Amendment 90

Environment Bill - Report (3rd Day) (Continued) – in the House of Lords at 10:15 pm on 13th September 2021.

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Lord Oates:

Moved by Lord Oates

90: Clause 97, page 99, leave out lines 27 and 28 and insert “Payments received under arrangements under this section are to be retained by local authorities for the following purposes (only)—”Member’s explanatory statementThe effect of the amendment would be that credits would be retained by local authorities for local use in promoting biodiversity rather than retained by central government.

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

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, regrets that he cannot be in the Chamber at the moment, so I am moving Amendment 90 with his permission.

The Bill seeks to introduce measures whereby a credit system will allow the sale of proposed statutory biodiversity units when improvements on site are not possible. It currently does not require that biodiversity credits raised from developments be retained locally. The amendment that I am moving is simple. It does not seek to change the proposed approach to biodiversity credits but to ensure that the income from such credits is retained locally. Improving biodiversity and protecting nature is self-evidently something that happens in places. Central government sets the legislative and regulatory framework, but it is how local actors, and particularly local government, play their leadership roles that will ultimately determine success.

I turn now to my Amendment 94. I am grateful to the noble Baronesses, Lady Jones of Whitchurch and Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, and the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, for their support. If we are to rescue nature and biodiversity from the perilous situation that we have allowed it to get into, the local nature recovery strategy set out in the Bill will be critical. It is equally critical, however, that strategies do not become just more paper gathering dust, and that the powers provided to enforce them are not just vested in a remote Secretary of State issuing regulations from Whitehall but in local authorities, which are on the front line of the battle to save nature.

This Bill is not at all shy about imposing new duties on local authorities or in granting the Secretary of State a whole range of powers to make regulations, but it is painfully, timidly, and indeed speechlessly shy about giving local authorities any of the powers that they need to discharge those duties. Part 6 of the Bill is no exception. Clause 102(3), which governs the content of local nature recovery strategies, allows local authorities to designate areas that

“are, or could become, of particular importance for biodiversity, or … where the recovery or enhancement of biodiversity could make a particular contribution”.

Nowhere, however, is there any power for a local authority to stop a landowner from destroying biodiversity on such designated sites.

My amendment would correct this. It would allow a local authority to issue a biodiversity contravention notice to the owner or occupier of any land designated under Clause 102(3) as a site of importance for biodiversity, where it appeared to the local authority that there was a serious risk of biodiversity destruction or where such destruction had already taken place. The notice could require the landowner to provide information about their operations on the site, to allow access to the site and to comply with obligations to preserve biodiversity as specified in the notice.”

In Committee, I used the example of the Seething Wells filter bed site by the Thames, in my hometown of Surbiton, to illustrate the problem that my amendment would tackle. The land has been disused since it was decommissioned in 1992 by Thames Water and subsequently developed into a haven for plant and animal life, including birds, bats and grass snakes. It has become an important site for diversity in our borough, yet when the new owners started on a programme of wholesale destruction of nature on the site, there was nothing the council could do to stop them, despite it being a site of interest for nature conservation. The council did not even have the power to demand information about what the owners were doing on the site, let alone the power to stop the destruction. Here I pay tribute to the Seething Wells Action Group, which has done so much in our local community to raise the profile of this issue, and I know that many of its members have recently been in touch with the Minister.

Responding to my amendment in Committee, the Minister argued that local authorities either already had the necessary powers to tackle such issues or would gain them in the Bill. But when the Minister and his officials were kind enough to meet me over the summer, they conceded that the council had no powers to act in this case because the site was not the subject of any planning application and so planning powers did not apply. The Minister undertook to look into how this gap in powers might be addressed, although he questioned whether the problem was widespread and what motivation site owners would have for such destruction. Regrettably, since that positive meeting, I have heard no more from the Minister or his officials.

My interaction with local government colleagues indicates that this is indeed a widespread issue across the country, and I am pleased to say that this amendment has the strong support of the Local Government Association, as well as Greener UK. As to the motivation of landowners, that is not so hard to discern. They may simply want to make their sites easier to manage, they may regard the biodiversity on it as untidy or problematic, or they may simply not recognise its importance. Indeed, were this not a problem, there would be no need for nature recovery strategies in the first place.

In conclusion, this is a critical amendment because it provides the means to achieve the end that the Bill seeks. It is critical because it would show that, in this House, we understand that we simply cannot go on imposing more and more duties on local government without providing the mechanisms by which it can discharge them. Finally, it is critical because, without these powers in the hands of local authorities, as the front-line defenders of nature, biodiversity destruction will continue, notwithstanding the many laudable intentions of this Bill. I beg to move.

Photo of The Earl of Caithness The Earl of Caithness Conservative 10:30 pm, 13th September 2021

My Lords, I have three amendments in this group. They have a common theme because they are based on the fact that, very sadly, a lot of the good intentions of this Bill are going to fail. Although I support the Bill and support the drift of where we are going, they are going to fail because they are based on, and are building on, the existing system that is already a failure.

Let me give some examples. Since 2000, Defra has spent £10.3 billion or thereabouts on biodiversity. Agri-environment schemes have cost us £8.5 billion in the last 25 years. Roughly 28% of our land is designated for nature and biodiversity, and yet we have an appalling and increasingly bad record. Why? Because the current system is failing. Let me give just a couple of examples. Because of climate change we have gone for bioenergy and we have planted more maize. That has caused huge environmental problems and been very damaging for biodiversity. We are encouraging people to plant trees on what they call unproductive farmland, but that unproductive farmland is the haven for many of the red-list species, and we are damaging those. This Bill is going to build on those failures, and I believe we need to change tack. I know my noble friend will not accept that that is the right way to go but, nevertheless, I believe it is worth putting on the record that it is the right way to go.

We have to accept that there is more to improving biodiversity than just habitats. In the last amendment, my noble friend Lord Goldsmith said that habitats were very important and that we had to improve them. Yes, habitats are important, but they are not the only thing that is important. Equally important, as I have said many times, is winter feed, early spring feed and farming practices and management, in particular predator control. I give the example of the Allerton Project, which is entirely devoted to improving biodiversity and has hugely increased songbird numbers, but it cannot get waders and curlews back because of the lack of predatory control. We need to alter our stance on that.

I have three amendments: Amendment 92A refers to “nature-friendly farming”. These are the people who are managing the land. The noble Lord, Lord Oates, is right that the local authorities have a role, but the bulk of the land is in the hands of the farmers and we need the farmers on side. We need to encourage those that are nature-friendly-oriented. Farming and nature cannot be divided or separated; they have been separated for too long and here is a good chance in the Bill to put the farmers in the position they ought to be in.

Amendment 98 relates to wildlife conservation licences. I tweak the Bill in this respect, in that I propose the use of the word “status” instead of “survival”, as effectively a single individual of a species could be considered to be survival. Population can mean anything from an individual site colony to the total number of that species in the UK. Therefore, scale comes into any definition of detrimental to survival, as reducing the population at the local level may not actually have a bearing on the overall population due, for example, to infill from the current year’s young of the species.

My third amendment is Amendment 105. The noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, spoke on the last amendment in support of what I have said. She feared we would be going backwards if we do not get this right. The purpose of Amendment 105, which is a sunset clause, is to allow us to take a deep breath and stop us going backward if we are. My noble friend Lord Goldsmith said on the last amendment that there would be serious trouble if habitats in 2050 are not in the state we want them to be in. The purpose of this clause is to allow the Secretary of State to stand back, take a look and say “We were well intentioned, but we got it wrong. We need to change and go in a slightly different direction for the sake of biodiversity and the environment.”

We now have binding targets in the Bill but, as my noble friend Lord Benyon, who was in his place a moment ago, said on 25 May in this House:

“We are always wary of targets”.—[Official Report, 25/5/2021; col. 890.]

I am extremely wary of targets when it comes to biodiversity, because every target we have aimed at in the last 25 years has been missed. The purpose of Amendment 105 is therefore to give the Minister a chance to stand back, have a rational look and, if necessary, take a different direction.

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

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, whose passion for improving the Bill from the government Back Benches is evident even at this hour. I commend him for that. I declare my role as a vice-president of the LGA and the NALC.

I shall deal with Amendments 90, 91 and 94 together. Amendment 90 appears in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, and is also signed by the noble Lord, Lord Oates, while Amendment 94 is also signed by the noble Lord, Lord Oates, and my noble friend Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb. They all deal with the fact that the people who know best about a local natural environment are local people. We confront again, as we do in so many different areas, the fact that the UK—and England in particular—is one of the most centralised polities on this planet. That has many negative effects for people, but it also has negative effects for nature.

On Amendment 90, as the noble Lord, Lord Oates, said, we keep giving local government responsibilities but, through a decade of austerity we have seen fewer resources in local communitiesw available to deal with those responsibilities. We have gone through a cycle where local authorities barely have enough funds to meet their statutory responsibilities—those dictated from here in Westminster. They do not really have enough funds for that, let alone to reflect local priorities and desire for action.

The amendment signed by my noble friend Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb is particularly telling. We can think of so many case studies; the noble Lord, Lord Oates, gave one. I was also struck thinking about the case of the River Lugg in Herefordshire last year, where we saw trees felled, the river bridged and a reprofiling of the riverbanks along a 1.5 kilometre stretch, to the shock and horror of local people. Investigations are still ongoing, so I will not go too far into this, but the country was alerted to this through local people using social media and through the local media outlets picking up this story. Of course, it was at local level that the knowledge arose, and perhaps at local level some action could have saved some biodiversity or nature there.

I was up in Kendal a few years ago in a village that was struck by flooding, and the vehicles driving along a particular road were pushing flood water into people’s homes. The local people were shaking with anger and frustration; if they had been allowed to close that road, they could have stopped those homes being flooded, but they were told they would face police action if they did so. That is the kind of emergency situation where we need to ensure that local people are able to act, whether it is a biodiversity emergency or a flooding emergency affecting people’s homes.

I really hope that we might see some progress on Amendments 90, 91 and 94. I also want to mention Amendment 92A, in the name of the noble Earl, Lord Caithness. The Nature Friendly Farming Network represents a really activist group of farmers; I have met quite a number of them. They are doing some very strong things at that nexus between acknowledging the need to produce food and looking out for nature. Here we have a very modest addition to the Bill that would acknowledge and put on the statute book recognition of, and support for, the important work of nature-friendly farming. I hope that we will hear from the Minister about that amendment.

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

My Lords, my Amendment 91 in this group seeks to give some bite to the nature recovery strategies, which are a very welcome addition into this Bill by this Government. As they stand, however, local authorities will be producing them but they will be almost irrelevant in terms of the planning process, because they would not be a material consideration. My amendment therefore seeks to ensure that local authorities have to act in accordance with them rather than just take account of them.

I am grateful for the support for the amendment from Members from all Benches, and to the Minister and his team for discussing the matter with me. I am also grateful for government Amendment 93 that has been produced as a concession, but saddened that it is still just guidance. I suppose that I should not have really expected the Government to compel local authorities to do anything. It is also a necessary step, given that the pilots for the nature recovery strategies showed that local authorities said: “These won’t work unless we get more guidance,” so the Government had to do something. However, it is a step in the right direction, and it will help local authorities to ensure that nature recovery strategies are used properly in the planning system.

I am particularly grateful for the letter that the Minister sent to Peers, which said specifically just how important nature recovery strategies would be within the planning system as a tool for protecting the environment. That is an important statement, and I am grateful for it. Clearly, we have expectations for a planning Bill some way down the road; we are not sure quite how much of it will survive, if we are to believe the newspapers over the weekend. However, there will be a planning Bill, so without prejudicing what might come in future, I accept gratefully the concession that the Government have offered. We might have to return to this issue when we see what those planning changes are, at which point, we will be happy, I am sure, to take up the cudgels again.

Photo of Lord Khan of Burnley Lord Khan of Burnley Opposition Whip (Lords) 10:45 pm, 13th September 2021

My Lords, I rise to speak to a number of amendments which have been debated at this late hour in your Lordships’ House. I will make my comments brief.

I turn first to Amendment 90 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, on supporting local authorities to be able to keep funds as they are better placed to promote biodiversity than people sitting in Whitehall. My noble friend Lady Jones of Whitchurch mentioned the Environmental Audit Committee’s recent inquiry, Biodiversity in the UK: Bloom or Bust?, earlier this evening. This report 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. Local authorities are essential to the successful implementation of many of the Bill’s provisions. However, their effectiveness relies on the resources and expertise they have available to deploy these crucial tools.

Moving to Amendment 91 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, I absolutely agree that local councils need to be empowered. I look forward to hearing the response from the Minister to see how he will reassure the noble Baroness, who made some pertinent points in this area.

I also agree with the concerns of the noble Lord, Lord Oates, in Amendment 94. It is important that strategies do not become just more paper gathering dust and that the powers provided to enforce them are not controlled from Westminster but in local authorities, which are on the front line and know better how to save nature in their localities.

I am also grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, for raising a number of important points, and I appreciate his efforts and sincerity in wanting to improve this landmark Bill.

Finally, the Minister will be glad to know that we are happy with government Amendment 93. It is good to see that the Government have listened to the concerns across your Lordships’ House and accept that local authorities require more support and information concerning the conservation and enhancement of biodiversity.

In the same spirit in which the Minister has presented Amendment 93 to address cross-party concerns expressed in Committee about empowering local authorities, I hope he can address the concerns of noble Lords who have spoken on the various amendments in this group. 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)

I thank noble Lords for their contributions to this debate. The Government have listened carefully to the valuable debate both here and in the other place, and I thank the noble Baronesses, Lady Parminter and Lady Jones of Whitchurch, for their drive in this area in particular.

We share the desire to make sure that local nature recovery strategies are actively used and delivered, and we entirely agree that the planning system is a key mechanism for achieving this. That is why we have tabled government Amendment 93 to make it a legal requirement for the Government to produce guidance on how local planning authorities should “have regard” to local nature recovery strategies. Local planning authorities, as part of the planning system, will have to “have regard” to relevant local nature recovery strategies, as will all public bodies. Defra is supporting MHCLG in developing proposals for planning reform ahead of the introduction of the planning Bill, including creating a clear role for local nature recovery strategies.

Turning briefly to Amendment 91, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, I appreciate that she is also seeking to ensure that local nature recovery strategies are actively used, and I know she tabled this amendment before the government amendment in my name was tabled. I thank her very much for her thoughtful response and her—was it support?—gentle support for our amendment. The local nature recovery strategies will be developed collaboratively to identify where changing the way land is managed will give greatest benefit for nature and the environment, which will also reflect local priorities. The shared vision will then guide the delivery of biodiversity net gain, environmental land management schemes, planning, use of nature-based solutions and many other current and proposed actions for nature’s recovery across the public, private and voluntary sectors. To do this, each strategy must capture potential actions relevant for all these purposes, brought together to create a coherent overall approach. The duty on public authorities to “have regard” to the strategies will require them to consider which of these proposed changes they can realistically make and then take that action. The amendment the Government have tabled will strengthen the integration of the strategies into the planning system in particular.

Turning to Amendment 90 tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, local authorities will be able to fund habitat creation or enhancement on their own land by selling biodiversity units to developers, on exactly the same basis as other suppliers on the market. Local authorities may also choose to work with other local landowners to bring additional habitat creation or enhancement opportunities to the market. Statutory credits are separate from market biodiversity units. They are intended to be sold by government as a last resort, when developers are unable to achieve net gain on site or off site, either on their own land or by purchasing biodiversity units on the market. It is therefore necessary for central government to sell credits as a last resort and use the revenue to invest in new habitat creation and enhancement.

We do not, however, want lots of money to come through the route of government-supplied credits. We want the market to provide locally led solutions, in which local authorities will of course play a key part. We intend to set the cost of government credits in a way that does not undercut the biodiversity unit market.

Turning to Amendment 94, I share the concern of the noble Lord, Lord Oates, regarding the degradation of important sites for nature. I thank him for our discussion over the summer. As he said, I recently received a great deal of correspondence from concerned residents in Kingston regarding the Seething Wells filter beds site; I have read it with interest and will respond over the coming days. However, for this debate, I must address the implications of this amendment for local authorities and the protection for biodiversity more widely.

I am afraid that I do not agree that giving local authorities such sweeping powers is the best way to address the issue. It would amount to de facto protection of the entire country, which, although on the one level it would be fantastic, could have a wide-reaching effect on land use nationwide, creating confusion over whether an area is protected. We have a system of protections for our best sites for nature and our most important landscapes. Wildlife, including all nesting birds and other rare and declining species, is protected across the country. The forthcoming Green Paper will explore specifically how these protections can be strengthened and improved.

Turning to Amendment 98, tabled by my noble friend Lord Caithness, Natural England’s assessment of licence applications will be evidence-led and based on robust science, taking into consideration the likely impact on the relevant population and biodiversity. The Government remain fully committed to our international obligations on biodiversity. The wording used for these proposed tests within a reformed Wildlife and Countryside Act is in alignment with Article 9 of the Bern convention on the conservation of fauna and flora. I agree with my noble friend that any assessment of impact should be at the scale of the population concerned. The clause in this Bill intends to do that by referring to any population of the protected species concerned, be that at local, regional or national levels.

Amendment 105 was also tabled by my noble friend Lord Caithness. As I said, the Bill introduces a comprehensive statutory cycle of monitoring, planning and reporting. Our proposed objectives for domestic biodiversity targets reflect current draft international targets being developed under the CBD. The Government are already developing an evaluation and monitoring programme for biodiversity net gain and have commissioned the first stages of delivering this. The relevant public authorities will report every five years on their actions to comply with the biodiversity duty, including contributions to net gain and local nature recovery strategies; those strategies will themselves be regularly reviewed and updated. These processes go beyond merely reviewing regulations and will ensure that the Government’s actions are both adaptive and effective.

Finally, turning to Amendment 92A, I fully agree that future farming practices should support nature recovery. We are strengthening the existing duty by requiring authorities to “have regard” to clear strategies that will include specific actions. However, having regard to a broad concept such as “nature-friendly farming” would not make the overall duty any clearer or more meaningful. Also, to reiterate the point I made in Committee, where an authority has influence over farming or has farms on its land, it already needs to consider what it can do to ensure that biodiversity is supported. The Government have already committed to aligning environmental land management farming schemes for rewarding environmental benefits with local nature recovery strategies; this should be revolutionary for our countryside and biodiversity. With the environmental land management schemes contributing to biodiversity enhancement through the provisions of the Agriculture Act and targets set in the Environment Bill, we believe that an amendment such as this is not necessary.

I hope I have reassured noble Lords. I beg them to withdraw or not press their amendments.

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

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his response. He will not be hugely surprised to know that he has not reassured me, particularly in regard to Amendment 90 and my Amendment 94. He is wrong to state that my amendment would mean that the country was de facto covered—that is, that these local authority powers would de facto cover the whole country—as they would apply only to sites designated under Clause 102(3).

However, overall, I regret that the Government have arranged business so that a meaningful vote is not possible on my amendment tonight, and also that a number of noble Lords who would have liked to take part in this important debate were not able to. It is critical that local authorities are given not just duties but also powers to implement them. The Minister can be assured of our determination to ensure that local authorities are given these powers, which they need to protect biodiversity in their local areas, and we will seek the next possible legislative opportunity to do so. In the meantime, with great regret, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 90 withdrawn.

Amendment 91 not moved.

Clause 98: General duty to conserve and enhance biodiversity