Amendment 212

Environment Bill - Committee (6th Day) – in the House of Lords at 9:30 pm on 7th July 2021.

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Lord Oates:

Moved by Lord Oates

212: After Clause 95, insert the following new Clause—“Power to conserve biodiversityAfter section 40 of the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006 insert—“40ZA Power to conserve biodiversity(1) This section applies to—(a) a local authority in England other than a parish council, and(b) a local planning authority in England.(2) For the purposes of complying with the general biodiversity objective under section 40(1) and (1A), a public authority to which this section applies may designate a site within the area of the authority as a site at risk of biodiversity loss.(3) Proposals under this section must be submitted for consideration to a public meeting in the area to which they relate prior to a site being designated.(4) An authority exercising powers under this section must have regard to any views concerning the proposals expressed by—(a) those attending the meeting;(b) those who own or otherwise possess land in the proposed site at risk of biodiversity loss;(c) any other party with a relevant interest in the site.(5) An authority exercising its power under this section may publish a plan to protect the biodiversity of a designated site, which may include—(a) an assessment of the impact that any plan, project or other activity may have on the biodiversity of the protected site,(b) its assessment of activities that should not take place on the site where it reasonably believes those activities would be significantly detrimental to biodiversity on the site, and(c) any plan, project or other activity that the authority considers is necessary for the purposes of protecting biodiversity on the site.(6) An authority exercising its power to designate land under this section may enter into a “conservation covenant agreement” with a landowner as provided for in Part 7 of the Environment Act 2021.s(7) An authority to which this section applies has a right of entry to land designated as a site of importance for local biodiversity, where it has reasonable cause to believe that local biodiversity is at significant risk.””Member’s explanatory statementThe purpose of this amendment is to provide local authorities with powers to assist them in discharging their duties under Clause 95 “General duty to conserve and enhance biodiversity”.

Photo of Lord Oates Lord Oates Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change)

My Lords, I speak to Amendment 212 in my name and those of my noble friend Lord Teverson and the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle. I am grateful to both of them for their support. I will also speak to Amendments 270 to 273 and Amendment 275, also in my name, which relate to conservation covenant agreements in Part 7 of the Bill and flow from the principal Amendment 212.

There is much in the Bill about the power of the Secretary of State to impose duties on local councils and other public authorities, but there is next to nothing about the power of these authorities to discharge their duties. This is as apparent in Part 6, “Nature and Biodiversity”, as it is elsewhere, where councils have many duties in respect of maintaining local biodiversity but precious few powers to do so.

My amendments seek to address this. Amendment 212 aims to tackle an issue that arises where landowners are destroying biodiversity on their sites, sometimes because they are frustrated at failing to get planning consent and think it may be easier to achieve if the site is a barren wasteland, devoid of nature. At present, local authorities have very little power to stop them and, while I understand that there are powers under the Wildlife and Countryside Act that allow the police to act in certain circumstances, they themselves face resource constraints and, for understandable reasons, often have more pressing priorities. Amendment 212 would allow a local authority to designate land as a

“site at risk of biodiversity loss”,

with consequent powers to enter land to inspect what is taking place and to enter into a conservation covenant agreement with the landowner.

The subsequent Amendments 270 to 273, and Amendment 275, which relate to the conservation covenant agreements, seek to automatically list local authorities as the default responsible bodies able to enter into such agreements. At present, only the Secretary of State is listed as a responsible body, although he or she has the power to designate a local authority, or indeed any other body, as a responsible body.

There are two reasons for my amendments requiring local authorities by default to be deemed responsible bodies. The first is that the conservation covenant agreement is in many ways analogous to the listed building heritage partnership agreements under Section 60 of the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013. These are within the remit of the local authority. It seems to me that, in the case of the conservation covenant agreements, the default responsible body should be the local authority and another body should be designated only if it can manifestly be demonstrated to be the more appropriate body. Local authorities are on the front line in the fight against biodiversity loss. They have knowledge of the actual situations on the ground in the locality that the Secretary of State can never hope to have, however omniscient they may convince themselves they are.

Secondly, Amendment 212 provides that the local authority may enter into a conservation covenant agreement in relation to a site that it has designated as at risk of biodiversity loss, in order to agree with a landowner a schedule of works that is permissible to maintain a site without damaging its biodiversity. Unless Part 7 is amended, the local authority might find that it does not have that power because, by act of omission or commission, the Secretary of State has not designated it a responsible body.

I was prompted to bring all these amendments to the Committee as a result of a particular situation which has arisen in my home borough of Kingston-upon-Thames, relating to the Seething Wells filter beds site, which may be familiar to the Minister. It is a former Thames Water facility next to the river in Surbiton, which has significance not only for nature and biodiversity but for history, having played a key role in helping Dr John Snow prove cholera was water-borne. The site is designated as metropolitan open land and has been disused since its decommission in 1992. It subsequently developed into a haven for plant and animal life, including birds, bats and grass snakes. It is an important site for biodiversity in the borough. Following a number of failed planning applications over many years on the site, the current owners embarked on the widescale destruction of vegetation, destroying these precious habitats and leaving the site barren. The council has largely had its hands tied. It had no power to stop the owners doing what they were doing, or even to enter the site to find out exactly what was taking place. As a consequence, the biodiversity of this important local site has been lost. But nature could return to the site if the council was given the powers to intervene that would be provided by my amendments.

In the context of this site, I pay tribute to the appropriately named councillor Liz Green, whose passion to protect this site inspired this amendment, and to the Seething Wells Action Group, for all its committed campaigning. The situation at Seething Wells is a tragedy in itself, but it is evident from local authorities across the country that many face similar challenges and similarly lack the powers to tackle them.

These amendments would ensure that a local authority could designate land as a site of biodiversity loss, and would provide a local authority with the power to enter such land

“where it has reasonable cause to believe that local biodiversity is at significant risk.”

They would allow councils to publish a plan to protect the biodiversity of a designated site and to enter into a conservation covenant agreement with the owner of the land. As such, these amendments would provide important tools in the armoury of local authorities as they seek to protect land that is a precious biodiversity resource for their local communities.

I hope that, in his response, the Minister will recognise the important role that local authorities can play in protecting local biodiversity if they are empowered to do so. I also hope that he can give me some assurance that he is prepared to consider how the Government can incorporate the intent of these amendments into the Bill. To that end, I would welcome the opportunity to discuss this matter with him in the coming weeks, so that we can ensure that, in future, local councils across the country have the powers to prevent the sort of heartbreaking biodiversity destruction that has occurred on the Seething Wells filter beds site and ensure that such things never happen again. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Teverson Lord Teverson Chair, EU Environment Sub-Committee, Chair, EU Environment Sub-Committee 9:45 pm, 7th July 2021

My Lords, I shall be pretty brief on this, because both my amendments should really have been in the previous group, although one of them is particularly important.

First, I take just one minute to reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone. She was concerned that she should not be consumed by vultures, but on the of Isles of Scilly, we have an Egyptian vulture visiting this year. There may not be an opportunity next year, so there are big decisions. That vulture joins Wally the Walrus, who, unfortunately, has come some 2,000 miles too far south on an ice floe and is trying to land his big weight—up to a tonne—on local vessels. I say to the Minister that we have some introductions that were not necessarily there before the last ice age, but there we are.

I shall be very brief. My first amendment says that local authorities must have a duty to implement nature recovery networks. That comes back to the theme of the previous group, and I shall not go through that again. My second amendment, which is also slightly out of place here, is key. It comes back to environmental land management schemes, which will be the big game-changers in practice in the countryside over the next decade. Why? Because they have real resources behind them—£2.5 billion per annum, potentially—to put into nature recovery. Their whole ethos and guiding hand is public goods being paid for by public money, and their concentration is to be on biodiversity—not all of it is for nature recovery but a large proportion of it is.

We have the three tiers, as they were called: the sustainable farm initiative, the nature recovery area and the whole landscape side. I am stating the totally blindingly obvious, but you cannot have that going off in one direction and nature recovery networks going off in another. One is primarily produced by local government, AONBs or national parks; the other is produced and decided by Defra centrally. The good news is that they are both within the “Defra family”, but I have little hope that, without real concentration, one part of Defra will be talking to the Natural England side, on the other, on nature recovery network implementation. My challenge is this: how are we going to get those two key elements to work together, rather than working in conflict?

The only other thing I would say is that I was delighted to put my name to my noble friend Lord Oates’s amendment; he has expounded those virtues tremendously. I will not follow on from that, except to entirely endorse his arguments.

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

I understand that the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, has withdrawn, so I call the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb.

Photo of Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Green

My Lords, I will be brief as well because I would like to get home to see extra time.

As in the previous group, these amendments would strengthen the Bill by giving it powers and mechanisms to make it work well. Amendment 212 would give new powers to local authorities to protect and enhance nature in the planning process. I know that the Green Party’s 450 or so councillors sitting on over 140 local authorities, along with thousands of other environmentally aware councillors from other political parties, would be able to achieve a huge amount with these new powers—in particular, the ability to prohibit inappropriate activities that would be detrimental to biodiversity. At the moment, there is little more that can be done other than protesting and campaigning against this sort of environmental destruction, which of course we all do extremely well but too often it is, sadly, completely useless. So this would be an important tool with which to defend communities and nature.

Amendment 231A would do the important work of tying the Bill in with the recently passed Agriculture Act. Both Bills have similar objectives—to protect and enhance the environment—but somehow there are no explicit links. This amendment would provide them. The two Acts could well end up pursuing parallel objectives rather than delivering joint action. Something that I think was missing from the Agriculture Act was that large-scale landscape-level planning that goes beyond individual farms and parcels of land. Amendment 231A would definitely help to ameliorate that by tying individual landholdings into the larger scheme of the nature recovery strategy. I hope the Minister will address that point specifically.

Photo of Baroness Young of Old Scone Baroness Young of Old Scone Labour

My Lords, I shall speak to Amendment 231A in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Teverson. I am slightly concerned that the noble Lord appeared to suggest that I go to the Isles of Scilly, fling myself in front of a moving vehicle and then lie on a hillside to allow a vulture to eat me. That would be delightful but to be honest it would be a bit premature, so I am not sure I am going to take up his offer. There will be other vultures—other vultures are available, as I think the phrase goes.

The noble Lord’s amendment would require any environmental land management scheme project to comply with the local nature recovery strategy. This is absolutely the joining-up of agricultural and nature purposes of land use, which is vital, as the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, laid out. The fact that the noble Lord has felt the need for agriculture and biodiversity uses to be joined up reinforces the need for an overarching land-use framework, as I outlined in my previous amendment, combining not only agricultural and nature purposes but development and a variety of others, such as climate change mitigation and floods—multiple purposes that a limited land supply has to achieve. However, if I cannot have a land-use framework from the Minister, I would be very grateful if he would give way to the noble Lord, Lord Teverson and let us at least have agriculture and nature joined up.

Photo of Baroness Boycott Baroness Boycott Crossbench

I support Amendment 212 and all amendments that join ELMS and nature recovery plans. Farming, as we know, is responsible for practically all biodiversity loss, and all the intensive farming that is going on has to cease.

My worry about ELMS was reflected at the Groundswell conference, where this year there were nearly 5,000 farmers. There were many talks going on and many people were extremely concerned about when ELMS would come in, how it was going to work and how they were going to be paid. As far as I know, only one of the pilot schemes has actually started to deliver any sums of money. A sum of £47 per hectare for better soil was being proposed through the Landworkers’ Alliance, at which most farmers turned round and said: “That’s simply not enough. How can I refigure my entire future to make my land biodiverse and nature-friendly when I don’t know what kind of support I’m going to have?” It seems crucial for us to have the sort of joined-up thinking that is in the amendment. I urge the Government to say when there will be clarity for farmers about what kind of support they can have so that they can shift their farming mechanisms to protect biodiversity.

On the question of local authorities, what is happening a lot in our area is that people are creating driveways and putting up barns in the middle of the countryside. These then become stalking horses—a cattle barn then needs a house for someone to live beside it. We have one of these very close to where we live. We have all been objecting because there is a problem with the stream: there is runoff. They are proposing to have 300 cows in there but they do not need it as there are brownfield sites and disused farms around that could be used instead. Everyone seems to be powerless and not have a leg to stand on. This is an important amendment and I hope the Government will be able to incorporate it when the Bill comes back to us again.

Photo of Baroness Hayman of Ullock Baroness Hayman of Ullock Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

My Lords, this debate very much follows on from the previous one, so I will be brief. Amendment 212 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Oates, looks to give local authorities and planning authorities new powers, so they can meaningfully fulfil their duty to conserve and enhance biodiversity, by allowing them to designate sites at risk of biodiversity loss. Local authorities need to consider and integrate biodiversity conservation throughout their policies and strategies—for example, waste, transport and education. Cross-departmental consultation, ecological expertise and the support of a wide range of partners will be crucial in achieving this.

The noble Lord, Lord Teverson, spoke in his introduction to his Amendment 227A of the importance of co-operation between public authorities. We support the aims of this amendment, but we have some concerns the proposed powers could risk duplicating those provided by local nature recovery strategies, which have the potential to allow authorities to build and maintain ecologically coherent networks of nature recovery sites. It may be that these aims are better fulfilled by Amendment 209 to Clause 95, which we have discussed and was tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter.

We support Amendment 231A, also in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, on ELMS and local nature recovery strategies. The noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, has just clearly expressed her concerns, which reflect those of many others, about the introduction of ELMS and the lack of clarity at the moment. Amendment 231A would tie projects funded by ELMS to the local nature recovery strategy. This is important, because this alignment would ensure that gains for nature from ELMS would complement, and further gains from other policies, such as biodiversity net gain, would be co-ordinated by, the appropriate local nature recovery strategy. That would help local nature recovery strategies to fulfil their critical directional role to build and maintain ecologically coherent networks of nature recovery sites.

The Secretary of State has previously expressed his belief that ELMS projects should align with the local nature recovery strategies. Earlier, my noble friend Lady Jones of Whitchurch, mentioned the work of the Environmental Audit Select Committee. In January, the Secretary of State said he wants ELMS

“to be conscious of and dovetail with local nature recovery strategies”,

so there is that support in Government. But as the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, and my noble friend Lady Young of Old Scone have said, we need to consider the ambitions of the Agriculture Act and this Bill, and make sure they are joined-up, saying the same thing and working together. We therefore hope the Government will consider taking this amendment forward. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

Photo of Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, it is clear that we cannot finish the whole group this evening, so I beg to move that the debate on these amendments is adjourned.

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 am happy to go on. I only have a short speech, beginning with Amendment 212 from the noble Lord, Lord Oates. I start by reiterating that local authorities are vital in protecting biodiversity and improving nature at a local level, so I sympathise with the noble Lord’s intention. However, powers already exist that could be used to conserve and enhance biodiversity on specific sites.

National planning policy already directs local plans to identify and map areas of substantive nature conservation value. They should include policies that secure the protection of these areas from harm or loss and help to enhance them and their connection to wider ecological networks. Local authorities can create local nature reserves under Section 21 of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949, designating these sites based on local importance for wildlife. In addition, the Bill already allows for a local authority to enter into a conservation covenant. I therefore assure the noble Lord that powers suggested by this amendment are already covered elsewhere.

I turn to Amendments 270, 273 and 275, also in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Oates. A principle underpinning the Government’s proposal for conservation covenants, which we will be debating in more detail later, is their voluntary nature. There is no compulsion on anyone or any organisation to enter into them. It is important that this principle extends to organisations that may become responsible bodies. That is because the role of responsible bodies, which will be integral to the delivery of covenants, requires a good level of resourcing and expertise to be performed properly. Organisations must decide for themselves if they have the capacity to perform the function of a responsible body. It is also possible that some local authorities may not wish to become designated as responsible bodies. If local authorities choose to apply, like other organisations they will be assessed against our published suitable criteria and designated where they are considered suitable to fulfil the role.

Turning to Amendment 227A, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, for his interest in this important issue. Reversing declines in biodiversity is a major societal challenge, as we have already discussed. It will require public, private and voluntary sectors to work closely together. Local nature recovery strategies will be locally led and collaboratively produced and will enable key local partners to better co-ordinate the good work already taking place and to agree where more effort would achieve the most benefit. By aligning these strategies to measures such as the strengthened biodiversity duty on public authorities and biodiversity net gain in future schemes that reward delivery of environmental benefits, the Government intend to drive their delivery in a way that no one organisation could on its own.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, for Amendment 231A and the opportunity to discuss the three schemes. The sustainable farming incentive will pay all eligible farmers for actions they take to manage their land in an environmentally sustainable way. Linking the scheme to local nature recovery strategies would not therefore be practical, due to its lack of a spatial element. The local nature recovery scheme will be focused on delivering the right things in the right places, factoring in the views of local people. Landscape recovery will support the delivery of landscape and ecosystem recovery through long-term, large-scale projects. Together, these schemes will deliver many of the aims and nature-based solutions that will be set out in local nature recovery strategies.

The Government have already committed to alignment of future schemes for rewarding environmental benefits with local nature recovery strategies where that is appropriate. I conclude by reiterating the importance of local authorities in delivering nature’s recovery. The Bill will equip them with the tools to do so. As an additional aside, I emphasise that all new burdens imposed on them through the Bill will be fully funded. I therefore respectfully ask the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.

Photo of Lord Oates Lord Oates Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change) 10:00 pm, 7th July 2021

My Lords, I am grateful for the support from my noble friend Lord Teverson, and from the noble Baronesses, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb and Lady Boycott. The noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, will not be surprised to know that I discussed my amendments with my noble friend Lady Parminter. The amendments do different things: the one does not replace the other. But I would be happy to talk with the Labour Front Bench more about this in future.

I was pleased when the Minister indicated that he wanted to finish this group tonight, because it would have seemed wrong to take it on to another day—but I would have been less pleased if I had known how peremptory his response would be, and how little it answered the questions that are given rise to in this amendment. He said that local authorities had the power to act already. I would be grateful if he would write to me and tell me under what powers Kingston Council could have entered the site to investigate what was going on and to stop the destruction of vegetation. If those powers exist, I would be grateful if he would share them with me. He said that local authorities already have the power under the Bill to enter into conservation covenant agreements—but that is only if they are so designated by the Secretary of State.

So I cannot hide my disappointment in his response. This is a very important issue: it affects local authorities up and down the country. It is not is not about the creation of strategies, it is about the ability to act to enforce and prevent the destruction of biodiversity. So I very much hope that the Minister will agree to meet and discuss this further. If the Government are not willing to move on this, I will want to come back to this, as it is such a critical issue. For now, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 212 withdrawn.

Clause 96: Biodiversity reports

Amendments 213 to 225 not moved.

Clause 96 agreed.

House resumed.

House adjourned at 10.05 pm.