EU Referendum: Energy and Environment

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:15 pm on 12th July 2016.

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Photo of Rebecca Pow Rebecca Pow Conservative, Taunton Deane 2:15 pm, 12th July 2016

I am pleased to follow Mary Creagh, for whom I have a great deal of respect in her role as Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, although I would like to be a little more positive about life post-EU than she was.

I am pleased to speak about the important subject of post-EU referendum implications for energy and the environment. The environment is something that we cannot avoid. It affects us all: the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat and the soils that produce it, the trees that take in the carbon dioxide, the flora, the fauna, the landscape—everything we touch. It is essential that we deliver policies to determine that we can have a healthy life, and that all God’s creatures can have a healthy life, too.

As we have heard many times today, much of our environmental legislation stems from Europe. We have been instrumental in writing much of it: the birds directive, the habitats directive, the bathing water directive and the air quality directive. The motion states that in the run-up to the EU referendum, “little mention” was made of environmental protection. Actually, a lot of people, including myself and some of my hon. Friends who are in the Chamber, as well as many from the Environmentalists for Europe group, did refer to environmental aspects. Interestingly, it was the media who gave the environment little coverage, as statistics show that the environment featured in only 1.7% of the referendum coverage in all media, and 0% of television coverage. People were talking about it, but that was not picked up, and that is one of the issues we face.

Once one starts talking about the environment, people engage with it, so I have set up an environment forum in Taunton Deane. I held a debate in the forum about the EU and the environment. Opinion was not in favour of one side or the other, but the event was a big talking point, and more than 100 people turned up to it, which shows that there is interest in the subject. We are where we are, however. We are out of Europe, and we have to move forward positively.

I shall mention a few small concerns that have arisen to show that we have some immediate problems to sort out. For example, I have been contacted by a number of landowners who were about to sign their higher level stewardship contracts for the next 10 years to protect precious parts of our habitat, but they are now holding off. I would like some reassurance about what will happen and where the money that is required will come from. We do not want to lose those wonderful protected habitats while people wait to find out what happens. Similarly, on other greening issues for farmers, we do not want to risk farmers being forced to plough up field margins, edges or ponds because they do not know what is happening with their environmental protection money or where it is coming from. Some reassurance on that, even for the short term, would go down well.

Nobody today has mentioned farmers or landowners, but they are the people who own all the land that we keep talking about. We have to work with them. The same applies to fishermen. I have heard rumours—I do not know whether this is true—that fishermen are now ignoring many of the marine protections because they think that we are out of Europe and therefore the protections do not apply any more. It would be extremely helpful to hear some reassurance about that.

What now? As I said, we should be positive. We have a real opportunity to take ownership of the environment and to adopt the systems and frameworks that work best and deliver for us. Now more than ever—we have talked about this in the Environmental Audit Committee—is the time to start building in sustainability and a healthy future, and to think more about how every Department delivers on these things.

We should, for example, think about how infrastructure works when it goes through special landscapes or land with ancient trees. We should think about how our homes can be more sustainable. We have touched on all this, and I am pleased the Government are undertaking an inquiry to look again at sustainable urban drainage system, and the carbon efficiency and energy efficiency of homes, but we need to build those things in.

We should also think about how we reduce the impact of flooding. The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee is carrying out an inquiry into flooding, which will bring forward really useful ideas about how to build flood resilience into our land use plans. This is the time to get all these things in, so we have a great opportunity. We can also do more on low-carbon energy generation and transport so that we have lower emissions and reduce our terrible air pollution statistics. All that is possible with clear planning for and thought about land use.

I have talked to lots of bodies about these issues, from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, to the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust, the Ancient Tree Forum and the Soil Association. However, I have also spoken to farmers and landowners, and I reiterate that we have to work with and support them if we are to deliver what we need.

I would like to suggest some things that we should consider. As the hon. Member for Wakefield said, EU legislation sets our targets regarding air and water pollution, and it was the EU that took us to task if we did not hit them. We must therefore ensure that we set targets and have a system of checking and reporting back—I suggest annually—on how we are doing. I urge the Government to ensure that we do not lower our air or water-quality standards. We have heard the shocking statistic that 50,000 people a year die from air pollution-related diseases, so we would be crazy to lower those standards. I am sure that the Minister is listening to that point.

I have a few thoughts about how to proceed, although some have been mentioned by other Members. Let us transpose the relevant EU directives into UK law—we can then amend them as we think fit, but let us at least have them—and let us keep special areas of conservation. Let us also do more on the world stage, because we really need to. We need to increase our global influence with bodies such as the UN and the OECD. The Bern convention and the animal welfare legislation are really important, and we also need to stay part of Natura 2000.

I applaud the fact that DEFRA has been working away on its—I will not say elusive—25-year plans for farming and the environment. That is excellent, but let us see those plans as soon as possible, and let us make sure that the environment is inextricably interwoven with farming production targets. We have a great opportunity, so let us make greening slightly less complicated for farmers. Most farmers are keen to undertake aspects of greening, but some of the forms that they have to fill out and the demands that are placed on them are so tortuously complicated—I heard this only this morning from a barn owl expert who works with farmers across the south-west—that some farmers are thinking of not bothering in the future if we cannot simplify the system. To deliver what we need to deliver, we need to make things easy to do.

While we are rewriting our plans, let us get in some soil monitoring. Let us recognise that soil is an ecosystem, not just a growing medium to be abused. Let us also deal with the circular economy. DEFRA suggests that that could bring in £22 billion of savings, so let us look at that and build it all in.

I reiterate that subsidies will have to be part of the system, but let us work out how they are given to our farmers and landowners. I suggest that they should not just be based on land ownership, but that farmers and landowners should have to deliver something for them, whether that is green services or food production. Perhaps caps should be put in place. If someone has 3,000 acres of arable land in the east, is it right that they clock up so much per hectare? Why not have a cap so that everything is on a level playing field? Farmers and landowners are discussing these issues countrywide, as are environmental organisations, so let us put all their findings together and build them into our forward-thinking plan.

Finally, I am going to touch on energy, because it is referred to in the motion. I am pleased that the Energy Secretary has committed to delivering secure, affordable and clean energy. I welcome the system that is enabling consumers to switch to lower-cost energy to help with bills. I really welcome the commitment to continue leading on climate change, to which many colleagues have referred. I also welcome early ratification of the Paris agreement, and I reiterate praise for the proposed climate change system, which Callum McCaig referred to, so I think we are all together on that.

The Government have committed to low-carbon energy. They are phasing out coal and are also committed to nuclear. The south-west is pressing ahead with the commitment on Hinkley Point, which will be a crucial part of our economy, delivering 7% of our energy. I welcome the Government’s involvement in establishing the National College for Nuclear, and there will be a big spin-off for Somerset, where Bridgwater College has just linked up with Somerset College in my constituency. That is spawning not only new engineers, but the new skills that we will need to move forward in the low-carbon energy sector that has to be part of our brave new world.

To conclude, let us not be negative. The Government must listen—I am absolutely sure that they are listening. We must link farming closely with the environment for the good of the nation. That will deliver for the environment and, indeed, for us all, in terms of health, wellbeing and life chances.