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Environment Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:42 pm on 26th February 2020.

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Photo of Liz Twist Liz Twist Opposition Whip (Commons) 4:42 pm, 26th February 2020

It was just last year that Parliament declared a climate emergency—a significant move that recognises the importance of this issue for our future and the future of our planet. We are in a climate and ecological emergency but, sadly, the Bill does not do nearly enough to help. It replaces a flawed but comprehensive European Union environmental framework with non-binding long-term targets that can be changed by the Secretary of State at any time, at his or her discretion. We need concrete, legally binding targets if the Bill is to have the impact that it must have for our future.

I want to talk about biodiversity gain. The idea is welcome, but the level of gain set out in the Bill must be much more ambitious. We do not need a levelling down of biodiversity gain. Some authorities are already going beyond this, or seeking to do so, within the current frame- work. We need a much higher limit. Some organisations have suggested that a 20% net gain would be more in line with need and that this should be open to review, in case future evidence demonstrates the need for an increased level. It should be a minimum, not a cap.

One issue that has been drawn to my attention by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and others, and on which I had the chance to ask a question last week, is implementation of the biodiversity gain proposals. Concerns about the proposals include new burdens on councils, further pressures on the capacity of local authority planning departments and a lack of specialist ecological expertise to deliver the plans. If we are to have biodiversity gain, as we should, all new burdens on local authorities must be properly assessed and fully funded. Without that funding or resource, this is just a piece of paper that cannot be enforced. It is vital in this area that we ensure that local authorities have the resources they need—in staff and in finance—to make sure that this is properly implemented, as well as looking at the capacity and skills needed.

My hon. Friends the Members for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) and for Ealing North (James Murray), neither of whom is in their place at the moment, have spoken very fully and eloquently about the impact of deforestation on our environment. It is not my intention to repeat that, but this is an issue that many of my constituents have contacted me about. We should not underestimate the need for the issue to be addressed and I hope the Government will do that. Accelerating climate change is the leading driver of wildlife extinction due to habitat loss.

In my constituency of Blaydon, trees play a hugely important part in our local natural environment. Many of my constituents are very concerned about making sure that we are not only looking after our existing tree cover, but increasing our tree cover to deliver environmental benefits. I am pleased to say that, at the turn of the year, I took part in a community tree planting event in my constituency. It was good to see so many people—so many families—out and joining the plantation. I know that Gateshead Council has plans to increase the tree cover in our constituency and in the Gateshead Council area.

The new Bill does include a legal duty to consult before felling street trees and stronger powers for the Forestry Commission, which is welcome. Again, however, the issue of resources raises its head: there must be resources to carry out that responsibility. We do not want loopholes that will leave valued trees vulnerable as a result of proposed tree felling. As has been said, it is important that we increase tree cover to ensure that we can take advantage of the environmental gain, but it is also important that we consider a tree strategy. This Bill does not move forward on the call for a national tree strategy for England to be required by law. I hope the Government will consider that again.

I want to touch briefly on plastic pollution. All hon. Members will know how, when they visit a school or see the Brownies locally, the children are very keen on ensuring that we clean up our oceans and do not have plastic pollution. People will be disappointed to see that the Bill does not go further in this area. One of the key things we need to look at is getting an all-in deposit return scheme that deals with recycling at least some of the plastic in our environment.

The last thing I want to talk about is the Office for Environmental Protection. I echo calls from both sides of the House about ensuring that this role has true independence from Government and has real powers to be able to tackle the issues. It is an absolutely vital role in ensuring that we deal effectively with protecting and improving our environment. Again, I hope the Government will think very hard about ensuring that its powers are strengthened.

I ask Ministers to look at all these issues and at the amendments that will undoubtedly be put forward, to look to strengthen some of these measures and to ensure that local authorities and other organisations have the resources to implement effectively the powers we are giving them.