Amendment 205B

Environment Bill - Committee (6th Day) – in the House of Lords at 8:15 pm on 7th July 2021.

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Baroness Jones of Whitchurch:

Moved by Baroness Jones of Whitchurch

205B: Clause 95, page 96, line 18, at end insert—“(1ZA) A public authority which has any functions exercisable in relation to England must exercise those functions consistently with the aim of furthering the general biodiversity objective and to conserve and enhance the species and habitats listed under section 41.”Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment would ensure that public authorities exercise all of their functions in a way that is consistent with furthering the biodiversity objective, extending the current duty which is limited to certain policies and objectives considered to be appropriate, and placing particular emphasis on species and habitats of principal importance.

Photo of Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

My Lords, in moving Amendment 205B, I will speak also to Amendment 210 in my name and add my support to the other amendments in this group. This group returns to the application of biodiversity but in a different context from the previous debates that we have already had. Amendment 205B would require public authorities to act to further the general biodiversity objective and to conserve and enhance the species and habitats that are important to our biodiversity. This would underline biodiversity as a critical factor in all authority decisions, including planning and spending decisions.

The amendment builds on the concession made during the Commons consideration of the Bill, in which it was made clear that public authorities have a responsibility to enhance, as well as conserve, biodiversity. Our amendment takes this one step further by seeking to ensure that biodiversity is integrated into all decision-making.

Our Amendment 210 adds a specific obligation on public authorities to support biodiversity growth through planning decisions. This is a crucial issue that has been touched on several times during the consideration of this Bill. As noble Lords will know, there is a huge concern about the impact of the planning White Paper on biodiversity net gain at a local level, and we would like to understand more about how these two policy initiatives will interact.

The planning proposals are of course aimed to fast-track housebuilding in development areas without the normal local involvement, so it is still not clear how individual schemes will be assessed from an environmental and sustainability point of view. With sustainability appraisals scrapped and environmental impact assessments not carried out at outline stage, how will a developer’s green footprint be judged?

These are real concerns that have been echoed by the recent report of the Environmental Audit Committee, Biodiversity in the UK. It makes clear that it feels that there is a “series of deficiencies” in the policy, and recommends that

“The Government should explain how and when it will move to embedding environmental net gain in the planning system, with clear actions and milestones”.

It also recommends that

“The Government should strengthen local authority capacity and enforcement mechanisms to deliver biodiversity net gain” on the ground. Our Amendment 210 is a first step to achieving this. This is very much in line with Amendment 209, from the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, which we heartily endorse. These are critical issues for making the reversal of biodiversity loss a reality. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Parminter Baroness Parminter Chair, Environment and Climate Change Committee, Chair, Environment and Climate Change Committee

In introducing Amendment 209, I am grateful for the support of the noble Baronesses, Lady Young of Old Scone and Lady Boycott, and my colleague and noble friend Lord Teverson, who have added their names to it.

I very much welcome the Government’s introduction of the local nature recovery strategies—I see them as a really critical tool in capturing the value of the natural environment and ensuring that local communities can have their priorities reflected. But as they stand, the problem is that local authorities only have to “have regard to” the local nature recovery strategies; they do not have to act in accordance with them. My amendment seeks to reverse that, so that all the good work done by local authorities in producing them can be utilised, ensuring that they can be effectively integrated with other local plans and programmes.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, just highlighted, the biodiversity net gain and the other biodiversity requirements put on local councils, including the local nature recovery strategies, will be incredibly resource intensive. These new local nature recovery strategies will be data-driven, map-based and about identifying protected sites and other areas that make a real contribution towards delivering environmental and biodiversity aims. They will require a lot of conversations and consultations with relevant stakeholders—landowners, farmers, local people and businesses—and we want to make sure that all that consultation, of working locally on the ground to identify sites that are important to people and that people feel need protecting, is valued and respected.

Once these strategies have been developed, they will then be able to link up all the various other things such as biodiversity net gain, the environmental land management schemes and the nature for climate fund. They will be a really important tool for bringing all of these together. But if the local authorities and other bodies do not have to act in accordance with them, all that good work of consultation, and all the resources put into them, will go to waste.

I cite one example which has already been referred to by other Members in previous debates in Committee: the Knepp estate in Sussex, which the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, has mentioned. I feel well equipped and confident in mentioning this as it is in Horsham district. I grew up in Horsham and was a councillor on Horsham District Council for eight years in my twenties.

Knepp is threatened by 3,500 houses on the north-east corner of the site. Horsham District Council is scrabbling around desperately trying to find homes in an area where there are almost no brownfield sites and it looks very likely that this week the housing development on the corner of the Knepp estate will be included in the local plan to satisfy the housing targets imposed by central government.

Knepp is a core site for nature recovery and I do not really need to tell this to the Minister; he is probably more familiar with the acreage than I am. I understand that Natural England even wanted Knepp to be a national nature reserve, which shows just how nationally significant it is. Not only is it really important in the locality for nature protection, it is a nationally significant nature site.

If local nature recovery strategies were in place already, Knepp would be one of those core sites in Horsham District Council’s nature recovery network. Indeed, Horsham District Council has a draft nature recovery strategy, and Knepp is mentioned within that document. If we already had the strategies and my amendment was accepted, Knepp would have the protection it needs both locally to support the environmental objectives of the local people in Horsham and nationally, which has been recognised by Natural England. That is a really useful and relevant example of why my amendment matters. As I said, I think that Horsham District Council is going to make the decision about its housing allocations tomorrow, and the Knepp site is very likely to be included.

It is not just the Knepp example I want to refer to. When I spoke to my own council—Waverley in Surrey—about my proposal, it felt very strongly that local nature recovery strategies should be made a material consideration in local development planning. One of the other recommendations in the report of the Environmental Audit Committee that the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, cited, was that local nature recovery strategies should be made a material consideration in the planning system and should be used as the spatial planning tool to join up biodiversity net gain, ELMS and the planning system, as I identified at the beginning.

This amendment was introduced by my colleague Sarah Olney MP down the other end and, in responding, the Minister there said that an amendment

“would risk limiting the decision-making direction of public authorities with regard to local nature recovery strategies.”

How? It is their strategies that they are drawing up. The Minister then went on to say:

“It would be unreasonable for national bodies such as Network Rail or Highways England to be required to comply with many strategies.”

Why? Again, this is what Natural England and others concerned about embedding the environment in the strategies and planning for these critical bodies have been calling for for some considerable time. Finally, she said that

“this amendment could, perversely, result in lower environmental ambition.” —[Official Report, Commons, 26/5/21; col. 430.]

She gave no example about how this could possibly be true. I think that all those reasons are, frankly, unconvincing and if the Minister tries to use those this evening, I think he will find that this Committee will laugh him out of court.

This is an important amendment, and I am not saying that because I am bringing it forward. If we want to deliver what the Government want, which is to make these fantastic new local nature recovery strategies have the bite they need and to bring in all the various players—landowners, farmers and local communities—then local authorities have to have regard to them. Otherwise it is a complete waste of time and, not only that, it will alienate the public, who will believe that these things are going to help them protect their environment, and there will be a whopping political backlash.

Photo of The Earl of Caithness The Earl of Caithness Conservative 8:30 pm, 7th July 2021

My Lords, I listened with care to what the two noble Baronesses have said, and I support their arguments. They made some very valid points.

I am speaking to my two amendments in this grouping. Amendment 210A simply requires that Natural England has particular regard to nature-friendly farming. It has to

“have regard to … local nature recovery strategy, and … any relevant species conservation strategy or protected site strategy prepared by Natural England.”

One thing that has been missing in a lot of our debate over six days is the role of the human being in all this. We have talked a lot about biodiversity and what we can do to increase it, but what matters just as much is the role of the farmer and the landowner, because they are going to implement the policy. I was thrilled when my noble friend Lord Goldsmith, said on the amendment we have just discussed on biodiversity net gain, words to the effect of: “We are able to farm in a nature-friendly way.” I thought: “Good. My noble friend and I are on the right track together.” It is hugely important.

At the moment there is a Nature Friendly Farming Network that thousands of farmers have joined; it is doing tremendously good work for the environment at very little extra cost to the taxpayer—and sometimes at a cost to their own pockets. These are exactly the sort of people we need to encourage. The farmers are not particularly pleased with this Government at the moment. There is far too much uncertainty and change and, as we all know, the age of the average farmer is so high that they are finding it hard to adapt to all the pressures. I was really pleased by what my noble friend said, and I hope he will consider the amendment about biodiversity. The Bill cannot just be seen in isolation. We have to involve the human being—the farmer and the landowner. They are the people who will alter things on the ground.

Besides the Nature Friendly Farming Network, there is of course the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust. We often talk about the UK being a world leader. We have on our own shores a world leader in this organisation. It has demonstration farms in Scotland and England, and has farmed for biodiversity for many years. It advises individual farmers and clusters of farmers, and does an awful lot of work for Defra. I urge my noble friend to visit its Allerton project. He and I have spoken about this before. The work and scientific research it does are so important. We cannot now take for granted everything I learned when I was a boy and a young man, working on the farms and the land. To convince the rest of the country, we have to have it scientifically proven. This is what the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust has been doing so well. I hope that my noble friend, besides talking to us, will spare time between now and the next stage to visit it in Leicestershire. It would be an easy half day for him, and I think it would be very beneficial.

I turn now to Amendment 293, to which I am a signatory. It is in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, and is on a subject that both she and I have been going on about for quite a long time: the land use strategy for England. Perhaps we need no better excuse for introducing this amendment than what the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, said about Horsham District Council and the problems it faces. I have said it before, and I will just briefly repeat myself: the Climate Change Committee reckons that we will have to transfer about 21% of our agricultural land out of farming. To feed ourselves, we will have to increase productivity by 10%. We all know that productivity has been flatlining in agriculture for many years, so this is going to be a hugely serious problem to try to tackle.

The noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, will wax much more lyrical than I will on this, so I will not say very much except that it is again about the human input into this. There are so many pressures now on the countryside: the building of new railways, new developments and housing schemes and, I repeat yet again, the threatened planning Bill, which is coming our way next year. That frightens me because it will undo quite a lot of the good in this Bill and in our climate change agenda. We will have to support these farmers and accept that they have got to increase their productivity.

We have talked about land being lost for biodiversity net gain. That is another pressure on the countryside. Surely, it is high time that England followed the lead of the other countries in the UK—Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland—in producing a plan of how it will use the land. It is the only way that we will make progress in a sensible way without having constant fights at all levels. We need a strategy from the Government: should we actually be farming our grade 1 Lincolnshire fen farms, which we are told have very few harvests left? Every time they are farmed, they are perhaps one of the greatest emitters of carbon in the agricultural sector. It is a terrible thought that our grade 1 land might not be farmable or should not be farmed, but we need to address that now before it is too late. I therefore give my full support to the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, to get a land use strategy for England.

Photo of Lord Lucas Lord Lucas Conservative

My Lords, I am delighted to be part of this group and to be supporting the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, in her Amendment 209. If we are to have nature recovery strategies, they have to be followed. I touched on this in a previous group in relation to biodiversity gain and planning consents. If that great source of nature improvement is done willy-nilly, with no reference at all to the nature recovery strategy, what is the point of the nature recovery strategy? This is one of the main ways in which things are going to improve. Why is it disconnected? Amendment 209 from the noble Baroness would reconnect it and other things in a most useful way.

My own amendments in this group are aimed at seeking remedies to things which seem to me, from my experience locally, not to be working as well as they might be and which could be made to work better, under the structures proposed in this Bill, with a bit of additional power. First, I observe that, within the land owned by the local council, there are substantial SSSIs which are supposed to be chalk downland and which are actually largely bramble. How has that come about? I think it has come about because the negotiations on what should be done are conducted between a council that is extremely willing but short of money and Natural England, which understands that and does not see the purpose of pushing a long-term relationship harder than it reasonably can. The net result is that things go gently backwards.

If there was, in that context, a group of informed and interested citizens whose role was to say, “Hang on a bit, this is not the way it should be”, to be activist, outspoken and pushing for things to be better, I think that relationship would be improved and we would get a better result for the maintenance of the environment. It needs a bit of grit in the machine, a bit of salt in the porridge, to make this work well. Others who I have talked to have observed similar difficulties elsewhere. We need something that gives the concerned public real access to what can otherwise become a cosy relationship between the governors and the governed.

Amendment 230 looks at how drainage boards and the Environment Agency should co-operate with a nature recovery strategy. Next to us down the coast, we have the Cuckmere valley and estuary. This is an entirely artificial construct; it is governed by shortcuts and drainage arrangements put in by the Dutch a century ago. One way or another, under a nature recovery strategy, I imagine that we would agree what we want the ecosystem in the estuary and the valley above it to be. However, what happens if the Environment Agency does not play ball, as it has not over the past couple of winters? We have had storms in the winters that have built a gravel bar at the bottom of the river, which has resulted in deep and long-term flooding of the whole river system. If that is not what we are aiming at, if that is not what the nature recovery strategy should be achieving, the Environment Agency, by not being tied into the process, is defeating the whole purpose of the nature recovery strategy. It has to be a partner.

I see that again in the fenlands that form the middle of Eastbourne; we have about 400 hectares of calcareous fens in the middle of the town. We would love to have curlews in it, but the Environment Agency, which is unreachable for us as a mere district authority, has decided that it wants to pump the Langney sewer—which is the main drainage of the fenlands and is actually a pristine chalk stream, despite its name—so low in summer that the fenlands are brick hard, the curlews cannot get their beaks in and their chicks die.

If we have a nature recovery strategy for Eastbourne, and we say, “We want these fenlands full of life and we want that to include curlews”, how do we get the Environment Agency to come on side with that? It must be bound in as part of the strategy, perhaps as part of making the strategy too, but once it is made, it must be part of it. If we want these things to work, we need those big, powerful institutions—local authorities, the Environment Agency, drainage boards and, doubtless, others—to be part of the process of making them work. I hope these amendments will be a contribution to that.

Photo of Baroness Young of Old Scone Baroness Young of Old Scone Labour 8:45 pm, 7th July 2021

My Lords, what I am hearing around the House is that everybody is feeling rather anxious about a lack of join-up between a whole load of mechanisms that are being invented or pre-exist, so that they run the risk of nullifying each other, or at least making life very difficult for each other. So I feel justified in speaking to my Amendment 293, and I thank the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, for his support. Some noble Lords will recognise that this is a revamp of an amendment to require the Government to draw up a land-use framework which I raised during debates on the Agriculture Bill. The Government indicated that the Environment Bill would be a much more appropriate place to deal with it, so here it is. The Government may possibly now say that the planning Bill would be a more appropriate place, in which case I shall raise it there too, because the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, is right that I have been banging on about this for a long time, and I intend to continue banging on about it until I get it.

There are huge pressures on land, and they are growing. There is pressure for increased food security, carbon storage, biodiversity, flood management, trees, increased timber for self-sufficiency, recreation, health, built development, housing and infrastructure—there are multiple pressures on land. The University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership conducted demand and supply analysis and found that, to meet a growing UK population’s food space and energy needs while increasing the area needed to protect and enhance the nation’s natural capital, the UK would need to free up an additional 7 million hectares. The land for that is simply not there. The UK as a whole is only 24.25 million hectares, so about one-third more land would be needed to meet imminent pressures, and we simply have not got it.

As we tackle these multiple pressures for land, we are hampered by the lack of a common framework within which to reconcile these competing needs. I have been going around trying to prompt a debate on the need for a land-use framework for England, because Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland already have such frameworks and are using them, with greater or lesser effect, to guide policy on these competing areas of need. Many countries across the globe have land-use strategies—even China, as we heard at our Select Committee last week—so, it is long overdue that England should develop and use such a framework. This issue was identified by the Select Committee on the Rural Economy two years ago: it recommended that there should be an England land-use framework. The Commission on the Future of Food, Farming and the Countryside—I declare an interest as a member—has identified this as a major issue and is conducting a pilot land-use framework for Devon, which may encourage the Government to see whether they could adopt it on a national basis.

Since we debated this issue during the passage of the Agriculture Bill, several other spatial planning issues have arisen. The Government have made a commitment, in the England Trees Action Plan, to major expansion of woodland. Where are the best places for trees to go that do not undermine the other valuable land uses, such as agriculture? What is the answer to that? We need a land-use framework to tell us. The new farming support regime, as the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, outlined, will result in substantial land-use change. Local nature recovery strategies already have a quasi-land-use planning role but could well raise major challenges to local development plans, as has already been outlined. The changes to the planning system heralded in the Government’s White Paper will impact on the use of land, but traditionally, the planning system does not cover, in any real way, rural agricultural land. Net biodiversity gain will require land to achieve that gain. Can the Minister clarify how all these mechanisms are to be integrated and not bang into each other?

Land is a finite resource—we are not making any more—and we desperately need a strategic land-use framework to maximise the value to wildlife, development, the economy and people. If the Minister disagrees, will he outline how the Government intend to reconcile the increasing competition for land? The risk is that these separate systems will encourage particular land uses in particular places, with decisions taken in silos without a more strategic view on how to get the right use in the right place and maximise the benefit of the precious resource that land represents.

I also support Amendments 209 and 210. I have put my name to Amendment 209 in the name the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter. It makes the vital link between local nature recovery strategies and other land use decisions by public authorities. It was put vividly by the noble Baroness. The Knepp example is being replicated over the country. Our local version in Bedfordshire is that the local native recovery strategy is beginning to identify, from rigorous scrutiny of the data, that the North Bedfordshire Wolds is probably the most important area of open countryside left in Bedfordshire, but the local plan has been developing new town proposals to put new settlements of 6,000 to 10,000 inhabitants right in the middle of the North Bedfordshire Wolds—so not much join-up there then. I therefore support the need for local nature recovery strategies to have legal status, so that planners and developers have to take account of them. Amendment 210, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, aims to make a statutory link between local planning decisions and biodiversity in all the decisions that public authorities make.

My last point is a practical one. Local authorities have, almost universally, reduced the number of ecologists they employ; two out of three local authorities do not have an ecologist on their staff. We need proper integration of all these new and existing mechanisms for land use, and ecologists will be vital to that task, so we need to ensure that local authorities are properly funded to be able to do this job.

Photo of Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Green

My Lords, it is a delight to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone. I completely agree with her about leaving out one’s body for the birds to pick over the bones. Personally, I would not mind corvids; they are very bright, so I would not have a problem with that at all.

For all those who would like to know about the footy, it is 1-1 at the moment. Denmark scored first.

While we are talking about corpses, I will throw in my own story. In Norway, in 2016, a herd of wild reindeer were electrocuted. There were 232 animals—calves, parents, everything—who all died simultaneously. Rangers in the area decided to leave the corpses and watched for several years to see what would happen. The biodiversity explosion was huge; it was not just predators, birds, insects and everything that fed off them, but the plants and fungi that were a by-product of all this activity. Biodiversity is aided by corpses. This is probably not an option for most local authorities, but it is something that individual gardeners could use when they find dead animals, if they can stand the smell.

The amendments in this group are part of the wider task being undertaken by your Lordships’ House to insert the strong legal mechanisms that will give effect to the ambitions of this Bill. The Bill should be a watershed moment for the conduct of government and public administration, but we are missing loads of opportunities to have any sort of impact. Amendment 205B, moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, would be a turning point for public authorities. We need public servants to recognise their roles as stewards of the environment and the natural world, and this amendment would do that. Every function and decision should be made with the environment and ecosystems at the forefront of the decision-maker’s mind. In the 21st century, that should be a fundamental principle of good governance.

Amendment 232 of the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, then ensures these new powers and duties on public authorities are properly resourced, so they can be delivered. We all know about the massive cuts to local authorities that have been happening over the past 11 years and, honestly, I am staggered that local authorities can carry on with all the services they manage to, but we cannot allow a situation where ever more duties are placed on local authorities, while they still struggle with the effects of austerity. The Government have to invest in good-quality local services and invest massively in a transformative programme to repair our natural world. The two cannot be put into conflict; the Government must make resources available to local authorities to deliver both with excellence. I hope we will revisit these two points on Report, because they are important to delivering the ambition of the Bill.

I have been watching today’s business from my office, trying to get on with other work, and the stamina shown by noble Lords still in the Chamber is absolutely staggering. I admire your fortitude and energy. Let us all hope that we do not have to do this again too often, because the Government will accept loads of our amendments.

Photo of The Earl of Devon The Earl of Devon Crossbench 9:00 pm, 7th July 2021

My Lords, it is always a great pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, and to address these amendments, which are focused on the highly valuable local nature recovery strategies.

I am very supportive of the addition suggested by the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, of “nature-friendly farming” to new subsection (2A) of the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act. As I explained in an earlier debate, I am concerned that this House should temper somewhat the risk of environmental tyranny inherent in the Bill and ensure that we remind ourselves and local authorities that the core purpose of land management across these islands over many hundreds of years has been the production of healthy and nutritious food. I wonder whether the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, who will follow me, might agree with that.

I am also strongly supportive of the efforts of the noble Lords, Lord Teverson and Lord Lucas, to ensure that local nature partnerships and our diversity of local community members should have real input into local nature recovery strategies. These amendments go to a point that has been debated previously in Committee over the role of local communities and local land managers within the setting of local environmental targets. I was pleased when the Minister accepted the crucial importance of that. If local nature recovery strategies are to be a success, they must be developed in consultation with those who manage the land—those whose living derives from the land—as well as those who enjoy the land for their health and well-being. Local nature recovery strategies should not be determined by central edict from Westminster or by well-funded special interest lobby groups with no local mandate.

I too offer my strong support to Amendment 293 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, and I applaud her tireless efforts to introduce a land-use strategy for our agricultural land. She indeed raised this during the passage of the then Agriculture Bill, at which time it seemed very sensible but maybe not essential. However, now that we are layering on top of ELMS so many other competing and potentially confusing land-use imperatives, it has become clear that we need to consider afresh what we really want of our land and to prioritise those imperatives accordingly.

I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Young, for the Cambridge University statistics, which counter the Minister’s earlier and surprisingly off-the-cuff assertion that we have sufficient marginal land to do all that is needed. I am not sure that is strictly true. We are a very small and heavily populated island with an incredibly long-established culture of intensive and successful land use. As I alluded to earlier in reference to biodiversity net gain, what we are asking of this green and pleasant land is arguably far more than it can deliver. Between housing, renewables, biodiversity, leisure and food production we are in very real danger of exhausting our much-beloved countryside. We need to find a means of developing a joined-up and dependable land-use strategy, informed by local communities and land managers, that delivers on our national priorities.

Finally, the Knepp estate has come up often in these debates and I should comment on it. I have always been hugely impressed by its achievements. However, I have always understood that the reason the Knepp estate chose to rewild was that it was relatively low-grade agricultural land that was not agriculturally productive and that it wished to do something remarkable with it: to recover nature and to provide public access and education. By putting a housing development approximate to Knepp, is Horsham Council not delivering directly on that ambition, converting low-grade adjoining farmland to housing and providing comparatively ready access to remarkable biodiversity for the benefit of the community’s health and well-being? As an additional bonus, Knepp can be paid to provide ecosystem services to that community, so it would seem potentially like a win-win situation.

Photo of Baroness Boycott Baroness Boycott Crossbench

It is a great pleasure to follow the noble Earl, Lord Devon. I have just been camping at Knepp for three nights—Friday, Saturday and Sunday—so I walked the land extensively, went on guided tours and saw the work being done. He is not correct when he says that a housing estate next door will in fact be of some kind of educational benefit. The whole point of Knepp is that a wildlife corridor was going to be created where this new housing development is that would take the birds, as well as some other animals, to the sea.

I support the amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, because we need a rethink of how we look at land and what we do. We need to start using things imaginatively such as the middles of towns for people to live in. I live outside Taunton, the town centre of which has completely fallen apart in the last couple of decades. There are empty shops and closed-up buildings; there is no life in that town. Instead, you have miles and miles of small boxes outside the town that are extremely environmentally non-sustainable. They are miles from the schools and the town centre and the place has become a doughnut—it has that sort of hollowed-out feeling.

Unless we start to reimagine how we want to live, of course we will go on having the problems that we have all talked about, and 3,500 houses will continue to be put on the Knepp site. Storks have just been brought back and there are now about 120 storks flying around. We had lunch on Sunday under three trees where there were storks’ nests. It is completely magical. Those creatures will go if they suddenly find that they are under houses. The noble Earl, Lord Devon, is right: the Burrells decided to rewild Knepp because their land was not productive. They were losing £150,000 a year in 2000 and felt that they could not go on drowning the site in chemicals and trying to make weak soil support high-yield crops, so it was logical to rewild that site. However, they have no ambition to rewild the whole of England. They know that Knepp is a site of special interest and should be seen in that way—as an educational tool. It is buzzing with researchers from all over the world who are studying everything, including how a pig’s trotter makes a little pool that enables a particular flower to feed, which in turn has brought back the turtle dove. They have found all those connections that had been completely lost.

Of course we need good food, good farming and grade 1 land, so I hugely support the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, when he says that agro-ecology and agro-friendly farming have to be the way forward. I have recently been to the Groundswell conference, which is about min-till or no-till, whereby one makes just slices through the earth and does not disrupt the magic of our soil. Just as many crops are being grown without the inputs. We can do it.

I come back to the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, to which I have put my name. What really matters in this is that if we do not give local authorities the ability to stand on their own two feet and enforce rules on people, we take away their agency. If one looks at causes such as the transition towns or Incredible Edible Todmorden, these are absolutely miraculous and wonderful community initiatives that have brought life, health, friendship and masses of plants in all sorts of forms back into the middle of towns. It destroys one’s belief in the system if one constantly fails, if the housing development goes up against all local opposition and if, over and again, one’s voice is turned down. We are going to need all those local people with vested interests in their local community if we are really going to make a difference. It is therefore blindingly obvious that local authorities need the teeth of this amendment to fight off any imposed housing quotas. We have to put nature first in the planning system. It is not tangential and we do not have an option.

Photo of Lord Teverson Lord Teverson Chair, EU Environment Sub-Committee, Chair, EU Environment Sub-Committee

My Lords, once again, I declare my interest as chair of the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Local Nature Partnership, which is rather relevant to a couple of my amendments.

I want to go back to the basic argument of what the Bill is about. There is a real issue—an emergency, as I and many others would describe it, in biodiversity and the quantum of nature in England. Because of that we have this Bill. It is about doing something—and we have to do something. However, while we all welcome nature recovery networks as a great initiative in the Bill for which I congratulate the Government, when we have that emergency and we have seen how the Aichi targets over the past 10 years mean that we have gone backwards in this area, we need those nature recovery networks actually to work. Exactly as the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, said, if we do not do that, what is the point?

This group is about the rubber hitting the road, if you like. This is “make your mind up” time. Are Nature Recovery Networks and biodiversity targets going to be something we can all feel good about because they are in legislation, or will they make sure there is change over the next decade? That is the choice that the Government have in these amendments. I will be very interested to hear the Minister’s response.

There is a great deal going on, as we have heard from noble Lords. If the biodiversity targets that the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, described so well, are not implemented and joined up with the fundamental area of planning, we are throwing away this opportunity. We must tie it up with land use and farming, as the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, and the noble Lord, Earl Caithness, have mentioned. Roughly 75% of England is agricultural, and if we get that right we can move forward in terms of biodiversity.

Farming is crucial to making nature recovery networks and biodiversity work. We have to tie that up with the organisations that have these responsibilities already, exactly as the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, said: drainage boards and the Environment Agency. That is true as well. I believe that it is essential, and I think the Committee does, that there should not just be “regard” for these nature recovery networks. They have to be embedded, planted, and statutorily mandated to comply with them. Otherwise, they will not have strength.

Down in Cornwall, as the Minister is probably well aware, we have a lot of beaver introductions—we were talking about those earlier on—and have gone through one of five nature recovery pilots. I have been very much involved, as chair of the local nature partnership. It is a great exercise to go through. The noble Earl, Lord Devon, talked about consultation with local communities. We have to get that buy-in, and I am pleased to say that some 700 people were involved in consultation with our pilot in Cornwall. We have a really good scheme there, but, coming back to one of my amendments, how the heck are these going to be resourced?

There are two necessities here: one is tying and mandating their use with other machinery, whether it is the Planning Act or agriculture—we will come onto ELMS in the next group—but there also have to be the resources. The noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, said local authorities do not have ecologists at the moment. We have to have them so they can work on nature recovery networks as well as net gain. If we do not have the resources to develop nature recovery networks and get them to work, how will it happen?

The Government might say that we have the environmental land management scheme, with £2.5 billion worth of state aid to buy public goods, but I do not see that necessarily fulfilling the needs of nature recovery networks entirely. We have net gain; I hope most of that net gain will be done onsite, and there are potentially ways of having resources there, but those two together are not enough to make nature recovery networks work. How are we going to resource the implementation of these strategies? Those are the fundamental points.

In terms of my other two amendments, local nature partnerships were, I was sad to see, not even mentioned in the Bill. They came about through The Natural Choice: Securing the Value of Nature, the natural environment White Paper of June 2011. They were never put on a statutory basis, but they exist throughout England, full of people from all walks of life. In Cornwall and Scilly, we have local authorities, the Environment Agency, Natural England, farmers, ecologists and ordinary independent directors to make nature work in our region.

I put this amendment down purely as a probing amendment to understand the Government’s view of these organisations. I have always felt, politically, that if we have something that does not work, we should abolish it. So I put down a challenge to the Government: make these things work as they can—some work very well, others not so well—but they need to have some resource to be able to do that. The White Paper on which they were based said they should be the equivalent of local enterprise partnerships. Now LEPs are well funded generally: they have power, they are important partners of local authorities and they make economic growth and development work in a good way, often in the regions. But the LNPs are not able to do that: they do not have that clout, they do not have that resource. So I am very interested to understand from the Minister how the Government see the future of these organisations. Again, I provocatively say, if we are not going to make them work, why do we not just get rid of them? That would be a great shame, because they are a tremendous forum for bringing various parties together to make these agendas work. My last point would be that they should also be an integral part of how nature recovery networks are designed and delivered.

To sum up, we really come to a choice here. Are nature recovery networks and biodiversity targets purely there as comfort or are they there to change our natural environment? That is the question I pose to the Minister.

Photo of Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) 9:15 pm, 7th July 2021

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, for tabling Amendment 209. I would like to assure her that I share her enthusiasm for local nature recovery strategies. These strategies are a key provision in the Bill, which will empower local people across the country to identify where action for nature and the environment would have most impact, and where investment in new habitat recreation or restoration will achieve best outcomes for biodiversity.

Local nature recovery strategies and the measures in the Bill lay the foundation for the establishment of the nature recovery network, but they are not binding plans that must be followed. They are intended to guide rather than compel action, with delivery supported by incentives as well as duties. Requiring public authorities to “have regard” is therefore appropriate in that light.

The Government have already committed publicly to local nature recovery strategies informing development plans and future schemes that reward environmental benefits, as well as targeting biodiversity net gain, and I am happy to reaffirm and restate that commitment today.

While I cannot comment on the ongoing development of councils’ local plans, I can say that, when preparing their local plans, local authorities will have to have regard to their local nature recovery strategies, which will tell them where housing can be developed with lower impacts on nature. I have said this before, but I strongly agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, about Knepp. It is magical, and I have to say that it is hard to see how it can be enhanced by a giant new housing development next door to it. But it is also true, as the noble Baroness said, that no one is expecting every farm in the country to become a mini-Knepp; that is not the idea. But, at the same time, for the reasons that the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, outlined very powerfully today and in many speeches, we do want lots more Knepps, because they would be like a bank of biodiversity that could spread its treasures across the land—so we do want a network of Knepps, absolutely.

Moving on to Amendment 210, I can assure the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, that it is the Government’s view that the policy outcomes of this amendment are delivered already through the Bill as drafted. The wide range of existing legal and planning policy protections for sites, species and habitats will be complemented by the mandatory biodiversity net gain measures in the Bill that we discussed earlier. These measures require that habitats for wildlife must be left in a measurably better state than they were pre development.

The Government are committed to the measures introduced in the Environment Bill, on which the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government has worked closely with Defra to develop. As set out in the Planning for the Future consultation, we want the reformed planning system to play a proactive role in promoting environmental recovery and long-term sustainability. The proposed planning reforms will reinforce the implementation of these measures, including the biodiversity duty, as opposed to contradicting them. Through our planning reforms, we intend to maintain protections for areas of high environmental value and place a stronger emphasis on opportunities for environmental improvement. As I said earlier, I am meeting with the Housing Secretary shortly to discuss this and many other issues further.

Moving to Amendment 210A, from the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, I agree very much with the intention of his amendment, which seeks to ensure that future farming practices support nature recovery. He is right to make the argument that he has, in particular, to re-emphasise the point that other noble Lords have made, that there is no inherent contradiction between farming and nature. There are good farms and bad farms, but good, sustainable farming is inherently nature friendly. That is the kind of agriculture and land use that we need to encourage and must see much more of. The existing Clause 95 places a broad duty on all public authorities to conserve and enhance biodiversity. Where an authority has influence over farming, or has farms on its land, it will already need to consider what it can do to ensure that biodiversity is supported.

On Amendment 205B, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, in strengthening the biodiversity duty we are ensuring that public authorities take more effective action to support nature’s recovery. But it is important that authorities have the flexibility to balance the competing priorities. Public authorities have a huge range of functions that are vital to society and which must continue to be delivered, so requiring them to prioritise biodiversity over all other considerations could cause unintended consequences for the provision of public services. For example, if authorities were obliged to prioritise biodiversity over adult social care, it is unlikely that this would be accepted by the community. So we are increasing the strength of the biodiversity duty, but in a way that allows them to balance other priorities.

I agree very much with the intent behind Amendments 228 and 232, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Teverson. Of course we want these things to work. We are not just going through the motions; we expect these new systems to deliver for nature. The local nature partnerships that he mentioned must, and will, play a key role in preparing and delivering local nature recovery networks. This has already been demonstrated through the five recently completed pilots. The Cornwall and Isles of Scilly partnership, which I have mentioned before, and which was chaired by the noble Lord himself, was a fantastic example of this, helping to co-create a prototype local nature recovery strategy with Cornwall Council. There are also many other local groups that have key roles to play in preparing these strategies. We intend to use regulations made under Clause 98 to ensure that all important local partners will be fully involved, so I am pleased to confirm that the intent of the noble Lord’s amendment can already be delivered by the Bill as drafted.

Regarding Amendment 232, I assure noble Lords that the Government are committed to fully funding the preparation of these strategies. New duties and incentives from the Government will play a key role in boosting activity, but the public, private and voluntary sectors must all play their part in delivering these jointly owned local strategies for nature recovery.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, for tabling Amendment 229A. Regulations made under Clause 98 will have an important role to play in the successful implementation of local nature recovery strategies. The scope for the regulations is broad, specifying the procedure that the responsible authority must follow in preparing, publishing, reviewing and republishing their strategy. To inform the approach that the Government will take to these regulations, we are committed to launching a consultation over the summer.

Regarding Amendment 262, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, I again share his motivation to build on the hugely important work of local nature partnerships, but I do not think that a formal consultation is necessarily the best approach. Local nature partnerships were set up in 2011 to be locally led, non-statutory organisations, focusing on the environmental priorities in their areas.

On Amendment 230, from the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, the Government’s intention is that delivery of local nature recovery strategies will be driven by a combination of duties and incentives that balance the need for urgent action with the rights of landowners and land managers. Local drainage boards and the Environment Agency will both have important roles to play in delivering local nature recovery strategies, given how crucial water is for so many aspects of nature. As public authorities, they and a great many other organisations will be required by Clause 95 to have regard to relevant local nature recovery strategies when exercising their functions.

Finally, the Government welcome Amendment 293 from the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, and agree with the intent to achieve a more strategic approach to land use. At Second Reading, the noble Baroness said:

“Land needs to be multifunctional and to deliver a whole range of public and private benefits”.—[Official Report, 7/6/21; col. 1215.]

That is exactly what the Government are aiming to achieve as we confront climate and biodiversity challenges, while maintaining food production and sustainable development.

The Government do not underestimate the scale of the challenge. Existing clauses on local nature recovery strategies will provide England-wide coverage of locally produced spatial strategies for nature and nature-based solutions. Regulations and guidance will ensure that they work together coherently. The noble Baroness has set the challenge, which the Government must meet through the implementation of the Bill and our wider reforms, to deliver a genuinely strategic approach to land-use change across the UK.

I thank all noble Lords for their thoughtful contributions to this debate, and, for now, I ask them not to press their amendments.

Photo of Baroness Fookes Baroness Fookes Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

My Lords, the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, has requested to speak after the Minister.

Photo of The Earl of Caithness The Earl of Caithness Conservative

My Lords, I am grateful for the reply my noble friend the Minister gave, but I am slightly perturbed by his answer to the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, to which I put my name. He said we need a lot more Knepps. Yes, but where will they go?

He went on to say that the Government have a strategic approach. I do not think they have. My noble friend is battling with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government on many issues at the moment, and he will be battling with the Treasury and the Department for Transport. This goes across government. The Government might think they have a strategy but, without a strategy that we can all look at, it will be dependent on the budget and annual spending plans of each department. It will be a horrible annual battle.

I hope my noble friend will reconsider this between now and another stage, because the more I have listened to on the Bill and the more I have talked to farmers, the more I am absolutely convinced that the only sensible way forward is for us to have a strategy to which we can have our input and support the Government. That will make life clearer and better for everybody in future. Not only will it protect our environment much better but it will help produce the food that we want. The way we are going, we will have to import a whole lot more food than we do at the moment; that will be the downside of the Bill.

Photo of Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

I think we are agreed. In the past, I have heard the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, agree—as most people in this Committee would agree—that we need to do all we can to reverse biodiversity loss. We cannot do that without the measures that I have described today and that we have been debating over the last seven days in Committee. We can bank that as something we all agree on and put it to one side.

We also know that we need to produce food, and that we probably have to produce more food. The only answer to that is to maximise the use of land that is not highly productive, to increase productivity on land that is productive and to ensure that the farming we do does not undercut or undermine the work we are doing on areas that are not farmed. That means reconciling farming with nature. No one is pretending it is easy, but that is what we have to do. If we do not do that, we fail with nature, food security and pretty much all the ambitions we set ourselves. It is difficult, but that is what we are trying to do. Things such as ELM and the other mechanisms that exist will, I hope, create the incentives we need to take us down that route.

Photo of Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 9:30 pm, 7th July 2021

My Lords, I thank everyone who has contributed to what has been a very wide-ranging and excellent debate. I thought the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, made an excellent argument about the need for local authorities to act in accordance with their local nature recovery strategy so that it becomes centre stage. As she says, it is not sufficient for them to simply “have regard to” that strategy. I listened to what the Minister said in response. He will forgive our ongoing scepticism about “have regard to” but, quite frankly, in the past it has been an excuse for inaction. That is our concern about the way that it is worded at the moment. We still feel that there needs to be something more specific that ties down that relationship for the future.

The noble Baroness quite rightly points out that iconic nature reserves such as Knepp would be protected under the terms of her amendment, and I agree with that. That theme was echoed by a number of noble Lords. Again, we have to look at the practical applications of some of these phrases to see what can be achieved by them. I think the noble Lord said that Knepp is just one example, and we seem to have been talking an awful lot about it, but the truth is—and I think the Minister said this—we want a lot of Knepps, particularly on land which is not suitable for high-productive farming. Let us not just concentrate on the one. We want a strategy that will deliver for all the potential Knepps in the future and they all need to have the protection of their local nature recovery strategy to help with that.

I also agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, that local government is under enormous pressure at the moment and needs the resources to carry out its responsibility properly. Again, the Minister said that these initiatives would be properly resourced. I have to say that that has not been our experience up until now. It has been all too tempting in the past for more and more policies to be put on the shoulders of local government without it having the necessary resources to carry out new responsibilities, which it would like to do properly but just does not have the resources. I think there is still a dichotomy there.

The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, made the excellent point about the diversity of representation on the boards and the need for agencies to collaborate in delivering the strategy. I thought that point was well made. He also mentioned the Cuckmere estuary. As he probably knows, the Seven Sisters site is about—I think this week—to be signed over to the South Downs National Park, which will include the Cuckmere estate. I hope very much that, if there have been failures in the past, under the new regime it will become an exemplar of nature recovery and biodiversity as a new and exciting country park.

The noble Lord, Lord Teverson, with his customary authority, set out why it is crucial that local nature recovery strategies should be drawn up with the local nature recovery networks. He quite rightly probed the Minister on whether we can justify the partnerships and the networks. Are we clear what they are there for and the contribution that they will really make and, again, are we sure that they will have proper resourcing? I think those questions were well put.

The noble Earl, Lord Caithness, quite rightly points us to the work of the Nature Friendly Farming Network —again, I have had some dealings with it and have been impressed with the work it is doing—and the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust. He is right that Natural England should work with these initiatives.

I very much welcome Amendment 293 in the name of my noble friend Lady Young of Old Scone. This is a hugely important amendment. As she says, we need a framework to manage the multiple pressures on land. She listed all the Government’s initiatives which pile up on top of what is a very scarce and precious resource. As she says, it could end up with random and incoherent priorities sitting side by side. The noble Earl, Lord Devon, said that all these pressures on our green and pleasant land are more than we can really deliver and, at some point, someone is going to have to make some strategic choices about all of this.

I listened to the Minister’s response to this, and he seemed to welcome what my noble friend was saying in her amendment. However, it needs more than warm words: it needs a commitment for that strategy to be laid down, the timescales to be met and Parliament to have a say in it—so it is quite a big ask if we are going to do it properly. I do not know my noble friend’s plan for the amendment, but there was a lot of support for it around the Chamber, so I hope that she will consider pursuing that in some way.

I listened carefully to what the Minister said in answer to my question about planning and the battle between biodiversity and planners. I am not sure that he answered my question on how a developer’s green footprint will be assessed under the new regime. I understand that he is discussing this further with the Housing Minister, and, obviously, that is a welcome step, but we need to clarify this important point in the Bill now—so I hope that his discussions can come to fruition very quickly.

I will quote again from the Environmental Audit Committee because I am not sure that the Minister responded to it. It recommended that:

“The Government should explain how and when it will move to embedding environmental net gain in the planning system, with clear actions and milestones”.

It also recommended that:

“The Government should strengthen local authority capacity and enforcement mechanisms to deliver biodiversity net gain”.

Those structural things—clear actions, clear milestones and how these things will be measured—are missing from what the Minister is saying at the moment.

We are left with a concern that has not been answered —he will know that it has been raised not just here but elsewhere—and we need an answer to this, somehow. We need to bring this to fruition in some shape or form. Obviously, we will not do that this evening. I welcome further discussions on this with the Minister, as I am sure other noble Lords will, but, in the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 205B withdrawn.

Amendments 206 to 211 not moved.

Clause 95 agreed.

Photo of Baroness Fookes Baroness Fookes Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

We now come to the group beginning with Amendment 212. Anyone wishing to press this or anything else in this group to a Division must make that clear in debate.