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Queen’s Speech - Debate (4th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:15 pm on 17th October 2019.

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Photo of Lord Bates Lord Bates Conservative 2:15 pm, 17th October 2019

My Lords, I welcome the contributions already made in this debate on the gracious Speech, most notably the excellent maiden speech of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bristol. I am going to focus on climate change. I can safely anticipate that the other eagerly awaited maiden speech—that of the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett—will touch on that subject as well. I thank my noble friend the Minister for leading us off in this debate so excellently.

The need to tackle and adapt to climate change is the most pressing of our times. It is the ultimate “we are all in this together” issue. It was Margaret Thatcher, as a scientist and a politician, who in 1988, in a speech to the Royal Academy, first set out her belief that:

“No generation has a freehold on this earth. All we have is a life tenancy—with a full repairing lease. This Government intends to meet the terms of that lease in full”.

We need to act and we are seeing that action happen. It is not fast enough for some and too fast for others, but we are acting and we are leading.

Since 1990, the UK has already reduced emissions by 42%, more than any other industrialised economy, while growing the economy by 72%, also more than any other industrialised economy. In 2010, coal made up 30.97% of the energy fuel source for power generation; now it is 5.4% and by 2025 it will be zero. In 2010, wind and solar accounted for 1.6% of energy fuel source, and now it is 20.52% and rising. I am proud of the leadership that this Government have shown on this issue through being the first major economy to commit in law to ending contributions to global warming by 2050. I am also pleased with the news today that the Prime Minister will chair a new climate change Cabinet committee to co-ordinate all those actions across government to ensure that net-zero targets are met. The Environment Bill will build upon those strong foundations.

However, I want to suggest some ways in which we could take a few steps further. It is not just about government; it is not just about legislators and scientists and business. Tackling climate change is not just a spectator sport: we are all players on this pitch. Our personal choices every day make a real difference. One of those choices is how we choose to travel and it is in this area where I believe there is greater scope for us to do more through promoting the benefits of walking.

Here I am delighted to say that I have some interests to declare and put on the record, most notably that I am the founder, with my wife Xuelin, of the Walk for Peace Foundation. Together, we have walked 9,189 miles in 25 countries over the past eight years. I also have the enormous privilege to be walking ambassador for the great county of Northumberland. In this regard only—I hope—I might be accused of being somewhat of an extremist. However, choosing to walk has a number of benefits. It improves air quality, reduces traffic congestion, reduces carbon emissions, reduces road casualties, reduces noise pollution, and improves social cohesion by creating safer places for more people. It is an aid to social mobility and the most inexpensive and accessible form of travel; it can often be the fastest way to travel on short journeys and it increases footfall on our high streets and in our local shopping areas.

The health benefits of walking are well proven. Long before the Chief Medical Officer encouraged us to walk 10 minutes a day, Hippocrates—2,500 years ago—declared that walking was “the best medicine”. It strengthens the heart, lowers blood sugar, boosts the body’s immune system, boosts energy, aids mental health, burns calories, eases joint pains, extends your life and improves your mood—none of which, I can safely say, can be said for car journeys. Yet, according to the National Travel Survey for England in 2018, car journeys account for 61% of travel journeys, while 27% of journeys are undertaken by walking, 5% by bus, 2% by rail, and 2% by cycling.

It is estimated that 44% of car trips are under two miles and could easily be undertaken by walking, yet the distance being walked is reducing, not increasing. In the mid-1980s, according to the National Travel Survey, the average person walked 244 miles per year; that has now fallen to 210 miles per year. Living Streets, which has done excellent work over many decades to promote walking, points out that, a generation ago, 70% of children walked to school—that figure is now less than 50%. We can all make a difference.

In her helpful letter to all Peers dated 15 October, the Secretary of State for the Environment, Theresa Villiers, stated that the Environment Bill and the 25-year environment plan,

“will enable us to take big steps towards delivering our goal that this is the first generation to leave the natural environment in better shape than we found it”.

This is a great prize to strive for, but can my noble friends the Ministers use their good offices to arrange for a meeting with the relevant Minister so that we can discuss how those big steps may be literal as well as metaphorical and how, together, we can better walk the talk in tackling climate change?