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My Lords, I too welcome this 25-year plan for the environment. It is nothing if not ambitious. It is clearly a first step in making the country more liveable, both for us and for the plants and animals with which we share it and on which we depend. The plan contains a great deal that is good, but success will really depend on it securing continuing cross-party support. We cannot have wavering if the political climate of the country changes. This is something that we need to stick to.
Defra is proposed as the owner on behalf of the Government. That seems appropriate, but active co-operation will be needed from other departments as well. Defra will need strong support from the Cabinet Office to ensure that others give the plan sufficient priority. The plan must be shared government-wide and feature in the forward-look plans of every government department. It is proposed to establish a new independent body to monitor progress against a series of metrics and to hold the Government to account. As various noble Lords have suggested, it is entirely appropriate that the Committee on Climate Change could be taken as a model for this.
The plan places heavy emphasis on natural capital. That concept is not without its critics, as we have heard today, but it also carries advantages. The beneficial practical applications were mentioned in the plan itself. But although there are difficulties in applying or assessing clear and fixed values for particular assets, the importance of the approach is the focus that it brings to assessing the real value that we derive from every aspect of our environment.
One of our most valuable natural capital assets, and one of the most neglected, is fresh air. Fresh air in crowded cities is all too often polluted by vehicle emissions. In that connection, the plan offers the opportunity to make two quite distinct points. First, it proposes ending the sale of internal combustion engine vehicles by 2040. That is understandable, but it is wrong. The emissions from vehicles should be banned with performance standards, not the technology itself. In the future, a super-diesel operating on a synthetic fuel might turn out to be the greenest means of local transport. Secondly, clean air is an asset to which we can attribute value. A recent study carried out by the British Lung Foundation estimated the direct costs of respiratory conditions to the NHS at around £11 billion a year. If as little as a quarter of that is attributable to vehicle emissions, on cost grounds alone we should act decisively to restore this element of our natural capital—not to mention the persistent ill health and premature deaths associated with it. This is an urgent and solvable problem and the mayoral initiatives in London are to be applauded.
However, there is one area to which the plan devotes too little attention. It is the major decline in numbers of the most undervalued and admittedly, for us, least charismatic animal group on earth—the insects. Reputable studies in the UK and elsewhere demonstrate population declines of over 75% during the last three decades. We know that from our own experience if we compare driving 20 years ago with today. Twenty years ago, we had to clean the summer insects off the windscreen with every fill-up. Today, that is a rarity. Similar declines are recorded in mainland Europe and in Canada.
Apart from the honey bees, should we be concerned? The answer is an emphatic yes. Insects have an unobtrusive but key role to play in our environmental system. Aside from their most obvious part in the animal food chain for birds, small mammals and others, they are very important as pollinators of crops. Although largely unseen, insects are important for breaking down waste products within the soil and conditioning it for plant growth. If the decline continues, the consequences for the human food supply look bad. Although the general trends are not clear, it is worrying that the records are insufficient for detailed analysis and the declines are not properly understood. I am prompted by the relatively low profile of insects in the plan to ask the Minister to review the environmental monitoring work of his department and to take advice on whether it is really sufficient to support this 25-year plan. The same point has been made by various other noble Lords. Long-time series of observations made in the same way under the same controlled conditions are not popular with those seeking quick results from science, but they are essential to support the science we need to understand and manage the environmental problems we face.
To conclude, this plan is a good first step, but we need better observational records. We should make sure that we regulate outcomes, not technologies, and recognise that the real challenge will be implementing the plan.
My Lords, it is always an honour to follow the noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh. I declare an interest as a landowner with a strong interest in practical conservation—for which, two years ago, I was proud to win the Bledisloe Gold Medal from the Royal Agricultural Society of England. That, I believe, is what is known as a humble brag.
I wish to make two points. The first is that this 25-year plan makes a promising start towards recognising that environmental improvements are achieved mainly by people on the ground such as farmers and gamekeepers rather than commanded by officials in offices, but that it needs to go further in this direction. Secondly, science, technology and innovation must be encouraged to deliver better environmental outcomes. They are on the whole the solution, not the problem. Instead of going back to nature, we must go forward to nature.
The Government are right to reject proposals from those who lobbied strongly for greater statutory regulation, inspection and punitive fines for farmers, an approach that has often failed to help wildlife very much. We need to make sure that landowners are not left worse off if rare species turn up on their land. Voluntary conservation encouraged by carrots will achieve more than enforcement of compulsory schemes with sticks. If I read the plan right, it will aim to encourage rapid take-up, with minimal red tape, of prescriptions like conservation headlands, which are working well on my farm and others for the return of tree sparrows, linnets, yellowhammers and the like. I particularly welcome the inclusion of so many recommendations made by farmer-facing organisations such as the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust with its first-hand experience at its experimental Leicestershire farm, Allerton, of how to combine profitable farming with increasing biodiversity. So it is refreshing to read the recognition in the plan that biodiversity depends on productive farming.
Sustainable intensification is the key concept here. On a global scale, you cannot have space for wilderness and biodiversity unless you also have highly productive agriculture. Since 1960 we have reduced by 68% the amount of land globally needed to produce a given quantity of food. That spares land for nature. Likewise, in the British countryside, a productive wheat field with a bird-seed crop around its edges, like I saw some examples of from my train window this morning, is far better for birds than a messy bit of bad farming or abandoned land.
In this respect, can I ask my noble friend the Minister to clarify how conservation covenants, mentioned on page 62 of the 25-year plan, would work? If a landowner commits to manage part of his land permanently for conservation, by agreement with conservation bodies, might there be, as there is in the United States, a tax incentive like gift aid or a grant? If not, what is the incentive that will drive the take-up of such covenants? Could he also say how he plans to make sure that environmental subsidies to farmers and landowners are paid by results and not by intentions, as is the case today? This has been mentioned in the debate by the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, and others. Surely a farmer or indeed a bird charity should have to prove that lapwings on their land are breeding successfully, rearing chicks to fledging, rather than just being attracted to breed there and then having their nests destroyed by crows or ploughs or seeing their chicks starve for lack of suitable brood-rearing habitat. Could he therefore confirm what all landowners know, including the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, that a vital tool of conservation is predator control of grey squirrels, mink, foxes, crows and other species living at unnatural densities, and that this will be recognised in any new environmental subsidy regimes?
I welcome the concept of environmental net gain. It is essential that we emulate successful conservation elsewhere in the world by offsetting development with habitat creation off-site. This is a far more effective tool than trying to avoid hurting every individual newt or bat that happens to live in a spot zoned for development merely to provide employment to bat inspectors and newt inspectors.
On the matter of science and technology, I hope that the Government recognise the fantastic opportunities that innovation represents for helping the environment. This is something conservation organisations do not always fully grasp, in my experience. No-till farming, made possible by cheap herbicides, can vastly improve soils. Precision weeding with robots will soon be able to reduce the use of chemicals. Autonomous machinery can replace heavy tractors with platoons of smaller, lightweight robots that work at night and cause less soil compaction. The indoor production of salads and herbs using LED lights can greatly reduce the land take of some kinds of farming. In Japan there are warehouses producing 30,000 lettuce heads a day with no chemicals and using less water and energy than if they were produced out of doors.
Genetic modification has demonstrably cut the use of insecticides, improved the yield of crops throughout the world, and can do so here. We now import vast quantities of GM soybeans for animal feed, having failed to genetically modify our homegrown peas. An exciting invention from Nottingham University called N-Fix coats plant seeds with beneficial bacteria to enable cereals to fix nitrogen from the air, reducing the need for synthetic fertiliser. There is growing evidence that the new technique of CRISPR gene editing can improve yields, spare land and reduce the need for sprays or ploughing. Gene editing can also lead to solutions to the growing problem of how to eradicate invasive species, as can the development of contraceptive vaccines, including the vital work of the Animal and Plant Health Agency.
I suspect we can much reduce reliance on chemicals over the next few decades, not by going back to organic agriculture with its destructive reliance on repeated cultivation and its use of toxic copper-based pesticides, but by going forward to nature with the new technologies of precision farming and gene editing. We can have more prosperous British farming with less subsidy and more flourishing wildlife with a few carefully targeted incentives. We can save the taxpayer money, boost wildlife and preserve the best of the British countryside all at the same time.
My Lords, I should also like to welcome this report, but with caveats. I must declare my interests as the CEO of the Energy Managers Association and of the Water Retail Company. I am a landowner and some of my tenant farms are in the Higher Level Stewardship scheme. Obviously I will not ask many questions because I will not get them answered, but it is worth making the point that we have already planted tens of thousands of trees and have undertaken many of the measures. However, without some of the subsidies that upland farms receive at the moment, they will face a very difficult future. There is a great deal of interest in exactly what support, rather than subsidy, will mean.
Many members of the Energy Managers Association are responsible for achieving the company’s targets. This morning I wrote a short article on LinkedIn, which is a great use of social media, asking which questions should be asked in this debate. So far 10,000 people have clicked on the article and I have had 50 responses. I promise that I will not ask all 50 questions; if you ask more than two or three, you might as well forget it. It was interesting to note that most of the responses from these individuals highlight the very problem that many sustainability managers have: without clear regulation or legislation and targets, it is difficult for them to make companies undertake things. Of course, many of these targets fight against each other. Some of the issues concerning recycling and waste cause difficulty when you talk about companies’ growth.
This comes down to the one question I would like to ask the Government. The document’s wording is extremely good. It is aspirational, although many of the issues are covered by present European Union regulations. Many of them are targets that we already have. If we are to have a clear and concise view—there has been discussion of a Climate Change Act-type body, which would be excellent—could the Minister say when regulation or an environmental Bill will be brought forward to achieve these aims? Without that, many of these will remain aspirations and will remain extremely difficult for those people who have to undertake implementation.
One of the points raised—it is quite good when you get a vast number of people who have read the document as part of their working lives—is that the word “renewables” is not listed at any point throughout the document. I must commend the drafting team for their drafting gymnastics; the document talks about decarbonisation of the energy system, but does not include the word “renewables”. That is rather impressive. I understand why it mentions it because it then goes into the clean growth strategy, which is covered elsewhere.
However, one of the really interesting pieces of research I have been looking at could be very helpful, and it concerns the growth of solar. The large solar farms we will need to meet our green growth strategy, rather than solar panels on people’s rooftops, are already taking tens of thousands of acres from fields, but there is a real opportunity: we have tens of thousands of acres that could be used for environmental purposes. A great deal of evidence shows that the insects that the noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh, talked about could thrive in these areas. They are of course, by their very nature, somewhat deprived of light, but there are areas around them. Nesting birds could also be encouraged. This area is growing. There is planning permission for around 10 gigawatts of solar, so we will see a great deal more of it on the horizon.
The second point is one I will come back to, which is water. We have a real problem with agriculture. As my noble friend Lady Miller pointed out, we are destroying our topsoil. Using solar farms as a way of renewing that topsoil, or not using it and ploughing it up, would be a great way to reduce the amount of drainage run-off.
Many noble Lords have talked about natural capital, but we do not understand how important it will be to look at. I had a long missive on one of the areas we are talking about, on understanding the cost of natural capital. The noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, talked about ancient woodlands and HS2. If you take the natural capital value of that into account, you would put a tunnel underneath the Chilterns area of outstanding natural beauty and it would be cost-neutral. Often we do not take into account the fact that trees have a value because you can just cut them down—it is easy.
I deal with water on a daily basis as CEO of one of these new retail companies. Our aim is to increase water efficiency, although the market has been set up just on price, but we have been warned about a drought in the south-east that is coming this summer. We have had two dry winters. Without a great deal of rainfall, we will have a problem. This is a real issue because the Government do not take water seriously unless there is a drought or a flood. Of course, with climate change, droughts and floods are two sides of the same coin because we are seeing a major change in the rainfall pattern. If we have a drought in the south-east, we should understand exactly what will happen: the Itchen—a habitat that is unique throughout the world—will get even more abstraction. That will be an issue for the water authority in that area.
I have one point on one of the faults with the document. I take on board that there is a great deal of good will in it but if we take the document as read, the abstraction licence regime change will take place only between 2022 and 2027. Considering the damage that we are doing at the moment, that is a real issue.
I should finish with this point. The Secretary of State has mentioned red squirrels and the problems with grey squirrels. I ran a campaign, which I have talked about a great number of times. We took out 27,500 grey squirrels. If he would like information on how to kill grey squirrels, I am very happy to give it. They are natural capital; you can eat them.
My Lords, I declare that I am a member of the European Union Energy and Environment Sub-Committee. My reason for this declaration is that I wish to allude to some of the evidence that we have heard from witnesses and to some of the ministerial replies to our inquiries regarding their opinions on proposed legislation from the European Union.
The Green Paper on the 25-year plan for the environment, which we are discussing, is full of laudable ambitions and good intentions. I hesitate to be critical of it. However, we have been waiting a very long time to see this document. It is the product of an agenda that has suffered significant delays. It is appropriate to question the Government’s commitment to some of their declared aims. The issues on which I wish to concentrate are the disposal of our domestic and industrial waste and its recycling. This also entails the composition of the waste and the question of what can be done to make it more amenable to recycling and less harmful to the environment.
The European Union has proposed some stringent targets for recycling. These are expressed, somewhat crudely, as the percentage of the waste, by weight, that should be recycled. A target to recycle 65% of urban waste by 2035 was agreed by the European Council and the European Parliament in December. The proposal now awaits a vote of approval by the member states. The target has already been reduced from 70% by 2030, which was initially proposed by the European Parliament. However, the UK has asserted that it cannot support even the lesser target. The UK delegation has proposed a 55% minimum target, while declaring that it has been unable to identify a mix of policies that would be effective in reaching a higher target. Nevertheless, waste management is a devolved matter, and Scotland and Wales have both adopted a 70% target.
Our committee has been struck by the variability of the recycling rates across the country, even within limited geographic areas. Thus, whereas South Oxfordshire already achieves a 67% rate of recycling, Greater London has a far lesser rate of 32% and the rate for the London Borough of Newham is a mere 14%. The explanations for the derelictions of some local authorities that have been offered to our committee have sounded unconvincing. It has been asserted that it is far more challenging to achieve high rates of recycling in urban areas than in rural areas and that many local authorities are locked into waste management contracts.
The truth seems to be that rates of recycling are correlated with the incomes available to local authorities. The matter has surely been exacerbated by the cuts to local authority incomes and expenditures that the Government have imposed. In any case, the degree of variability in the rate of recycling is indicative of a lack of a co-ordinated national policy. It is clear that, if the Government were willing, we could do much better.
The pronouncements that have accompanied the publication of the Green Paper suggest that the Government are keen to confront a wide range of environmental issues. However, a cursory examination of some of the practical proposals belies this impression. For example, the proposals for dealing with the menace of single-use plastic items are wholly inadequate. The 5p charge on plastic bags, which had been imposed on larger retailers, has now been extended to smaller shops. It should have been applied universally in the first instance and, in any case, it has already been mandated in European Union legislation. The scourge of plastic packaging should have been addressed by imposing a cost upon manufacturers commensurate with the environmental damage that it inflicts. There should be mandatory design guidelines to eliminate polymer mixes in plastic packaging that make recycling close to impossible. Many single-use plastic products should be banned.
Much of our plastic waste has been exported to China, but from January China has banned imports of such waste. The consequence is that, until we establish adequate facilities for recycling it, this plastic waste will be consigned to landfill sites or exported to some of our European neighbours for incineration as refuse-derived fuel. The Government have been unwilling to adopt any of the obvious measures and it is difficult to understand why. Perhaps the answer lies in their adherence to a free-market ideology that discourages intervention of Governments in commerce and industry and exalts the sovereignty of consumers.
An odd accompaniment to the 25-year environment plan is a cost-benefit analysis that expounds the metaphysical concept of the capital value of the environment. This has been the work of the Natural Capital Committee, a group of self-styled neo-classical economists who have been appointed to the task by the Government. Cost-benefit analyses attempt to apply the precepts of commercial project appraisal to social investments and to other initiatives of public authorities that have an enduring effect. This has to be done in the absence of markets that could determine the monetary values of the outcomes. It is proposed that, in the absence of a market value, consumers should be asked to declare what they would be willing to pay to obtain the benefits of a project or to avoid its detriments. This is not an appropriate way to determine how we should confront the threats to our environment. Instead of seeking to uncover the self-interested opinions of individual consumers, we should seek to create a social consensus in favour of actions that might save us from the sort of thoughtless folly that is bound to result in a universal detriment. It is the duty of Governments to take a lead in forming such a consensus, and I do not believe that this Government are fulfilling their duty adequately.
My Lords, I enjoyed reading this report and I wondered what it will be like in 25 years’ time. I cheered the good points, I laughed at some of what I thought was the nonsense in it and I was increasingly concerned by what may be the underlying philosophy of it, but I will come back to that. The noble Lord, Lord Judd, pointed out that the environment is not just rural, green, nice and good for health and well-being; it includes the urban as well as the rural environment and much of the urban environment is very good, of course. However, it also includes harsh, cold and wet streets where homeless people are living; shoddy new housing in badly designed estates; dirty streets, due to cuts in local authority spending; A&E departments where staff and patients are struggling in conditions of squalor; and roads full of potholes, not least where I live. So when we talk about the environment, let us talk about the whole environment.
There are some good things here and I pick out one or two. Restoring peatlands is a cause I have championed in your Lordships’ House in the past. The noble Lord, Lord Krebs, pointed out that upland peat is in very bad condition. Can the Minister say whether the stuff in the plan about peatlands includes upland peat? There is mention of the northern forest and again I give notice to the Minister that I will keep banging on to make sure that part of Lancashire, at least, is part of the northern forest. Protecting and recovering nature, reviewing national parks and AONBs—this is all good stuff. The area in which I have misgivings is what is called “natural capital”, which at times is just mentioned and at others seems to be the underlying philosophy, described as “the new approach”. Page 19 says:
“When we give the environment its due regard as a natural asset—indeed a key contributor—to the overall economy, we will be more likely to give it the value it deserves to protect and enhance it”.
It is clear that that means monetary value. It goes on:
“Natural capital is the sum of our ecosystems, species, freshwater, land, soils, minerals, our air and our seas … This value is not captured by traditional accounting methods”.
It mentions wildlife as being a particular difficulty. I ask: why should wildlife be captured by traditional accounting methods? There is a question here and I will come to it at the end.
If you are looking at a hierarchy of the systems of all sorts that we operate and live within, the financial and economic systems do not come at the top. The first is clearly the planet on which we live, the structure of the land masses, the atmosphere and oceans that are crucial to life of all kinds and what we do, and then the whole of the biosphere. These things exist and would exist without us. Economics is a human construct; economic theory and economic systems are one way in which we make sense of and organise what we do. The problem of economics is that it tends to regard environmental issues as “externalities”, as resources that are put into the economic system. It talks about “ecosystem resources” and thinks about inputs and places to dump waste when we do not want it any more. The ecosystems—the environmental system on the planet—is surely much more fundamental than economics, which is just one of the systems we have, along with our social systems and the rest, that take place within the environment. If the aim is to develop a means of giving everything a monetary value, there is a real risk that we will end up knowing the price of everything and the true value of nothing.
If noble Lords think I am exaggerating a bit, page 133, tucked away at the back, says:
“In order to improve our understanding of our natural capital we will: continue to work with the Office for National Statistics to develop a full set of natural capital accounts for the UK that are widely understood and shared internationally. Taken with the new outcome indicators, these accounts will provide a much richer picture of changes to the environment over time … We will also develop new digital tools and maps to make the use of robust economic values easier for everyone”.
Then, over the page, it says:
“At present we cannot robustly value everything we wish to in economic terms; wildlife being a particular challenge”.
So I went to an excellent and very revealing website describing everything that the Natural Capital Committee, this group of seven professors, does. I quote:
“The Natural Capital Committee defines natural capital as ‘those elements of the natural environment which provide valuable goods and services to people, such as the stock of forests, water, land, minerals and oceans’”.
Then it talks about assessing the value of it. I wonder, if this is fundamental to the report, whether it has got it upside down. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Salisbury earlier in this discussion said: “The economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment”. I think that is the right way around.
If natural capital is just one approach that informs our discussion, it can be useful, obviously. It is obviously useful, if people are looking at the value of the coastal path and coastal access, to look, among other things—matters of principle, perhaps—at the value to coastal economies. That is a valuable approach and I have talked about it in your Lordships’ House. If it is the thing on which everything else depends, that is fundamentally wrong. It will result in a large amount of gobbledegook. Some of the natural capital documents I found had mathematical equations in them. I was going to bring them but not only did I not understand them, I did not know how to read them out, so I did not. It will be bogus in practice and it will be used to overturn local and democratic debate, wishes and decisions.
I will finish with a quote from John Muir, the famous Scottish naturalist and conservationist, who went to America and founded the national park movement. He said:
“When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world”.
That is the way we should be looking at this. When all this natural capital stuff is discussed and proposals are put forward, we should treat them with a certain amount of scepticism and make sure that they are not just an attempt to impose so-called neoclassical economics on everything—including plants, animals and the whole of the natural world.
My Lords, I add my thanks to our Minister for all the work he is doing in this field. Nobody better understands both agriculture and the environment than he does, and we are very lucky to have him in his position.
I welcome the 25-year plan and the Prime Minister’s pledge to be,
“the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than we found it”.
“I am deeply concerned that our generation … has it in its power, as never before, either to preserve and enhance our environment for future generations or, possibly, to ruin it beyond repair”.
I ended by saying that I hoped that,
“my generation will be thanked and not cursed by those to come”.—[
Since then I have watched as both awareness and concern have increased but I am not sure that they have been matched with the necessary action. This plan—which, as I say, I welcome very much—comes as a broad canvas and today’s debate has ranged far and wide and been absolutely fascinating. I will speak specifically about trees and practical matters.
I am delighted that the true worth of trees is now universally recognised and that environmentally they have quietly shuffled themselves centre stage, where they belong. I am particularly keen on urban trees, which are so important to people who live in urban areas. In our towns and cities we must have schemes—properly costed, regularly implemented and protected from cuts—for the care and planting of trees, overseen always by qualified arboriculturists. Our woodlands are battling on two fronts: first, to protect existing woodlands and, secondly, to plant new ones. According to the Woodland Trust, 700 ancient woodlands are currently under threat from development across the UK. It believes it is vital that the legislation protecting them is tightened up, to close loopholes which may be exploited by unscrupulous developers.
As has been touched on already, precise data on ancient woodlands are hard to come by. What is needed is a strict regime of mapping and recording all the other relevant details, held and made available in a national register so that we all know exactly where they are. As far as planting new woodland is concerned, the Woodland Trust recently produced figures showing that we are losing more woodland than we are planting. It stated that across England as a whole we are probably entering a “state of deforestation”. It is to be hoped that this plan, properly executed, will correct this situation.
Of great concern to the tree world is biosecurity: protecting our nation’s trees from pests and diseases imported on foreign stock. At a recent conference, Nicola Spence, the Chief Plant Health Officer, said that her top pests and diseases currently were: xylella, plane wilt, longhorn beetles, pine processionary moth, emerald ash borer, and bronze birch borer—quite a horrifying list. We have had Dutch elm disease. We have ash dieback. We know what can happen. We must, as a matter of urgency and in the light of Brexit and all it offers, tighten our rules. We must take advantage of being an island: if need be, introduce bans where appropriate and reconsider introducing a quarantine system. In a position statement, the Woodland Trust says that it will use only UK-sourced trees. The Arboricultural Association similarly states that landscapers should avoid, where possible, using “directly imported stock”. Many nurserymen and landscapers are already changing their policies.
On a slightly different matter but still on biosecurity and hygiene, in its position statement Biosecurity in Arboriculture and Urban Forestry, the Arboricultural Association highlights the often-overlooked need for precautions to avoid transmitting disease when engaged in tree surgery or forestry operations, and the need for the careful cleaning and disinfecting of clothing, tools and vehicles, together with the careful disposal of arisings. Action needs to be taken soon to highlight this issue.
I will now share a pet hate with the House: ivy growing on healthy trees, particularly oaks and particularly in Suffolk. I recently tabled a Written Question and received a very unsatisfactory Answer, to the effect that it is not really seen as a problem. Well, it is a huge problem in Suffolk and, I suspect, other counties. Ivy climbing up an already dead tree does not matter but ivy climbing into the crown of a healthy tree can and often does prove fatal. Numerous once-healthy oaks, now looking like giant broccoli plants, are being smothered and killed off all over Suffolk—some, I must say to the Minister, quite close to where he lives, and I urge him, if he can find the time, to review the situation and perhaps change his department’s advice. Absolutely no sensible purpose is served by letting ivy climb up a healthy tree.
Finally—and sadly when talking about our nation’s environment over the next 25 years—I am bound to mention the environmental disaster that is HS2. For most of the next 25 years, this astronomically expensive infrastructural white elephant will be gouging its way through our English countryside. Few want it, no one is prepared to stop it, and for the rest of the lives of many of us in this Chamber it will be a constant reminder of the gap between government and the people, and the follies even a democracy cannot stop.
My Lords, in following the noble Lord, Lord Framlingham, I have to say that there is a considerable ivy problem in Wiltshire as well and I echo his concern about that. I declare an interest as an ambassador for the World Wide Fund for Nature and someone with more than 40 years’ membership of a series of environmental organisations and initiatives. Like so many others in your Lordships’ House, I hugely welcome the publication of this 25-year plan. The changes that we need to make to the way we live now are urgent but achieving them will take wisdom and a sustained and developing approach over the next quarter century. We have heard some intriguing and delightful ideas. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Young, I relish the notion of a sort of Ent warden for trees—a tree champion. I would love to see the ideal profile for such an Ent.
As somebody who has lived in central London for more than 30 years and who has brought up a family in the heavily polluted square mile of the City of London, I welcome the emphasis placed on air quality. The noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh, looked at this in statistical and global financial terms. For me, it was brought home on a recent visit to a primary school in West Drayton—close to Heathrow but, more significantly, close to the confluence of motorways—where I discovered that on every school journey staff must carry a box of respirators, so prevalent are asthma and breathing problems among the children.
The point has already been made, so I will not labour it, that much of our existing regulation about air quality and so much else is derived from EU legislation and the withdrawal Bill has not been clear about the machinery for enforcement and any sanctions regime after Brexit. We know that these things will have to be reinvented, and the 25-year plans aims,
“to set up a world-leading environmental watchdog, an independent statutory body to hold Government to account”.
This is crucial, as other noble Lords have said—it must have teeth as well as protection from short-termist demands for watering down standards. I believe that we are fortunate in having an intelligent and energetic Secretary of State as well as a Minister in this House who has been widely commended, but such is the churn which afflicts all Governments that we must insure ourselves against a time when the climate is not so benign.
The plan also deals with putting a price on natural capital. We have had several contributions from noble Lords discussing this concept. I understand the proper concern to develop metrics to inform our decision-making, but that is not enough to generate energy for change. Twenty-five years’ involvement in a symposium focused on the health of our rivers and oceans, “Religion, Science and the Environment”, brought home to me that numbers and statistics repeated at a plethora of international conferences do not generate the energy needed for a transformation in the way we live now. The noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, argued in parallel for this sort of initiative and some sort of inspiration. This plan is ambitious but there must also be understanding and modesty about the limits of any Government’s capacity to deliver the necessary change together with an awareness of the crucial significance of building partnerships with civil society. We have not heard this afternoon about the role of artists and journalists, which is crucial. They have a huge contribution to make, as the recent BBC “Blue Planet” series has once again demonstrated.
For the vast majority of the world’s population the sense of nature as a sacred trust and not just an economic resource is a powerful force which ought to be harnessed. There is scope for translating the themes in this plan into the daily practice of millions of people throughout the world. We need imagination. We need a disposition to build partnerships and to propose imaginative ways forward. We need the imagination demonstrated by Bishop Nathan of Uganda. He insists that each confirmation he performs must be accompanied by the planting of a tree. When he arrives in a village to do his confirmations, the first thing he does is count the saplings, and if there are not enough, he refuses to confirm the requisite number of candidates.
For an ambitious plan such as this to succeed it needs not only metrics but a language and an approach complemented by educational alliances—education alliances are discussed with primary schools—with the wisdom traditions of the world and their day-to-day practices. Yesterday, the Church year turned to looking forward to Lent and Easter, and this is perhaps a moment to recall the words of Pope Francis in his 2015 encyclical Laudato Si:
“Many things have to change course, but it is we human beings above all who need to change. We lack an awareness of our common origin, of our mutual belonging, and of a future to be shared with everyone. This basic awareness would enable the development of new convictions, attitudes and forms of life. A great cultural, spiritual and educational challenge stands before us, and it will demand that we set out on the long path of renewal.”
My Lords, this has been a most fascinating and informed debate. We have listened to many speakers with a wealth of experience in protecting and enhancing the environment. I thank the Minister for delivering on his promise to secure a debate on this subject so quickly and at such a timely moment, when it can feed into the debate on the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, which will start tomorrow and continue on Wednesday.
We have heard some marvellous speeches about the importance of trees, about ancient woodlands from the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, and about the dangers of ivy on healthy trees from the noble Lord, Lord Framlingham. I wholeheartedly agree with him. It is one of the bugbears of my life as well. We heard about carbon and green gas emissions from my noble friend Lady Featherstone and about the need to restore peat lands, soil welfare and the importance of water quality, which were spoken about by the noble Baroness, Lady Byford. Pressure groups around the UK are mentioned in the plan. As my noble friend Lady Scott of Needham Market said, water quality is vital to the life of the planet and to this country.
The plan is extensive and aspirational. Most environmental groups that have contacted me have welcomed the plan as a step in the right direction but felt it could go much further and be more strongly enshrined in law. The exception was ClientEarth, which felt the plan was full of empty promises. While being aspirational, which is good, the plan certainly needs to be grounded in statute and to be enforced if it is to deliver as the Government hope it will. As the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, so eloquently said, it has to deliver for the sake of our young people who care so passionately about the environment. My noble friend Lady Miller asked how success will be measured. That is a question the Minister needs to answer. How will we know? What about the ecologically coherent aspects of the plan that have to be addressed across all sectors? The noble Earl, Lord Caithness, said that we have some hard decisions to make on wildlife. I agree that that is important. The examples he gave are food for thought. Tenant farmers need to benefit from efforts to make their farms sustainable. The benefits should not be going to landlords.
Last week, with the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, and the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, I met the Nature Friendly Farming Network, a self-organised group of farmers from across the UK with a passion for sustainable farming and nature. Formed last year, it welcomes the 25-year environment plan and the commitment to the environment it shows, including the commitment to put the environment first when it comes to future agriculture support. The Secretary of State recognises that the common agricultural policy has in the past led to environmental damage and that direct payments are a largely inefficient use of taxpayer money. He has said that he will replace the basic payment scheme with a system of investment in public goods, and the environment is the principal public good. It will be important for the public money invested to be equal to the task.
There is a positive recognition that productivity and sustainability go hand in hand and need to be addressed in tandem. This is an important change from previous attempts to deal with them separately or even to see them as in opposition. A real test of the plan will be how it delivers on both of these.
The continued investment in technical advice and landscape co-ordination is also welcome. Farmers are pleased to see references to this in the plan, as they know that working in partnership, whether with other farmers, landowners or advisers, is often the key to achieving great things for nature and the environment.
All this is very positive, but this view is not shared across the whole UK. When the Secretary of State, Michael Gove, visited Ireland recently to talk to the Northern Ireland farming conference, he talked about England, England, England. This left those in southern and Northern Ireland wondering just what it was he has planned for the farming communities there. If the plan is to be successful, there has to be widespread co-operation across the whole of the UK, including the devolved Administrations. As previous speakers have said, the Government must tackle this issue and not leave it to others.
The role of insects is vital, as detailed by the noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh. Pollinators are important to growing crops, plant survival and honey production. They are both at the bottom of the food chain, but are a vital part of it.
As many have spotted, there are anomalies in the rhetoric coming from Government. The Prime Minister and Secretary of State have stated forcefully their wish to see a reduction in the use of plastics in the UK. They have set a target of 2042, which is far too late. Yet, while regretting the use of plastics on one hand, on the other the Government have cut their funding to WRAP, resulting in WRAP having to make 25 staff redundant. WRAP is the very organisation which would have helped the Prime Minister to deliver her waste reduction plan. These redundancies came just one week after the launch of the 25-year environment plan. Targets need to be set on recycling waste plastic coffee cups or to phase out their use, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Salisbury has already flagged up.
All the way through the plan, the text is all about co-operation with other countries, both within the EU and worldwide. However, there is sadly more evidence that the Government are talking the talk, but not walking the walk on this issue. As we know, the country’s recycling rate has flatlined at 44%, short of the EU target of 50% by 2020. Despite the Prime Minster and Secretary of State’s reassurance of commitment to recycling, the Unearthed project has discovered from an EU delegation’s notes that UK officials have indicated the UK will not support an EU-wide target of recycling 65% of all municipal waste. If this is correct, this is a scandalous backtracking even before the new plan is put into operation. Can the Minister confirm whether this is true?
Throughout the plan, the Government indicate they will set up bodies to enforce the aims of the plan. It talks about “a responsible body” to oversee covenants. Can the Government now say exactly how the enforcement body will be set up, who will sit on it and whether it will be independent of government?
We would also like to know when Defra will set out the process for developing further objectives and milestones for delivery. What standing will those objectives have in law? If the objectives are voluntary, what assurances can the Minister give the House that the plan will be delivered, a point raised by the noble Lords, Lord Krebs, and the noble Lord, Lord Judd?
What discussions have the Government had with the devolved Administrations about new, shared environment goals? What format will the annual progress reports take in public and in Parliament? Does the Minister expect the new statutory environment body to have the power to bring a legal challenge if the Government fail to meet the objectives of the 25-year environment plan?
I was disappointed not to see a specific date when the Government will implement a total ban on the sale, import and export of ivory from the UK. In the debate in the House on the last Thursday before Christmas, the majority of those taking part were in favour of a ban on ivory sales, and this move would be supported by the majority of the public. I look forward to the Minister’s response to this important debate, on a subject which I know is dear to his heart, as it is to many here today.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for initiating the debate today and to all noble Lords who have spoken with such knowledge and passion about the challenges which we know face our environment going forward. It is fair to say that across the House we welcome the intent of the Government’s vision. The document has been a long time coming, and has had its fits and starts, but I think we now have a blueprint which has some coherence and which gives a sense of the Government’s ambition for the environment, which is very welcome.
We particularly welcome the advice given to the Government by the Natural Capital Committee and the decision of the Government to absorb many of its recommendations into the plan. As the report says:
“In the past, our failure to understand the full value of the benefits offered by the environment and cultural heritage has seen us make poor choices”.
We can change all that if we alter our mindset and place a new value on our natural assets such as our land, clean air and water, our regenerating ecosystems and our diverse species. This requires hard choices—it is not an easy option—and a significant change in government priorities, but it can be done.
We also welcome the Government’s ambitions to become a global environmental champion. The Labour Government led the way internationally through the Climate Change Act, which recognised that each country must play its part in addressing the threat of greenhouse gases to the viability of our planet. Our legally binding emissions targets and the statutory delivery bodies we created are still world class. It is up to this Government now to prove that they can take that leadership to the next level by developing a global agreement, for example, to halt deforestation and to protect scarce water supplies so that we can sustain our planet for the future.
Similarly, we welcome the recognition of the crucial role that oceans play in supplying oxygen, absorbing carbon dioxide and maintaining biodiversity. As a marine nation, we have a particular role to play in demonstrating that it is possible to use and manage our seas sustainably. The extension of the marine conservation zones is key to this, as will be the introduction of genuinely sustainable fishing quotas based on the best science available and in line with our international obligations.
These and other promises set out in the plan give us hope that there is a genuine determination to make the plan a reality. But this is a huge task, and forgive me if I am slightly sceptical. I would not be doing my job if I did not remind the House that the Government do not have a great record on the environment. The truth is that despite promising to deliver the greenest Government ever in 2010, we have seen seven years of disappointment.
We can all remember David Cameron’s “hug a husky” moment, but from then on, it all seemed to go downhill. For example, the Government cut support for renewables, closed the department dealing with climate change, axed the Sustainable Development Commission, voted against key environmental protections and allowed air pollution to escalate into a public health emergency. As we have heard from several noble Lords this evening, our record on building regulations, which were dealt with during that time, has left much to be desired. My noble friend Lord Hunt reminded us that there was so much more that we could have done on clean energy in the past, and so much more that we now need to do.
But never mind, it is all different now, because we have a new Secretary of State, who undoubtedly has breathed some life back into a neglected department—as I have said before, it is a pleasure to welcome a sinner back into the environmental fold. Nevertheless, we have some remaining concerns. Although it is impossible to do justice to all the issues raised, my “thank you, but” comments—to echo my noble friend’s words—are as follows.
First, as many noble Lords have said, the document is rather short on specific commitments. In essence, it is rather more a strategy than a costed and timed action plan. If you compare it for example to the clean growth strategy produced by BEIS, it has far fewer projections, measurables and markers. Although we all accept the need for long-term planning in this sector, by the same token 25 years is a long way away and far beyond the influence and reach of this Government. As the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, said, 25 years is a blip in history, certainly in environmental history, but it is a long time in politics.
We would be far more reassured if some of the deadlines were commitments to which this Government could be held to account. I hope that when the promised metrics to chart progress are produced by the end of 2018, they will include a substantial number of actions—based, yes, on the best scientific advice and innovation—on items that the Government will deliver in this parliamentary term. Then we might have something to celebrate.
Incidentally, I can think of no one better to be the new tree champion than my noble friend Lady Young of Old Scone. And I take the points made by my noble friend Lord Judd and others who talked about the urban environment. We are in danger of seeing natural capital and the natural environment as being the countryside, but it goes far beyond that.
My second concern is that there is a preponderance of woolly commitments in the report. This point was made powerfully by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, and the noble Lords, Lord Krebs and Lord Teverson. The report’s wording leaves something to be desired, talking about,
“working with interested parties to consider … exploring the potential … reviewing existing plans … investigating the potential for research … considering delivery options”, and so on. These do not sound much like a Government who have made their mind up about much. I hope the Minister is able to reassure us that there is some urgency in the department to put some teeth and determination into the rhetoric.
Thirdly, at the launch of the document the Government placed great emphasis on the need to clean up plastic from our environment. We all agree that a powerful case was made for this in the “Blue Planet” series. I know we all care passionately about the issue of plastic and have debated it in the past. However, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Salisbury has said, the plan contains few specific measures to tackle plastic waste. For example, a plastic-free aisle is not going to make much of an inroad into the 800,000 tonnes of plastic packaging waste produced by supermarkets each year. Meanwhile, as several noble Lords have said, there is no mention of the single-use bottle deposit scheme or the levy on disposable coffee cups, which the Government have previously raised.
At the same time, dealing with waste and resource efficiency requires an ambition well beyond plastic recycling. I agree with my noble friend Lord Hanworth that our record on recycling across the piece has been poor, which is why we are concerned about reports that the Government are blocking the new EU recycling targets, a point that has been made recently in the press. We need to re-engineer the way we use resources so that they can be used again and again in a genuine circular economy. This will require clear government direction and investment. It cannot be left to individual businesses to act on a voluntary basis. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, that WRAP has a crucial role to play in all this, and it is a great shame that there have been reports about its budget being cut. If we do it well, it will not be a negative action; it will provide huge growth in green jobs, which in turn could give a major boost to our economy. So it is regrettable that the resource and waste strategy promised for later this year has not been incorporated into this document, leaving many questions unanswered.
Fourthly, the plan relies on a great deal of cross-departmental delivery, as a number of noble Lords have mentioned—for example, working with BEIS on the clean growth strategy; working with DHCLG on the planning and housing implications for sustainable living; working with the departments of health and education on improving health and well-being and bringing children closer to nature; and working with the devolved nations to provide coherent themes for action across the Government. This cross-departmental working is notoriously difficult to achieve. Despite the launch speech by the Prime Minister, I doubt the 25-year environment plan is a priority for other departments. On top of all that, there are the arm’s-length agencies that are cross-referenced in the document, which also need to be co-ordinated into a sensible whole. So there is a major challenge here in terms of where ultimate responsibility lies and who is going to ensure that everyone across government plays their part to deliver the plan. What mechanisms does the department have in place for overcoming the renowned reluctance of the Minister’s colleagues to work on a collaborative basis?
Lastly, as a number of noble Lords have argued, there is a noticeable absence of legal underpinning for the proposals. The document talks of consulting on a new independent body to hold the Government to account, but is that really good enough? I echo the concerns of my noble friend Lady Young of Old Scone and several other noble Lords: these commitments will be taken seriously only if they are backed by the force of law and a new environment watchdog with real teeth to hold the Government to account for its compliance with environmental law and, if necessary, force them to take action to mend any broken promises. That has to include the powers to take Ministers to court and be subjected to serious sanctions, such as fines, when environmental laws are broken. The noble Lord will know that this is an issue that we are going to refer to in the EU withdrawal Bill, but it is a shame that the Government did not take the opportunity to set out a clear legislative underpinning in this document.
With that said, we welcome the overall ambition of the Government and very much look forward to seeing how it matches up to reality in years to come.
My Lords, this has been a totally absorbing and wide-ranging debate. We all have a shared purpose. Your Lordships’ experiences have given me much food for thought and—I say to the noble Lord, Lord Teverson—encouragement. On the question of “Thank you, but”, noble Lords have also used the terms, “important”, “laudable”, “admirable” “welcome”, “coherent”, “promising”, “refreshing”, “good read” and “right terms”. I think that means the receive button is on across this House on something that we all want to ensure is implemented. Some noble Lords have been very generous about current ministerial teams and so forth but I think this matter has captured the national mood as well. I will say more about this later. As we work day in and day out, year in and year out towards this 25-year plan, as endorsed by the Natural Capital Committee in 2015—and in the scheme of things 25 years is not that long—I feel strongly, although I accept that this will be interpreted as an excuse, that this plan is the better for the time that it has taken and the rigour that is now in it, with a range of action points that we wish to take forward.
I want to clear up immediately something that was in my opening remarks for the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville. Clearly it is important, indeed essential, that we work collaboratively with all parts of the UK. Because of devolution this plan legally refers to England, but it is essential that we work not only collaboratively within the UK, as I explained, but with our partners because many of the issues that affect us, such as water, air and disease, come from our neighbours and vice versa. It is imperative that we work internationally and for the interests of both land and sea.
Your Lordships also recognised the importance of setting ambitious targets against which we can measure our performance to drive success. This is why the plan sets out clear goals for the environment in every area, a number of which I set out in my opening remarks.
It was interesting to hear the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Chesterton, talking about clean energy at home and overseas. The Government are now investing nearly £1.5 billion to position the UK at the global forefront of ultra-low emission vehicles development, manufacture and use, so that we can transition away from petrol and diesel cars, which will no longer be sold by 2040—although I was mindful of some points made by the noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh, on the matter.
The noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, is right to be sceptical, because it is her responsibility to keep the Government’s feet to the fire, but the comprehensive clean air strategy will set out further steps to tackle what we all know: the issue in many of our towns and cities must be addressed as soon as we possibly can. That is why it is important that last week, with consent across the House, we went further than required by the EU directive to tackle some of the most polluting generators. The reduction of those emissions will take us a significant way to achieving our 2030 air quality targets, but there is more work to be done.
I want to go to the heart of what so many of your Lordships spoke about on metrics and an independent body. The noble Lord, Lord Krebs, raised that, as did those on the Front Benches, the noble Lords, Lord Judd, Lord Teverson and Lord Redesdale, and the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer. It is very important that we do not set these metrics in isolation and that they are consulted on. By definition, a statutory body requires legislation. I will be very straightforward and say that consultation on the precise vehicle by which that manifests itself is yet to be determined, but clearly it needs a statutory footing. The role of the statutory body will be designed through the consultation, and I very much look forward to your Lordships participating in a rigorous response to that consultation, because we expect and want it to have a strong role in holding the Government to account on the achievement of the metrics.
On the issue of research and evidence raised by the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, yes, of course we want to work collaboratively and in partnership with the scientific community. That is essential. All that we do is based on the best scientific evidence available. However, being a country person, I must also agree with my noble friend Lord Cathcart that it is very important in that blend to have the practical knowledge of the grass roots in the countryside playing its part in the essential management of the countryside.
Meeting the targets we set ourselves requires that we take co-ordinated action across all the areas in which we traditionally work. We need to embrace innovation and take the unique opportunity for change now before us. My noble friend Lord Ridley referred to innovation. I was struck by this on a day’s visit to Harper Adams. The wider adoption of precision farming, moving away from hydrocarbon to zero-emission vehicles and working with nature but, to use my noble friend’s words, working forward with nature is also tremendously important.
It is with some embarrassment that I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, that I know the Cherry family in Hertfordshire very well indeed, and I know what it is doing with the Groundswell meetings and the large number of farmers coming to the conferences it holds on min and no-till, and the advantages it has. I must say that when I looked at it for my very heavy clay soil in the Vale of Aylesbury, I found that it is not necessarily as straightforward in different soil structures, but the advances made in carbon capture and increase in soil fertility are something that we should all think about.
The noble Baroness, Lady Featherstone, also raised soil health. The plan sets out our intention to improve soil health, including the development of meaningful metrics which will allow us to develop cost-effective and innovative ways to monitor soil. We will develop a land management scheme with minimum bureaucracy that provides flexibility. I was struck by the words of my noble friend Lady Byford: this needs to be flexible. We also need to move towards a more effective application of the “polluter pays” principle, which the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, mentioned.
As so many noble Lords mentioned, it is essential that we work with farmers, land managers and others to consider the role of the new environmental land management scheme. I was very struck by the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, saying that he remembered this from his earlier times and at last it is coming to fruition. The proposals in the Command Paper later this spring, to be followed by an agriculture Bill, will be a very important feature of our work.
As my noble friend Lord Cathcart also said, we need to see how this will all work in practice. Most of us farmers want to feel that what we are doing enhances the environment. From my many meetings with farmers and discussing this with people whom I know very well, we all want to know how we should do this: what is the best way to achieve public support for the public good for the nation? I have also been struck during my visits by the commitment of farmers and land managers whether to pollinator-friendly cropping or to other measures to help insects and birds. All around the country, many landowners and farmers have been doing that for generations.
We also need to work with foresters and other land managers to maximise the many benefits obtained from our woodlands. I have always enjoyed my meetings with the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, because we feel very strongly about ancient woodland and the glories of those wonderful trees, but also the importance of helping landowners to plant trees on, say, their marginal land, and to encourage agroforestry. It is like houses: building houses in the right place is like planting trees in the right places. As has been said, all this activity will be supported by a newly appointed national tree champion to drive the step change in tree planting that we need, including the delivery of 1 million urban trees.
I so agree with what my noble friend Lord Framlingham said about urban trees and the enhancement and pleasure that they give. I do not mind which complexion they may have, but local authorities chopping down trees—in my view, entirely unnecessarily—need to think about their environment and the vandalism in some of our towns and cities, when we should be planting more trees to make them more beautiful. Our pledge is also for a further 11 million trees elsewhere. Although your Lordships have spoken about woodland, farming and the countryside, I absolutely agree with what the noble Lords, Lord Judd and Lord Greaves, and the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, said. We must address the challenge of living in a contemporary way in our towns and cities.
I was also struck by what the noble Lord, Lord Judd, said—here perhaps I have to refer to the countryside again—about light pollution. Dark skies are an essential glory of our national parks. We should also think about noise. The work that we are doing on low-emission vehicles and the reduction in noise means that we could be one of the last generations to endure some noisy vehicles. We must ensure that the needs of our growing population are met without harming the natural environment. I agree that that will be a challenge. That is why investment in clean innovation, zero-emission vehicles and measures to tackle local air pollution where the situation is so grave are vital.
We will restore and protect peatlands. They are one of the extraordinary glories of our landscape. That will include the uplands, and we will make £10 million funding available from April for a peatland grant scheme and publish the English peat strategy this year.
On the northern forest stretching along the M62 corridor from Liverpool to Hull, I will have to write to the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, on the precise boundaries, but my understanding of geography is that that would take in a whole swathe of countryside from Liverpool to Hull. But I shall come back to him on that matter.
The plan also sets the actions that we will take to recover nature, not just preserving our existing wildlife and environmental heritage but improving it. The point was made by a number of noble Lords on net gain. Clearly, we need to work closely with MHCLG in its work in revising the national planning policy framework. We will consult on whether requirements for net gain for biodiversity should be mandated; we shall also expand the net gain approach to include wider natural capital to deliver benefits such as flood protection, recreation and improved water quality. All of this is very important, and I am very keen, in development, that while we ensure that we have more houses—we must ensure that people have affordable homes and that there are homes for people, whether in villages cities or brownfield sites—we look at this within the prism of net gain for the environment as well.
Restoring nature means protecting it from risks. My noble friend Lord Framlingham raised this issue. We have had ash dieback more quickly than we should have done because of what we did and should not have done, but its natural spread means it is now reaching into many counties of England, having come across the channel. We need to increase awareness of biosecurity threats at the border and maintain an alert system to detect high-priority invasive non-native species and implement contingency plans to eradicate them as rapidly as possible, wherever that is feasible. So far, with the Asian hornet, we have been able to accomplish that. We shall work with industry to drive improvement in animal health and publish a tree health resilience plan this year.
We are blessed with the most glorious and varied landscapes. For me, it is the countryside where my soul soars. I agree that we should care for it for its own sake, but I particularly mention the national parks and AONBs, for which I am responsible, and the promise of a Hobhouse review for the 21st century, considering designations and how designated areas deliver their responsibilities and whether there is scope for expansion. The Government will work with the national park authorities, AONB partnerships and conservation boards to deliver environmental enhancement. Of course, bearing what my noble friend Lord Cathcart said in mind, that means working very closely with farmers in securing these objectives.
We will act to improve our management of nature and how we engage with it; we also appreciate that many of the activities that have been part of our modern lives have a negative impact on the environment. We will regulate to secure improvements where necessary. We need to recognise better the ever-growing importance of opportunities provided by the circular economy, and we will build on the progress of the plastic bag charge, which has already reduced the use of carrier bags by 83%. It is very important that we work in that regard, as we have done with our national litter strategy, whereby we called for evidence on measures to reduce littering of drink containers and promoting recycling. I say to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Salisbury that, with all the strategies alongside the environment plan, the call for evidence on the cost benefits and impacts of reward and return schemes is the first step in considering these very important options. I also acknowledge the tireless commitment by my noble friend Lord Marlesford on addressing littering.
These actions will transform our environment for the better. That will be co-ordinated, first, with local activity. My noble friend Lord Selborne mentioned widespread ownership, and I so agree with that. The point about the farm clusters mentioned by many of my noble friends is hugely important, and we will make best use of existing local nature partnerships. We will continue public investment in the environment; as well as taking steps to ensure public sector investment, we will stimulate innovation through a new natural environment impact fund.
On our international commitments, I have to say to the noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Needham Market, that we have no intention at all of weakening our current environmental protections. Indeed, we are in the business of strengthening them. The UK has a long environmental protection history, and we are signatories to many international agreements. I hope that the noble Baroness will forgive me, but the list is long. I shall write to noble Lords because there have been so many questions, but I shall also of course write about which agreements we are members of in our own right.
I said in my opening speech that we would report on progress and hold ourselves to account. Defra will report regularly on performance against goals to ensure that the plan remains responsive to changing times. We shall refresh it at least every five years, revisiting the policies within it. The independent body on which we will consult early this year will have a key role in monitoring our delivery. That is obviously something for consultation.
In the very short time I have, I want to say that I was very struck by what the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Chartres, said, in referring to “Blue Planet II”, but also the importance of change. We all have to change. With what we are seeing on plastics, with businesses starting to act, and on our environment, wherever we live, in town or country, on land or at sea, I believe that the actions of this plan and their advancement will make a huge difference. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Featherstone, that we need to quicken the pace of change; that is very important. The Government recognise their responsibility. This plan, protecting and enhancing for the next 25 years, alongside many other strategies, sets a clear direction for food production in harmony with the environment; economic growth in a circular and clean economy; vibrant biodiversity; the wise use of resources; a better environment wherever we live; and an awareness of how essential the environment is.
I am sorry, but there is so much in this plan. I very much hope that we will continue the dialogue, and I know that your Lordships will, quite rightly, keep the pressure up—and I shall look forward to it. As I see this, it is an honest endeavour, and we cannot fail in it. If we are to pledge as a Government and a country to leave our country in a better state than the one in which we found it, which is a very traditional as well as a contemporary aspiration, it is essential that we all engage and use all our energies to make this a successful plan. I realise that there may be scepticism. It is a lot of words, but there is a lot of action that we must all take, too.