Amendment 84A

Environment Bill - Report (3rd Day) (Continued) – in the House of Lords at 9:45 pm on 13th September 2021.

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Lord Krebs:

Moved by Lord Krebs

84A: Schedule 14, page 222, line 17, at end insert— “(6) Within the period of six months beginning with the day on which this Act is passed, the Secretary of State must produce or revise the biodiversity metric, having particular regard to the ecological importance of—(a) diversity of habitat types and management approaches, including open mosaic habitat, scrubland, and habitats that mature slowly, (b) the potential of individual sites to support rare, endangered and vulnerable species, and(c) habitat connectivity across a landscape.(7) The Secretary of State must review the biodiversity metric at least annually and revise it to take into account—(a) any significant developments in scientific evidence, and(b) any assessment of progress toward meeting targets set under Part 1 of the Environment Act 2021.”Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment ensures that the Biodiversity Metric includes the ecological requirements of rare and endangered species, that it recognises the importance of habitat heterogeneity and connectedness, and that it is updated regularly in light of scientific evidence.

Photo of Lord Krebs Lord Krebs Chair, Food, Poverty, Health and Environment Committee, Chair, Food, Poverty, Health and Environment Committee

My Lords, in moving my Amendment 84A, I will also speak to support Amendments 85 and 87 in this group in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, to which I have added my name along with the noble Baronesses, Lady Parminter and Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb. I thank the Minister for his time in discussion with me, and officials at Defra and Natural England for going into considerable detail in subsequent meetings.

I will be very brief, in view of the late hour. To cut to the quick, the biodiversity metric, which is what this amendment is about, is the measure by which developers and planning authorities calculate whether biodiversity off-setting produces a net-positive outcome for nature. Of course, if we think back to Clause 3, which we debated last week, this net gain concept will be crucial if the Government are to succeed in delivering their target of halting species decline by 2030.

However, as I said briefly in Committee, the metric as currently proposed by Natural England and Defra is, in the view of at least some leading academic experts, practitioners and end-users, deeply flawed for the following reasons. First, it does not adequately consider the requirements of key species. Secondly, it uses an oversimplified classification of habitat type and quality as a surrogate for species abundance. Thirdly, it does not adequately incorporate the so-called Lawton principles of bigger, better, more connected habitat, which are the accepted gold standard for protecting biodiversity.

I will illustrate these flaws with an example. A few hundred metres from my home in Oxford, there is a city council nature reserve called Burgess Field, known locally for its rich biodiversity. Many species of birds, butterflies and other insects, as well as wildflowers, thrive there. Yet, as my colleague Professor Katherine Willis of Oxford University points out, this nature reserve would count as “poor” habitat if it were assessed by the metric. This simply cannot be right.

Defra officials and Natural England acknowledge that the metric is a work in progress, but they argue that a great deal of work has gone into its development —of course, the fact that a great deal of work has gone in in the past does not mean to say that more work cannot easily be done in the future—and that it has to be kept simple to make life easier for developers. I think it should be made more difficult and life made easier for nature. My amendment simply asks the Government to reconsider the metric and to revise it yet again. My ask is a modest one—to review the deficiencies and continue to improve the metric. I very much hope that the Minister will confirm his commitment to doing this.

I will leave it to others to speak in more detail to Amendments 85 and 87, which ask the Government to extend the lifespan of net gain from 30 to 125 years, but I will make two very brief points. Having spoken to Defra officials, as I understand it—I hope I am wrong and that the Minister will correct me—there are two lines of argument for defending the 30-year, rather than a 125-year, limit. First, if the requirement for the duration of net gain were too onerous it would be an obstacle to development because no one would want to commit their land for a long time for preserving biodiversity. It is said that the experience from other countries demonstrates this, although I have not been able to find the evidence. The second argument is that if at the end of 30 years valuable habitat has been created, that habitat will be protected by other regulations, such as a designation as an SSSI. These two arguments seem self-contradictory. On the one hand it is important to tell developers that they can have their land back after 30 years, but on the other if they do a good job of creating new habitat for net gain they cannot have it back. I look forward to the Minister’s reply. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Young of Old Scone Baroness Young of Old Scone Labour 10:00 pm, 13th September 2021

My Lords, bearing in mind the hour, I shall speak briefly to Amendments 85 and 87. It is a pity that it is late, because these are terribly important amendments. I have been sitting and thinking: how long does it take to create a habitat? The noble Lord, Lord Krebs, just said that at the end of 30 years we may have rip-roaring habitat, but the likelihood is that we will not have rip-roaring habitat for many habitat types.

There are some instant habitats: wetlands, for example—just add water and you get birds. It is instant habitat creation. There are some middling habitats, such as meadows, where you can grow grass and wildflowers, but it will not be a complex meadow ecosystem, certainly not SSSI quality, by 30 years’ time. As for woods, a wood will not really get into its stride in 30 years. You will have canopy formation by then, but it will be a fairly limited wood. Of course, many habitats are very long-term: ancient woodlands take 400 years. Long-standing woods, which the Government have said they are now interested in protecting, are complex assemblages of habitat and we do not yet know how long standing “long standing” will be, but it is certainly more than 30 years. Peatlands take 1,000 years, so 30 years for newly created habitats for biodiversity gain, planning gain or conservation covenants is a bit pathetic; in fact, it is pretty useless. Destruction of these biodiversity gains and climate change carbon sequestration at 30 years will be unacceptable to the public and it makes no sense to create and then destroy.

Longer periods do not discourage landowners and farmers. I draw attention to my interest as chairman of the Woodland Trust. We regularly deal with farmers on woodland creation schemes. What farmers and landowners want is clarity for the future, so that they can make decisions. The current woodland carbon code requires woodland sites for carbon storage to be in place for at least 100 years and we have no shortage of people banging on our doors wanting to create at least 100 year-old woods, so I ask the Minister to accept this amendment.

Photo of The Bishop of Manchester The Bishop of Manchester Bishop

My Lords, I draw attention to my interest as a Church Commissioner, as set out in the register, and I wish to support what the noble Baroness just said: 30 years is rather a short period of time. I am grateful for the way the Minister, in proposing Amendments 86 and 88, is showing us the possibility of some flexibility in the future, but may I just tempt him a little further? What he is proposing would allow a future Government, by regulation, to change that period of 30 years—one would hope that it might go up to 50, 60 or perhaps even 125—but if they did, there would be nothing to prevent a subsequent Government reducing it back to 30 again. If we are to have a direction of travel in how long a site needs to be protected for, it should be one-way, without the possibility of going back down again. That could create a sort of planning blight, whereby somebody, particularly towards the end of a government cycle, might feel that, rather than making some land available for development, they can wait and hope that the period will be knocked back down to 30 years by the incoming Administration. Would the Minister be willing to think again so that, whatever period we set, any future changes would have to increase it rather than potentially allowing it to decrease?

Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green

My Lords, I shall speak in favour of all the amendments in this group—even, in a very soft way, the government amendments. They address issues that I spoke on at considerable length in Committee, so I will, given the hour, be brief. It is a great pleasure to follow the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester and all the speakers on this group. I think the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, really hit the nail on the head. If 30 years is all we can tie things up for, if it works, you are tying it up, one would assume, indefinitely, which 125 years serves as a figure for.

In Committee, I talked about 30 years being a blink of an eye in nature, and the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, set out a very nice template for us thinking about different kinds of habitats and ecosystems. I will add to this my—perhaps now inevitable—point about soil, which is about the biodiversity of the soil and producing what you might describe as a mature soil, whether it is under any of those habitats. A meadow might look quite nice on the top, but the soil is not going to be anything like a long-term developed meadow for many years. These are ecosystems that take a long time to develop to get the real richness you would need for a proper, healthy soil.

I will just note that we are strongly behind Amendments 85 and 87, which my noble friend Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb signed, but I would also particularly compliment the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, on Amendment 84A. I would have signed it had I actually spotted it, but I am afraid I missed it. There has been much discussion in the media, in the public and in the environmental community about the utter inadequacy of the biodiversity metric. In this amendment, the noble Lord is going some way to finding a way forward to fix that, and I really do hope the Minister will take it on board.

Photo of Lord Blencathra Lord Blencathra Chair, Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, Chair, Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee

My Lords, I declare my interests as on the register. I want to comment briefly on two amendments. First, I welcome my noble friend’s Amendment 89; it is important to keep under review the amount of land available for the net gain register.

Secondly, I want to comment on Amendment 84A from the noble Lord, Lord Krebs. I say this to him: I do not think it is necessary. As he said, this is evolving. The metric as published by Natural England is not set in stone. It will be an evolving measure, and as further and better particulars come along, it will be changed and amended. An annual review by the Government is not needed for that to happen.

The other point I want to make is this: yes, of course, the metric could be made more complicated. Some on the Climate Change Committee condemn it, because it is just a biodiversity net gain metric. They want an environmental net gain metric, which would be an all-singing, all-dancing super one, but incredibly complicated to produce. No one is capable of doing it properly at the moment.

If we bring in lots of other factors, which would no doubt make this much better in biodiversity terms, we would be faced with an industry and builders that have not a clue how it would work. Net gain is terribly, terribly important. It will be one of the greatest improvements to planning and the environment we have ever seen in this country. But it is a completely new concept; it is innovative. For it to happen, we have to get developers on side, working with it. At the moment, they have not a clue how it works. They have a couple of years, I think, to get that right.

I am concerned that we keep this initially simple. The current metric, which is still doing a good job and can evolve and can change, will not be detrimental to biodiversity; it will be a big improvement to biodiversity. But I am certain that in a couple of years’ time or a year’s time, it may be tweaked again to improve it. As developers and Government and Natural England bed this down, I am certain it will become more sophisticated and more perfect from a purist environmental point of view.

So I say to the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, who is incredibly able and thoroughly knowledgeable in this matter—he is 10 times more knowledgeable than I am, though I am practical—that we have to start somewhere. There used to be an army acronym KISS: “Keep it simple, stupid.” We have to keep it simple to begin with, and we can make it a lot more complicated as we get used to it.

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

My Lords, I hear what the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, says, but I still think the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, raised some real concerns that this House deserves answers to, and I hope the Minister, in his summing up, can give the reassurances the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, has asked for. I wanted to briefly add my voice to the others in support of Amendment 87, which deals with the issue of perpetuity versus the 30 years for the biodiversity net gain.

I will not add to the other arguments people have made, but I just wanted to remind noble Lords that in Committee, in response to a question from the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, the Minister said that the Government wish to introduce biodiversity net gain

“in a way that requires developers … to bear as little cost as possible.”—[Official Report, 7/7/21; col. 1377.]

It seems to me that overriding constraint is as much relevant in terms of this debate, because this is not about worrying that there will not be enough landowners coming forward to provide the amount of nature conservation that we need. It is really about limiting the liability of developers. That is at the heart of this, and that is why I support the amendment.

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

My Lords, I am speaking in support of Amendment 84A of the noble Lord, Lord Krebs. I will then speak to my Amendments 85 and 87. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Parminter and Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, for adding their names to my amendments.

First, the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, has raised important points about the quality of the metric currently being developed to implement biodiversity net gain. Over the summer he was kind enough to share the paper to which he referred by his colleague Professor Katherine Willis. I have to say that it shocked me, as it shows that we are in danger of drifting into a new system which, far from being a positive asset, could be highly detrimental to the environment. This is why I am not reassured by the use of words such as “progressing”, “virtuous” and “improving” by the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra. We could be going backwards if we do not get this right.

We therefore support the amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, that would set up a process of review of the metrics within six months, taking into account the broad range of factors that determine the ecological importance of sites. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, has been in dialogue with the Minister about these concerns, and I hope that, in his response, the Minister will provide sufficient reassurance that this matter is being addressed.

My Amendments 85 and 87 address the length of time that any habitat enhancement agreed through the planning process should be protected. As it stands, Schedule 14 to the Bill defines this period as 30 years. After that, the habitats could be destroyed, losing any ecological gains or carbon storage benefits. This goes against the grain of ecological best practice, which emphasises the need to let nature recover for the long term.

In recent advice, Natural England has said:

“Mitigation measures will need to be secured for the duration over which the development is causing the effects—generally 80-125 years.”

The building developments on the land where the displacement takes place will clearly be expected to last more than 30 years. For example, MHCLG has issued advice on property that makes it clear that a long lease is usually 125 years. So it is right that the creation of any new habitat, in compensation, should also last a lifetime. Our view was echoed in the recent Environmental Audit Committee report, Biodiversity in the UK: Bloom or Bust?, which stated:

“Nature recovery does not happen overnight and must be maintained and built upon for generations. The proposed 30 year minimum to maintain biodiversity net gains will achieve little in terms of delivering long-lasting nature recovery.”

In Committee, we tabled an amendment that would have protected habitats in perpetuity. There was considerable support for our position, but there were also questions about how perpetuity could be measured. So in our new amendment, we have now defined this period as 125 years, which was the only legal definition of the concept, as set out in the Perpetuities and Accumulations Act 2009. We believe that this is the right length of time to create and maintain long-term species-rich habitats to compensate for the destruction of existing established habitats elsewhere.

In Committee, the Minister made it clear that the provision of 30 years was a minimum requirement. He has now tabled further amendments in this group that would give the Secretary of State a power to increase the 30-year period and keep that duration under review. However, we do not believe that this gives the guarantees of long-term habitat protection that we need. There is no indication in the Government’s amendment of the criteria that would be used to vary the duration. I am also grateful to the Bill team for their recent advice that this variation, if introduced, would apply at a policy-wide level and not on an individual project basis. However I do not see where in the Bill this would be assured, since the Government’s amendment just gives a general power to vary the time period and could therefore, in my reading, apply to particular building developments.

The Minister has also raised concerns about whether sufficient landowners would make their land available for a longer term period, but surely landowners who contract to create these new habitats would have to be there for the longer term, otherwise our very fear that the habitat would be destroyed after 30 years becomes a reality. We believe that the long-term timescale of 125 years, as set out in Amendment 85, gives landowners certainty and would ensure that habitats which are destroyed could be recreated for the long term on a like-for-like basis.

This is an important principle which is necessary to legitimise the process of biodiversity net gain. Otherwise, the truth is that it would just be delayed damage. On that basis, I hope the Minister is able to give further reassurances, and I look forward to his response.

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) 10:15 pm, 13th September 2021

I thank all noble Lords for their contributions to this important debate, in particular the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, and the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, for their detailed conversations on this over the summer.

I am pleased to confirm that the Government have brought forward Amendments 86, 88 and 89 on the long-term prospects of biodiversity gains. The Bill currently introduces a 30-year minimum period for biodiversity net gain agreements, and these new government amendments will place a duty on the Secretary of State to review the duration for biodiversity net gain agreements and provide legal powers to increase the duration—that could be up to 125 years, for example, or it could be less. This process will be informed by the biodiversity net gain monitoring and evaluation programme, and will apply at a policy-wide level. These amendments will ensure that an extension of the duration is actively considered in future, supporting the long-term protection of our habitats.

Amendments 85 and 87, proposed by the noble Baroness Jones of Whitchurch, while welcome in intention, would, we believe, deter landowners in key areas from offering land for conservation. Based on the engagement, consultation and evidence-gathering that we have undertaken, setting a requirement for biodiversity enhancements to be secured for 125 years now means that we are less likely to see land offered for enhancement in the right places at the start of biodiversity net gain roll-out. That would mean that we were less able to create the coherent ecological networks that we need and may end up with money for net gain sitting unspent.

If restrictions placed on biodiversity net gain funds are too stringent from the start, landowners are unlikely to commit to the agreements we require. There is strong evidence from international practice that this might lead to the Government being unable to invest biodiversity gain funds and achieve the benefits we want from the policy. For example, in the environmental offsets framework for Queensland, Australia, a shortage of appropriate projects has meant that the state Government have been unable to spend much of the money collected for habitat enhancement. In addition, Ermgassen et al published a paper in Conservation Letters in June this year which sets out an academic assessment of the ecological outcomes of mandating biodiversity net gain that very much supports our position.

The amendments that the Government have introduced strike a fine balance between robustness and managing these risks of land supply. Clearly, I, my colleagues in Defra and everyone involved in the Bill want the habitats created and enhanced through net gain to thrive forever. That is where we all start, but it would be a mistake to let our desire for perfection in future undermine our first and more important steps on this policy. We need to get going.

I have almost been deterred from raising this argument by the introductory remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, but it is fair to say that after 30 years of improvement, a new habitat would benefit from a whole range of protections that already exist in legislation. If those protections have not continuously improved and evolved over the next 30 years and, in 2050, we find that new, beautiful habitats paid for through this scheme can be easily grubbed out in the way that has been predicted or feared by a number of Peers speaking today, frankly, we are in a whole heap of trouble. The world will be a very different place in 2050, and today it is waking up to the urgency. If we have not properly woken up by 2050, this discussion is nothing more than an exercise in academia.

In summary, we need a supply of land in the right places to see biodiversity gains delivered. Setting a perpetual, or 125-year, minimum agreement duration from the start in a newly created policy context creates a serious risk of deterring landowners from offering their land for net gain. That would be a terrible outcome for nature and for society, so we have been careful to design biodiversity net gain in a way that mitigates this risk and maximises the chance of success.

On Amendment 84A, from the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, we will publish the biodiversity metric for mandatory biodiversity net gain soon. The Bill’s provisions rightly require proper consultation on the final biodiversity metric before it is published for mandatory application. I can assure the noble Lord that the quality, diversity and function of habitats is already the focus of Natural England’s work on the metric and, as he knows well, our understanding of biodiversity is constantly evolving and improving. I can confirm to him that the metric will be regularly reviewed to take account of the latest scientific evidence and user experience. We will consult on a timeline and metric next year; after that, we expect to suggest a review every three to five years.

I also highlight that we are already on our third iteration of the metric and will consult next year on the version to be formally published for mandatory net gain and on the timeline for subsequent updates. The Government absolutely recognise the importance of species, as well as microhabitats, and the need for connectivity across our landscapes. The biodiversity metric’s habitat scoring is fundamentally linked to the value of habitats to priority species. The net gain regime will work alongside our existing regulatory framework for protected and rare species. This is already embedded within planning policy and practice, and will act in addition to biodiversity net gain.

I would also like to address the way in which the Lawton principles of “bigger, better, more connected” underpin the entire design of net gain, not just the metric. Net gain aims to improve the size and quality of habitats delivered through development; that is the whole point of the policy. The net gain percentage increase of 10% underpins that principle. Natural England’s latest update of the biodiversity metric also includes a strategic significance multiplier, which places a higher value on biodiversity enhancements supported by local nature recovery strategies, providing a wider strategic blueprint for nature investment. We will, of course, consider the Lawton principles when updating the metric and wider policy in future. They are inseparable from the key goals of this policy.

Finally, I highlight to the House that the Government have listened to the points raised by noble Lords about biodiversity net gain and brought forward government amendments on multiple occasions in response. We have extended the biodiversity net gain regime to cover nationally significant infrastructure projects, from major roads to new railways. We have provided for the option to bring marine development in scope of biodiversity net gain in the future, and today I am moving government amendments to ensure our biodiversity net gain policy is protecting our habitats for as long as possible. I hope I have been able to reassure noble Lords and ask them not to press their amendments.

Photo of Lord Krebs Lord Krebs Chair, Food, Poverty, Health and Environment Committee, Chair, Food, Poverty, Health and Environment Committee

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this short debate. I also thank the Minister for his response. With regard to Amendment 84A, in brief, I accept the reassurance that he gave in his reply. The metric will be regularly reviewed in light of scientific evidence. The Government recognise the importance of species and microhabitats, and the need for connectivity across landscapes. Rare and protected species will be safeguarded by regulations that will work alongside net gain, and the Lawton principles will underpin net gain and be considered when updating the metric.

I still think that, given the concerns expressed by many stakeholders on the current version of the metric, there should be an urgent consideration before it is finally put into practice, so that we can get it as good as it can be. I also accept the point that the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, made: that this is an ongoing work in progress and will be continually improved.

With regard to Amendments 85 and 87, I am disappointed that the Government are not prepared to go further. However, I accept the reassurances of the Minister on Amendment 84A and beg leave to withdraw it.

Amendment 84A withdrawn.

Amendment 85 not moved.