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.