Amendment 110

Part of Environment Bill - Committee (4th Day) – in the House of Lords at 5:15 pm on 30th June 2021.

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Photo of Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) 5:15 pm, 30th June 2021

I thank all noble Lords for their contributions to this important debate. This first definition of the natural environment is deliberately broad, and includes both the living, such as plants and wild animals, and non-living, such as land, air and water, elements of the environment. To be comprehensive, it also includes the natural systems, cycles and processes through which the elements of the natural environment interact. The difficulty is that if we were to add to the Bill matters already covered by the definition it would cast into doubt anything not specifically included. However, I hope that I can provide reassurance on all the points raised by noble Lords.

I agree with the intent behind Amendments 113A, 113C to 113E, 194AB and 194AC from the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley. Clearly, our environmental governance framework must protect the ecosystems that make up our natural environment. Clause 43 makes it clear that the systems, cycles and processes through which the elements listed in paragraphs (a) to (c) interact are a fundamental part of the natural environment. This definition therefore already includes ecosystems, as referenced in the Explanatory Notes at paragraph 371, page 59. Regarding Amendments 113C to 113E, as the Bill’s definition of environmental protection refers back to the definition of the natural environment, it is also not necessary to specifically mention ecosystems in Clause 44.

Regarding Amendments 110 and 112 from my noble friends Lord Caithness and Lord Randall respectively, the Government of course recognise the fundamental importance of healthy soils to a thriving natural environment. Both my noble friends made powerful cases. It may not be the most glamorous of environmental subjects, but it is impossible to exaggerate the importance of soil. I was struck by the teaspoon factory analogy from the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, which I have no doubt will stick with me.

I will make a couple of points. Outside of the Bill, a number of big levers are being introduced that will have a direct bearing on the health of our soil. A number of noble Lords mentioned the environmental land management system—a shift away from, in effect, subsidising the conversion of land to farmable land, no matter the value of that land beforehand, to a system where all payments are conditional on the delivery of public goods, such as restoration of the soil and good management generally of ecosystems.

In addition, our tree action plan is backed up by the £640 million Nature for Climate fund, a major part of which will be encouraging landowners, through very generous incentives, to either plant up or naturally regenerate land either side of England’s waterways, with a view to boosting the biodiversity value of these already biodiverse and valuable places, but also to slowing water and cleaning the water that eventually makes it into our waterways in numerous different magical ways. In addition, we have our peatland plan, which we will debate at another point.

My noble friend Lord Caithness asked me to answer his question about the research being conducted by Defra into soil reconstruction. Although I cannot give him a detailed answer now—I will ask my colleague, Rebecca Pow, to write to him with a proper answer—I can say that today we are publishing details of the first options under the sustainable farming incentive, which will be open to farmers eligible for the basic payment scheme. We have decided to start with soil health since, as so many noble Lords said, that is where everything connected with successful farming begins.

Regarding the Environmental Audit Committee report—I apologise, I cannot remember which noble Lord mentioned it—we are developing a healthy soils indicator, a soil structure monitoring method and a soil health monitoring scheme to help land managers and farmers track the health of our soils over time and the impact of some of the policies I just mentioned.

The definition of “natural environment” in Clause 43 already includes soil; Clause 43(c) includes “land”. As is clarified in paragraph 370 of the Bill’s Explanatory Notes, I can confirm that this already includes soils, as well as geological strata and other features. In any event, soils would also already be captured to the extent that they formed a habitat for plants, wild animals and other living organisms, as habitats are included regardless of their location.

I turn to Amendment 113, tabled by my noble friend Lady McIntosh. I completely agree that it is essential that the marine environment is included in the environmental governance provisions of the Bill. I was also struck by the palpable anger and sadness expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, in her very powerful speech as she described the effects of plastic pollution on the noble albatross. The noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, also expressed concerns—shared by most of the Committee, I suspect—about the devastating impacts of mindless bottom trawling. As she says, it is a bit like clear-felling rainforests; it is just not visible to most of us.

The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, has been around long enough to know that it is not Committee but rather Report that is the business end of legislation. I have said many times that I consider all input and all amendments to be fair game and valid, and I will be looking through them in great detail over the coming weeks. He asked that I demonstrate my seriousness on this issue, which is slightly annoying, I have to say. I have committed and devoted every day of my life as far back as I remember—since I was a five year-old—to the environment, and I will continue to do so. Being a Minister for the Environment is a mere step in that process. I might ask him to square his own suspiciously hollow laments about the stupidity of plastic waste with his daily insistence on wearing these absurd throwaway masks, which really are unforgivable, as far as I can see.

I reassure the Committee that the marine environment is already included in these provisions, as we have noted on pages 23 and 59 of the Explanatory Notes. The definition of the natural environment explicitly covers “water”, which includes seawater. It also covers “land”, which includes the seabed, intertidal zones and coastal floodplains. Any plant, wild animal, living organism or habitat is also included in the definition, irrespective of where it is located. The Bill therefore includes the marine environment within the definition.

My noble friend Lady McIntosh asked about the tensions between wind farms and the marine environment, which I think we discussed in a previous debate. She is right: there is undoubtedly a tension there. It is a concern that is very much shared by my colleague in the other place, Rebecca Pow, who is looking into this and talking to stakeholders, with a view to developing an answer. I am afraid I am not able to give an answer; I do not think there is one at this point, but I absolutely recognise the need for the Government to deliver one.

In Amendment 113B my noble friend Lord Caithness proposes a globally recognised definition of biodiversity from the Convention on Biological Diversity. Because the definition is necessarily broad, the risk is that it could be unhelpful to some of the specific measures in the Bill. For example, under the broad definition of the CBD, the exotic fauna of a new safari park could be argued to contribute to biodiversity net gain, despite doing very little to support local wildlife or ecology. So, where necessary, setting out definitions which are context-specific will help users fulfil their duties without ambiguity. That is why we have, for example, defined the actions which may be taken to further the biodiversity duty in Clause 95 without defining biodiversity itself.

On Amendments 194AB and 194AC, while I agree that we cannot enhance biodiversity without also enhancing the terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems in which it exists, I assure the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, that the biodiversity net gain approach does already take these into account. The biodiversity metric used for biodiversity net gain takes account of habitat quality by looking at a range of properties, such as plant communities and geology. The biodiversity gains resulting from these clauses will therefore be broad gains in ecosystems, not just gains in or for the charismatic and rare species which can dominate biodiversity discourse.

I hope I have answered the questions put to me today and provided some reassurance. I ask my noble friend to withdraw his amendment.