– in the House of Commons at 1:30 pm on 1st February 2023.
I would like to update the House on the next steps that the Government are taking to help nature recover through our new environmental improvement plan. It is a delivery plan setting out how we will achieve our ambitious, stretching environmental targets, the most critical of which is to halt the decline of nature by the end of this decade. We can and must achieve that, both here in the UK and globally.
We are already under way. In this Government’s first 100 days, we have already delivered with legally binding targets to halt nature’s decline, clean up our air and rivers and support a circular economy; playing an instrumental role in a new global agreement for nature at the UN nature summit COP15; enacting the legal duty on Government, national and local, on considering biodiversity; publishing our environment principles policy statement; setting out in detail our transformational farming schemes with the full range of actions we will pay farmers and land managers to do to restore nature; announcing we will ban the most commonly littered single-use plastic items from October 2023; agreeing to enact mandatory sustainable urban drainage systems for new development, which will reduce the risk of surface water flooding and pollution; putting in place the plant biosecurity strategy for Great Britain, a five-year vision for plant health to protect native species, with plants providing an annual value of £15.7 billion to the UK; and agreeing with the devolved Administrations our approach to managing fisheries. There is much more I could add.
Nature is a crucial part of our islands’ story and our shared future. We know what is special with our rare habitats and our iconic species, and we also know the pressures it is under. We rely on our natural capital for a secure supply of food, for clean air, and for clean water, as well as for leisure and genuine joy. However, nature has been taken for granted for too long and used freely as a resource with little thought for the consequences. We have to reverse that and respect nature.
Seventy years ago, people were waking up to the devastation of the great flood of 1953, in which more than 300 people died, reminding us that the full force of nature can bring us challenges. We took action then and it is why we have continued to invest billions of pounds in protecting people’s homes and in better protecting more than 100,000 local businesses to safeguard around 100,000 jobs. However, nature can also help us to tackle some of our great challenges, so we need to help protect nature too. Undoubtedly and understandably, the pandemic set us back in some areas, as we responded to the emergency at hand. A silver lining to that experience, if any is to be had, was the opportunity for us to reconnect with nature, and I am particularly pleased by our pledge in this plan to bring access to a green or blue space within a 15-minute walk of everyone’s homes, be that parks, canals, rivers, countryside or coast.
Our focus is on picking up the pace and scaling up at home, and around the world, and that is why we are putting nature top of the international agenda as well. We brought nature into the heart of our collective response to climate change under our presidency of COP26 in Glasgow. At COP27 the Prime Minister said that
“there is no solution to climate change without protecting and restoring nature”.
The House may have heard me before extol the marvel of mangroves as the ultimate example of how investing in nature is an essential, effective and cost-effective way to take on a multitude of challenges. The key achievement of 2022 was the agreement reached at the UN nature summit, the Convention on Biological Diversity COP15 in Montreal.
To level with the House, there is much, much more to do to restore the natural world. Some of the challenges are not always so easy or so quick to fix as we might all hope, yet I assure hon. Members that with our new legal duty to consider biodiversity, guided by our environmental principles policy, we are embedding nature in the heart of every decision that Government will take for the long haul. We have a plan for the whole of Government to support this national endeavour and we have already started the journey with a great many improvements.
We are replacing the EU’s bureaucratic common agricultural policy, which did so little for farmers or nature, and rewarding our farmers for taking action to help nature retain and regain good health, reduce emissions and produce food sustainably. Those things are absolutely symbiotic and we are leading the way in making this essential transition. We have cleaner air, with major decreases in all five major pollutants. Emissions of fine particulate matter, PM2.5, the most damaging pollutant to human health, decreased by 18% between 2010 and 2020. I want our air to be even cleaner. That is why we are working with farmers to tackle ammonia emissions.
Councils ask for a lot of powers, but I need them to use the powers they already have, including on tackling litter and fly-tipping, rather than just asking for more. I will be publishing what they are doing and seeking to share best practice across the country.
We are accelerating the rate of tree planting. The Forestry Commission will start growing its estate and increase planting, fulfilling its original statutory obligation to help to rejuvenate the forestry and timber industry. We have strengthened the financial support through our environmental land management schemes and we will continue to promote urban tree planting so children everywhere can enjoy their local woods.
On the chemical status of our water bodies, the science and modelling are clear that it will take decades to recover and heal completely, but we are keeping a spotlight on water quality and getting industry to clean up its act. We are restoring 400 miles of river through the first round of landscape recovery projects and establishing 3,000 hectares of new woodlands along England’s rivers, as well as doubling funding available for the catchment-sensitive farming programme to £30 million in each of the next three years, to cover all farmland in England. We have already seen a huge improvement in our bathing waters. Last year, nearly three in four beaches were deemed excellent—only about half of them were back in 2010—but I share people’s concern about sewage in our waters. That is why we, a Conservative Government, turned on the monitoring, and why we are holding industry to account on fixing this issue. Through our storm overflows discharge reduction plan, we are requiring water companies to deliver their largest ever environmental infrastructure investment, an estimated £56 billion of capital investment over 25 years. We have set clear expectations on improvements on which we will track performance. The next formal review will be in 2027, so if we can go further and faster, that is exactly what we will do.
This issue remains an international endeavour as well. We have a globally recognised track record of action, helping communities protect and restore their national treasures. Reinforced by our science expertise and financial support, we are helping nature around the world. That is the right thing to do and it is absolutely in our interests as well. Having committed to doubling UK international climate finance to £11.6 billion, and to spending at least £3 billion of that on nature, we are building on decades of action, backing efforts to take on the whole host of threats that now face the world’s flora and fauna well beyond climate change alone. We are doing that through the blue belt programme, protecting an area of ocean larger than India around our biodiverse overseas territories, through our world-renowned £39 million Darwin initiative, and through the illegal wildlife trade challenge fund. We are ploughing all that expertise and experience into our newly established £500 million blue planet fund, and our £100 million biodiverse landscapes fund, to help some of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable communities restore, protect and connect globally important but fragile habitats.
I am so proud that the UK is leading, co-leading and actively supporting the global coalitions that are committed to securing the maximum possible ambition and achieving the greatest possible impact on everything from taking on the scourge of illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing, to persuading countries to agree a new, legally-binding global treaty to end plastic pollution by 2040, to supporting efforts to establish a global gold standard for taking nature into account across our economies.
I could spend hours talking about nature, about our mission, about what we have already achieved. As the Member of Parliament for Suffolk Coastal, I am blessed to represent a very special part of our country, with many precious habitats and protected sites, on land and offshore. I always said it felt like I had had six years of a perfect apprenticeship before I became the Environment Minister in 2016. There are many more parts to the plan that we published yesterday. I recognise that we have work to do, and our aim is to catalyse action across Government, across the economy and across the country, with the whole Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs family, our agencies, including Natural England, the Environment Agency and the Animal and Plant Health Agency, our delivery partners and regulators, the whole of Government, and individuals, communities and businesses, from farms to finance, all working together to bring this to life.
Nature needs us to accelerate and scale up our help if we want to enjoy nature and have its help for generations to come. Together, we can achieve it. Whether someone lives in a city or town, in the countryside or on the coast, we all have a part to play in the truly national endeavour and the decade of global action that we need now to see this through. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of her statement. I am pleased that on this occasion we are actually getting an oral statement, rather than a DEFRA Minister having to be dragged to the House for an urgent question or sneaking something important out as a written statement. However, even on this occasion, she made a speech announcing this plan outside this House yesterday. Unfortunately, my hon. Friend Jim McMahon, the shadow Secretary of State, is unable to be here, as he has a pre-arranged medical appointment. I am glad the Secretary of State is here to be held accountable, but it must be difficult for her to continue to try to defend her Department’s record.
The Conservative Government are big on promises but little on delivery. The proof is in the pudding, and the Secretary of State’s own appalling environmental track record speaks volumes. As water Minister, she presided over a new sewage spill every four minutes—321 years’ worth of sewage was spilt in just three years; and she cut the resources of regulators that are there to protect the environment by a third. Her three months as Environment Secretary have not been any better. First, she broke her own statutory deadline for publishing environmental targets. Then she told Parliament that meeting polluting water bosses is not a priority, before announcing measures that inflict more sewage dumping and toxic air on our country. [Interruption.] She can correct the record when she responds. Even her Department’s own regulator, the Office for Environmental Protection, gave the Government “nul points” on their 25 year environmental goals. On chemicals, the Government are missing in action. Their UK REACH system is evidently not working properly. Never mind Dr Dolittle, it is Dr Damage—a lot.
Let us look at this latest plan, as I have questions. Why will our sites of special scientific interest, which have been so neglected, not be assessed for five years, until 2028? Why is there no mention of reintroducing species to help nature recovery, aid flood management and increase pollination? Does the Secretary of State agree that she is betting the house on environmental land management schemes—ELMs—by relying totally on take-up and farmer co-operation? She had the opportunity to come to Parliament to say, or to outline at the National Farmers Union conference in Oxford, that she is on the side of farming communities, but she failed to do so. Where is she on the Dartmoor issue, and the increasing threat to access to nature? How does she plan to deal with the 1,781 retained EU environmental regulations we are going to have to deal with this year?
Trust is an important word in politics, and it is clear that there is very little trust in this Government to get anything done. Actions speak louder than words. The environmental improvement plan is full of praise for the action the Government have taken since 2018 to deliver improvements in our air quality, but light on detail on the actions they will take over the next five years to deliver change. That is why when Labour plans to introduce a stand-alone, ambitious, effective and comprehensive clean air Act, it will do what the Minister will not: save lives, save money and clean our air. Labour will expand meaningful access to nature and clean up the Tory sewage scandal. We will hold water bosses to account, not just pay lip service, and ensure that regulators can properly enforce the rules.
This environmental improvement plan, which was so long in gestation, still has glaring omissions, and there is no evidence on how it will be delivered. Tony Juniper, the chair of Natural England, said at the plan’s launch yesterday:
“It’s now all about delivery”.
Yet, DEFRA has continually failed to deliver. How can we trust this failed Government to deliver for our natural environment? Only Labour will deliver a fairer, greener future.
Well, what can I say? I am not sure how much that deserves a response, but out of respect for the House I will say that it is important to make sure that these long-term environmental plans are in place. We brought in legislation saying that we would refresh them every five years, and that is exactly what we have done.
If we are talking about track records, of course the Labour Government never did anything about sewage. They did not know anything about it. [Interruption.] They did nothing—nothing. I am used to the usual spew coming out of those on the Labour Front Bench and, frankly, it is not good enough.
Let us go through some of the questions on which the hon. Member wanted some updates. On chemicals, we still have the system in place, and as is set out in the environment improvement plan, we will be publishing a chemicals strategy this year.
On SSSIs, I am very conscious of the risks that exist. There are variations in what is going on around the country, which is why I have asked for an individual plan to be put in place for every single SSSI. Natural England will be going through and making the assessments of what is there and what needs to be done, and we will get on with it.
I think environmental land management schemes have been transformational. This is a journey for those in the farming industry, who are the original friends of the earth—the people who want a very special countryside—and that is why we have brought forward measures, as my right hon. Friend the Minister for Food, Farming and Fisheries laid out to the House when he came here to talk about this transition last week. We will be working with farmers, and indeed I will be at the NFU conference next month. There has not been any NFU conference since I have been in the Government, but we make sure that we continue to speak to farmers and others.
On retained EU laws, I have already told Parliament the approach we have set out. Where there is legislation that is superfluous, we will get rid of it. We will be looking carefully at all the regulations that are in place, and that is what we are going through. It seems to have escaped Opposition Front Benchers’ attention that we have of course already repealed 146 regulations. They did not even notice, so there we go.
In the meantime, we want to make sure that we are holding different people to account, but there is an individual endeavour, a local endeavour and a national endeavour. That is why provisions such as those on biodiversity net gain, which will be coming into effect later this year, will start to help local nature recovery strategies. It is why we have announced extra funding for more projects, with second rounds of things such as the landscape recovery scheme. There are also species reintroductions happening in different parts of the country.
I am very pleased we have published our environmental improvement plan. I think it shows a clear path for how we will get nature recovery, recognising that this has been going on for centuries. Finally, I am delighted to say that we in the UK Government should be proud of getting nature very much at the forefront of international thinking. We are leading the way on that, and we are doing our bit around the world. I trust that we will continue to be the Conservative party because we believe in the conservation of our precious land.
I call the Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee.
Goal 5 of the plan aims at eliminating waste, and while we have made great progress—for example, in phasing out single-use plastics and substituting more sustainable materials for plastic in packaging for foods—the sad fact remains that our local authorities are very good at collecting waste, but the majority of our plastic waste is exported overseas.
Will the Secretary of State look at two things she could do to improve that situation? First, will she look at the operation of extended producer responsibility, and maybe look at what is being done in Belgium to make sure there is work with industry to incentivise investment in our plastic waste recycling here? Secondly, will she look at setting a date, as my Committee has suggested, for the phasing out and elimination of plastic waste exports to countries such as Turkey, where standards are not as good as ours?
On exports of plastics, we have recognised this issue and want to make sure that we are not exporting to non-OECD countries, but that does not mean that we give a blank cheque when there are exports to member countries of the OECD. That is why we have a rigorous process in place, but we will continue to investigate, through the Environment Agency, where issues arise and get them fixed.
On our thinking more broadly, one of our sadnesses during covid was of course the explosion in single-use plastics and the throwaway elements that were necessary for public health. We also had a reduction in our recycling rates. We do want to turn that around, and that is why we will continue to work on the important EPR reforms to which my right hon. Friend referred.
At yesterday’s launch of the plan, the Secretary of State claimed that
“we are embedding nature in the heart of every decision that government will take”.
That is a very worthy aim, but how on earth does it square with the action we see from her Department? Just last week, the Department gave the green light to an authorisation of the pesticide neonicotinoid, which we know kills bees. I hope she will not tell us that this was just an emergency authorisation; this is the third year in a row that the Department has ignored its own expert committee on this issue, so this is now becoming routine. How can she reassure us that when she says words such as, “We are going to put nature at the heart of all our environment policy making”, she means it? Where is the consistency?
I thank the hon. Lady for that question. We commenced the legal duty on public authorities, at national and local government level, to consider biodiversity from
My right hon. Friend the Minister for Food, Farming and Fisheries went into considerable detail in the consideration of the decision about neonicotinoids. Every year, if an application is made, it has to be considered separately. From discussion with our chief scientific adviser, my understanding about what happened in that process—[Interruption.] That is not true. We increased the threshold for usage and we set a bar, to be decided by Rothamsted Research, for how much of the crop has to be at risk. Only when those thresholds are reached can the neonicotinoid be applied to the seed. That is further strengthened by a prohibition on the planting of flowering crops for, I think, 36 months—it may be 32 months, but certainly between two and three years—after the use of the pesticide. Very careful consideration has been given to the matter, and we continue to consider these applications with a great deal of care. I am conscious that with the sustainable farming initiative, for example, we have brought forward eligibility for integrated pest management grants so that we can continue to try to accelerate away from using pesticides routinely.
I warmly welcome the incredible amount of work that the Secretary of State and her team, fresh into post, have put into the five-year environmental improvement plan. This is a holistic, comprehensive update of the 25-year environment plan, and it introduces for the first time a whole slew of targets and interim targets on the journey to where we wish to get to in the next 20 years.
Looking at goal 3 on clean and plentiful water, a topic that has been of great interest to Members across this House, I ask the Secretary of State to take this opportunity to help Opposition Members who seem to have deliberately confused what we voted for in this House in trying to introduce targets, particularly in connection with persistent chemicals. They are substances such as flame retardants that are banned from use, but that exist in sediment on our riverbeds and other places and are being released through the natural process of decay. This is not something that this House has voted to continue for 40 years, as some Opposition Members have tendentiously claimed.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that. He is absolutely right to say that a lot of effort has gone into this review. That is quite right, because nature matters so much, not just to those of us who have a passion for it, but because it is critical to the global web of life.
This is not the first time that Liberal Democrats have put stuff out and it has been a complete load of the proverbial. I will make a point to the House more broadly about the chemical status of water. In the last decade, while we were still a member of the European Union, we added a particular type of chemical—it includes elements such as mercury—to the list of those to be considered in assessing the chemical status of water bodies. Before that, nearly every one of our water bodies had good chemical status. When that provision came in, none of our water bodies had good status. Exactly the same thing happened to countries such as Germany. This is a natural process, and we now need nature to heal and recover before we can get that status changed.
On the other aspects that are more within our control, we have pressed the case through our strategic policy statements and things such as the water industry national environment programme. We are getting water companies to really tighten up and clean up waste water treatments.
Yesterday I introduced the Clean Air Bill, which would require us to reach World Health Organisation air quality standards for PM2.5 of 10 micrograms per cubic metre by 2030, in alignment with the ambition of the EU, which is achievable. Yet today, five years into the 25-year plan, the Secretary of State comes along, on the 10th anniversary of the death of Ella Kissi-Debrah, and extends that another 10 years to 2040. How many thousands of extra avoidable lives will be lost due to that? How many millions of children will have to go into hospital with asthma attacks because of that delay? What will she do to bring forward that target to 2030 in alignment with the EU? If we were still in the EU, thousands of lives would be saved, instead of which she is ensuring that thousands will die.
I am conscious of the hon. Gentleman’s passion on this and know that he has a long-standing interest in air quality, as do I. I seem to recall that, when I was first in the Department, the focus was on NOx, because we were in legal breach, but we are not in any legal breach now. [Interruption.] That is not the case either. It was I who pointed out to the various groups at the time that the thing that we should worry about is PM2.5 because it affects everybody. I have long been passionate about this matter, which is why, with me in post, we introduced the ban on the sale of smoky coal and we got rid of wet wood as best we could, because that was the principal source of what was happening with PM2.5.
As I have said publicly, I would have loved for the target to be 2030, but the powers of the Environment Act 2021 require me to believe that it is achievable. I am very sad that, in London in particular, we do not seem to be able to fix the problem. Many issues need to be addressed; we still have a problem in 14 out of 21 London boroughs. That is why I am very keen for the Mayor of London not to be doing all sorts of tokenistic things that make a marginal difference, such as the expansion of the ultra-low emission zone, but to be encouraging the councils to use their powers to inform people of the issues, so that we can really tackle that PM2.5. If we can go quicker, the next time that we review the targets I will make sure that they are changed.
May I say a huge thank you to my right hon. Friend and extend a big, grateful Herefordshire hug to her for this excellent plan? Will she meet me to discuss the Environment Agency’s permitting department, which I believe is struggling, the rivers Lugg and Wye, and how we will deliver through the work that farmers do?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I would be delighted to meet him. Hopefully I can bring along the farming Minister and the water Minister, because this is a good example of where we need different agencies to come together, as well as our farmers. We need to think through how we can improve the capture of run-offs and other elements. That is why we have made sure that money is available to farmers for slurry storage, for example, so that we can try to trap ammonia, as well as for some of the other activities that they can undertake. That is how we can help them to do the right thing.
I want to declare an interest: I am a trustee of the small charity, Fields in Trust, that works with some local authorities in trying to achieve the target of no household being more than 15 minutes away from green space.
The Secretary of State said that this was about the whole of Government. Before Christmas, the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities introduced a consultation on changes to the national planning policy framework, which required the 20 major urban areas in this country to have a 35% uplift to their house building targets. On
I hold the Chairman of the Select Committee in high regard. As he will be aware, we do need to build more homes in this country, and while we of course want to prioritise brownfield sites, I am also very conscious of some of the changes that may be needed in different parts of the country. While I of course regret, as Secretary of State for DEFRA, the loss of any good farmland—although protections are already in place, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood is further consulting on aspects of that—it is important that we can design in great green space access. That might be something as simple as community woods. I grew up in Liverpool—I was very aware of what was happening in relation to the urgent question—and Liverpool City Council has some of the best tree programmes. I think we can design with nature in mind. That is why biodiversity net gain, which this Government have introduced, will come into effect later this year. Those are the sorts of important changes that we can make in order to ensure that people have access to green space.
I thank my right hon. Friend for her statement. As I have mentioned in this Chamber before, in my constituency we have already seen a dramatic reduction in the number of storm overflows released on to our beautiful beaches. Analysis has shown that the only way to completely eliminate sewage overflows is to dig up and replace 60,000 miles of old pipes with two separated systems, or to build the equivalent of 40,000 Olympic swimming pools of storage. Does my right hon. Friend know which option the Lib Dems claim they would deliver?
My hon. Friend is a very good champion for her constituents and for nature, and so she should be. I recall going to the beautiful Croyde beach and doing litter picking, which brings joy in terms of the beauty of nature. She is right to champion our improvements on sewage. As she will know, the Liberal Democrats will often say one thing to get elected and do the complete opposite when in power.
The Government’s own regulator, the Office for Environmental Protection, has found that this Government are seriously failing on every one of the goals set out in their own 25-year environment plan. What are the Government going to do differently in order to deliver these commitments, or is this yet another case of the Government talking the rhetoric of meaningless words and not delivering?
I recognise what the hon. Lady has said. I was disappointed by the OEP, given that it had put out statements that we were getting cleaner air and making progress on all these things. I was a bit surprised by the headlines that came out of that. Of course, to some extent, one of the issues with the goals, which are complementary goals, is that targets had not been set at that point. I am very confident. This is a delivery plan.
As the hon. Lady will be aware, it is available—it was available yesterday. I am conscious that it does not cover Wales, where her constituency is, so I do not know what the Welsh Government are doing in that regard. [Interruption.]
I am not decrying them. This is the Parliament of the United Kingdom, so I am very happy to take questions from Welsh MPs and have already done so. But what I am keen to say is that we have already delivered. I have already shared information on how bathing water has got much cleaner under this Administration, and we will continue to do a number of activities. What we have done, and what the Welsh Labour Government have not done, is transform farming funding to make sure that we have sustainable food production, but that we also protect and enhance the environment.
There are very many farmers in my constituency who love the Kentish countryside and are proud to be custodians of it for this generation. At the same time, they have to run profitable businesses, producing and selling good, healthy food. Can my right hon. Friend assure me and them that the new scheme has enough strength behind it to enable them to run viable businesses and to continue to protect and, indeed, enhance Kent’s beautiful countryside?
I congratulate my right hon. Friend, who is right to stand up for his farmers. Kent is the garden of our country and the producer of many fine foods, fruits and, of course, wines. The same amount of money is being dedicated to supporting our farmers and landowners. I am conscious that we are on this transition journey, and that is why I wanted to offer people opportunities to get Government funding as we reduce the guaranteed BPS. We are in a good place whereby farmers have a genuine menu from which to choose—a lot of this was informed by a practising farmer, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Farming—and, as well as saving the planet, the farmers in the constituency of my right hon. Friend Damian Green will have opportunities to have a viable, sustainable and profitable business.
As my hon. Friend Anna McMorrin highlighted, the Office for Environmental Protection put out its report last week. It talked about the need for
“better alignment and co-ordination at all levels of Government, local and national, with actions that extend beyond Defra”.
Two years ago, the Public Accounts Committee published a report, which the Secretary of State’s Department agreed with, in which we described that simply as a lack of clout across Whitehall. Further to the question from my hon. Friend Mr Betts, how will the Secretary of State ensure that these plans are actually delivered across Whitehall? Does she have the clout and the backing of the Treasury?
It is the first time that anyone has ever accused me of not having heft. Since the hon. Lady’s report came out—I am sorry to say that I am not aware of it—we have passed the Environment Act 2021. That included a biodiversity duty, which we have commenced from
I welcome this hugely important plan for the potential that it has to protect nature and the environment. Now, we need to see it delivered. With that in mind, I urge the Secretary of State to ensure that we are meeting our manifesto target of 13,000 hectares of tree planting every year. That is a crucial means to meet our target of halting species decline by 2030.
As a former Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend knows how important our Department is in ensuring not only that we are champions for nature but that we deliver for nature. We are trying to ensure that we increase the opportunities to plant trees. We have had the woodland creation offer already. Some of the changes that we are bringing through, as well as the targets that we have put in law, will help us to accelerate that tree planting.
These environmental targets will be a complete waste of paper if there are very few farmers left to put them into practice. Farmers have had their basic payment cut by 5% in 2021 and by 20% in 2022, and it will be cut by 35% later in 2023. Farmers are struggling to access schemes to supplement their income, and they are struggling to meet the inflated costs of feed, fuel and fertiliser. When I was walking down a lane in Devon a few weeks ago, a farmer in a 4x4 wound down the window and asked me, “Do you know what DEFRA stands for under this Government? The Department for the Extermination of Farmers.” Can the Secretary of State explain how the Government will support those farmers who are being forced out of business to deliver the environmental improvement plan?
I am not surprised by the quality of that question. The hon. Gentleman represents a very rural constituency in Devon. He should see this transition in farming as a positive action about having sustainable production as well as saving the planet. It is absolutely vital that our farmers are supported to do that. That is why we have continued the £2.4 billion of available funding. And yes, there will be a transition as the guaranteed payments start to decrease, but we will be able to target the money and pay the farmers for eco-services. That is critical to making sure not only that they can have a sustainable business, but that they work they do will enhance the nature that we all enjoy and that they need in order to make sure we have future harvests.
I, too, congratulate the DEFRA team, particularly my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, for bringing forward the environmental improvement plan, which is full of deliverable plans with real action. As she knows, I am a passionate user of the River Medway in my constituency: I sail in it and swim in it. I have the misfortune, however, of living not far from a storm overflow, so it gives me great pleasure that, because of her Department’s actions, 98% of all storm overflows on the River Medway are being monitored and tested regularly. Will she outline how the actions she has taken will further reduce the sewage and dangerous chemicals that are pumped into our river?
My hon. Friend is clearly a champion of her special part of Kent. The best way I can put it is that a plan was set out and monitoring is taking place. We are not trying to hide anything—far from it. We have opened up to the problem and have a laser-like focus on tackling sewage. It is imperative that we continue to hold the water companies to account. In that regard, the investment will start flowing. That is all part of the impending price review.
I have had a pretty good read of the plan, and it is disappointing that there is not more about the urban environment and the contribution that it can make, particularly in terms of the nature section. As the parliamentary species champion for the swift, I am keen to see more swift bricks installed in buildings. A lot has been said about trees, hedgerows and so on, but when it comes to reversing the decline in swifts, we need to look at buildings. Is that something that the Secretary of State can go away and look at, and perhaps introduce it, despite the fact that it is not in the plan?
I am very aware of swift boxes. There has been successful awareness raising in my constituency. Indeed, I think the guidance from the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities talks about what can be done to make safe spaces for nature in our urban environments and in future buildings. That is, of course, important. Our Department is not just for the countryside—far from it. We can touch everybody’s heart when they think about how they can reconnect with nature.
I will continue to try to make sure that prominence is given to urban areas. I grew up in a city, and over 80% of people live in urban settings. That is one of the reasons why the pledge is very clear about people having access to a green or blue space within a 15-minute walk. It is also why we will continue to focus on air quality, which is of course a particularly prevalent issue in urban situations.
I warmly welcome the statement. My right hon. Friend made an important point when she said that the proportion of excellent bathing water quality beaches has increased from about half to nearly three quarters. That is very positive, but 98% of our waters with bathing water status are coastal, and inland waters with that status are mainly lakes. Does she agree that improving river water quality is an important priority, too, and will she back my campaign for the River Nidd to be given accredited bathing water quality status at the lido in Knaresborough?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say how important this issue is. It is not just about the coast. Traditionally, bathing water statistics have focused on coastal areas, because that is where the majority of people go to enjoy that leisure, so that is vital. More broadly, the quality of water matters dramatically. I think of our chalk streams, which are so precious.
Let me tell the House a little anecdote about an occasion when I went to see the River Itchen. The landowner in front of me, having spotted a bottle of dog shampoo, started to cry and said, “This person may not have realised that they have just ruined the chemical status of this river for about the next 25 years.” That will not have been done deliberately, so we need to ensure that everyone is more aware. I understand why my hon. Friend is campaigning for his local river to be brought into the bathing water statistics, and I am sure that his case will be considered very carefully indeed.
While I note that the plan applies to England specifically, the protection of 30% of land and sea, including through marine protected areas, must apply equally to the Irish sea. What discussions have taken place with officials from the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs in Northern Ireland to ensure that Northern Ireland Water does not drop the ball, and that that protection is fully extended?
The hon. Gentleman has made a strong point. In preparation for the CBD COP15 in Montreal, we brought back together the four nations of the United Kingdom that we are proud to represent. We have the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, which is a body that covers the UK. Last year, wearing a different hat, I visited the Giant’s Causeway, which is, of course, extraordinary.
We want to ensure that there is more access to Northern Ireland in this regard, and I know that that has been an important part of the discussions that have taken place. However, we will also continue to work closely with officials—although we all want the Executive to be re-formed so that we can really make progress in Northern Ireland, which is a fantastic part of the United Kingdom.
The quality of the water off the new city of Southend-on-Sea is fundamental both to our world-famous cockling industry and to our swimming group, the Bluetits Chill Swimmers, who swim all the year round. I welcome the statement, but does my right hon. Friend agree that claims by the Opposition parties that Members have voted for 15 more years of sewage dumping are totally false, and a bit rich coming from Labour, which ignored sewage discharges when it was in power, and from the Liberal Democrats’ Minister for water in the coalition, who did nothing?
My hon. Friend has been in the House for a relatively short time, but she has shown how savvy she is in standing up for her constituents in Southend. Where we identify issues, we put the spotlight on them and try to fix them. We do that because we are Conservatives: we want to conserve, and we want to enhance. I assure my hon. Friend that I will continue to support her in what she is trying to do for the great people of Southend, and try to ensure that our beaches are as clean as ever.
I warmly congratulate my right hon. Friend and her team on today’s announcement of the plan. Devon’s farmers produce some of the best food and drink in the world; I should know, having sampled a fair bit of it. They are custodians of our countryside and have been for generations, and we owe them a debt of gratitude and certainty. Will my right hon. Friend explain how this plan will help them to go on producing fantastic food throughout the south-west?
There is great food in a number of counties, and I do not want to come between Devon and Cornish MPs about who has the right pasty or where cream should go on a scone, but I will say to my hon. Friend that it is very important for us to involve farmers and landowners in improving our natural environment. I think that, by default, most of them are already doing that, but I am very conscious of the challenges they face. The Minister for Food, Farming and Fisheries has been very active, in a number of ways, in responding to the issues that they have raised. I am convinced that what we are doing, and what we did last week, is opening up many more activities that will allow us to pay farmers to improve, for instance, the quality of soil and integrated pest management. We will help them not only to farm more sustainably, but to enjoy the extra benefit of ensuring that the quality of Devon’s food is the best it can be.
I thank the Secretary of State, and the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend Rebecca Pow, for the tremendously hard work they have put into developing this world-leading environmental improvement plan. Local residents in the Kettering constituency are keen to support any measures to protect, preserve or enhance our natural environment. Does my right hon. Friend agree that (a) nature has been neglected for far too long, (b) environmental and agricultural policies were returned to this country as a result of Brexit, and (c) she is drawing on (b) to fix (a) so that we can clean our waters, tackle air pollution and increase biodiversity?
My hon. Friend sums it up perfectly. By leaving the European Union, we have removed ourselves from the constraints—the handcuffs—of the common agricultural policy. We have been able to develop a policy that, certainly in England, will translate into sustainable food production and improving the environment. The Lords are about to pass the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill—another Brexit freedom—which will allow us to develop climate change-resilient wheat. We can use the best of technology and our freedoms to do what is right for the farmers and people of this country, ensure that we have a healthy and wealthy farming community, and continue to enjoy all the fabulous produce for generations to come.
Going back to the Victorian era when the water companies were putting in their pipes, they did not take action on sewage overflow. Perhaps they should have. In the 13 years that the Labour Government were in office, they took no action on sewage overflow. Perhaps they should have. This Government are taking action on sewage overflow, but doing so will cost tens of billions of pounds of investment. Therefore, does my right hon. Friend agree that it is right to work within the constructs of this environmental plan and other environmental plans to achieve that long-term change?
My hon. Friend is spot on. We identified the issue—indeed, it was Lord Benyon who spotted it early on as a DEFRA Minister. He got on with it, and that is what we are dealing with. The monitoring will be in place completely by the end of this year, so we can have that laser-like focus on sorting out the unacceptable sewage problem. My hon. Friend is also right to point out that it will cost tens of billions of pounds. Some of what was proposed before was going to cost hundreds of billions of pounds, which would have added at least £800 to people’s water bills. We need that balance and to focus on where we can make the most impact right now. That is what we will continue to do.
I draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. The Secretary of State will know that the packaging sector and its customers welcome the measures in the plan to reduce littering and increase recycling rates. Does she agree that they will be at their most effective if they are introduced consistently and at the same time across all countries of the UK?
I understand the point that my hon. Friend is trying to make. We have to make progress in this country. We are trying to get consistency in the recycling process alongside the introduction of the EPR, but although there are many things that we and other parts of the UK agree on, we need to ensure that we have a plan that will deliver our recycling targets that we have set in law. We want to make this straightforward for our manufacturers. We need to press on with the important targets that we have passed into law in the past few days.
I was pleased to see that the environmental improvement plan included the Lapwing estate near Bawtry, which is on the border of Rother Valley, as a case study. This 5,000-acre piece of land will abate emissions, store carbon and produce food. It is funded partly by the Government. Can the Secretary of State confirm that she will continue to fund such projects across South Yorkshire and in Rother Valley to store our carbon, secure our food supplies and support our local rural communities?
Indeed, there are a number of funding streams, of which our nature for climate fund is a key element. My hon. Friend will be aware that as we make the transition to environmental land management schemes, we will continue to ensure that activities that do good things for the environment will be rewarded. Indeed, we will be going further by giving a premium where there is greater connectivity, so that the opportunity is enhanced. Improving the quality of our land is a symbiotic relationship. That will have results in improving the biodiversity we all enjoy.
Apologies to Kelly Tolhurst who I have known for years, but Kellie Hughes, a very popular hairdresser in my constituency of the Ribble Valley, will be delighted with the publicity.
I thank the Secretary of State for her statement today and for responding to questions for well over 50 minutes.