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Environment Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:23 pm on 26th February 2020.

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Photo of Anne Marie Morris Anne Marie Morris Conservative, Newton Abbot 6:23 pm, 26th February 2020

I welcome the Bill. Indeed, I spoke the first time it was debated on 28 October, and the concerns I expressed then are very similar to those I have heard today across the House. Clearly, the Office for Environmental Protection does not have the teeth it needs. There are ongoing issues about water pollution—certainly the current regime from the Marine Management Organisation and its testing body, the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science, a European body, is not fit for purpose. I also spoke about air quality and the challenges there, particularly with regard to the assistance needed from central Government to local government. It is on local government that I wish to focus my remarks this evening.

The Bill rightly places many obligations on local government and the whole public sector, but there are no counterbalancing obligations on Government to provide support. I am lucky. Both Teignbridge, my district council, and Devon County Council have declared a climate emergency and are putting plans in place and setting up a forum to secure local input. They need that forum. They need a way of interacting with the Government—this needs to be a joint project.

Devon aims to be carbon-neutral by 2030. That is a hugely ambitious aim, which certainly could not be achieved without central Government support. The county council has already reduced the carbon footprint by 40% since 2012-13, and has reduced carbon emissions from street lighting by 75%. It has established a net zero taskforce across the public-private voluntary sector, and has involved Exeter University. It is calling for evidence, and it has a new citizens panel. With the local enterprise partnership, we aim to make the region the UK’s provider of renewable energy, delivering—best case—£45 billion to our regional economy, but there are huge challenges involving, for instance, transport and travel.

In rural areas such mine, the car is key. We do not have many buses and we do not have many trains, so what might the Government do to support us? Many people in extremely rural areas have very old cars, and will not be able to afford a spanking new electric car. There will have to be a subsidy. Moreover, we do not have the necessary charging points. Teignbridge, my local district council, has two—or at least is applying for two—but that will not get us very far, especially as the car is the main form of transport.

If the Government would like to encourage buses, that would be fantastic. Give us some more, and make them electric! In that case, would the Secretary of State have a word with his opposite number in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government? At present, we are not allowed to apply for the new electric town bus scheme because we are not deprived enough. Well, Europe used to think that we were deprived enough: we used to get quite a lot of money. I sincerely hope that Ministers will look at that again.

As for trains, we are hoping that some of the new Beeching lines will be opened, but let us have some new trains—new electric trains. As for ships, yes, there is a lot water in the south-west, and there is a port in my constituency. Scouring is not the answer to environmental problems. The shipping industry knows that, and so do the Government, so will the Secretary of State do something about it?

We also need support from central Government for housing and planning. The planning regime is supposed to deal with environmental issues, but not in the way that is envisaged in the Bill. Significant change is needed. We know that building regulations are not fit for purpose: we need only look at our cladding problems to see that. Those regulations need to be rewritten with environmental issues in mind. We must give our district councils power to say no when developers come forward with plans that do not meet environmental criteria, never mind any others.

Building design and structure need a great deal of review, and I am afraid that we cannot rely entirely on the private sector for that. The Government have focused on domestic dwellings, but what is wrong with individual industrial buildings? What is wrong with the local hospital, school and fire station? Should they not be required to have solar panels fitted? The last attempt that was made locally in my area was refused by the Government because they wanted to do it themselves, and I cannot see that happening. There has been a great focus on solar panels for one of my local schools, Newton Abbot College, but the Government have said no, which is not right.

I welcome the standardisation of waste collection, but would the Government ask some of our retailers to consider possible alternatives to plastic? All that has happened is that we have moved from single-use bags to multiple-use bags which are being treated as single-use, or else retailers are giving us paper bags that simply break. We have rain in this country, and when it rains on a paper bag it dissolves in your hands. Will the Government do something technically to support a bit of research to sort this out, and get the retailers to sort out their packaging, which is really hard to recycle? They should keep it simple.

This is not all about objects and buildings; it is about people and processes. The Government should be asking the public sector to think about how it can do things differently. In primary and secondary healthcare, technology could be used far more efficiently to reduce our carbon footprint.

In summary, let me say this. Will the Secretary of State commit himself to some proper research? Will he commit himself to some sort of subsidy, particularly for those of us in rural areas? Will he engage with the private sector? Competition is a good thing, but reinventing the wheel is a complete waste of everyone’s money. Will he provide a local government forum so that we can raise issues and share solutions, and give young people a forum with which to engage? I sincerely hope that I will receive some responses from the Minister—if not tonight, in a written reply.