Amendment 110

Part of Environment Bill - Committee (4th Day) – in the House of Lords at 3:45 pm on 30th June 2021.

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Photo of The Earl of Caithness The Earl of Caithness Conservative 3:45 pm, 30th June 2021

My Lords, we change topics. We leave behind the OEP, important though that was, and move on to Chapter 3, “Interpretation of Part 1”, which is equally crucial to the success of the Bill. I am extremely grateful for the support for my Amendment 110 from my noble friend Lord Shrewsbury and the noble Baronesses, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb and Lady Bennett of Manor Castle.

Clause 43 relates to the meaning of “natural environment”. It begins by saying:

“In this Part the ‘natural environment’ means” and it lists various things, but there is a glaring loophole or error in the Bill because it misses out the soil. My Amendment 110 seeks to insert, after “habitats” in Clause 43(b), the words “including the soil”. Habitats depend totally on the soil. It was the 32nd President of the United States of America, Franklin Roosevelt, who wrote to all the state governors, after the terrible Dust Bowl there, that:

“A nation that destroys its soil destroys itself.”

The destruction of soil is a worldwide problem but it also affects the UK. Many countries in the world have the same problem. We have not looked after our soil in the way that we should and we are now paying the price for that.

The ability of our topsoil to support nature, food production and habitats for biodiversity is now seriously questioned. As my noble friend the Minister will know, there are now a limited number of harvests in East Anglia and the east side of England because of the loss of topsoil. Anybody who has looked at the pictures of the flooding in the West Country in the last few days will have seen how powerful water is when it rushes over the countryside. This was not in a farmer’s field, where the topsoil is loose, friable and ready to be washed away; it was in the middle of a town. The water pulled up tarmac and concrete, causing a huge amount of damage.

With our increasingly changing climate and the increasing frequency of heavy and severe downpours, it is therefore imperative that we look after our soil better than we have done. At the moment, we lose about 3 million tonnes of topsoil each year. No country can afford that, least of all a small island such as the United Kingdom. It is not just the loss of that topsoil which matters to the land; the effect of that topsoil is also felt in the riverine and estuarial habitats. There is an enormous loss of organic C—carbon—from the soil bank due to erosion.

Farming practices have not helped in this. This happened under the common agricultural policy, but I firmly believe that the future ELMS structure for farmers will help reduce the staggering loss of topsoil going on at the moment. It is not only in farmers’ fields. It happens when one clear fells forestry; there is always run-off from that, which causes huge problems for rivers, particularly on hilly ground, with blocked drains and with washing nutrients away. We start from the premise that a healthy soil is an economic asset. That is what we need to achieve and that is the point of this amendment: it puts it firmly in the Bill.

Before I go on, I would like to ask my noble friend the Minister a question. Could he update us on the research into the feasibility of reconstructed soil? Nature takes hundreds of years to produce topsoil and, even then, it needs to be weathered down to create the topsoil we take for granted now. I know research is going on in this area; could the Minister update us?

The 25-year environment plan aspires to sustainable management by 2030. I therefore wonder why the waste strategy for England ignores soil in its landfill sites. Up to 55% of landfill sites are soil, yet no account is being taken in the waste strategy of the problems this is causing throughout the country. It is also in contradiction to the environmental plan.

Many of your Lordships will recall that we managed to get soil inserted into the Agriculture Act when it was going through this House. I said at Second Reading that it is hugely important that the Environment Bill and the Agriculture Act tie up and correlate. If we have got soil in the Agriculture Act, we must have soil in this Bill. That is why I am moving Amendment 110.

I also have Amendment 113B in this group. This is a simple amendment and I am grateful to my noble friend the Minister for preparing it for me. That does not mean that he will accept it, but he certainly gave me the wording. It followed a discussion we had on the meaning of biodiversity earlier in Committee. He read out a meaning of biodiversity and it is important that that is in the Bill. I have used his exact words, so I hope he will able to accept it. I beg to move Amendment 110.