Moved by Baroness Hayman of Ullock
194C: After Clause 92, on the last line, after “significant” insert “and other major”Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment, alongside others to amendment 201A, extends the application of Biodiversity Net Gain to major infrastructure beyond the nationally significant infrastructure regime, to include projects consented through hybrid Bills and any future consent mechanisms.
My Lords, in moving Amendment 194C I shall speak also to Amendments 201AZA, 201AZB, 201AZC and 201AZD, in the name of my noble friend Lady Jones of Whitchurch, and Amendment 196, in the names of my noble friend Lady Jones of Whitchurch, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Parminter and Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, and the noble Lord, Lord Teverson. I also express my support for Amendment 198A, in the name of my noble friend Lady Young of Old Scone.
Clause 92 allows developers to purchase credits from the Secretary of State to satisfy biodiversity obligations imposed as a condition of planning permission. Revenues raised through the purchases are then used to create and improve nature sites. Our Amendment 194C would amend government Amendment 194B, introduced by the Minister, and is designed to enable a discussion around extending the application of biodiversity net gain to major infrastructure, beyond the nationally significant infrastructure regime, thereby including projects consented through hybrid Bills and any future consent mechanisms.
Currently, environmental considerations are too often considered a constraint in the planning system. A fundamental shift is required to enable the planning system to play a fuller part in nature’s recovery, protecting our finest wildlife sites and connecting them into a coherent network. We welcome the planning reforms proposed in Part 6, including the imposition of biodiversity gain as a condition of planning permission and the creation of local nature recovery strategies. Developers, planners and land managers will be mandated to leave biodiversity in a better state than before, and now government Amendment 194B and new Schedule 14A include biodiversity net gain for nationally significant infrastructure projects—NSIPs, as they are known.
Despite the explicit commitment in the 25-year environment plan that net gain would cover both housing and infrastructure, the Government’s amendment does not cover other major infrastructure projects granted outside NSIPs. This would include HS2 and major housing developments. I know the Government have given us assurances about HS2, but this kind of development will not be covered in legislation as it stands, and simple assurances are not good enough, either for this project or for those in the future.
The August 2020 planning White Paper proposed using development consent orders, DCOs, to give permission to large housing developments. It has also been suggested that such housing-focused DCOs could sit outside the NSIP regime, which could mean they are excluded from biodiversity net gain. Our Amendment 194C would extend the proposed legislation, so that the biodiversity net gain principle applies to all major infrastructure projects.
Amendments 201AZC and 201AZD would carry this widened scope through into new Schedule 14A. Amendments 201AZA and 201AZB would ensure that biodiversity net gain applied to non-NSIP major infrastructure projects, to keep to key commitments; namely, the compulsory use of a biodiversity metric and the maintenance of biodiversity gains in perpetuity. It is vital that funds raised from the biodiversity credits system are used to deliver meaningful biodiversity net gain in a timely way, and that these are maintained in perpetuity. The time-limited nature of biodiversity net gain as proposed in the Bill is a significant flaw. Concerns have been raised that developers may be more likely to turn to biodiversity credits rather than local biodiversity gain for a project. This would result in local communities losing out. Developers need to fund habitats over the long term and maintain them, otherwise they simply will not thrive.
Under Schedule 14, habitats delivered through biodiversity net gain could be ploughed up or degraded after 30 years. This would destroy any ecological gains and carbon storage benefits. This goes against the grain of ecological best practice, which emphasises the need to let nature recover for the long term. Habitat restoration projects now often have end dates a century or more away. A requirement to maintain a habitat for only 30 years undermines the intention of compensation for habitat destruction. The lifetime of developments covered by net gain is likely to be much longer than 30 years, and land use changes are likely to be more permanent, so the compensatory habitat should be permanent too.
“long-lasting benefit to wildlife and communities”.—[
However, she did not support a requirement for habitats to be maintained in perpetuity, claiming that a requirement to maintain them for longer than 30 years could reduce the amount of land available to host such habitats, due to some land ownership being time limited and to landowners being reluctant to maintain sites in perpetuity. This argument does not seem particularly convincing and, to me, makes the whole approach look completely half-hearted. If land can be found and agreements reached to maintain buildings on it in perpetuity, as is the case with most development, so too can land be found and agreements reached to maintain biodiversity net gain habitats in perpetuity. If we do not do so, ultimately we could end up with overall losses.
This view has also recently been endorsed by the Environmental Audit Committee. In its Biodiversity in the UK: Bloom or Bust? report published on
“Nature recovery does not happen overnight and must be maintained and built upon for generations. The proposed 30 year minimum to maintain biodiversity net gains will achieve little in terms of delivering long-lasting nature recovery.”
Our Amendments 196, 201AZA and 201AZB address this concern and would ensure that habitats created under net gain would be secured in perpetuity. I ask the Minister to take our concerns about this seriously.
My Lords, I declare my interests as on the register. It was an absolute pleasure to hear my noble friend introduce this vital new clause, which is quite superb. It is also amazing to hear that he has accepted every recommendation of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, which I am privileged to chair. I think, in all my time in the House, I have never known a Minister or a department accept every single recommendation. I have already said to another very big, powerful government department that if it wants to see how to do delegated powers properly, it should look at the Defra Delegated Powers Memorandum and see the way in which it has drafted a very large Bill, in eight parts, covering an awful lot of delegated powers, and done so with proper parliamentary scrutiny. I commend that to every other department.
Officially, I shall speak to Amendments 200 and 201 on biodiversity net gain—or nature net gain, as I would love to have it called—and to support my noble friend the Minister and his wonderful, large new clause. As someone who passionately believes in recovering our nature, I consider this to be one of the most important clauses in the Bill. When we add up the clauses on biodiversity targets, local nature recovery strategies, species conservation targets and now 10% minimum net gain, this is the greatest step forward this country has ever taken to bend the curve of nature loss and begin full-scale nature recovery. The only principal differences between my noble friend’s amendments and mine are that mine attempt to apply biodiversity net gain to the first two legs of HS2 and the Minister’s amendments are much longer with a lot of detail—that always makes me slightly suspicious, of course. However, my noble friend has pulled off an absolute blinder in getting other departments to agree to extend net gain to all national strategic infrastructure projects.
A few months ago, I and others made the case in this Chamber that 10% net gain be extended to HS— the Birmingham to Crewe leg—but that was resisted by the DfT. To be fair, the excellent Transport Minister in the other place, Andrew Stephenson MP, has been pressing HS2 to go further than “no net loss”—the current policy—and it seems to be moving in that direction. I want the Government to make sure that HS2 follows up on the welcome aspiration of a commitment to BNG.
I hope that will not be a watered-down version of net gain—it should be open, transparent and open to scrutiny. Net gain should be net gain, whether its supported by legislation or not. While we in this Committee may be urging my noble friend to go faster or do more, we must acknowledge that he and Defra have persuaded the Treasury, BEIS and DfT to accept 10% biodiversity net gain for all national strategic infrastructure projects. Quite frankly, that is an astonishing achievement and I did not expect to see it. It is important that NSIPs can and should deliver BNG to at least the same standards as those expected for other developments.
I welcome the reference to NSIPs having access to the statutory biodiversity credits scheme in the case of market failure. Natural England is currently developing this credits scheme. I like how BNG is to be embedded within national policy statements through biodiversity net gain statements and that there are mechanisms to be put in place for those sectors where the NSIPs have yet to be updated or where there is no national policy statements. I consider that this will allow for sufficient flexibility to allow biodiversity net gain to be tailored to any sector requirements if and where needed.
I am delighted to see it also extended to marine. That issue is contained in my amendments and I thought that I would have to argue the case for it. All I need to do instead is say, “Well done, Minister.”
That is enough praise—now for a few little queries. As I said at the beginning, I am always suspicious when we get a massive new clause to deal with what is really a simple matter of amending the schedule. First, I note that the amendment allows for developments to be excluded from this requirement by the Secretary of State. I cannot see grounds for granting such an exclusion and would not wish to see it enacted. However, I suspect that it is perhaps one of those safeguards Defra had to offer in order to get the other departments to sign up to BNG in the first place. I hope that it is merely a comfort blanket for the Treasury.
I hope that the requirement for NSIP net gain will be the same as for TCPA schemes. I would like to be reassured on this. Also, there is no commitment to a minimum period in which the biodiversity net gain must be secured on or off-site in the legislation. TCPA schemes are required to legally secure biodiversity net gain for a minimum of 30 years. I would expect NSIP schemes to secure outcomes for at least the same period, if not longer. Will my noble friend assure me that this omission is simply because the Government expect these schemes to last for evermore and thus a 30-year requirement is not necessary? I cannot imagine that in 30 years’ time any Government would consent to NSIP net gain schemes being ploughed up. Of course, the better guarantee of schemes lasting more than 30 years is conservation covenants—an excellent innovation in the Bill that we will come to in due course.
I note that there is reference to the use of alternative metrics other than the one developed by Natural England, metric 3.0, for use by TCPA developments. I can see no reason why NSIPs should not use the same metric. Any alternative metrics developed would mean that one NSIP’s 10% BNG would not necessarily be comparable with another’s. The current version of this metric is in use by major infrastructure delivery bodies such as Network Rail, Highways England, National Grid, et cetera. Of course, as my noble friend has said, no metric currently exists for marine developments; these will require a specific approach to be agreed on, and then some statutory instruments made in due course. It is a complicated area; it is better we get it right than rush it.
Finally, I note that there is no requirement for land delivering NSIPs’ biodiversity net gain to be registered on the national net-gain register developed for TCPA schemes. As I understand it, the statement by the developers must set out the gain to be achieved and how it is to be recorded. If they do not use the same register as the TCPA then, even if they are publicly available elsewhere, that is an unnecessary hassle. I would expect to see all terrestrial and intertidal NSIPs using the national net-gain register. There is nothing about the design of that register that would preclude its usage by such NSIP schemes. Furthermore, as quasi-government-funded projects, I cannot see an argument why there should be any reason why an NSIP should not see its net gain registered in a public and transparent manner in the same way that we expect private developments to be. NSIPs and TCPA schemes will both be engaging in the same net-gain market and it is critical that each is held to the same high standards that having net gains registered on the national register will provide for.
The only exception I can see to the above is an argument possibly requiring a different mechanism for marine NSIPs. At present, the register has been designed for terrestrial and intertidal schemes, and it does not cover sub-tidal. However, as soon as there is greater clarity about the nature of marine net-gain schemes I think that Defra and Natural England can discuss how the register could be adapted, and what resources would be needed to allow it to accommodate marine net gain.
With these technical queries—and they are technical queries. not criticisms—I am delighted to support this excellent new clause. I reiterate that it is an incredible achievement for my noble friend and Defra to get BNG for national infrastructure projects, and get every other department, including the Treasury, to sign up to it. I will be happy to accept my noble friend’s amendment.
My Lords, in following the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, it is a particular pleasure to commend his Amendment 201, also backed by the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, although my perspective on it is a little different. This is potentially one of the most important amendments that has been tabled. If we are to see biodiversity net gain actually survive and thrive, we should look at the last paragraph of the lines that would be left out by Amendment 201:
“Paragraph 13 does not apply in relation to … development of such other description as the Secretary of State may by regulations specify.”
That is a get-out clause for the Government. The noble Lord, Lord Blencathra—perhaps being very charitable and coming from a slightly different political perspective —said, “This is perhaps just a comfort blanket for the Treasury.” I think it is a get-out-of-jail-free card that simply cannot be allowed to remain in the Bill. That is absolutely crucial.
This is a very long list of amendments, and amendments to amendments, so the easiest way of approaching it might be to run through them chronologically. I am happy to commend all the amendments in this group, including the government amendments. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, that the Minister can be proud of the additions that are here. This is a very clear sign that campaigning works: we know that a great many NGOs, campaign groups, individuals and Members of your Lordships’ House have been working very hard to ensure that biodiversity net gain covers our nationally significant infrastructure projects. There is real progress in government Amendment 194B. However, the number of amendments shows how much that still needs to be strengthened.
Running through some of the most significant of those, and those to which I have added my name or tabled myself, I begin with Amendment 196 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, also signed by the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, and myself. Obviously,
“maintained for at least 30 years” is grossly inadequately in the kind of circumstances that we are talking about. As noble Lords have already said, the destruction is going to effectively be permanent. If we are seeing replacement structures and natural conditions put in, they have to continue indefinitely. Thirty years, in terms of nature, is merely a blink of an eye.
Amendments 198 and 199, both of which appear in my name—also kindly backed by the noble Lord, Lord Teverson—seek to ensure that what is done in securing biodiversity gain continues. Amendment 198 refers to
“proof that sufficient funds have been allocated to implement the plan in full, including contingencies.”
As the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, was referring to HS2, I was thinking about some horrific case studies associated with that from a couple of years ago. We saw trees—little saplings that were planted as part of HS2 offsetting plans in a very dry, hot year—left to die because it was cheaper to do that and replant them than to water them. That really is a demonstration of the way in which externalised costs and the need to ensure that biodiversity is allowed to establish and thrive have to be built into the Bill. Ensuring that the money is there is not going to guarantee that totally, but at least it is a start.
Amendment 199 strengthens the argument on sufficient funds. Of course, we know that many developers of all kinds of projects go broke. They undergo restructuring; they mysteriously disappear into offshore entities that are impossible to trace, and ownership is impossible to trace. We need to ensure that the funding for any biodiversity net gain is fully provided.
Amendment 201AB on monitoring is particularly important, and I commend those who identified the issue. It requires that an independent body be established to check the reality of biodiversity gain. Reading this, I was thinking about the practical reality of the huge issue we have with building standards, and the fact that we know that most of the buildings constructed in the UK now do not even meet our inadequate standards to which they are supposed to be built when they are actually put to the test. That is very often under a self-certification scheme. It is absolutely crucial that we have genuinely independent verification of this gain being made.
I wrote “Yes, yes, yes” on my papers for Amendment 201D in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake. It provides that if payments are being made for habitat enhancement, rather than going to central government they should go to local authorities. Again, we can think of an example in terms of current planning regulations: what used to be the old Section 106 is now the community infrastructure levy. We know that there is a huge problem where funds might be allocated a very considerable distance from where damage is being done. Decisions for this should not be made centrally in Westminster. They should be made locally, meeting local priorities, so that is a hugely important amendment.
This is real progress: it is a real sign that campaigning works and that work in your Lordships’ House does make a difference, but we still clearly have a lot of work to do in this area. The Government are going to get a very clear message,, looking at the size and length of this list of amendments that noble Lords are very passionate about making this part of the Bill the best that it can be.
My Lords, making biodiversity net gain a mandatory requirement for most development is a good thing, though it will need several safeguards. Extending the net gain provision to nationally significant infrastructure is welcome, and I congratulate the Minister on that amendment. However, I believe that we need Amendment 194C in the name of my noble friend Lady Jones of Whitchurch, to also include major infrastructure projects consented in other ways, including hybrid Bills, Transport and Works Act orders and whatever the new consenting mechanisms are that the Government invent in the new planning Bill. It is a pity that we have not yet seen the proposals arising from the consultation on planning. Can the Minister give us an indication of when we will see the Government’s proposals for planning? It would be extremely disappointing if major projects such as HS2 and East West Rail were not required to deliver biodiversity net gain.
I know that, latterly, HS2 has opted voluntarily to deliver biodiversity net gain on some of its later sections, if you can call being frog-marched into this by the NGOs, local protest groups and the Government a voluntary agreement. These big government-sponsored, taxpayer-supported and highly controversial projects should be like Pharaoh’s wife and be obligated to deliver the highest standards of biodiversity net gain. Of course, HS2 can never deliver biodiversity net gain as long as it is damaging ancient woodland, which is an irreplaceable habitat and therefore represents an irreplaceable biodiversity loss.
The Minister kindly wrote to noble Lords last week about HS2 in response to issues raised by the noble Lord, Lord Framlingham. His letter, alas, fuelled my concerns about the potential misuse of the term “biodiversity net gain.” He indicated that HS2 phase 2b—Crewe to Manchester—would deliver biodiversity net gain, but he then went on to say that, because ancient woodland could not be replaced, it would simply be out of the scope of the net gain objective for HS2. Therefore, HS2 will be able to boast publicly of being a net gain project, while still being the single biggest cause of damage to our declining and irreplaceable ancient woodland. This is, frankly, misleading if not mendacious. Defra, we understand, is planning a consultation, expected to start this summer, on the development of regulations and guidance on irreplaceable habitats. Can the Minister assure the House that the regulations and guidance will not allow projects that are, in reality, not delivering net gain to portray themselves as net gain projects?
Biodiversity net gain needs other safeguards. Amendment 198A in my name would make sure that existing and possibly long-standing nature sites and habitats were not simply regarded as tradeable for newly created sites elsewhere—as the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, said, possibly quite far elsewhere—under the net gain provisions. My amendment would ensure that the mitigation hierarchy had been followed. I am sure that noble Lords read the mitigation hierarchy every night before they go to bed, but I shall explain.
The mitigation hierarchy is part of the National Planning Policy Framework and outlines a set of principles that local planning authorities should work through in determining whether to approve a planning application impacting on biodiversity. It is a sort of stepwise, catechism approach. First, developers would be asked to seek to avoid impacts on biodiversity and, if that was not possible, to minimise them and then take onsite measures to rehabilitate or restore biodiversity, before finally resorting to offsetting residual, unavoidable impacts offsite. Can the Minister assure the Committee that the mitigation hierarchy will remain a requirement of the planning system and that there will be sufficient safeguards to ensure that offsite net gain is a last, not a first, resort under the net gain and planning provisions? It is on both the net gain and the changes in the planning system that the Minister needs to assure us.
A further strengthening of the net gain provisions is required. This is pointed out by my noble friend Lady Jones of Whitchurch, supported by the noble Baronesses, Lady Parminter and Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, and the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, in Amendments 196 and 201AZB. They would require habitats created under net gain to be maintained in perpetuity rather than only for 30 years. Previous speakers have debated this. The reality is that some created habitats will only just get going in 30 years; they certainly will not have reached the richness, complexity and resilience of long-standing habitats. The Government’s carbon scheme requires woodland sites created for carbon storage to persist for 100 years, so if it is possible to get that sort of longevity for a site despite changes of hands and ownership and the length of the policy, why can we not do it for biodiversity net gain?
We must not get into the crazy position that arose in south Wales with the extension of the M5 over the sensitive wetland sites in the Gwent Levels. Compensation habitat was created but, when the M4 relief road proposals came forward 20 years later, they planned to go straight through the compensation habitat. Mercifully, the Welsh Government reacted magnificently and rejected the plans. We do not want serial decimation of net gain habitat. Can the Minister assure the Committee that habitat created in the interests of net gain will not be allowed to disappear after 30 years? Will he accept the amendment in the name of my noble friend Lady Jones of Whitchurch?
My Lords, I have four amendments in this group. Amendment 201AA is about setting standards for the quality and content of information about biodiversity gain. This is an area where there are currently considerable problems. You are supposed to be able to get an expert to judge, for instance, the quality of a grassland. If you ask four different experts, you will probably get four different answers. There are no standards. There are no benchmarks.
Since we are moving to a situation of knowing what quality we are starting with and what quality we wish to end up with, we have to do this in a way that is measurable and verifiable. Therefore, I am keen that the Government should set objective and usable standards and have them in public so that people can refer to them and argue with them at the time when planning permission is being discussed and so that, 20 years down the road, we can judge whether what has been agreed is being maintained and do so consistently without having to wish for the luck of having chosen the right expert. In this context, I am keen that the state of a particular environment should be judged in the right season. It is obviously impossible in January to know what the quality of a particular bit of chalk grassland is; it has to be judged at a time of year when the plants and insects are in evidence.
Amendment 201AB is about how biodiversity gain should be audited. If we are to require something to be kept going for 30 years, somebody has to keep an eye on it. If we want that to happen, we have to provide the funds up front so that it can. I am not at all clear how the Government envisage an obligation to maintain a site being checked up on in practice.
Amendment 201AC comes back to a subject discussed previously by the noble Baronesses, Lady Young of Old Scone and Lady Bennett of Manor Castle: how we secure that these obligations are enforceable in practice. To my mind, the obligations have to stick to the land. It has to be something that is enforceable against whoever owns the land at that particular time, whether that be a freeholder or a leaseholder, so that there is always somebody with sufficient interest that they will notice that they have to do something, be aware of the consequences of a notice to improve and take action. I cannot see anything in the current arrangement that will make sure that biodiversity gain sites, particularly those that are part of the land being developed—that is, small local sites, which are not part of major biodiversity gain trading sites but little local things tucked away that will be hard to notice—are kept going. We need something that will do that. I hope that somewhere in the Bill is a requirement that biodiversity gain on those sorts of local sites should be congruent with the local nature recovery strategy. I have missed that; I have not tabled an amendment about it, but I would love to have the Minister confirm to me that that will be the case.
I very much support what has been said about making biodiversity gain exist in perpetuity. I do not think of it as unchangeable but, if something happens that damages that gain, the system should swing into action again and the person doing the damage should be required to provide additional gain elsewhere or on the same site in much the same way as if they were doing an original development. I cannot see the point in things ending in 30 years. It is pointless. It is not what we are talking about; we are talking about changing things for ever, so let us say that.
I know that my noble friend the Minister has been sent a copy of a paper by my honourable friend Bim Afolami; I hope that he will find the opportunity, now or in correspondence, to comment on it. Mr Afolami is concerned that the Government’s plans for introducing biodiversity gain are much too slow and that opportunity should be given to those authorities that want to move faster to get going straightaway. Not everyone will be in a position to do that, but some of us will be ready. I do not see the point in holding back for two years just because not everything is ready. If the Government let those of us who are ready move early, a lot will be learned from our experience that can then be built into the procedure that opens up for everybody after the initial two years.
In particular, to pick up on an amendment which we will not see, because it went down too late, from my noble friend Lord Ridley and myself, I think there is a lot to be said for enabling—authorising—the automated creation of biodiversity gain statements and suggestions for small developers. If we do not do something to really help small developers, they will be hit by very large costs relative to the size of the development in getting a biodiversity gain statement together. We need to make it easier for them, but if we are making it easy for them, we need quality, and I think the suggestions in my right honourable friend’s letter address that. I hope the Minister will be able to reassure us that small sites will not end up being low quality or we will not end up deterring small builders by imposing on them obligations which are not proportionate to the size of their development.
Other than that, as noble Lords will have guessed, I very much support what my noble friend Lord Blencathra said about openness. The way in which this is going to happen without a lot of corruption is if we enable local people to know what should be happening, what standards are expected, and to do something about it if they are not met.
The noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, is not here, so I call the next speaker, the noble Earl, Lord Devon.
My Lords, it is a regret that we have to group so many important amendments together due to the shortness of time and the Government’s self-imposed deadline of November for the passage of this Bill. This group of amendments raises a lot of very interesting issues, particularly the Government’s well-received extension of biodiversity net gain to nationally significant infrastructure projects, of which I too am greatly supportive.
I am equally sympathetic to the suggestion from the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, to extend biodiversity net gain requirements to other major infrastructure projects. I note, however, that the detail of how the Government’s extension of biodiversity net gain is to be delivered remains to be worked out. It does not appear that we will know details of that for some time, so we are legislating once again in something of a vacuum.
I raised this issue of uncertainty at Second Reading and was not afforded a clear response. It would be helpful if the Minister were able to explain in his response the impact he expects his amendment to have on land use within England. How much land will be required to offset biodiversity loss by nationally significant infrastructure projects, for example, in the 10 years from 2025? It will also be interesting to know how much land the Secretary of State will require to deliver the biodiversity credits to be made available under Clause 94, particularly subsection (6)(b).
The reason why this is relevant is that we have an ever-increasing demand on land use from rewilding and wildlife corridors to trees, species abundance, nature recovery and conservation strategies—the three tiers of environmental land management—as well as surging demand for housing and renewable energy, including biomass, all of which sit alongside the basic and ever-increasing needs to feed the nation on healthy and nutritious food without further degrading our environment. I am concerned that we are layering worthy environmental ambition upon ambition with the view to parading some world-leading ecological credentials to COP 26, but without giving enough thought to how we practically will deliver these targets with the very limited amount of land within our beloved island.
As to specifics, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, in welcoming the application of biodiversity net gain to the marine environment. This is of particular interest to the south-west of England, which offers such prospects for large-scale offshore ecosystem services, including wind, tide and wave energy, together with considerable natural capital assets within our inshore waters, foreshores and estuaries.
I would resist the efforts of the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, to introduce a perpetuity requirement to biodiversity gains. Perpetuity is a very long time and, given the pressure on land use, of which I have already spoken, we will do ourselves no favours to be tying up particular areas of land with well-intentioned obligations born at the beginning of the 21st century, when we transparently still know so little about what we need to achieve and the means by which we will get there. The only thing we can be confident about now is how little we know of the wondrous workings of nature. We should not commit ourselves to perpetual land use policies now. Rather, we will, as the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, noted, need the flexibility of properly drafted conservation covenants, one hopes executed by deed, to which we will return in the coming days.
Finally, as always, the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, proposes a series of helpful and clarificatory amendments to Clause 93. I hope that the Minister will consider adopting them on Report. Measurable standards are going to be key to the success of biodiversity net gain.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Earl, Lord Devon, although I am not entirely in sympathy with what he said about Amendment 196 in the name of the noble Baronesses, Lady Jones of Whitchurch and Lady Parminter, among others. I wish to say something in support of that amendment and say a word or two about Amendment 197 of the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, about high-speed rail lines, which raises an interesting issue.
First, on Amendment 196, the condition referred to in paragraph 9(3) of Schedule 14, which requires the habitat to be
“maintained for at least 30 years,” seems rather half-hearted, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, said in her very able introduction to this amendment. We are dealing here with works that the planning authority considers will result in an increase in the pre-development biodiversity value of the habitat, which is significant. Works of the kind that are being contemplated here require to be designed and planned for, as well as maintained. The period for which they are likely to be maintained is bound to affect the design and quality of the works and the effort that has been put into them.
What we should aim for is really long-term improvements to replace the huge loss of habitats. In many cases, the features we most value—such as ancient woodlands, which the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, has been talking about so much with my support—have been built up to their present state over centuries. When I refer to ancient woodlands, I have in mind what is to be seen at ground level, as well as the trees. I am thinking about the quantities of mosses and flowers, such as the wood anemone and wild hyacinth, which grace our woodlands and, where lost, will take many decades to recreate. Thirty years is far too short to achieve that. Maybe perpetuity is too long, but the present formulation in the Bill seems not only half-hearted but misguided.
Amendment 197 of the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, would require the submission of a biodiversity gain plan as a condition of planning permission for the HS2 lines from London to West Midlands and from West Midlands to Crewe, and for the proposed extension from Crewe to Manchester. I very much welcome the opportunity that this amendment has provided for us to discuss how net gain can be applied to projects such as these, including the proposed extension from Crewe to Manchester, which offers an opportunity for this matter to be taken forward.
I am in sympathy with the application of the net gain principle, and, like the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, I am delighted with the amendment the Government are bringing forward to introduce a scheme for dealing with significant infrastructure projects. But to apply the condition that he is looking for to the two lines that already exist would almost certainly be unworkable at this stage, as these lines both already have the benefit of deemed planning permission under the relevant hybrid Bills. Furthermore, the extent of the land to be taken has been settled—taken compulsorily, I should stress, from the landowners.
The possibility of applying that to the proposed extension is a different matter. I am sure that the Minister will correct me if I am wrong, but my understanding of his very lengthy amendments is that they would not extend to the proposed HS2 line for the rather technical reason that permission for it will not be given under the Planning Acts, which are what the amendment is directed at, but under the hybrid Bill legislation, under which the two existing lines received their planning permission. That is a technical reason but unless the schedule is extended, as proposed in Amendment 194C, to other projects beyond those mentioned and dealt with under the Planning Acts, I do not see how the proposed line can be covered.
I should like to say a little more about that because I was the chairman of the Select Committee on the High Speed Rail (West Midland-Crewe) Bill. As part of my background reading, I had to study the report of the Select Committee on the High Speed Rail (London-West Midlands) Bill, chaired by Lord Walker of Gestingthorpe. The issue of net gain came up in both cases and one can trace through the development of those various lines a development in the approach to the issue being taken by HS2 as to whether net gain should be and could be achieved. In both cases, the promoter set itself at the outset the aim of achieving no net loss of diversity. In both cases, this attracted criticism from, among others, the Royal Society of Wildlife Trusts and the Woodland Trust.
The objection before Lord Walker’s committee was that the system of measurement that the promoter planned to adopt to achieve no net loss was different from the biodiversity-offsetting metric adopted by Defra for use by local planning authorities. At the committee’s request, Natural England looked into the issue and provided a report. The committee heard evidence from the trusts and others; it regarded the Defra metric as sensible for relatively small developments but said that it was not appropriate for use in the case of large linear projects such as the HS2 lines. The reference to linear projects is worth bearing in mind because in the case of those lines, one is dealing with projects that pass through areas of several local planning authorities and it is not so easy for planning conditions to be applied under and discussed with various authorities. Anyway, in that case, the issue of net gain was not pursued.
When the issue came before my committee three years later, the argument had developed beyond comparing the two approaches to offsetting. The Royal Society of Wildlife Trusts asked for a clause to be added to our Bill to require HS2 to ensure a net gain in biodiversity in perpetuity—note the words “in perpetuity”—with appropriate funding, in place of the promoter’s commitment to no net loss. The aim was to achieve biodiversity gains in the detailed design and implementation of the scheme.
However, the promoter pointed out that net gain could not be guaranteed without further purchase of land beyond the Bill limits, and that is one reason why I do not think that the Minister’s amendment relating to the two existing lines can be made to work. We considered that it would not be appropriate to require landowners, particularly farmers who were giving up so much of their land for the line, to be required to give up more land that was already proposed in order to provide for net gain. However, we secured an assurance from HS2 that it would do everything practicable to achieve net gain in the detailed design of the project within the Bill limits. Furthermore, HS2 was funding a scheme—a £2 million biodiversity fund—that would enable biodiversity to be provided outside the Bill limits by other landowners who were willing voluntarily to provide the kind of land needed for biodiversity gain to be achieved.
The present state of play, as I understand it, is that HS2 is now committed to doing the best it can within what is reasonably practicable to achieve net gain in the case of both the existing lines for which permission has already been given. As for the future position, as I understand it, the Government’s amendment will not apply. There is a problem in the new line in that, to provide no net gain within a hybrid Bill scheme, which is what will be proposed, a great deal of attention will have to be given to the extent of the land to be acquired for the line to proceed with that benefit. That matter has to be left to others to solve rather than by amendments to the Bill.
I am sure the Minister will correct me if I have misunderstood the position. I absolutely sympathise with what the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, seeks to achieve but there are practical problems in the case of these projects, which have to be addressed by other means.
My Lords, I draw your Lordships’ attention to my interests as set out in the register, specifically with the Church Commissioners—a significant owner of agricultural and development land. On matters of climate change, we are a leading edge and an awarding-winning investor, yet the Bill reminds us that climate is only part of the story.
I support Amendments 196, 198 and 199. I am grateful for the speech of the noble Baronesses, Lady Hayman of Ullock and Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, the noble and learned Lord, Hope, and others, who convincingly made the points that net gain must not be subject to time limits and must be adequately funded.
Back in my days as a parish priest, one church in my care had a notice in its vestry which read: “Please leave this room a little cleaner and tidier than you found it.” That was, in its small way, an attempt at net gain. The Bill offers a golden opportunity to apply that philosophy on a far wider scale. My little village church was an early adopter of a national church programme to increase biodiversity. Churchyards form a refuge from the built environment in urban areas and intensive agriculture in more rural surroundings. Setting aside an area of sanctuary in God’s acre enables wildflowers to re-emerge and small creatures to find a home. Yet churchyards are able to play this role precisely because they benefit from stable stewardship over a term far longer than a mere 30 years. Net gain cannot have a cut-off date. I am grateful to the Minister for his amendment today to extend that net gain requirement to some major national infrastructure projects. In supporting that, I echo the calls of the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, and others in seeking assurances that net gain here will also be robust and long lasting.
With a suitable offsetting regime in place, where gain cannot practically be achieved on site, local churches will stand at the forefront of those ready to step in. In doing so, we will be enhancing the work to which we have been long committed, both theologically and practically.
My Lords, the Bill is systematically revising so many aspects of the environment where former approaches have been lacking. A large slice of the area where noble Lords have been discussing improvement is in basically rural issues. I have declared my interests as a livestock farmer.
The Government have laid out their framework for dealing with overall environmental issues in Clauses 1 to 19—their targets, reviews and renewal plans and what they term their environmental principles. Do we reckon to approach people with a carrot or a stick? In my last intervention I quoted a phrase from Gulliver’s Travels about increasing the blades of grass from one to two, which gave a positive spin to an environmental principle and a vision for people to work towards.
In trying to invent something similar in its phraseology, I will borrow a phrase from Bob Geldof and say we are now asking as many people as possible to enlist to feed the world holistically, in terms of its air, water, biodiversity and people. By this, we could earn the thanks of future generations. There might be a catchier way of expressing it, but many feel that this is the sort of thing they should make an effort to achieve, even if we differ in our views of how to achieve it. The mountain in front of us is to learn to change the motives of countryside managers. That is the best guarantee of the permanence we are looking for.
This group of amendments focuses on biodiversity gain as a condition of planning permission. I listened with much interest to the Minister giving some clarification of what it intends to achieve for national strategic infrastructure projects. His Amendment 201A, at a quick glance, appears to be asking for the ultimate Henry VIII measure; it is almost saying that we do not know the detail of what we want to achieve, but want all the powers that might be necessary to achieve it. This echoes what those with responsibility in rural areas are feeling; we do not yet know what new support systems will achieve. But there is a critical difference in their case, as it comes without any power to change the terms other than as the Bill allows.
It is still possible that all agriculture will achieve some biodiversity once reliance is placed on crop rotations and restoring natural fertility. Can the Minister clarify, first, whether there will be some guidance on what level must be reached before land is considered suitable for biodiversity off-setting? In the same context, will assisting the achievement of biodiversity gain on a remote site be regarded as equal to a gain within the boundary of a significant site?
We are embarking on an unquantifiable change in the countryside. As farmers, we know that Mother Nature will respond, but with what? We cannot tell what the final outcome will be to it all. There will always be some looking to achieve a viable enterprise from the land, and we may have to adapt. That is where I cannot support Amendments 196 and 201AZB put forward by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock. She feels that 30 years is not long enough, and perhaps we all feel uneasy leaving some of this entirely in the hands of the Secretary of State. Would it make any difference to their position if the stipulation was 50 years? I heard the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, talk about 100 years.
I was looking forward to supporting Amendment 200 in the name of my noble friend Lord Blencathra, but I gather that this is unnecessary because the Government have decided to accept it and all its implications. The only thing in my mind is whether it would be better to introduce the marine element to the main section of the Bill, as is proposed in a later group by the noble Lord, Lord Teverson. Would it still be necessary to mention “marine environment” in this section? I look forward to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I support Amendment 196 in the names of the noble Baronesses, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, Lady Parminter and Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, and the noble Lord, Lord Teverson. I also support other amendments in this group, which I will mention when I come to them.
I join other noble Lords in welcoming government Amendment 194B and the new Schedule 14A, which will include nationally significant infrastructure projects in biodiversity net gain. In this context, I also support Amendment 194C, which aims to close a potential loophole by including other major infrastructure projects, such as those concentred under a hybrid Bill procedure, in the net-gain requirement.
Amendment 196, as we have heard, seeks to remove the 30-year time limit for off-site compensatory habitat under biodiversity net gain. Many Peers have spoken eloquently in support of this change, although some have said that “in perpetuity” may be too long. So there may be a debate to be had: if not 30 years, how long should it be? Still, it should certainly be for much longer than 30 years.
The Government’s argument for the 30-year limit appears to be that landowners may be reluctant to maintain habitats and lock up land in perpetuity. However, if the aim is to protect nature for future generations, it is crucial for net-gain projects to have a longevity of greater than one generation. Furthermore, the development projects that net gain seeks to off-set will often certainly last much longer than 30 years, as the noble Baronesses, Lady Bennett and Lady Hayman of Ullock, mentioned. If a habitat created to compensate for damage by a development can simply be ploughed up after 30 years while the damaging development is left standing, we will not be passing on a guarantee of nature in better condition to the next generation. This is not damage avoided but damage deferred—an asymmetry that punishes nature.
As it stands, the Bill creates a carousel of land-use changes where landowners are paid to off-set environmental harm for a while before turning the land over to some other use. Instead we need lasting habitat that will genuinely help to create a nature recovery network, even if the result is fewer parcels of habitat for sale; that is the price of restoring nature. As the noble Earl, Lord Devon, rightly pointed out, we have to make hard choices about land use.
Furthermore, as others have pointed out, the creation of new habitats and the arrival of new species can often be a long, slow process. We have already heard several examples, to which I add my local RSPB reserve on Otmoor, near Oxford. It was established in 1997 by converting farmland into wetland, and it is still attracting additional new species of birds each year. A limit on the time horizon of net-gain projects will add to concerns already raised by ecologists at the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology at the University of Kent, who found in a recent report that net gain is leading to large losses of green open space, off-set by the promise of better-quality habitats at an uncertain time in the future. They also found that 95% of the off-setting projects produced small disjointed areas of habitat rather than following the principles of
“more, bigger, better, more joined-up” proposed by Sir John Lawton.
Given the shortcomings already identified in the operation of net gain, surely the opportunity in this Bill is to strengthen the protection of nature where we can, including by lifting the 30-year restriction. In other jurisdictions, such as the United States and Australia, off-sets are required to last either as long as the development itself or for perpetuity. If the Government are serious about creating real gains for nature from development then those gains need to be lasting.
Amendment 198A in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, seems a no-brainer. Just as we have a waste hierarchy, we should surely have a biodiversity hierarchy: do not do harm, minimise harm and, lastly, compensate for harm.
In conclusion, the onus is on the Minister to explain to us why the perfectly sensible Amendments 194C, 196 and 198A should not be accepted. I very much look forward to his response.
My Lords, I first offer my apologies for the technical problems. I hoped to speak after the Minister, but technical problems unfortunately rendered me as silent as a mute swan instead of the blustering great bustard I had aimed to be. The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, will probably say it serves me right for not being in the Chamber, and he may well be correct.
This is the sixth day of our Committee. I am afraid to say that for the last few days I have probably been biting the ankles of my noble friend the Minister rather a lot. I feel rather guilty about it, because in many ways he is probably more environmentally sound than I am. I know full well that if this were a “Superman” film, he would shed his ministerial suit, revealing himself to be some sort of green environmental superhero, which he undoubtedly is when he does not have his suit on.
I echo the words of my noble friend Lord Blencathra. I am delighted with the things my noble friend the Minister has brought forward, and that he has listened. More than listening, he has managed to persuade people in other departments, including the Treasury, which normally acts as one’s parents when one wants something that is new or costs a bit and it says, “You can’t afford it”. He has managed to persuade it, so that is fantastic.
I also congratulate my noble friend the Minister on the various meetings he has held. The noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, was being a teensy bit unfair. I was with her today when we spoke to my noble friend’s boss, so we are getting meetings and seeing some results, as we have had today. I also commend the Bill team, which I know is working very hard on this. We sometimes do not realise how hard those people behind the scenes are working when we go on so late.
I would of course love this to extend to those other projects, particularly HS2. If I had been in the Chamber I probably would have been guffawing and generally exploding with noises, because HS2 has been the bane of my life for a good few years, ever since it was just a line on a map. I speak not just as a local resident to where it came and then the constituency MP but now as the president of the Colne Valley Regional Park, which has had serious problems with what is happening. I agree that the idea of giving money to local authorities there would be quite problematic because it goes through so many different areas. I say to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, that I have found assurances from HS2 to be as reliable as that proverbial chocolate teapot. I will not dwell on HS2; it will not do my blood pressure any good. I ask my noble friend whether other mooted projects, such as Sizewell B and Heathrow—I believe neither of those has been given planning permission, but I may be wrong—would be covered by this.
It is fair to say that of course I want more—we always do—but this is a moment to congratulate the Government, and in particular my noble friend on what he has managed to achieve. If he could just persuade them on the state of nature target, his ankles would be safe for a considerable time.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Randall of Uxbridge, and to echo his comment that it is great to be able to congratulate the Government. We on these Benches are always happy to chide and call for more, but it is very welcome that the Government listened, following the support around the Chamber at Second Reading for nationally significant infrastructure projects to be included within biodiversity net gain. We commend them for that.
Equally, as one of the co-signatories to the amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, which would, in due course, extend it to the marine environment, I am absolutely delighted that we did not even have to make the case: the Government had accepted it beforehand. It is a great pleasure to speak briefly to support the Government.
As usual, I would, like others, point out that there are a couple of areas where we would make the case for going further. We very much support the case for Amendment 196 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, which was put so powerfully by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock—I agree with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead on that. Having a time limit to the nature of the biodiversity net gain is a significant flaw. It is not correct that somehow you can plough up the land after 30 years. Some habitat restoration projects already have a timeline going into the next century. As the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, said, a number of climate projects have a timeline of more than 100 years.
I live in a house which was built in the 1920s. Most developments are around for more than 100 years; how come biodiversity is not afforded the same level of perpetuity? The noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, put it well when he said that the timeline is far too short. The Government should listen to the majority of voices in this Committee—I understand that there were two exceptions—that made the case that the 30-year time limit is too short.
The other area these Benches strongly support is covered by another amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, Amendment 194C, which raises the remaining few areas where there are some question marks about schemes that are just outwith the scope. As, again, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, said, the hybrid Bill procedure may be involved in some issues.
My noble friend Lord Teverson added his name on behalf of these Benches to the amendments from the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, on securing sufficient funding, which is an important point to make. Like the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, we support the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, in her strong case for the biodiversity hierarchy to be adopted as we take biodiversity net gain forward.
The noble Earl, Lord Devon, and the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra asked some very sensible, technical questions which need resolving, and it would be great if we could hear some answers tonight from the Minister. I end my comments on this group with heartfelt thanks to the Government.
I am thankful to the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, first for her amendments but also for her support for biodiversity net gain generally. I shall begin with her Amendments 196 and 201AZB as they pertain to agreements in perpetuity. This issue has been raised by a number of noble Lords, and I understand and hear her concern for the longevity of habitats delivered in pursuit of biodiversity net gains.
I shall make a few points about this if I may. First, it is not true to say that the biodiversity net gain that is generated could be simply torn up after 30 years, or that those rich habitats would be lost. Do not forget that there is already a wide range of protections and management incentives for habitats, which would apply to biodiversity net gain sites after the 30-year requirement. Those protections are being enhanced as we speak. It is also important to note that 30 years is a minimum. The Government have always been clear that we want to encourage longer agreements where the landowner is happy to do so, but I am acutely aware that we need to deliver habitats in the right places to help wildlife recovery.
That takes me to a third point, which is a legitimate concern that immediately demanding the commitment of land in perpetuity, as the amendment would, would without doubt deter at least some landowners from offering their land for conservation in key strategic areas in the first place. That would make it much harder to secure the buy-in that we will need if we are to have any chance of reversing the biodiversity loss that we are seeing in this country.
I feel that in the ideal world you would have land improved and then protected for ever in law. However, I worry that there is a danger in letting the perfect being the enemy of the good in this case. There is a rationale behind what we are proposing and I think, on balance, that it is right. However, I have heard the arguments that have been put forward and will continue to have those discussions.
The Government have listened to both sides in this debate and recognise that the right answer to this question might be different for major infrastructure. I am pleased to inform the noble Baroness that we have left the issue of agreement duration as it pertains to major infrastructure open to further consultation. In simple terms, we have not prescribed in the Bill that net-gain agreements for major infrastructure must be 30 years. I can confirm that, subject to consultation, it is not the Government’s intention to require a shorter duration for major infrastructure development than would be asked for development permitted under the Town and Country Planning Act.
I move on to Amendments 197 and 201 in the name of my noble friend Lord Blencathra and Amendment 194C in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch. I thank my noble friend Lord Blencathra for his comments. We have a happy customer and, to quote Basil Fawlty,
“we should have him stuffed.”
I share the view of my noble friend and the noble Baroness that the biodiversity net gain requirement should be applied widely.
On Amendment 194C, the Government’s support for widely applied biodiversity net gain is shown through net gain provisions which include, by default, the types of major infrastructure projects to which the noble Baroness’s amendment relates. Following commencement of the measures included in the biodiversity net gain provisions, when a major infrastructure project is brought forward, for example, through a future hybrid Bill, and granted deemed planning permission under the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, it would be subject to the biodiversity net gain condition unless explicitly exempted.
In response to the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, paragraph 10 in the new schedule inserted by Amendment 201A makes provision for the biodiversity objective to apply to development types that are not currently covered by a national policy statement. This would include any development brought into the scope of the regime at a future date, so major housing developments will be included. I hope she is reassured by that. In fact, the exemption clause is for potentially narrow, limited, individual, targeted examples if they arise. It is not about exempting classes of developments, such as large housing projects. I hope that also reassures her.
Moving on to Amendments 197 and 201, the Government have been clear that any exemptions will be narrow and practical in order to keep net-gain requirements proportionate, as I said earlier. The vast majority of permitted development rights are for small-scale development or changes of use, such as minor alterations to buildings where there is little or no impact on biodiversity, for example, conservatories or sheds. Applying the requirement to the delivery of urgent Crown development—applications for which are very rare as there has been only one such application in the past decade, for example—could risk causing unacceptable delays in addressing urgent national priorities due to the shorter development timescales typically involved.
I am pleased to confirm to my noble friend Lord Blencathra that the next phase of the HS2 scheme, Phase 2b from Crewe to Manchester, will deliver a net gain for biodiversity. However, applying the mandatory requirement as set out in the Bill to this phase of HS2 would result in legislative delays and further costs to the scheme for little or no gain in outcomes. The HS2 phases that are already under way are delivering no net loss of biodiversity, for example by rewilding 127 hectares of chalk grassland in the Colne valley. The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, mentioned the saplings that were allowed to die off. She is right, and I understand that HS2 has committed to replanting all of them.
I want to address a broader point that a number of noble Lords have made, including the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead. We all acknowledge that ancient woodland is irreplaceable so it cannot meaningfully or realistically be compensated for by net gain. You cannot replace ancient woodland for all the reasons that the noble and learned Lord pointed out. Therefore, ancient woodland simply needs protection. It is wrong to describe that recognition, that fact—I think it is a fact—as mendacious, as the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, did. It is just a simple observation and one that holds true.
Where there is unavoidable loss of ancient woodland due to, for example, HS2, it will have to be addressed through a range of other measures. For example, in phase 1 this has included creating new native broadleaved woodland, enhancing linkages between ancient woodlands, helping to restore ancient woodland sites and so on. However, there is no pretence that you can replace ancient woodland: once it has gone, it has gone. As a number of noble Lords said, it takes many thousands of years to reach the status that it does.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, also raised quite a few technical questions, which I hope he will allow me to answer by letter as there are a lot of issues to cover in this response. The Government consider it appropriate that the mandatory biodiversity gain requirement should not apply to development included in permitted development rights, urgent Crown development or HS2 for the reasons I have described.
Addressing Amendment 201AZA, I again fully share the noble Baroness’s view that it is essential for biodiversity net gain to be calculated in the appropriate manner, and this is exactly why paragraph 8 makes it a requirement for the biodiversity net gain statement to set out the evidence requirements to be included within an application, which would include a completed metric. It is the Government’s intention to confirm the use of a suitable metric well in advance of the requirement coming into force. This will be essential in order to provide industry with the certainty needed to fulfil the requirement.
I will now speak to the amendments tabled by my noble friend Lord Lucas. Starting with Amendments 201AA and 201AD, again I share my noble friend’s view that the habitat data used to inform biodiversity net gain assessments must be of the highest possible standard. Guidance will clarify that the biodiversity metric and gain plan should be completed by a competent person and that habitat surveys should be completed in line with professional good practice guidance. It will be in the developer’s and habitat provider’s interest to take heed of the guidance provided, as any survey information that is incorrect or incomplete might be more likely to risk delay or even cost to their project. I can assure my noble friend Lord Lucas that should the upcoming biodiversity net gain consultation highlight a particular need for legislative provisions about the timing or standards of surveys, the Government will consider making regulations to that effect. In response to the other point about small business—I think it was raised by my noble friend Lord Lucas—we will implement this regime in a way that works for small sites and small businesses, and we are working out now exactly how best to do that.
Turning to Amendment 201AZC, I welcome the noble Baroness’s intention that the biodiversity gain objective should be broadly applied. Compelling the Secretary of State to publish a statement for projects where no national policy statement already exists would give little or no additional certainty that statements would be produced unless it also specified a timeframe in which the statement must be published. Providing a timeframe in which the statement must be produced, consulted on and laid before Parliament would be challenging without knowing when and what class of project will arise that falls outside the scope of existing national policy statements. I can, however, reassure the noble Baroness that it is the Government’s intention that the biodiversity gain objective will be applied broadly to national infrastructure projects, most of which we expect to be covered by an existing national policy statement.
I turn briefly to the comments of the noble Earl, Lord Devon, who asked how much land will be required to fulfil our biodiversity net gain ambitions. The answer, I am afraid, is that it is impossible to know, but it is worth pointing out that the UK is one of the most nature-denuded countries on earth and that there is a lot of marginal land which is nature-denuded but could be restored without posing a choice between food production and nature. It is also worth pointing out that nature and food production are not mutually exclusive; it is possible, as he knows, to farm in a way that is nature friendly. We are committed to the 30 by 30 goal: protecting 30% of the country’s land and oceans by 2030. It is an ambitious target but, let us not forget, it still leaves 70% of the land not fully protected. I think this is something we simply have to do and which meets generally with the approval of most people.
My last point in relation to the noble Earl, Lord Devon, is that the November deadline is not arbitrary. We do not absolutely have to get the Bill done by COP, but it would be good for all of us if we did. It is important and clearly in the national—and international —interest that we do so because so much of our authority when it comes to cajoling the rest of the world into raising its ambition comes from what we are doing in this country, so it matters. It is not an absolute red line, but it should matter to all of us that we get this job done.
I turn to Amendment 201AZD. Setting out the evidence requirements for net gain will be essential to provide certainty for developers and enable the Secretary of State to make a clear decision on whether the gain objective has been met. That is why paragraph 8 of new Schedule 2A to the Planning Act 2008 already states that a biodiversity gain statement “must specify the evidence” that must be produced as part of an application
“to demonstrate how the biodiversity gain objective is met.”
However, requiring the Secretary of State to prescribe such documents in secondary legislation may lead to unnecessary duplication with the biodiversity gain statement or lead to confusion about how the requirement is to be met, for little or no additional benefit.
I turn to Amendment 200, also in the name of my noble friend Lord Blencathra. As he knows, we have introduced an amendment that provides powers to extend biodiversity net gain to major projects in the marine environment in future. This will be implemented once a suitable approach has been developed, so that developments at sea will be required to increase marine biodiversity. The Government are exploring how net gain for the marine environment could best be delivered and will consult on the principles for a marine approach later this year. He also asked a number of technical questions, and I was unable to keep up with all of them. If I have missed any, I will follow up in writing—I hope that that is okay.
Moving on to Amendments 198 and 199, I share the view of the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, that funding and resources must be made available to successfully implement biodiversity net gain plans. However, proving that money has been set aside for delivery would present a complex administrative burden for local authorities to mitigate a risk that the legislation already makes provision to address. Where biodiversity net gain is to be achieved off-site, habitat enhancements will be registered. This registration cannot occur unless a planning obligation or conservation covenant is arranged to secure the habitat enhancements.
I turn to Amendment 198A. The noble Baroness, Lady Young, is right to seek assurance that the mitigation hierarchy will be respected in the practice of biodiversity net gain. The mitigation hierarchy is already supported by national planning policy; however, applying it requires subjective judgment. Planning practice guidance on the mitigation hierarchy is already available, and we will provide more tailored guidance for biodiversity net gain that reflects this. Planning authorities will therefore be more able to support the mitigation hierarchy when determining both the biodiversity gain plan and the planning application itself.
On Amendment 201AB, the monitoring of biodiversity gain sites will be important for enforcement and policy evaluation. Monitoring practice will likely evolve over time, as practitioners become more familiar with the requirements and the most efficient and effective ways of delivering net gain outcomes. While the Government agree that proportionate monitoring arrangements should be put in place for biodiversity gains, we are not certain that it will always be appropriate for a third party to undertake this monitoring or for separate fees to be reported. The Government wish to consult further on appropriate monitoring arrangements, but I assure noble Lords that we already have the necessary provisions to implement these through secondary legislation or guidance.
Regarding Amendment 201AC, it is vital that the biodiversity gains promised in biodiversity gain plans are delivered in practice. In developing the biodiversity net gain proposals, the Government have been paying attention to the academic literature on the subject of offsetting. In particular, we recognise the findings, in a range of international policy contexts, that off-site compensation often goes unrecorded or undelivered. That is why the biodiversity gain clauses in the Bill are clear that any gains delivered off-site must be recorded in a national register if they are to be counted towards a development’s net gain. To be included on this register, the biodiversity gains must be secured with a planning obligation or a conservation covenant. Both these options for securing the gains will mean that obligations are attached to the land and that changes in ownership would not invalidate any biodiversity obligations.
Finally, I turn to Amendment 201D. Statutory credits are intended to be sold only as a last resort when developers are unable to achieve net gain within the development, off-site on their own land or by purchasing off-site biodiversity units. Credits will allow the private market for biodiversity units to thrive, while preventing delays to development from any market shortages. Local authorities wishing to undertake habitat enhancement will be able to fund such works by selling registered biodiversity gains on the market, but responses to the 2018 net gain consultation warned that not all local planning authorities would have the capacity to sell credits. It is therefore necessary for the Government to provide across England a consistent statutory credit scheme, which can act as a last resort wherever supplies of local authority or private biodiversity units are exhausted or absent.
It has been a huge pleasure to listen to and take part in the debate on such a vital part of the Bill. Biodiversity net gain will result in immediate and significant investment in nature from the first day that it is implemented. It is good news for our countryside and nature. I ask noble Lords not to press their amendments.
My Lords, I have received five requests to speak, from the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, and the noble Lord, Lord Lucas. I will start by calling the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe.
I am sorry I missed the list for this amendment. Noble Lords will know the importance I attach to cost benefit, whatever the nature of legislation and however much support it has. Improving biodiversity is clearly very desirable, given past losses. However, the proposals before us on nature, notably on net gain, will have a large and certain impact on development while they might or might not significantly improve biodiversity. They will add grit to the system, placing a further burden on local government and decreasing productivity, especially in infrastructure and housing.
This could cumulatively cost a lot, and it could hit smaller operators disproportionately, as the Minister was kind enough to acknowledge. The costs, of course, fall mainly on business and other developers and not on the Treasury, which is no doubt one of the reasons why it has been supportive. One of the main beneficiaries will be consultants, as with the environmental impact assessments that I remember coming in in the 1980s. They added costs—a lot of costs—and gave a lot of work to consultants, but may not have been entirely effective.
I am not sure that the published impact assessment—for which, many thanks—gives the full picture on costs. These will depend on the details and the complexity, on the time taken to assess biodiversity loss, on registration, on maintenance, on inspection, on enforcement and on covenants and the credits scheme the Minister has mentioned. My noble friend Lord Lucas was very good on some of these points, I thought, and the noble Earl, Lord Devon, made an interesting observation about the pressure on land use that needs to be assessed. Moreover, and this is the reason I have stood up, the Bill has been added to quite substantially. That has been well received today, and there is pressure to add more. How much will the costs to businesses and public authorities rise as a result of adding so many new areas to biodiversity gain in Schedule 14A?
I acknowledge that today’s audience is an entirely environmental one, including our “environmental superhero”, my noble friend the Minister, and that this is the year of COP 26. However, the productivity of the economy also matters to the interests of our children and grandchildren, and to the disadvantaged. There is lots of work still to do on getting the detail right and understanding the costs.
I thank the noble Baroness for raising an important point. It is one that I also addressed in my remarks. We are not there yet and do not have all the answers. We are determined that this should be a streamlined process. We need to deliver for nature, but we have to do it in a way that requires developers, particularly smaller developers, to bear as little cost as possible. What we do not want to do is inhibit the productivity that the noble Baroness has just described. We have work to do, this is an evolution, but the proposals have been warmly welcomed pretty much across the board—from the small to the medium to the larger developers. There are questions and concerns, but the principle has been embraced across the sector.
My Lords, I do not need the Minister to respond to the points I am about to make. First, I thank him for his detailed response to all points raised in this debate. I raised a few technical queries, but I do not need to press him today or need a detailed response from him, because I assure him of this: officials at Natural England, at all levels, are working hand in glove with his officials to address all aspects of net gain—to make sure we have the registers up and running, to figure out how to extend it to marine and to figure out the credit system. I am confident that, if funding allows, we will produce detailed proposals as soon as possible.
The main reason I got up to speak—I do so with considerable trepidation—is to challenge some of the comments made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead. He seemed to imply, and indeed said to me during our last HS2 debate, that, if we extend net gain to the first two legs of HS2, it will require the compulsory purchase of more land. No, it will not. That is where, in the distinguished job the noble and learned Lord did in chairing the committee, the promoters of the Bill misinformed him, no doubt inadvertently. You can get net gain from HS2 or any other project, without changing a single item in the HS2 Bill. One does not need to change the planning application and, more importantly, one does not need to buy a single extra square inch of land. Net gain is not about that.
Theoretically, one could buy more land on either side of HS2 and have wider embankments, but net gain can be delivered by HS2 funding projects off site, near the railway line. Neighbouring farmers may voluntarily wish to add some net gain. It requires only that HS2 funds it and I suggest that there are adequate funds. I believe the cost of HS2 went up another £1.5 billion last week. The cost of increasing from no net loss to some net gain would be quite insignificant, in comparison to the overall costs.
My final point for the noble and learned Lord is this: net gain is already moving away from no net loss, from what I hear. I know my noble friend Lord Randall of Uxbridge is slightly more cynical about this but, if HS2 can now move slightly beyond no net loss to some net gain, and can do it without changing the hybrid Bill or applying for more planning permission, we should keep up the pressure on it for 10% net gain on the existing two legs. We can do that without changing a single bit of law.
I will take up my noble friend on his offer for me not to respond, other than to say that I note his comments and, I think, agree with everything he is saying.
My Lords, in his argument against Amendment 196, which calls for biodiversity gain sites to be protected in perpetuity, the Minister suggested that they might receive protection under provisions that already exist. Could he specify what provisions might apply 30 years after establishment? For example, Medmerry, the project I referred to earlier, might become a Ramsar site even in that short timeframe. It is clearly designed to exist in perpetuity anyway, depending on the rise of sea levels. But would most sites really be likely to be eligible to become a SSSI, after 30 years?
It is impossible to answer the question, because it depends on the site and the type of ecosystem created, which determines the kind of protection that applies. My point is that there are protections for natural sites already, although I am not suggesting that there are enough. It is not easy to get permission to destroy important ecological sites. As I have said in this and in many other debates, we intend to build on those protections. The idea that, in 30 years, it will not be significantly harder to grub up valuable ecosystems—even 30 year-old ecosystems, which are important—is highly unlikely or virtually impossible to imagine.
My Lords, first, I congratulate my noble friend, as others have done, on getting this amendment into the Bill. It is a major step forward.
I have two questions for him. He was again critical of the UK’s performance worldwide on nature and biodiversity. We know that it is not good. I remember being heavily criticised when I was a Minister, but I then discovered that most countries criticising us were not using the same basis of measurement. I recall that, not so long ago, we were portrayed as being very bad on Covid, only to find that the countries doing better us were assessing Covid on a totally different basis. Can my noble friend say that his comments will apply universally across all other countries?
My second question follows on from what my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe said about securing good use of public funds. I thoroughly approve of biodiversity net gain, but what happens if nature destroys one of the projects subject to support for biodiversity net gain? Perhaps my noble friend wants to restore a bit of peatland and get some sphagnum moss back. Everything works well for 10 or 15 years but, due to climate change, the land changes and can no longer support sphagnum moss. Therefore, the whole point of that bit of net gain falls down. Does my noble friend envisage having some sort of remedy to achieve a different type of net gain? How does he foresee that sort of situation being remedied?
On the first point, my noble friend is absolutely right. My comments relate to the fact—it is a fact, there is no doubt—that our biodiversity has decreased very sharply in recent decades and continues to go down. That is why our goal is to bend that curve so that, instead of going down, we start to increase biodiversity.
At the same time, the UK is, I believe, doing more work internationally—not just by wagging its finger but through example—than any other country in the world. If you compare what we are doing on nature with, for example, what is proposed by the new Administration in the United States or any other country in Europe, I would say that we are miles ahead in our ambitions and in what we are doing with our international climate finance and ODA. We were the first country to deal with things such as our fossil fuel subsidies and our land use subsidies. Our campaigns internationally, not least the 30by30 initiative, are changing the debate around nature. I am very proud of where we are in the debate but, like everywhere in the world, we have an enormous amount of work to do to translate that into action on the ground.
My noble friend’s second point is very interesting, and one that I shall have to come back to him on for any details. My only observation would be that a proper net gain project is not going to be about one species, it will be about the habitat that supports that species. Even if climate change were to render the conditions too difficult for that particular species, you will not have no gain—you will still have gain on that side as a consequence of the habitat improvement. He raises a very interesting point; it is one that merits thought and I will think about it.
My Lords, I am very grateful to my noble friend for his comprehensive replies, but there are a number of areas I would like him to expand on—if he chooses, by correspondence. In the case of the first, it may be best to have an online meeting, should that be possible.
I would really like to walk through with him what happens if we have a medium-sized housing development with on-site diversity gain and, 10 years later, someone questions whether that gain has been maintained, or even achieved. What information will be available to that person? How will they, in practice, be able to challenge it? Exactly what will that information look like? Professional good practice guidelines do not seem a very strong basis for challenging whether something comes up to standard; they are pretty woolly at the moment. Will something be set that can actually be judged against?
If there is a question over whether the gain has been maintained, who will be responsible for taking action? How can an ordinary citizen kick them into taking action? Where, in practice, will the money from a housing estate of maybe a couple of hundred houses be extracted from to make good the lack of performance? How is this actually going to work? As I said, this may be best dealt with as a meeting, but if the Minister chooses to burst into print on it, I shall be delighted.
Secondly, can my noble friend share with us his concerns about perpetuity rather than 30 years? There are lots of aspects of land where perpetuity is normal. No one expects to get out from under an SSSI or building listing, and I do not expect to get out from under the covenants that apply locally to the Duke of Devonshire. Those go with the land and one expects them to be there forever. If one has made improvement to the biodiversity of a piece of land, maintaining that forever or compensating for a failure to do that by providing additional biodiversity elsewhere or onsite seems to fit well with perpetuity, and I cannot comprehend where this opposition is coming from in practice. We are all [Inaudible].
Thirdly, can the Minister answer on whether the biodiversity gain in a particular development will be linked to the local nature recovery strategy or be independent from it, and if it is linked, how does it work?
The short answer to the first question is that, were such a thing to happen, it would be a breach of planning permission, and the local authority could enforce that. I am happy to have the meeting that the noble Lord has asked for—but it would a breach of contract and the rules.
On the issue of 30 years, I feel that if I were to answer that question, I would be repeating what I had said earlier. Again, I am happy to discuss that when we meet, but the argument is that the 30 years is not a maximum. We will have an increasing number of protections for the land over time. That is part of the government programme and is a commitment that we have made. However, most importantly, we need to get land into the system. We have had many discussions in relation to the tree strategy and the incentives that we are creating there to encourage people to give over some of their land for tree planting. It is difficult. It does not matter what the incentives are—it is difficult—and if one were to ask people to make their commitments in perpetuity, that would limit the market for us and make our job much more difficult. That is the bottom line and the main reason.
I am sorry for delaying noble Lords a little further. I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, for her dollop of reality. In response to her comments, the Minister suggested that, in his understanding, the industry and developers and so on are overwhelmingly supportive of biodiversity net gain.
I work for a solicitors’ firm in the south-west called Michelmores, which regularly hosts a planning and developers’ round table. Just last month, we hosted a gathering of planners and developers that was addressed by the Environment Bank to introduce the idea of biodiversity net gain. The overwhelming response was that they had not heard of it at all; they were hugely uncertain about it, and there was considerable trepidation. Their principal concern was where on earth they were going to find the qualified professional consultants necessary to conduct and undertake all this business, because they just do not exist. Can the Minister provide any insights into how that industry will achieve the professional qualifications and the huge number of people necessary within a two-year period to deliver all this biodiversity net gain understanding?
I understand that some may not have heard of this, but developers should have, because it is already current policy in the National Planning Policy Framework. Not everyone goes to bed reading such a document, but if you are in the development sector you ought to be familiar with what is in it, so I am surprised by that. I certainly did not say that they were overwhelmingly supportive: I think the term I used was “broadly supportive”. I do not want to exaggerate, but the feedback we have had has been broadly supportive from people at all stages of the spectrum, from the large to the medium and the small—but, as I said, this is our job. We need to do this; it is a really important part of the nature recovery journey we are on, which I believe is backed by most people in this country. Most people recognise that this is something that has to happen, and our job is to make it work.
As for consultants, this is an entirely new thing, a world first, so there will not be loads of consultants waiting to start advertising their skills as of tomorrow. But when you create a market for something, the market responds. People will recognise that there are careers and opportunities in helping companies at all levels to deliver biodiversity net gain. So I imagine that, as with most things market-related, we will see ever more people entering this field with ecological expertise, knowledge and skills to offer those businesses.
My Lords, this has been an extremely informed debate, and I thank all noble Lords who have taken part. I listened with great interest to all contributions. I also commend the Minister for bringing forward his amendment and join the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, in thanking him for doing so and for listening to the serious concerns that were raised at Second Reading. I also thank the noble Baroness for her support for our amendments.
How wonderful it was to see the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, so happy, although I am not sure how he feels about being stuffed. He made some extremely important points and asked some very important questions, so I thank him for that.
We support the amendments of the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle. As she said, there does seem to be a bit of a get-out clause in the Bill regarding biodiversity net gain for some development. She supported our position that 30 years is simply not long enough for maintenance following development, and she also talked of the importance of standards and of independent verification.
We also support the amendments of my noble friend Lady Young of Old Scone, who asked when we will actually see the proposals around planning. It is an important question when looking at this. She talked about how all projects should be obligated to provide biodiversity net gain, but she also raised the very important point that HS2 is destroying irreplaceable ancient woodland. That brings us to the point that biodiversity net gain and biodiversity credits are not the answer to everything when we have large development projects actually destroying important habitats.
The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, talked about standards and the quality of information regarding biodiversity net gain. We support what he is saying in this: it is important that a close eye is kept on sites so that they keep going at a high quality.
I was disappointed that the noble Earl, Lord Devon, does not support our proposal for maintenance “in perpetuity”. A number of noble Lords discussed this. I agree with him that it is important that we know more about the detail as to how biodiversity net gain will be delivered, as that is not mapped out, and I thought his question to the Minister was very pertinent.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, also felt that 30 years was a very short time for maintenance of new nature. He also talked about the fact that this short period would affect the design and the effort in looking at the kinds of projects we will be producing for biodiversity net gain. The key thing is to make sure that all restoration projects are of high quality. He also made many important points regarding the planning Act.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester was concerned about net gain being subject to time limits and said that it absolutely has to be adequately funded. He considered that, with this Bill, we have a golden opportunity to get that right. I absolutely support those comments.
Sadly, the noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose, also did not support our amendment on “in perpetuity” but, again, he felt that 30 years was not sufficient for maintenance. I listened with great interest to the concerns that he expressed about rural landowners and the need for clear guidance from government, which echoed much of what the noble Earl, Lord Devon, said. The noble Lord, Lord Krebs, supported our amendment, and I thank him for that. He clearly laid out the reasons again as to why 30 years’ maintenance is not sufficient for genuine nature restoration. He gave us some examples of shortcomings on existing and recent projects.
The noble Lord, Lord Randall of Uxbridge, put quite an interesting image in my head of the Minister in a sort of green superhero outfit. He also expressed concerns about accepting assurances from HS2 at face value—he has clearly had some personal experience there. Therefore, it is important that all projects are covered by the Bill.
I thank the Minister for his very thorough response. He talked about the issue around our amendment looking at in perpetuity for maintenance and management as opposed to 30 years. What has come across from the debate is that people are not necessarily convinced by “in perpetuity” right across the House, but I did not hear anybody say that they thought that 30 years was sufficient, so I ask the Minister to take that away and perhaps consider it. He said that it would cover all projects, but what guarantees do we have? We need some further discussion on this. The noble Lord, Lord Lucas—and his dog—made some quite salient points about the need to consider this further.
Looking at the Minister’s response on our concerns about not all major infrastructure being covered, I listened very carefully to what he said around exemptions. I am concerned that there may still be gaps and loopholes, but I need to have a better look at it following his comments. Perhaps we could meet and he could go through this in more detail with us so we can get a better understanding of where he is coming from. Again, I thank the noble Lord for a very detailed reply, which we very much appreciate, but in the meantime I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
Amendment 194C (to Amendment 194B) withdrawn.
Amendment 194B agreed.
Schedule 14: Biodiversity gain as condition of planning permission
Amendments 195 to 201 not moved.
Schedule 14 agreed.