I am delighted that the Government have introduced this Bill which, together with the Agriculture Bill and the Fisheries Bill, shows that we are serious in our resolve to improve the environment and tackle climate change. I congratulate the Secretary of State and his Ministers on creating a structure for long-term environmental improvement, on the application of the principle that the polluter should be financially responsible for the life-cycle of its products, on ensuring an improvement in the air that we breathe, and on seeking to improve biodiversity through the planning system. I am sure that all those proposals have widespread support.
Our aim must be to achieve the Bill’s goals while minimising the bureaucratic burden and retaining a sense of fairness in the application of its policies. With that in mind, I respectfully suggest that further improvements can be made to the Bill in the following three areas. First, the requirement to demonstrate a 10% increase in biodiversity currently applies to every planning application, irrespective of the size or nature of the development. Requiring a professional assessment of the biodiversity impact pre and post the development of a garden room extension, for example, first by the applicant and then by the planning authority to ensure conformity, is likely to increase bureaucratic costs, while not making any significant improvement to biodiversity. To address that, I invite the Secretary of State to consider exempting small planning applications, perhaps relating to single dwellings.
Secondly, the proposed powers to revoke or amend water abstraction licences without compensation, if the Secretary of State is satisfied that the revocation is necessary, have caused considerable concern among the farming community in my constituency, reliant as many of them are on abstraction licences to grow the food that we all need. I declare an interest, as a director and shareholder of such a farming company.
The subjective and undefined nature of the term “satisfied”, taken together with the chilling application of the all-encompassing “precautionary principle”, would impose a daily threat to every such dependent farming business of being effectively closed down without compensation on 28 days’ notice, all within the discretion of the local Environment Agency official. This is the Environment Agency that has no democratic oversight and currently no remit to consider the economic or social impact of its actions. What farm reliant on abstraction licences could afford to invest under such ongoing threat? What bank would lend on such a risk?
I encourage the Secretary of State to look again at offering periods of certainty associated with the grant of abstraction licences and requiring any decision to revoke or amend them to have proper regard to all relevant factors, including socioeconomic impacts, during the decision-making process. To have regard to all relevant circumstances when taking a decision is surely a basic principle for sound decision making.
Thirdly, I welcome the introduction of the concept of conservation covenants, but, to my reading, the current drafting of clause 102 leaves open the risk that a landowner could enter into a legally binding agreement that will apply to land in perpetuity without meaning to do so. There is no requirement for a qualifying agreement expressly to state that a legally binding conservation covenant is being created that may be binding in perpetuity—only that the document “appears” to show such an intent. If the agreement is silent on its term, it will be held to apply forever. I encourage the Secretary of State to consider making the identification of a conservation covenant and its term express requirements, to avoid unintended consequences and resulting litigation.
I wholeheartedly welcome the Bill, but its very ambition brings with it the potential for discord, as big changes will inevitably alienate at least a portion of society. On this wider note, and contrary to the apparent view of many of the Opposition speakers, I have faith in democracy. It is to me a self-evident truth that the best way to ensure acceptance of difficult policies is to have democratic oversight of the implementation process. People must continue to have a say in how they are governed if we are to retain their consent. Planning decisions, while often unpopular, are generally accepted as being part of the democratic process. Compare that with the feelings engendered by the sometimes arbitrary approach of, for example, the Environment Agency when seeking to impose its assessment of environmental protection. The frustrated, impotent despair of constituents. the subjects of such decisions, will be familiar to many hon. Members.
I look forward to the day when we collectively address the democratic deficit of the raft of policy-making non-governmental institutions. The Environment Agency and Natural England would be a good place to start.