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Examination of Witnesses

Environment Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:00 pm on 10th March 2020.

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Dr Diane Mitchell, Alan Law, Dr Sue Young and Judicaelle Hammond gave evidence.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet 2:30 pm, 10th March 2020

Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. We are now going to take evidence from Natural England, the Wildlife Trusts, the Country Land and Business Association and the National Farmers Union. We have one hour, I am afraid—and that is all—to accommodate what I am sure will be a very great deal of interesting information. Without further ado, Dr Mitchell, please identify yourself and give us a flavour of what the organisation you represent does, for the benefit of the record.

Dr Mitchell:

I am Diane Mitchell and I am the chief environment adviser at the National Farmers Union of England and Wales, representing about 50,000 farmers and grower businesses.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

Before we go any further, for some reason, we have a problem with these microphones. Please project if you can, and if we can crank up the sound, that would be helpful as well. Mr Law, please.

Alan Law:

Alan Law, I am deputy chief executive at Natural England. Natural England is Government’s wildlife adviser. We are an arm’s length body, a non-departmental public body in the DEFRA group.

Judicaelle Hammond:

I am Judicaelle Hammond. I am the director of policy and advice at the Country Land and Business Association. We represent about 30,000 members who own or operate businesses based on land in rural areas in England and Wales.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

Dr Young, by a process of elimination, you are—

Dr Young:

I am Sue Young. I work as head of land use policy and ecological networks at the Wildlife Trusts. The Wildlife Trusts is a federated organisation of 46 charities, it covers the whole of the UK and provides advice on nature issues and looks after nature reserves and manages land.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

Thank you very much. I should have said this at the beginning and I will say it now: if any Members and, indeed, any guests for that matter—it seems to be a bit fetid in here—wish to take their jackets off, you are welcome to do so.

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Shadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Energy and Climate Change)

Q A particular issue that concerns all of you in different ways is the nature recovery network, and it is the Bill’s intention to lay the foundation for that. Do you think that local nature recovery strategies actually do provide that mechanism to secure nature’s recovery on the land?

Dr Young:

A nature recovery network is a really important part of the solution to the ecological crisis that we are facing. It is a joined-up system of places needed to allow nature to recover. To be effective, it must extend across the whole of England, including rural and urban areas, and connect to similar initiatives elsewhere in the UK. The section on local nature recovery strategies in the Bill is really good and sets an ambitious agenda that would enable us to tackle nature’s recovery. It needs to be clearer how the local nature recovery strategies will contribute to a national network and targets for nature’s recovery.

That seems to be missing in the Bill at the moment; there is not a clear description of how the components that are set out in that part will add up to a system that works ecologically. The Bill says that the strategies will identify areas that could be good for biodiversity in the future, but that really needs to be based on ecological principles, rather than being an ad hoc set of sites where habitats could be created. That will ensure that the ambition contained within the Bill to secure nature’s recovery is realised. That could be achieved with some relatively small amendments to clause 97.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

Thank you. It will not be necessary for every member of the panel to answer every question, but to set the stage and for ease of reference, I will on this occasion simply work from, in my case, right to left—in your case, left to right. Ms Hammond, please.

Judicaelle Hammond:

Thank you. Local nature recovery strategies are a real opportunity to make a difference to nature. There are a few things I would like to raise in terms of how they are going to work. First, at the moment, they are just about nature. We wonder whether there is a point to them being more holistic, so that we avoid silos and manage to have a look at how land is used in a way that maximises the various benefit types, including flood management and climate change, not just nature. This is a plea for them to not just be considered in isolation.

Another aspect is the issue of who should be leading on this. The Bill provides for a multiplicity of possible responsible bodies, including local authorities. As we heard from the gentleman from the Local Government Association, local authorities are already overstretched. We have an issue over whether they have the capacity to lead on that.

Another aspect is skills, and that was raised to the Committee. Would Natural England be better placed to do that?

It is important to have clear priorities. There need to be no gaps and no overlaps with regards to local nature recovery strategies, and that needs to be an important driver from national Government. Most of the land we refer to is in private ownership, so it will be important to consult with landowners and land managers on that.

Alan Law:

The Bill has the potential to be the most significant environmental piece of legislation since the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949. We have worked on conservation in this country for the last 70 years, driven by a focus on looking at the rare and putting in place protection measures for those rare site species: parks. What is exciting about the Bill and its links to the 25-year environment plan is the ambition to go from protecting small parts of the countryside—looking after the rare and the special—to trying to drive wholesale large nature recovery. That ambition around recovery is fundamental. The most important part of the Bill revolves around this nature recovery network and the links between the local and the national.

Will local nature recovery strategies alone deliver the ambition of the nature recovery network? No, they probably will not. That will not happen without further tightening up, either in the Bill or in supporting guidance or regulations. For reasons already articulated, we need to ensure that local nature recovery strategies operate within some form of national framework so that they are coherent. A national framework needs to be in place.

There need to be mechanisms for developing local nature recovery strategies so that they are quality assured and checked to ensure that they actually add up to a part of that coherent network. We need to see clear expressions of the set national targets writ into those local nature recovery strategies. At the moment we have an ambition at the front of the Bill around targets and we have a tool—a delivery mechanism—around local plans, but there is no hard-wired connection between the two. That is not difficult to achieve, so the issue is to tighten up around the links between targets, delivery processes, and some of the accountabilities.

Dr Mitchell:

I have some opening words from my perspective on the Bill itself. British farmers are the stewards of our natural environment, and they have a good track record of protecting, maintaining and enhancing our environment. We welcome some aspects of the Bill, but some improvements could be made to ensure that environmental enhancement policies are carefully considered, and that food production and the environment go hand in hand. One of the key themes in the Bill and its various measures will be the need for them to work for farmers and food production as well as for the environment. Setting that context and going on to nature recovery networks and local nature recovery strategies, there is a lot of jargon around. We need greater clarity on these different phrases and how they all fit together.

How local nature recovery strategies may be used is unclear from our perspective. The suggestion is that they may be used to inform planning decisions. That makes us slightly nervous because is it some sort of designation that may be used to identify environmental priorities or opportunities that may restrict what farmers might want to do with their land in future, such as new building requirements? Farmers may want to update and modernise their buildings, but will that be restricted if they are in one of these areas? Or might they have an impact on land values?

Those are some of the questions we have in the back of our minds. Farmers get very nervous when you start drawing lines on maps, particularly when it comes to thinking about how environmental land management schemes may be ruled out in future. If these strategies are used to identify where farmers may be able to enter into one of these ELM schemes, does that mean they will be restricted in their engagement? We recommend that these local nature recovery strategies are confined to areas that are already identified for environmental value, such as sites of special scientific interest.

My final point is that we need to ensure that farmers are properly consulted at an early stage of the strategies, so that food production is considered alongside any environmental priorities.

Photo of Rebecca Pow Rebecca Pow The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Q Thank you for coming in. I want to go back to the local nature recovery network strategies and how they link to national strategies. Clause 98(5)(b) includes a very specific reference, that the local nature recovery strategies

“could contribute to the establishment of a network of areas across England for the recovery…of biodiversity”.

That is newly added since the previous Bill, in response to engagement with stakeholders. I want to know, first, whether you welcome that and what you think about it and, secondly, going on a bit, your view of the overall measures in the Bill in driving us towards this nature recovery environmental improvement.

Alan Law:

We welcome the insertion of that clause. I have “could” underlined, rather than a more affirmative statement on the plan to undertake it. The ambition is clearly there to develop local strategies that add up to a coherent whole, but a little bit more in some of the supporting guidance or regulation to tighten up exactly how national standards will be met should be defined, and how those can be used in terms of local strategies. A timeline for production of the local strategies, again, would be great to see coming through while the Bill is in transition.

It will be really important to have some formal mechanism for scrutinising those plans and for advising on how fit for purpose they are. They will go back up to the Secretary of State, who provides that scrutiny. Forgive us for the presumption, but perhaps a body such as Natural England could provide that sort of role.

Dr Young:

We were really pleased to see that addition in the Bill, because it makes the link. It is clear in the explanatory notes that it is talking about a nature recovery network. I will reiterate how important a nature recovery network is to tackle the massive declines that we have seen in nature over our lifetimes.

I agree with Alan’s point that the Bill uses the phrase “could contribute”. Certainly, the Bill’s ambition is clear, but there is always a danger of the ambition not being implemented in the way the Government foresee. When resources are tight, organisations will do what they must do rather than what they should do. It would be good to see a change in some of the wording in the Bill from “may” to “must” so it achieves the ambition we really hope it will achieve. The Bill uses the phrase “a network of areas”. It would be really good if the term “a nature recovery network” were included in the Bill rather than just in the explanatory notes, so that we are really clear what we want the Bill to do and what we want people to do.

It will be important to think about how this is implemented. Again, we are really pleased that the duty on local authorities in an earlier section of the Bill has been improved so that it is about local authorities not just having regard to the protection of biodiversity but enhancing it and having regard to local nature recovery strategies. However, in the past, “have regard” has not been a very strong term and has not led to sufficient action to halt the declines. A slight change of wording—perhaps to “act in accordance with local nature recovery strategies”—would really shift the focus from thinking to doing and taking action.

We would like local nature recovery strategies to be more clearly required to be expressed in the planning system. I think local authorities and public bodies having regard to local nature recovery strategies in their decision making about planning and spending would lead to stronger action. It would also help to a certain extent with the point that colleagues have made about consultation, because the planning system provides us with a ready-made administrative system for good consultation.

Photo of Alex Sobel Alex Sobel Labour/Co-operative, Leeds North West

Q I just have one question. I think there is general consensus that we do not want a lower standard of environmental protection after the end of the end of the transition and the implementation of the Bill. Do you feel that the Bill replicates our current level of environmental protection—the level as it was when we were a member of the EU—or will it deliver a lower level of environmental protection?

Judicaelle Hammond:

There is no reason, given the way the Bill is framed at the moment, that those standards will drop. The CLA is on record as a strong supporter of high standards remaining, not least because that gives us an opportunity to use high standards as a unique selling point both in the export market and internally. These are absolutely necessary, and we need to make sure that we maintain them.

The Committee may want to consider the kinds of issues with trade deals that are being raised at the moment with the Agriculture Bill. They apply in exactly the same way to the need to ensure that we do not get imports that are produced at much lower standards of environmental protection—and, indeed, climate change action—than would be allowed here. That is an element of the Bill on which there could be some really useful reflection.

Dr Mitchell:

There are a number of safeguards in the Bill to ensure that our environmental standards are not lowered. The environmental governance aspects around target setting, the embedding of the environmental principles and the introduction of the OEP should ensure that our standards are not lowered.

One of the things that we need to consider alongside our standards is the fact that farmers are doing a lot to maintain our environment as well as creating habitats and enhancing it. We ought to recognise that as well as all the things that we do to improve and enhance our environment, there is a lot of work in terms of good day-to-day management and maintenance that farmers do to maintain our landscapes. At the moment that does not seem to be recognised in the Bill, and we would like that to be recognised a bit more.

Alan Law:

There are two aspects here—differentiating ambition from certainty. On the one hand, the Bill provides the mechanism through target setting to go beyond existing standards. That is entirely welcome. As yet, we do not have the clarity around those targets, but it is entirely welcome. The other area is around potential regression. There is a protection in the Bill through clause 19 around primary legislation, but that does not apply to secondary legislation, so conservation regulations in that area could be subject to regression.

Photo of Ruth Edwards Ruth Edwards Conservative, Rushcliffe

My question is particularly directed at Dr Young and Mr Law. Do you believe that 10% is the correct level of improvementQ for the biodiversity net gain targets?

Alan Law:

I would reframe the question to say a 10% minimum. The work that we have done with stakeholders around those thresholds suggests that many are indeed willing to go higher than that, but there is a sense that applying a mandatory higher level at this stage would be counterproductive. We are content with it, but we apply it as a minimum. I would also say that it is 110%, of course, rather than 10%—it is 10% on top.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

You are saying that 10% is the minimum but also the maximum.

Alan Law:

No, 10% is the minimum.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

Any advance on 10%, Dr Young?

Dr Young:

It is important that 10% should not be a cap on the ambition for net gain. Net gain can make a really good contribution to nature’s recovery and we certainly welcome seeing it in the Bill and that it is mandatory. Having quoted 10%, however, we would not want to limit the ambition of those developers and local authorities that would like to go higher.

Dr Mitchell:

Net gain provides an opportunity for some farmers who can be the deliverers of it, which is important to consider, but we should not forget that farmers can be developers themselves. They may want to replace a farm building, which may require them to meet the net gain requirements.

We are pleased to see in the Bill that there is an exemption from the need to provide net gain for permitted development. That is really helpful and important, especially for smaller developments on farms that farmers can do through the permitted development rights. We have to remember that in some areas of high environmental value, going beyond 10% might be quite difficult for the farmers, because they are doing 110%, which means that they may have to contribute quite a lot or they may have to get someone else to do the biodiversity credits for them.

We are conscious that in some areas, permitted development rights may not apply for some reason—for example, in national parks. In those areas, farmers would be disadvantaged. Not only would they have the additional costs of applying for planning permission, but they may have additional specific design requirements to meet in that national park area, and they would have to meet the net gain requirements on top of that, so they are already possibly at a disadvantage. One suggestion we have is to broaden the exemption that I just talked about to deliver the net gain to areas where the permitted development rights do not currently apply.

Photo of Richard Graham Richard Graham Conservative, Gloucester

I want to come on to the thorny issue of conservation covenants and potential abstraction compensation. May I start with one question to Mr LawQ of Natural England? From your point of view, what could conservation covenants deliver on the ground? If you could be as concise as possible, that would be great.

Alan Law:

At the moment, we have a range of tools available to us to deliver conservation outcomes. We can designate sites, we can offer incentives and we can engage through the planning system to try to deliver planning gain. Conservation covenants would provide another tool we could use that would be between some of those existing tools.

Photo of Richard Graham Richard Graham Conservative, Gloucester

Q You clearly see it as a positive. Can you give us one example of what could be delivered? Bring it alive for anybody watching this great programme.

Alan Law:

We could have conversations with landowners about new agri-environment agreements. Our ambition is to see public investments in public benefits in perpetuity. We could explore the desirability of a covenant with the agreement of the landowner to secure the long-term value of that investment. We could alternatively use a covenant as a different means of ensuring an area is protected in the long term, as an alternative to designation.

Photo of Richard Graham Richard Graham Conservative, Gloucester

Q That is not quite a specific example, but it gives us some structural ideas. Ms Hammond, you welcomed the idea; you are in favour of it. Can you give us an idea of how your members would benefit from conservation covenants?

Judicaelle Hammond:

Yes, as you say, we welcome the idea. Depending on how they are set up, we think that covenants are a flexible way to ensure that conservation aims are advanced. They enable two parties to enter into a contract for the long term, which my members value, because most of them will think of their business in multigenerational terms. This is an opportunity for our members to deliver some of the ambitions.

Photo of Richard Graham Richard Graham Conservative, Gloucester

Q And access to an enhanced environment for members of the public, as well.

Judicaelle Hammond:

Yes.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

Just a moment, before we move forward, you are quite entitled to ask specific questions of specific people, but does anybody else want to comment on the issues that have been raised so far? Yes, Dr Young.

Dr Young:

I think conservation covenants provide a really useful tool for securing long-term environmental gains. Our concern about the effectiveness of this is that net gain, for example, which they could work well with, ought to be secured in perpetuity. It should not be too easy to discharge a covenant and risk the loss of biodiversity and other public goods. The terms used in the circumstances for modifying or discharging them ought to be clear enough to give that confidence.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

Right, Mr Graham, if you would like to carry on.

Photo of Richard Graham Richard Graham Conservative, Gloucester

Q Dr Mitchell, in your written evidence you expressed, as did Ms Hammond, considerable concern about the powers to amend or revoke licences for the abstraction of water. As I read it, the changes recommended in clause 80 are all about where the modification is to protect the environment. For example, you might have a member who owns land high up in the Welsh hills, and it may be thought helpful for people living in Shropshire, Worcestershire and Gloucestershire to have a catchment area or enlarged reservoir for water, to avoid people being flooded downstream. In that situation, is it right that your members should be compensated?

Dr Mitchell:

Yes, we do have concerns about the provisions in the Bill to revoke or amend abstraction licences. I think that is the clause we are talking about.

Photo of Richard Graham Richard Graham Conservative, Gloucester

Q It is very specific about the situations. The Bill spells it out clearly:

“No compensation where modification to protect environment”.

It then goes on to specific issues and I gave you an example of one. Surely, in the situation I gave you, it would be wrong to expect the taxpayer to compensate the farmer?

Dr Mitchell:

What we are concerned about is not only the fact that the abstraction licence can be withdrawn or amended without compensation, but if you look at the tests to assess harm or impact on the water environment, there is a low evidential bar. They are broadbrush proposals, so there are dual concerns about this.

Photo of Richard Graham Richard Graham Conservative, Gloucester

Q So it is a general concern rather than a specific issue.

Dr Mitchell:

It is a general concern.

Photo of Richard Graham Richard Graham Conservative, Gloucester

Is that the same for Ms Hammond?

Judicaelle Hammond:

We share some of the NFU’s views, particularly about how the reason for the necessity of the variation or removal is framed. In the Bill, it is very broad and it is not clear that it will be evidence based. That is certainly a concern that we share. I would add that abstraction licences are a business asset and there are property rights, so from our perspective removing them without compensation is an infringement of property rights.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

Q Are there any wildlife implications, Dr Young?

Dr Young:

This is not an area that I work on, but I am happy to consult colleagues and provide information to follow up.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

That is fine. I just want to make sure you are not missing out on something.

Dr Mitchell:

To add to what Judicaelle said, if the proposals go ahead as currently drafted, they will create a lot of uncertainty for some of our members. They could potentially undermine business liability and productivity for some of our members.

Photo of Richard Graham Richard Graham Conservative, Gloucester

Q I understand, but that is a hypothetical risk. You have not given a specific example of one, although I gave you a specific example where I think the public interest would be at stake.

Dr Mitchell:

Yes, but they are clearly broadbrush proposals and the evidential bar is low. Abstraction licences are important for business security and certainty. Years’ worth of investment has gone into some businesses to ensure that people have access to water. That investment has been made in the knowledge that they have permission to abstract. It could create a lot of uncertainty for a number of our members.

An additional aspect that we are concerned about is the excess headroom provisions, because we are unsure how you could develop an equitable system to assess the underuse of water. There are various reasons why you might not use your licence, including the weather or crop rotation.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

It is a significant issue, but we are going to have to move on.

Photo of Jessica Morden Jessica Morden Opposition Whip (Commons)

Q The Bill loads lots more powers and responsibilities on bodies such as Natural England. Given the big cuts you have faced, how much more do you anticipate you would need to take on the new responsibilities?

Alan Law:

Fortunately, there is a spending review coming up. We are looking at refocusing our organisation in a way that aligns closely with the ambitions of the Bill and the 25-year plan to focus on nature recovery. That means looking to operate at a larger landscape scale and to use our statutory powers at a local authority scale, rather than solely focused at the end-of-pipe development control scale.

We welcome the powers and the ambitions set out here. I was being slightly flippant about the spending review, because wherever that money goes it goes, but our ambitions will be to refocus our organisation to use our incentive, convening, statutory advice and regulatory functions in ways that allow us to build larger-scale nature recovery.

A point was made earlier about whether we should focus on existing areas of high value for nature or wider areas. The point I want to emphasise is that we know—basic ecology tells us—that trying to protect small isolated sites over time does not work. Over the last 50 years, we have been exercising a regime that is effectively holding back the tide, stemming species extinctions on these sites. Unless we extend beyond those sites, it is inevitable that we will see losses of further species interest on these sites as the pressures from the environment and people’s activity continue to grow. This is something that we have to do and it is about rebalancing our focus to what the challenges are for the environment right now, rather than what they were 50 or 60 years ago.

Dr Young:

I do not want to repeat what Alan just said, but I totally agree. I want to stress how important we feel Natural England’s role is in developing and helping to deliver the local nature recovery network and local strategies. It is able to convene partnerships, it has a wealth of knowledge and we really think it should play a central role.

Photo of Bim Afolami Bim Afolami Conservative, Hitchin and Harpenden

Dr Young, what role could local nature recovery strategies play in targeting funding under the environmental land management scheme? How could those two things interactQ ?

Dr Young:

There is a real opportunity to integrate policy delivery where there is a need for action to be geographically targeted. Some of the options that will be developed under environmental land management will be much more effective for the delivery of public goods and for nature if they are targeted in particular places and form a connected network. Local nature recovery strategies have a mapping element that shows opportunity areas, so they can be used to help with targeting and alignment with other policy areas, such as water policy, so that we can see multiple benefits from delivering particular actions and therefore get more value for money.

Alan Law:

Your question is absolutely fundamental. It is imperative that local nature recovery strategies provide an effective mechanism for drawing together different funding streams into a coherent delivery pattern on the ground. Whether it is ELM, net gain or potentially water company investments—a whole range of sources—we need to be able to target coherently. To do that, we need a degree of consistency of standard in place around those local strategies, because how could you offer—

Photo of Bim Afolami Bim Afolami Conservative, Hitchin and Harpenden

Otherwise it would be apples and oranges.

Alan Law:

Absolutely; farmers in one part of the country would be operating under a totally different regime from those in another part. It is really important that that consistency is put in place and that we have a network of local strategies.

The thing I want to emphasise, though, is that I am not advocating national prescription. This is not about some ivory tower in the centre coming up with a land use map and saying, “There you are—that is what has to take place on the ground.” It is about standards and principles and applying those locally, because for these plans to work, they have to be owned by local people, and particularly by the land management community on the ground.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

Q Dr Mitchell, do you want to say something on farms operating under different regimes?

Dr Mitchell:

I think I mentioned this before. My question is whether it is appropriate for local nature recovery strategies to be used to target funding for environmental land management. I say that because if the local nature recovery strategies had been set up for a different purpose—say, for a special planning purpose—and ELM is being bolted on, do we have the same principles and an underlying objective behind the strategy? As I think I said before—I hope I did—farmers get very nervous when lines are drawn on maps, and they get very nervous if there is a postcode lottery and they may be excluded from taking part in a future scheme.

Photo of Bim Afolami Bim Afolami Conservative, Hitchin and Harpenden

Q On this point, let us think about food production. Without making the point too bluntly, I think everybody is thinking a lot more about food production now than they were six months ago, and that is a good thing. On food production—you mentioned this earlier—what difficulties are there, or what questions are still open, around farmers producing food, the environmental land management scheme and the local nature recovery strategies? From the CLA’s perspective, how do you think of that network of things? It is quite complicated, and I want to get a sense of how you see all those things, particularly in relation to food production.

Dr Mitchell:

From the NFU’s perspective, we think that the ELM scheme will be really important in future, but it has to work hand in hand with food production. The measures that are developed need to consider farmers’ views, alongside protecting and enhancing the environment. Those things need to be considered together.

As I understand it, from a recent document that DEFRA has published, there will be three tiers to a future scheme—or that is what is proposed. Designing those different tiers will be really important in ensuring that the scheme remains accessible to all farmers and that the payment rates act as an incentive or are encouraging. As I say, they need to be designed alongside food production and they need to work for farmers as well as for the environment.

Can I add a point on conservation covenants? I think it came up in relation to ELM previously. We have concerns about conservation covenants. We have no objection to—indeed, we support—farmers working collaboratively, but we have a number of technical concerns about covenants. We have talked to various people, including non-governmental organisations, and I do not think our proposed changes are very controversial or change the objective of the Bill.

First, we think there ought to be clarity in the Bill to ensure that landowners do not sign up inadvertently to a conservation covenant, which I think is a danger. The Bill, as drafted, says that an agreement only needs to meet certain tests or criteria for it to be a covenant, but it does not need to state explicitly that it is a covenant. We think that ought to be addressed in the Bill. Farmers need to be aware of the seriousness and significance of signing up to a covenant. It is not a contract; it binds successors in title, and farmers need to be aware of that.

Secondly, the design of covenants needs to be sufficiently flexible. Specifics such as the length of the agreement and modifications or variations that can be made to the covenant need to be considered by the landowner and the third party. The points are quite technical, but hopefully they are not controversial and would not change the objective of the Bill.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

Q Ms Hammond, you are nodding. Before we move on, do you want to comment?

Judicaelle Hammond:

Yes, thank you for that. We agree that such a clarification would be helpful. The Bill could be tightened in that regard. The one thing I would add on conservation covenants before I answer Mr Afolami’s question is that we have reservations about covenants being de facto, by default, in perpetuity, not least because of climate change and the fact that what you do with a piece of land, given the topology and given what we know is going to happen with climate change, regardless of our success in containing it, might mean that in 30 years’ time it might make sense for nature to do something slightly different with it because the habitat has moved. That is something we need to continue being flexible about.

As for your questions about—this is my way of rephrasing Mr Afolami’s question, I hope I get it right—how we knit together food production and the environment, we do not see a divergence between the two. This Bill and, indeed, the Agriculture Bill give us the opportunity to bring the two together. There are three critical elements if this is going to work. First, clear standards and long-term targets will be provided by the Bill. The second element is advice—something that perhaps we are not talking about enough in farming and the environment. That reflects the findings of the review that Dame Glenys Stacey carried out into the future of farming inspections and regulation. Advice is the first step to improvement. It might well be that advice and different technologies work together really well. For example, precision farming is a case in point where, if you are looking at how to use your inputs as effectively and efficiently as possible, it is good for food production, it is good for your costs as a business and it is good for the environment. The third element is to make sure that the incentives work right, in the way the market is going in terms of labelling and expectations, but also in terms of public policy where there is a market failure.

Photo of Deidre Brock Deidre Brock Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Wales), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

In your view, is there sufficient clarity in the Bill regarding the OEP and its role, particularly its relationship with environmental governance bodies, including Natural England, the Environment Agency, the Committee on Climate Change and so on? If you do not think there is sufficient clarity, what would you suggest might be included to make that happenQ ?

Alan Law:

From our point of view, we think there is. The Environment Agency is a regulator. What the OEP brings is a body that looks at the operation of public bodies in relation to our environmental ambitions and duties. We do not see an inherent tension. I think there will be areas where we both have a legitimate interest in providing advice to Government. When the national planning policy framework is revised and revisited, we would probably both have inputs to make around that, but we would seek with the OEP to set out under a memorandum of agreement where our respective boundaries lay and avoid any duplication. That is certainly the intention.

Dr Mitchell:

I want to add a quick point on the OEP because I think the Bill largely addresses some of the concerns we had about how the new regulator would work with the existing regulatory bodies. I think that is largely sorted out. We think that the OEP should be required to act proportionately. At the moment, the OEP is required to act objectively and impartially, and we think that ought to be extended to proportionately. At the moment, it only has to have regard to act proportionately. It seems to be an omission, so that is one of our asks.

Photo of Deidre Brock Deidre Brock Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Wales), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Q Given the experiences of Natural England and, so far, little detail around the setting up of the OEP and its funding—I know there is a commitment to multi-year funding, and so on, but little real meat to flesh it out—are there safeguards is the Bill to ensure that the funding will be protected?

Alan Law:

The Bill has provisions for the OEP to advise on the adequacy of funding. I am not sure there is much more I can add to that. Clearly, there is a requirement on the Secretary of State to report regularly.

Photo of Marco Longhi Marco Longhi Conservative, Dudley North

My question is for Dr Mitchell. To clarify a point you raised earlier around covenants, as I understand it, the Bill suggests that these are voluntary. That for me is the key point. You raised a concern about farmers inadvertently signing up. Do you have any further thoughts about that? I assume that they will be advised by the legal profession about what they will be taking up in that respect.Q

Dr Mitchell:

Yes, you are right; they are voluntary agreements, and they have to be between a third party and a landowner. Our concerns are based on the fact that you could be signing up to a covenant, but it does not have to state expressly that it is one. So long as it meets certain tests or criteria, it could be considered to be a covenant, but if it does not state expressly that it is a covenant, farmers may not actually know that it will be a covenant.

I realise the Bill is not in place yet, but we had a recent example where farmers were being asked by a charity to put in ponds and to maintain them over a certain period of time. To all intents and purposes, if you looked at that letter of agreement, it could be considered to be a covenant. We are concerned that, unknowingly or unwittingly, farmers may sign up to one. Clearly, they are quite serious; they could be in perpetuity, but they certainly bind successors in title. We want to make sure that farmers are absolutely clear about what they are signing up to. A small amendment to the Bill, setting out that if something is a covenant it has to state that, would be really helpful.

Photo of Robbie Moore Robbie Moore Conservative, Keighley

Q I want to return to nature recovery strategies to clarify a point that was made earlier. Do you agree that nature recovery strategies are only part of the picture when it comes to ensuring biodiversity recovery? For example, biodiversity net gain, tree-planting measures and so on will all be key. It was mentioned earlier that clause 98 contains the word “could”. Do you agree that it is appropriate to use “could” rather than “should” because this is part of a wider range of measures to reach the end goal?

Alan Law:

Yes, to be absolutely clear, not all wildlife will be in a nature recovery network or a nature recovery strategy, but what we are looking for in the nature recovery network and local expressions of those plans are the skeleton and vital organs of a healthy organism. We would still expect, of course, to see wildlife and other environmental features beyond that, outwith the nature recovery network itself, but we are trying to design something on a scale that can be healthy and resilient—that can deal with pressures, variation, pollution, climate change and so on—and that cannot be done on a small scale on its own. However, that is not at all to say that we are designing everything into this network and that everything outside the network does not need to be worried about.

Judicaelle Hammond:

To add to that, nature recovery networks are certainly one really important and very useful element, but they are not the only one; for example, what is being set up under the ELM scheme is another way, and covenants are another way. This gives us an opportunity for a more consistent and better joined-up way of delivering what is in the Bill.

We are really strong supporters of the Bill, but if there is one thing that is probably missing from it in comparison with what is in the 25-year environment plan, it is any reference to heritage. I mention that now because for me it is part of thinking about land issues in the round and not just looking at nature, climate change or other things. Heritage is the sixth goal in the 25-year environment plan, but it does not appear anywhere in the Bill. If you think about it, heritage is part of the natural environment; it contributes to making places distinctive and has a lot to do with wellbeing and people’s enjoyment of the natural environment, but things that do not have an obvious economic use are not necessarily paid for.

People want parkland, stone walls and archaeological features, but they are not necessarily prepared to pay for them, and they can be quite expensive. We have already lost about half the traditional farm buildings. If they are not in the Bill, they will not be measured. If they are not measured, will they be reported on? If they are not reported on, will they be funded? That is an issue we had under the common agricultural policy regime and we are quite keen on avoiding that being the case under the post-Brexit regime.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

We are expecting a Division in about two minutes.

Photo of Saqib Bhatti Saqib Bhatti Conservative, Meriden

Q I will try to be quick. We started the discussion by talking about more clarity on local nature recovery strategies. As the discussion has evolved, it has become clear how complex these things are. My challenge is that the Bill is not the place to have further clarity; it is in the secondary legislation where you will have public consultation and contributions from experts.

Dr Young:

We would like to see local nature recovery strategies as a holistic response to the current biodiversity crisis. I agree that there is provision in the Bill for some of the things we have talked about in terms of a consistent strategy for nature. [Interruption.]

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

Order. Ladies and gentlemen, you will have noticed that there is a Division in the House. Because we are within two minutes of the end of this session, I invite witnesses to submit any written evidence that you may feel you have not aired. Thank you for your attendance. We will resume after the vote, with injury time added.

Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.