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Environment Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:50 pm on 26th February 2020.

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Photo of Chris Matheson Chris Matheson Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office) 2:50 pm, 26th February 2020

What a great pleasure it is to follow the maiden speech of Rob Butler. I look forward to him bringing in his “Blankety Blank” chequebook and pen so that we can all admire it in the Tea Room. May I also pay a very warm tribute to his predecessor, David Lidington, who I shadowed for a while? I have to say that I did not actually enjoy shadowing him—not because of his intellect, which was clearly there, but because he was a thoroughly decent person, and I did not like to argue or battle with him because that just was not his way or mine. I congratulate the new hon. Member for Aylesbury and welcome him to this place.

I also welcome the Environment Bill as a step in the right direction, as my hon. Friend Luke Pollard has said, in tackling the existential threat that we face. After years of delay, we cannot afford to wait any longer to pass robust climate legislation matching the scale of the emergency. A year and a half ago, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change made it clear that we had to act urgently over the next 12 years or forever miss the opportunity to prevent climate catastrophe, but nothing has changed since that announcement, except that we have lost one and a half of those 12 years. While the Government have been preoccupied with the chaos of Brexit, natural wildlife continues to disappear at an alarming rate, flooding is at a record high and fossil fuel production continues to damage our climate. We keep getting told that weather extremes are unprecedented and one-in-100-year occurrences—and then they happen again the next year.

I welcome the opportunity to debate this Bill, but the Government must address its significant limitations. I share the widespread concern expressed by the climate groups that there are significant gaps in the Bill, weakening our capacity to take urgent action. I also generally worry that, despite all the assurances to the contrary, the Conservatives are using the opportunity of Brexit to reduce standards and environmental protections and enforcements, as the Labour party warned they would seek to do.

One of the great pleasures of representing my hometown of Chester is representing Chester Zoo, which is more than simply a tourist attraction; it is leading the way in conservation and wildlife protection, and is a centre of global expertise and leadership in conservation and environmentalism. The zoo’s work spans a wide and diverse range of conservation challenges, with a specific concern about protection of biodiversity. The zoo’s representatives tell me that they welcome the Bill, but share the concern that biodiversity protections could be diluted or ignored as local authorities struggle to implement targets, and they emphasised that the climate emergency is also a biodiversity emergency.

The introduction of a mandatory 10% biodiversity net gain requirement for all new developments is a step in the right direction, but it puts the responsibility for implementing and enforcing biodiversity targets on the shoulder of local authorities, which are already on their knees due to the central Government-imposed cuts that have crippled local government since 2010. Local authorities have neither the funding, nor any longer the capacity, to enforce these crucial biodiversity targets. My local authority of Cheshire West and Chester has lost £300 million since 2010, forcing it to make difficult financial choices. For example, at least half of its expenditure goes on adult social care and care for the vulnerable. It is unrealistic for the Government to further burden councils with the responsibility for enforcing the 10% biodiversity net gain without providing additional funding or expert staff.

Habitat and species loss is a devastating result of climate change that cannot be overlooked. Will the Minister tell me what the Government are doing to address this shortfall and provide a realistic solution to the continued devastation of natural biodiversity across the country? Would the Government be willing to consider making the 10% increase in biodiversity a minimum requirement to encourage developers to exceed the target? And I have to ask: is the planning system really the correct vehicle for restoring UK nature and wildlife? It has consistently failed to address other areas of societal challenges, such as the provision of affordable housing, so why do the Government think it is fit for purpose as a means of reversing the destruction of UK wildlife and habitats?

I have concerns about the Office for Environmental Protection. As we have already heard, perhaps the most disappointing part of the Bill is its failure to create a truly independent environmental watchdog with any enforcement capabilities. The OEP’s budget is decided by the Government, meaning that the office will be under the control of the same Government that it is designed to be holding to account. The lack of accountability is astonishing and removes any sort of independence, allowing the Government to overlook environmental regulations whenever it is politically beneficial.

As we reach the crucial tipping point for climate change, the Government will be preoccupied with new trade deals, cosying up to the climate change denying President Trump in a desperate attempt to secure any trade deal—however bad—to justify their exit from the European Union. The OEP is a toothless environmental watchdog with no capacity to issue fines or stand independently from the Government to ensure that environmental protections are upheld. A further weakness identified by both Chester Zoo and the World Wildlife Fund is that the OEP has no jurisdiction over the private sector, particularly fossil fuel companies. The UK has the biggest fossil fuel subsidies in the EU, with £10.5 billion a year in support for fossil fuels, and the Tory party accepted generous donations from fossil fuel investors during the election, at the same time as cutting support for solar and onshore wind.

The absence of proposals to promote ethical procurement and sustainable, deforestation-free supply chains is a missed opportunity, and will prevent the Bill from achieving its stated goal of being an “historic step change”. We should be following the lead of Chester, led by Chester Zoo, which has developed the sustainable palm oil city model, making Chester the first city in the world to adopt sustainable palm oil city status. Some producers and retailers such as Iceland—the shop, not the country—have chosen to step away from using palm oil at all. I welcome their commitment to preventing deforestation, especially in south-east Asia, but I also note the view that the adoption of sustainable palm oil production, as promoted by Chester Zoo and others, would be a more long-term solution.

The UK has a chance to lead the way globally in tackling the climate emergency. We cannot afford to be less ambitious. I hope that the Government will recognise the constructive points that my hon. Friends and I are making. The Bill has a long way to go before it can successfully uphold the promise to leave nature in a better state for the next generation, because at the moment it seems that we have a Government who are reneging on their promise to maintain standards in environmental protection and enforcement after Brexit, just as we warned they would do. And if they do that on environmental commitments, they will do it on food, consumer standards and employment protections. As the Bill progresses and we seek to amend it, I hope that the Government prove me wrong and act on these concerns.