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Environment Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:35 pm on 26th February 2020.

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Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Conservative, Basingstoke 4:35 pm, 26th February 2020

It is a great pleasure to follow Geraint Davies. I might have a slightly more optimistic view of this place’s ability to press for the highest standards, but he makes a very important point about indoor air quality. I am sure that the Minister will have listened to that particularly carefully. I have a particular interest in the issue of carbon monoxide that the hon. Gentleman talked about.

This is an important debate to participate in in its own right, but it is all the more pleasurable because we have had so many maiden speeches as well. I congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Aylesbury (Rob Butler), for Truro and Falmouth (Cherilyn Mackrory), for Runnymede and Weybridge (Dr Spencer), for Meriden (Saqib Bhatti), for Dudley North (Marco Longhi) and for Burton (Kate Griffiths). I hope I can apologise to my hon. Friend for trying to intervene on her, but I thought it might have been a timely intervention. I have to give special congratulations to my hon. Friend Jane Stevenson because I stood for election in Wolverhampton North East in 2001, and she had a lot more success than I did. As a fellow Black Country girl and the granddaughter of a metal room worker, it was really heartening to hear her passion for the Black Country and its future. I wish her every success in this place. I should say that I also remember her mother, who was a councillor at the time when I stood for election.

This Bill takes this country’s approach to the environment and the protection of our environment to a whole new level. It makes legal principles that some of us have supported for many, many years, including the “polluter pays” principle. Its legally binding targets to improve the environment, and annual reports through environmental improvement plans, mean that we are set on a positive track for the future. The Office for Environmental Protection is a new industry watchdog.

The specific issues that are dealt with in the Bill have been raised with me by my constituents for many years. I am sure that my local Chineham Girl Guides and Brownies will be very pleased to see that the deposit return scheme is back on the table. Many of my other residents who have lobbied me on plastic bag charging, and extending it, will be pleased to see measures on that. The many hundreds of people who have, over the years, written to me about the importance of sustainable forms of packaging will be delighted to see the measures in this Bill. So I give a massive thanks to the Minister for all the work that she, in particular, has done on these measures.

I would like to focus on just two issues within the Bill, one of which has not been raised so far. It follows on from the points made by Dan Jarvis with regard to trees. Schedule 15 is about combating illegal deforestation. It is all well and good to go around planting trees, as many of us do, and encouraging people in our constituencies to do that, but if others come along and fell those trees unlawfully and nothing is done about it, or things are done but the actions that are undertaken are ineffective, then this has to be taken seriously. I really commend the Government for picking up on this issue, because in my constituency we experienced one of the largest unlawful tree fellings that the Forestry Commission had seen in many, many years when more than 500 trees were felled in Dixon Road just outside Sherfield Park. Despite the Forestry Commission taking great measures to insist on a restocking order and that being enforced through the courts, the practical fact is that few of those 500 trees have been reinstated.

I therefore welcome the measures in the Bill that will allow courts to make restocking orders after an individual has been convicted for failing to comply with an enforcement order. I even more heartily welcome the fact that the fine for felling without a licence is increased significantly to an unlimited level 5 fine. Restocking orders are really important, and they should not be flouted in the way that they have been. I hope that these measures are as effective as the Government have set out.

An application for planning consent on a piece of land that has been subject to unlawful tree felling cannot take into account the fact that there has been a failure to comply with a restocking order. I hope the Minister will look at local authorities being able to take unlawful tree felling and a lack of compliance into account when considering applications.

The second issue that I want to raise, as other Members have, is the legally binding target for fine particulate matter, which I welcome wholeheartedly. Fine particulate matter has the most significant impact on human health, and the Government’s approach has been commended by the WHO as an example for the rest of the world to follow. The importance of action by national Government is clear, but local government needs to act as well if we are to achieve the improvements in air quality that are so important. One in five of us will be diagnosed with a respiratory illness or condition at some point in our life, and the Government are acting on that.

Will the Government look closely at the proposals put forward by various organisations on further strengthening those air pollution targets? Could the Minister confirm that health experts will play a significant role in setting new air quality targets?

It is a great pleasure to take part in this debate. These air pollution measures are such an important part of the Bill and are to be commended, along with the other measures. I wish the Bill well at every stage in this House and the other place.