Lord Khan of Burnley:
Moved by Lord Khan of Burnley
293C: After Clause 133, insert the following new Clause—“Readiness of local authorities to deliver schemes enabled under this Act(1) Within three months of the day on which this Act is passed, the Secretary of State must undertake a review of the readiness of local authorities to deliver environmental schemes established or otherwise enabled under this Act.(2) The review under subsection (1) must include an assessment of the extent to which the current financial and staffing resource of local authorities is consistent with that required for such bodies to fulfil additional obligations as they arise.(3) If the review determines that current resourcing for local authorities is insufficient for them to meet relevant obligations, the Secretary of State must, as soon as practicable, make a statement confirming—(a) whether central government funding for local authorities will be increased accordingly, or(b) what mechanisms Her Majesty’s Government proposes to establish to enable local authorities to recover any additional costs.(4) The Secretary of State must lay before Parliament and publish—(a) the review under subsection (1), and(b) any statement under subsection (3).”Member’s explanatory statementThis new Clause is intended to explore the extent to which local authorities are financially and otherwise prepared to deliver new schemes and responsibilities established under this legislation.
Local authorities have been underfunded for years, with the majority having a decreasing budget for waste and recycling services. This bleak picture will certainly present a challenge to implementation but, as we can see from other countries, recycling success can be achieved through targeted government investment.
Having served in local government for 15 years, including holding the cabinet position for finance at Burnley Borough Council, I have witnessed first-hand the effects of drastic cuts, with local councils barely able to deliver statutory services. My observations and experiences are backed up in terms of the environment by the Environmental Audit Committee’s recent report Biodiversity in the UK: Bloom or Bust?. It highlighted that funding shortfalls and a lack of “in-house ecologists” in local authorities means that they may not have the capacity to deliver some of their statutory duties under the Bill, specifically biodiversity net gain and local nature recovery strategies.
For the Government’s environmental ambitions to be realised, new duties on local authorities to help them deliver nature recovery must be costed and funded accordingly. Local authorities are essential to the successful implementation of many provisions in the Bill. For example, they will play an important role in co-ordinating and delivering nature recovery on the ground through the creation of local nature recovery strategies—as mentioned before. However, their effectiveness relies on the resources and expertise they have available to deploy these crucial tools. It is firmly believed that, due to recent funding cuts, only one in four local authorities in England currently has access to an in-house ecologist. Costs incurred by local authorities to implement new schemes resulting from the Bill should be covered by the Government’s new burdens obligation. It would be helpful if the Minister could make an unequivocal statement on this in the Chamber.
This proposed new clause is intended to explore the extent to which local authorities are financially prepared to deliver new schemes and responsibilities established under this legislation. This is day eight in Committee and many noble Lords at Second Reading and in Committee have talked about this being a landmark, historic Bill —something that will be working for generations for the future of our children. However, you need to give the relevant stakeholders—in particular, here, local authorities —the tools and support. This amendment gives us the opportunity to look at the cost and funding element of local authorities. I have been there as a local government member making those tough decisions. These tough decisions are for the benefit of our future.
If we do not support local authorities, it is like asking noble Lords to run across Westminster Bridge or a race of 100 metres without any trainers or adequate footwear. It is not fair; you need to give them the right tools to do the job. This is essential to ensure that we are not setting up local authorities to fail and letting them down again—as, unfortunately, this Government have a habit of doing.
My Lords, I welcome Amendment 293C. I am sure we are all pleased to see the noble Lord in his place and that his wife was not called upon on this occasion. I am pleased to speak to this amendment because I am asking my noble friend the Minister to join me in applauding and valuing the work of local authorities in delivering schemes, particularly under this Bill, but also historically and to-date.
The noble Lord, Lord Khan, spoke with great authority on waste disposal schemes and recycling. I will speak of my experience of the role that they play so effectively in flood-prevention schemes. Being closely associated with the Pickering Slowing the Flow pilot scheme, I think that this was exemplary because it included just about every level of local authority—Ryedale District Council, North Yorkshire County Council, Pickering Town Council, the Environment Agency and many others—which enthusiastically supported and contributed financially to it.
The weight of responsibility on local authorities will be eased in this regard if we could rope more private partners into these schemes, as I know that the Government are trying to do. I look forward to supporting anything that the Government can come up with in this regard.
However, upper-tier councils and unitary authorities play another role: an ongoing role of monitoring flood risk and identifying and mapping the areas most at risk. This is a crucial role that is often forgotten in times outside flood periods. Councils have come under huge pressure and have performed extremely well during the pandemic, which should be noted and celebrated.
However, if we value their work in this regard, as I do, will my noble friend seek to use his good offices to ensure that the work they do and the money that is allocated to it are ring-fenced and do not come under increasing pressure from the other work that they do, particularly caring for the vulnerable, such as the elderly, and providing education for the very young? I am grateful for the opportunity, in the context of this amendment, to make those few points and applaud the work of local authorities in this regard.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, whose work on the Bill has been so thorough and admired. I welcome the tabling of this new clause and agree very much with the points made by my noble friend Lord Khan in speaking to it. As we all know, the role of local authorities has been important—indeed, crucial—in the battle against Covid. These same local authorities will also play a key role in helping to deliver environmental and climate change targets.
I will supplement some of the points made by my noble friend Lord Khan, having taken some soundings from local authorities in my own area in the north-east, including one covering a large rural area, with Conservative control, and another in an urban area, with Labour control. It was interesting that, despite these obvious differences, the authorities were largely in agreement about the opportunities and challenges presented to them by the Bill.
The authorities concerned have a strong commitment to biodiversity and the principle of biodiversity net gain. Where I live in Northumberland, we are very much on the front line in the efforts to prevent the disappearance of the red squirrel, and, on this issue, there is not just local authority support but very strong public support. On Tyneside, the area that I used to represent in the other place, the importance of biodiversity was publicly understood by the presence of the farthest inland colony of kittiwakes and the establishment of the Kittiwake Tower local nature reserve around the Newcastle-Gateshead Quayside. For that reason, I was particularly interested in what the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, said about kittiwakes earlier.
The authorities that I have consulted are strongly committed to the principles of the Bill; they all supported biodiversity net gain, the importance of local nature recovery strategies and the importance of consistency, and the highest standards of recycling and waste collection. However, all were agreed on the following points. First, they were concerned about having the necessary resources. Secondly, they felt that, in many ways, the devil was in the detail, so clear guidance would be crucial and their continued involvement in such guidance would also be very important.
On resources, it was felt that, if not properly resourced, outcomes would be unsatisfactory and not properly meet the obligations that the Government and the local authorities want to enter into. My noble friend made the point about additional skilled resources, and I ask the Government what assessment they have made of the availability of trained ecologists? Do they have a clear strategy in terms of how we can boost training schemes in a timely manner so that any shortfalls in skills can be addressed? I think that some local authorities worry that organisations like Natural England, which have understandably seen their budget increase in recent years, might be in a better place to recruit trained staff than local authorities, many of which, as was eloquently described by my noble friend, have experienced deep cuts in recent years and have had to concentrate on core services such as social care and cut back on other areas.
While there was strong support for the principle of biodiversity net gain, some worries were expressed in the response to the government consultation. I recognise that the Government have shown willingness to address the issues that arose in the consultation, but I also note that in their response, they said they did not think that any particular type of development would be disproportionately affected by their proposals. This puzzled me because it seems to me that there are concerns in urban areas that the proposals could cause problems.
Ironically, brownfield sites in urban areas can often be more biodiverse than sites in farmed countryside in rural areas because many of them have, in effect, been rewilded in recent years. However, because of low property values and the desire to see affordable housing built there, quite rightly, such sites may face financial viability issues. Rather than going into the details about this, I would like the Minister to engage with urban authorities to discuss in more detail their valid concerns about biodiversity net gain in such areas, simply to reassure them that they will not, for financial reasons, find difficulty in meeting the goals have been set and which they fully support.
There is also concern about the detail on waste and recycling standards, and there is keenness to see that money is spent to bring about the best environmental outcome. There are some concerns that what might seem cost effective or simply tick the right box on food collection, for example, is not the best environmental way forward. There is also the issue of current contracts, which needs to be looked at, if local authorities are already locked into longish or long-term contracts. In delivering these proposals, councils need to be fully funded and ring-fenced. They need to know how the funding will be sourced, calculated and allocated, and whether this will have implications for other areas of the local government settlement. In short, this needs to be resourced for the best outcome.
On the detail of what local authorities are being asked to do, the point has been made to me that we need to reflect in detail on some of the difficult trade-offs that may arise. For example, local authorities might be asked to achieve the right diversity in the wrong place. I will give a local example: in Northumberland, we have Kielder Forest, which used to be a huge and very densely planted forestry area. It has become a very valuable tourist resource these days, but felling is taking place, and there will be pressure to plant more trees. Yet planting trees in peat bogs is not environmentally sound, and new trees, particularly native trees and anything other than the dreaded Sitka spruce, about which the Minister knows my views, might be better situated in some of the arable farming areas. However, that also gives rise to questions.
There can also be complications about trade-offs between, for example, the habitats of particular birds that nest in open countryside. We have to set that against the need to plant more trees, which is also environmentally very important—so, to resolve these issues, it seems to me that there will be a need for good communication between local authorities and the Government to ensure that local decisions, taken perhaps for very good reasons, do none the less fit into the wider vital effort to save the planet and fulfil wider environmental obligations.
I am sure that it would help the Government on many issues to deal with groups of local authorities, particularly in the context of nature recovery strategies. In the case of my own part of the world, I express the personal hope that the maximum amount of local authority joint working can be agreed, from Berwick in the north to the south of County Durham on the other hand, rather than a divide between north and south of Tyne, which makes no economic or environmental sense and ignores the increasing willingness of the authorities to work together. On the environment, my understanding is that there is already a good network of officer engagement, driven by practical considerations.
I urge consistency across government between environmental and agricultural policies, so that local authorities, particularly in rural areas, understand and appreciate that. For that reason, the ideas put forward by my noble friend Lady Young of Old Scone about a strategy are very helpful. My own addition to that would be that the environment needs to be factored into trade policy. If huge efforts are made domestically to attain environmental goals, does it make sense to turn away from our nearest markets to incur more air and sea freight miles, for example? A joined-up approach is vital.
Finally, a clear message to enable local authorities to engage with residents, tourists and businesses in their area will be necessary. We are all used to the very effective message during Covid of “Stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives”. Perhaps the environment also needs clear messages to avoid public confusion and mixed messages which would not help local authorities in their interface with their local community. I hope that the Minister will take on board local authorities’ comments in the consultation as well as some of the points made in this debate, and see if further changes need to be made to the Bill before we deal with these issues on Report.
My Lords, I support this amendment. Clearly, it is unsatisfactory if local authorities cannot deploy this Bill’s prescriptions.
As is here implied, such failure might simply reflect lack of local government staff and financial resources. If so, it is up to the Government to redress that deficiency.
Yet at every given and relevant moment, central funding might well not be considered to be affordable at all, even if the Government might equally lament that their own legislation could not be deployed as a result.
However, that anomaly is prevented by this proposed new clause, which would make it obligatory for a future Government to provide funds so their own laws and prescriptions are properly carried out at local levels.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Earl, Lord Dundee, and to offer the Green group’s strong support for Amendment 293C. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Khan of Burnley, for his clear introduction and explanation. I also declare my position as vice-chair of the Local Government Association.
The noble Lord, Lord Khan, referred to the waste recycling problem, which gives me an irresistible chance to plug the need to reduce costs by promoting reusable nappies, an issue already discussed and which we will come back to. On the broader issue, it is worth noting that the National Audit Office, in its 2018 report on the financial sustainability of local authorities, found that recent government approaches had been
“characterised by one-off and short-term funding fixes” and a
“crisis-driven approach to managing local authority finances”.
Earlier this year, the NAO said that at least 25 councils were teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, which is hardly surprising when in the past decade the spending power of local government has been cut by one-third, while demands in many areas, notably adult social care, have grown.
If we are to give local authorities additional roles and responsibilities, this direction comes from Westminster, and the money has to come from Westminster too. I note that last December the Blueprint Coalition, formed from local government organisations, environmental NGOs and academics and supported by around 100 councils, warned that our 2050 net-zero target could be achieved only with the
“full participation of, and support for, local authorities”.
That report was specifically focused on the climate side of the environmental equation but, of course, as this entire debate has acknowledged, these two issues are interlinked. I note that that Blueprint Coalition report stressed what the Minister might like to call nature-based solutions—the need to accelerate tree planting,
“peatland restoration, green spaces and other green infrastructure”.
Those are all things that the Government say that they plan to support, but the delivery vehicle that is most effective and cost effective will very often need to be local authorities.
This is also happening in the context of the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill. The Green Alliance highlighted the need for training to ensure that, in local government, climate skills are embedded in all roles and there is widespread access to specialist skills, as the Committee on Climate Change recommended. That Green Alliance report found that many local authority representatives were terribly concerned that this was not available and that instead they were forced to rely on consultants—which, again, was a far more expensive option. This amendment is not only essential but could save money. How could the Government possibly oppose that?
I rise to speak to this amendment in the names of the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, and the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake. This is because I agree with them that it is important that local authorities are prepared to deliver the many new duties provided for in this Bill; they will, of course, be key to its success. I am always pleased to follow the energetic noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, but more particularly to have my first opportunity to welcome the noble Lord, Lord Khan of Burnley, who is adding a great deal to our proceedings, especially in his knowledge of how things actually work in local government.
The proposers of this amendment appear to want to see a review, three months after the Bill’s passage, of the funding and staffing required and of how additional costs should be covered. I am afraid that I am more impatient; I would like to hear now from my noble friend the Minister how the burdens on local authorities will be dealt with. Will it be through the rate support grant? Will special funding be provided from the Defra budget, and will it be ring-fenced, as my noble friend Lady McIntosh of Pickering asked? Does he have a feel for the total likely to be needed, in terms of hundreds of millions of pounds?
Improving skills is probably more important to productivity growth than any other investment we can make. There is already a skills and staffing gap in local government, partly because of the needs of environmental measures in planning and building, at which the Built Environment Committee, on which I sit, is already looking. The Bill will make that gap a great deal bigger.
The noble Lord, Lord Khan, mentioned ecologists and recycling but there is, of course, a broader challenge. Competition for talent, from Natural England and others, as the noble Baroness, Lady Quin, said, is also likely to cause problems. What is the plan for gearing up the skills we need in local government in preparation for their new duties? Also to return to an earlier theme of mine, how will this be communicated?
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe. I declare my interest as a vice-president of the LGA.
Whether local authorities were likely to be prepared for the implications of this Bill for their operations was discussed briefly on Monday evening, when the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, opened a long debate which featured mainly the need for more trees. Although the debate was long and extensive, I fear that the issue of whether local authorities were likely to be properly resourced to carry out their functions as described in the Bill was somewhat lost in the debate about trees and tree planting, vital though that was. The amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, and co-signed by the noble Lord, now stands alone and we have an opportunity to debate to what extent local authorities can fulfil the expectations that the Bill places on them. The noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, asked exactly how the money will be provided and just how much will be required. These are vital questions.
The last 16 months have not been great for local authorities. Their councillors have been meeting for the most part remotely, and this has meant that the public have not had the same access to their decision-making as previously. Their staff have been redeployed to other tasks: in some cases, it was making up food parcels for families and children; in others, it was helping to staff vaccination centres and adjoining car parks. Others were ensuring that the homeless were removed from the streets to places where there was shelter and they were safe from Covid. The noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, congratulated local authorities on the excellent work they do. I echo that.
Now that councils are beginning to return to some form of “normal” working, whatever normal is for each council, the Environment Bill, long trailed and expected, is about to pass into law with requirements for local authorities to step up to the mark. They are, of course, willing to do this, as reinforced by the noble Baroness, Lady Quin. It is their ethos that public service should come first. However, a lot is expected of them.
Local authorities are expected to create local nature strategies. Due to previous funding cuts, it is estimated that only one in four currently has access to an in-house ecologist, as raised by the noble Lord, Lord Khan. If those ecologists are spread evenly around the country, those without may be able to buy into the expertise of their neighbours. But such even distribution is rare, and it is likely that some areas of the country will have no access to an in-house ecologist. I can see a burgeoning market here for budding ecology entrepreneurs.
The Environmental Audit Committee’s recent report, Biodiversity in the UK: Bloom or Bust?, indicated that a lack of funding along with a shortage of ecologists meant that some authorities would struggle to produce their biodiversity net gain and local nature recovery strategies, as the noble Lord, Lord Khan, indicated. Similarly, on the changing rules around waste measures, many authorities do not currently have separated recyclable waste collections. Others may have it in place but are seeking to widen the variety of items collected, and this will place added burdens on already stretched budgets. The noble Baroness, Lady Quin, raised the issue of long-term waste collection contracts.
As the Minister will know, the minimisation of waste is very dear to my heart. Local authorities which collect all their recyclables together are likely to be those that bundle all their plastics together and despatch them to what they believe are licensed disposal plants. As debated earlier, this is often not the case. I have spoken at waste conferences on the need to have a single-pass vehicle that collects the majority of recyclables—plastic, glass, paper, cardboard, aluminium cans—which the householder will have separated and put out in different containers for collection. This has not always been welcome, as the cost of changing collection vehicles is often prohibitive. The public want to play their part and local authorities want to play their part, but adequate funding for them to be able to make the change is vital for success. Those authorities which have been collecting separated waste for some years are in a much better position to ensure that each item of waste is recycled appropriately or disposed of safely and to maximum benefit.
All this requires funding, as the noble Earl, Lord Dundee, made clear, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, raised possible local authority bankruptcies. The noble Lord, Lord Khan of Burnley, has given an excellent exposé of just what the impact could be for hard-pressed local authorities. I fully support his bid to ensure that the Government properly assess the effect of the measures in the Bill on both the staffing and the financial resources of local authorities at this critical moment. We all want the measures in the Bill to succeed, but this will not happen unless sufficient funding is provided. I know the Minister is keen for the Bill to be a success, and I look forward to his positive response to this amendment, which supports local authorities to play their part.
I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, for her Amendment 293C and the noble Lord, Lord Khan of Burnley, for introducing it. I reassure noble Lords that the Government are proactively involving local authorities in preparations for implementing the measures in the Environment Bill. Local authorities are key partners for delivering the Bill, from introducing consistent recycling collections and delivering biodiversity net gain to improving air quality. We have worked closely with local authorities in designing the Bill’s provisions and are committed to engaging with them as we implement it, seeking to maximise effective delivery and minimise unnecessary burdens. We have held over 15 public consultations, which provided a critical perspective on the Bill’s measures and received extensive contributions from stakeholders across all parts of society, including local authorities. These were on key measures such as consistency in household and business recycling in England, updating planning requirements with biodiversity net gain and introduction of a deposit return scheme in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The responses to those consultations have been used to develop the Bill’s measures as well as informing upcoming secondary legislation, with further detailed consultation on measures to come.
Noble Lords will know that the Government have committed to funding in full all new burdens on local authorities arising from the Bill. We are working closely with MHCLG to ensure that funding for local authorities is delivered sensibly. We have to be conscious of the established process for funding local authorities through the local government finance settlement. The settlement is unring-fenced to ensure that local areas can prioritise based on their own understanding of the needs of their local communities. However, as I said, we have committed to fully fund all new burdens on local authorities through the Bill. This is in addition to making sure that the costs of protecting the environment, which currently fall on many local authorities and consumers, are shifted to those who may damage it, including through extended producer responsibility or biodiversity net gain. When we look at the global figure, there is of course increased expenditure, which we will cover, but there are also various sources of income.
We have also built in appropriate transition periods. For example, the Government have built in a two-year transition period post Royal Assent for local authorities on biodiversity net gain. The Government are also providing training to local authorities on biodiversity net gain and are in close dialogue on how local nature recovery strategies will be delivered, including through recent pilots. In answer to a number of questions raised, including by the noble Lord, Lord Khan, I say that the Government have committed to providing training and guidance to local authorities on, for example, biodiversity net gain. We have been working closely with local government organisations on implementation matters. Furthermore, we have funded a multi-year project delivered by the Planning Advisory Service for a suite of training and guidance resources for local authorities to ensure that they have access to the right skills and knowledge to implement biodiversity net gain.
I hope I have reassured the noble Baroness who tabled the amendment and others of how we have already worked closely with local authorities on these measures and how we will work going forward. We believe that setting an arbitrary date for reviewing the preparedness of local government to deliver on the Bill, which would not reflect the different timelines for the respective measures, is unnecessary, but this is an important issue and the noble Baroness is absolutely right to raise it. I hope I have reassured her and that I can persuade her to withdraw her amendment.
I thank all noble Lords for taking part in this very informative debate and for the many thoughtful contributions across the House.
I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, that the amendment will allow the weight on a local authority to be eased. She talked about councils coming under huge pressure, as they have done during the pandemic. The noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville, also mentioned how brilliantly local authorities performed in providing support to communities during the difficult, challenging times of the pandemic.
In her excellent, detailed and comprehensive contribution, my noble friend Lady Quin talked about having consultations with various councils and through them finding out the important shortfalls in skills that must be addressed, and about local authorities being concerned about not having the necessary resources and wanting clear guidance. Goals must be set that are deliverable and financially possible.
The noble Earl, Lord Dundee, was very succinct in saying that the amendment would help laws to be carried out properly at local level. As always, the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, talked about the difficulties and challenges of 25 councils that are looking at bankruptcy. Funding is a huge concern and the point was made very eloquently by the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe. I thank the Minister for his reply to that, but there was a lack of discussion about the different funding streams that the noble Baroness talked about, in particular looking at whether this would be a local government settlement grant increase or whether Defra would have a funding stream. I thank the Minister also for his reassuring commitment to work closely with and consult local authorities and not to overburden them, as well to training and guidance—but there was no detail on funding streams to local government.
I welcome the very important points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville, in relation to stepping up to the mark. From her contribution I took away the fact that there are huge expectations on local authorities to deliver on the important outcomes of this Bill. We expect the Government to ensure that they recognise the challenge that lies ahead. The noble Baroness mentioned the great work of local authorities during the pandemic. When I was a local council cabinet member for finance and introduced iPads, getting rid of papers and documents in meetings, people looked at me in a very bizarre manner, as if to say, “What is he talking about? Why are we doing this?” I got a lot of distress, but after the pandemic and 16 months of being Teamsed out and Zoomed out, they were very appreciative of innovation. We would like local authorities to continue being innovative but also for it to be recognised that to be innovative and creative they need support and guidance.
For now, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment, but I am sure that these arguments will come up again.
Amendment 293C withdrawn.
Amendment 293D not moved.