew Offord, Chloe Smith, Henry Smith and Mr Mark Spencer present the Bill.
Sir John Randall accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on