“but including sites of archaeological, architectural, artistic, cultural or historic interest insofar as they form part of the landscape”.
This amendment seeks to widen the definition of “natural environment” in this Part to include the historic environment. For the avoidance of doubt, we do not seek the inclusion of the historic environment in the definition of “environmental law”, or in the enforcement functions of the OEP.
The amendment revisits, in a slightly different way, a discussion that we had about the definition of “natural environment” and the effect of buildings and other structures on the environment. As the Committee will recall, when we spoke about that in a previous sitting, we discussed the fact that the appearance of the natural environment has, over centuries, been changed by human activities. If we went back in time, there would be no point at which we could say, “This is the natural environment, so we will use this point in time for our definition, because after this time, it is no longer the natural environment.” The natural environment is clearly constantly changing through human intervention.
Amendment 126 would give the clause a better grip on the issue than amendment 113, which was not moved. Amendment 113 sought to leave out
“(except buildings or other structures)”, but amendment 126 would insert
“but including sites of archaeological, architectural, artistic, cultural or historic interest insofar as they form part of the landscape”.
That is the nub of the question, as far as our landscape is concerned. Not only has the natural environment been changed over time in the way that I have described, but there are, in our natural environment, a whole host of structures—they might come under the definition of “buildings or other structures”, which, as hon. Members can see, are effectively excluded from the clause—that in various ways become part of the natural landscape as a result of their longevity in it, and because they have, at some stage, changed that landscape, thereby becoming a part of it.
I am sure hon. Members can think of many examples. I think of Maiden castle near Dorchester. That is a huge earthwork that dominates the landscape. I presume that if section 106 agreements and planning authorities had been around in the late bronze age, they would probably have decided that Maiden castle was an appalling blot on the landscape and should not have been built; they would have asked the proposers to go back and design a much smaller castle that would not obliterate the view towards the sea. However, they did not exist at the time, and Maiden castle is there. It is clearly part of the natural landscape. Under this clause, it appears that that structure would be exempted from consideration. That cannot be right. Another example is Bant’s Carn on the Isles of Scilly.
A host of things have changed the landscape and become part of it. If anyone decided that they should not be protected as part of the landscape, there would be quite an outcry. The wording of the Bill skews our approach towards these structures and monuments, which the British public hold dear as part of the natural landscape. I think the British public would be surprised to hear that we are effectively legislating not to protect them and keep them part of that natural landscape.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. It is important to recognise that people may not even know of such places. There is a mountain called Twmbarlwm just outside my constituency. On the top, it has a twmp, or pimple, which is an iron age burial mound. People do not even know that that pimple is manmade. They would be affronted if anyone tried to deal with it. They assume it is natural, but it is not, though it has been there for hundreds of centuries. It is important that we make every effort to cover all eventualities. If this Bill is to be groundbreaking for generations to come, we must cover all bases.
I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. That underlines what we know is right in our hearts. If we reduced this to a few lines on a piece of paper, we might have to start making them distinctive in order to define what we are talking about. This amendment tries to ensure that such structures are regarded as part of the natural landscape.
The hon. Gentleman makes the valid point that many historical monuments have become part of the landscape. The UK is one of the most densely populated countries in the world. After 40,000 years of continuous human habitation, there is virtually nothing left that is not touched by the hand of man. I fully support the desire to protect monuments and so on, but the Bill is about protecting the environment. There is a separate legal framework for protecting monuments. I am worried about confusing the objective of the Bill, and worried that the OEP will be tasked with protecting monuments—when there is a separate legal framework for that—rather than protecting the natural environment.
I take the hon. Gentleman’s point but it is not a question of the OEP having to take on the mantle of English Heritage, or a national monuments commission, and assiduously sweeping the leaves off ramparts and other things. Hon. Members will see that clause 41 is simply a meaning clause: it defines what we mean elsewhere in the Bill. It is important inasmuch as it provides a serious context in which other measures in the Bill can be seated. That is its only function. When we are seating those meanings within other parts of the Bill, it is important that we are clear about the extent of those meanings or indeed the limits of those meanings. That is all that the amendment seeks to do. It does not seek to do anything more, and does not give the OEP any obligation as far as these monuments and buildings are concerned, nor the changes in the landscape to which I refer. The hon. Member can rest assured that there would be no duty of care on the OEP, and it is merely a matter of including that in the definition.
Does my hon. Friend share with me concerns that the National Trust—one of the custodians of our British landscape—is also concerned about that very clause? They say that heritage and the natural environment “go hand in hand”. They will be looking to the clause to put them together in the correct way, as my hon. Friend said, for the very nature of our British environment. Nobody in this room would disagree with that.
I thank my hon. Friend for that point, which I had not fully covered. The National Trust is, indeed, responsible for sweeping the leaves and various other things from these monuments, and it is among the bodies expressing concern that the meaning of clause 41 will not adequately serve the purpose of guiding the clauses that go before it. I hope that the Minister can provide a good explanation for the meaning in parenthesis being as it is. It is not that it should not be there—it will cover a number of issues, and if it was not there then we might start considering a modern block of flats part of the natural environment. Clearly, we would not want to go that far. I hope that the Minister accepts that amendment 126 strikes the right balance, ensuring that we have a much better definition to work with and that we make a distinction between buildings and other structures that are clearly not part of our natural environment and those that have become so, certainly in the public’s view, and deserve to be included in this meaning clause.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his amendment on the meaning of the natural environment. Obviously, we discussed this previously in some of the earlier clauses relating to heritage and such. I recognise that the natural environment does not exist in a vacuum and that our interactions with it and use of it create a heritage that we should be proud of, as I think we all are. It does not exist in a vacuum—the shadow Minister himself touched on this—but I believe it would be inappropriate to include the elements in the amendment in this particular definition, given that one of its key aims is to determine the scope of the functions of the Office for Environmental Protection.
The OEP must remain focused on its principal objective of environmental protection and the improvement of the natural environment. It is not its place to investigate complaints against breaches of legislation such as that concerned with cultural heritage such as listed buildings, which my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire touched on, listed building consents or protection for ancient monuments. There is a raft of legislation that deals with all those things, and that is not the role of the OEP.
Obviously all that has been considered and thought about, but the hon. Gentleman makes a good point. I will come on to what the 25-year plan says in a minute, because that really nails why the wording he wants is not there: it is because we believe it is already covered. It is important to note that the hon. Member’s explanatory statement—[Interruption.] I will just stop that buzzing, Mr Chairman; it is very annoying.
I apologise—I did not know it was on.
It is important to note that the hon. Member’s explanatory statement is very specific about the effect he intends the amendment to have. It states that he specifically does not wish the historic environment to be included,
“in the definition of ‘environmental law’, or in the enforcement functions of the OEP.”
It is necessary to have a distinction to ensure that, as I have just touched on, laws concerning, for example, building safety or other matters do not get tangled up in this and are not included in the OEP’s remit. Its focus must be the natural environment.
The clarification is welcome, and it is good to think about it, but unfortunately I must also point out our concern about the unintended effect that this amendment will have. The three definitions in clauses 41, 42 and 43 are intrinsically linked, working together to underpin the OEP and determine the scope of its enforcement functions. Therefore, including those matters within the meaning of the natural environment would mean that they would also be included in scope of the meaning of “environmental law” and the OEP’s enforcement policy.
Going slightly back on the previous point I made, the definition would not preclude the OEP’s looking at any breaches of environmental law that were related to the environment, for example, around Maiden castle or the twmp mentioned by the hon. Member for Newport West. Say, for example, that that was a protected habitat or there was a protected species within that habitat—I have the same around my wonderful Wellington monument, which is managed by the National Trust—and there was seen to be some contravention of the nature conservation law in relation to that habitat, which I would say Maiden castle is very much part and parcel of; that would come under the remit of the OEP to investigate, so a lot of it is included.
In line with the explanatory note, I am sure hon. Members will agree with my earlier point that it would not be appropriate for the OEP to oversee legislation in relation to all those specific wider matters. I assure the shadow Minister that the absence of the historic environment from this definition does not preclude the Government’s work on important aspects of the historic environment. For example, to touch on the previous intervention, the Bill ensures that the 25-year environment plan, including the recognition of the connection between the natural environment and heritage that is specifically written out in that 25-year plan, will be adopted as the first environmental improvement plan through the Bill. I also remind hon. Members that we have a manifesto pledge to protect and restore the natural environment, which is all part of this—it is all-encompassing. The 25-year environment plan will set the benchmark for future plans, including how to balance environmental and heritage considerations. In the light of that explanation, I ask the hon. Member to kindly withdraw the amendment.
With the greatest respect, I do not think the Minister has made the sort of case I anticipated she might make this morning to explain why the clause is so loose as far as buildings and other structures are concerned. It is not the case that our amendment would prejudice clauses subsequent to this—the Minister set out clauses 42 and 43 as falling within, for example, the meaning of environmental law. We think it would be a good thing if the structures and buildings that have changed the natural environment and have effectively become part of it were included in those considerations.
I have the exact words here of the 25-year environment plan, which is the first environmental improvement plan. It commits us to:
“Safeguarding and enhancing the beauty of our natural scenery and improving its environmental value while being sensitive to considerations of its heritage.”
It is in there.
I am sorry to say that that is rather a tenuous linkage to the fact that we must set out a plan. I have a copy of the plan we have already set out in front of me. There is merely half a line within that general plan to say that we should be “sensitive”. There is nothing else in the plan, as far as I can see, that says anything further than that—nothing that goes anywhere near the sort of consideration that we are putting in front of the Committee this morning.
The amendment makes it clear that we should not only be sensitive, but that we should include as a consideration those historic monuments and those elements of heritage that effectively form part of the natural landscape. Nothing in the Bill addresses that point, and the amendment seeks to put that consideration on the face of the Bill.
The Minister has underlined our point to some extent. Being sensitive is not good enough; we have to have something in the Bill that spells out the overall consideration that should be made when thinking about the natural environment. We think strongly about this point, to the extent that we will press the Committee to a Division this morning. The amendment has very considerable merit and, whether or not the Division is successful—we will see when the votes come out, rather in the way of the American election—we nevertheless hope that the Minister will consider the point further.
Before I discuss the amendment, I would like to seek your guidance, Mr Gray. As you can see, unfortunately, our Whip is not with us this morning through illness, but I wish to get a note to the Government Whip. Since I cannot walk out of the room to talk to him, may I through you or somebody pass this note to him?
I shall be grateful if the Minister could draw the Whip’s attention to that when he returns.
Yes, that is quite right. Perhaps I should have thought of that; it is difficult to do mid-flight.
It was also remiss of me not to welcome the Minister back to her place this morning. I think she knows that when she was absent last week, we sent her our good wishes for a speedy recovery. Indeed, our wishes have come true as she is with us today. I am pleased to see her in her place and I hope that she has indeed had a speedy recovery and is fully back with us, as I am sure she is. I am sorry that I did not place that on the record earlier, but I was rather preoccupied with Maiden castle and various other things.
The amendment seeks to include a better definition, effectively through a few simple words, in the same clause that we were talking about previously concerning the meaning of “natural environment”. It would mean that subsection 41(c), which begins
“land (except buildings or other structures), air and water”, had at the end a clarification that that includes the marine environment.
It seems pretty obvious that that ought to be in the Bill. We are a country with a length of coastline that is almost uniquely extensive in Europe, and we are an island. Obviously, in the UK, we also have extensive inland waterways, such as lakes, rivers and, indeed, man-made inland waterways that have effectively become part of the natural environment, as I am sure hon. Members agree, such that they merit the sort of protection suggested by the definition in this clause. When the Minister replies, will she assure us that man-made inland waterways are included in the definition of “water” in the clause?
At no point does the Bill mention the marine environment. To the credit of Members across the House, we have developed sites of special scientific interest and conservation zones in the marine environment and around the coastline, sometimes quite a way offshore. It is not a question of having the land and the foreshore, and then simply the deep blue yonder. The marine environment must be seen as an integral part of the process of environmental conservation. Our legislation includes substantial activity to enable environmental protection and conservation to take place in those zones.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful point. During the passage of the Fisheries Bill, we spent a long time considering how to avoid dredgers damaging the marine environment. That should be included in this Bill, so that our legislation is joined up and cohesive, and ensures that the marine environment is as protected as the land.
My hon. Friend’s important point underlines the purpose of our amendment and impels me to highlight that this is not just a theoretical question about the protection of the marine environment, but a practical question about how we approach that. For example, the marine conservation zone in Lyme bay has the very practical effect of—among other things—preserving the environment for cold-water corals and various other things in that very fragile ecosystem that require our protection to survive and thrive. Those considerations of the marine environment are absolutely and indistinguishably conjoined.
Will the hon. Gentleman clarify the purpose of the amendment? Given that paragraph 355 of the explanatory notes to the Bill states:
“This includes both the marine and terrestrial environments. ‘Water’ will include seawater, freshwater and other forms of water”,
I am not sure what the purpose of the amendment is.
The hon. Gentleman has quoted the explanatory note, which is not legislation. One of the problems that Committees face is that explanatory notes have a sort of half-life: they are quite often helpful for elucidation, but they add nothing whatsoever to, or take nothing away from, the legislation in front of us. Explanatory notes might mention what is or is not the case, but essentially they indicate only how benevolently or otherwise the Government look upon the legislation.
I am as big a champion for the marine environment as anyone in this room; before this time last year, it was our livelihood. I am struggling to understand the purpose of the amendment because everything in the marine environment is covered by
“land (except buildings or other structures), air and water, and the natural systems, cycles and processes through which they interact.”
I am struggling to see what in the marine environment is not covered by the Bill as originally written.
The hon. Member will see that the Bill merely contents itself with the word “water”, which can have a number of different interpretations. In this instance, it has a substantially strong interpretation. This is not a problem with the present Government, but we are talking about legislation that must stand the test of time. It is possible and reasonably straightforward to define “water” in this case as internal waterways, rivers and other water services within the land mass. The hon. Member will see that that is what the clause appears to suggest. The “natural environment” is defined as
“plants, wild animals and other living organisms,”
“their habitats” and “land”, which suggests that the word “water” should be taken in the context of the other things in the clause.
With respect, I disagree. What the hon. Member suggests is that the land stops on the foreshore. It does not, of course; it goes straight out to sea and becomes the seabed. The land does not stop. What we are arguing here are the semantics of where our land and our waters end, which will be covered in the Fisheries Bill.
The hon. Member is right to the extent that land does extend under the water, otherwise the seas would drain fairly rapidly and we would be in a bad state. According to the hon. Member’s definition, we are conjoined with every other country in the world. The clause does not say that we must have a definition of “natural environment” that includes that—it stops in terms of what is on our land and what is not under the sea, as far as land is concerned. Arguably, the fact that it includes water could be defined, as the hon. Member suggests, as including everything on that land that is under the sea. It is nevertheless our responsibility—there are different areas of concern expressed in international treaties about territorial waters and various other things.
I completely and utterly support that the definition should cover the marine environment. My question to the hon. Member is why he picks on the marine environment as the one point of clarification needed in “land…air and water”. My hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth has talked about some aspects of the land, but does it cover soil? Does the hon. Gentleman want clarification on that? Does it cover underground waterways, for example, which are big in my area? The big issue in South Cambridgeshire is the aquifer, which is definitely under the ground. Does it cover cave systems? Is “air” just the air we breathe when we talk about air pollution, or is it also the ozone layer and so on? We could carry on with multiple long definitions and a long train of different qualifications, but I think that would create legal uncertainty for lawyers to interpret. The Bill is very generic—“land…air and water” covers everything that is important.
The hon. Gentleman tempts me to go down a detailed path of discussing subterranean water outlets. I assume, because water is within our land mass, that those would be covered by the elision of land mass and water, which is suggested by the clause. Without going into a lengthy disposition about how far under the ground water might be counted as being covered under this arrangement, we can rest assured that those matters are not a serious issue of dispute.
That is why I do not want to go into enormous detail. The amendment is straightforward and short. It proposes several words that would put the matter to rest. It just states in a modest way that the definition should include the marine environment, so that if anyone is in any doubt, there it is in the Bill. That is all we are suggesting. There is no side to that. There are no additional consequences. It merely says we should be clear that that is what it includes. I think we all agree that it should include that.
This morning, we were treated to a quote from the explanatory notes, which indicated that the marine environment should be included, but it is not. We are just doing a modest labour in the vineyard by attempting to ensure that when people say something, they mean what they say. The best way to ensure that people mean what they say is to say it. That is what we propose to do on the face of the Bill.
Amendments 125 and 193 have similar intentions. My amendment was meant as a probing amendment. I will not revisit the areas that the shadow Minister has eloquently gone through. My assumption was that the marine environment was considered for inclusion here and the decision was taken to exclude it. I would be interested to hear from the Minister what the rationale was for that.
Obviously, marine life is just as vital to the global ecosystem as terrestrial life, and the health of marine environments also needs to be protected. There may be some other agencies responsible, which the Government reckon should do the job, but surely there is a good case to be made for an agency with an overarching view of these tasks and challenges for the whole environment. I look forward to the Minister’s comments.
This is a short clause, but it is very important. I am fortunate to represent Cambridge, a city with some fantastic environmental organisations. The David Attenborough Building is renowned. It houses the Cambridge Conservation Initiative, which includes the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Fauna & Flora International and BirdLife International. I was fortunate to visit them a while ago, when I was preparing for a Westminster Hall debate. I was briefed by a range of dazzling experts. I was struck from their presentations by how many talked about the marine environment. I had not realised how significant it was. That was very much the term they used throughout their recommendations and advice to me.
I know the Minister cares passionately about the marine environment. I remember a Prime Minister’s Question Time when she questioned the showering habits of the Speaker. It is amazing the things that people remember. I should be clear that she was referring to the microbeads in Mr Bercow’s shower gel. I do not doubt the passion that she feels for the marine environment.
That leads me to question, given that we all agree on this point, why it cannot be put in the Bill. I believe the Government intend to include it. If there is such resistance to putting it in the Bill, it is either because each side wants to defend its position and does not want to give way, or there is something a bit more sinister.
The Minister says no. She might want to think about that, maybe not this morning, but as the Bill progresses. I would have said that including that one phrase would strengthen the Bill from the Government’s point of view and not leave people wondering what other treasures close to our land mass some parts of Government organisations have their eye on.
I thank the shadow Minister for his very kind opening words. I also thank him for his interest in the clause, which is crucial to future environmental governance. I appreciate the sentiments behind the amendment, but I must disagree and say that it is unnecessary. I have thought about this matter a great deal myself, as hon. Friends and Members can imagine. I have also spoken to the Natural Capital Committee at length about this, and it is satisfied with what we have come up with after much discussion.
Hon. Members are aware that the marine environment is by far the largest part of the UK’s environment and, as such, is an enormous part of our natural world. It is therefore vital that we safeguard crucial marine ecosystems, and that is a core part of our environmental policy. One of the names I get in my portfolio is the marine Minister, so I say, “Leave water and the marine space out at your peril.”
That is why the marine environment is included within the existing clause, as is clarified on page 57 of the explanatory notes. I hear what everyone says about the explanatory notes, but the meaning of the natural environment explicitly covers “water”. This includes seawater, canals, lakes, the Somerset levels—which are seawater that has come inland, goes back out, and is then joined by inland water—and all the underground aquifers.
A very good point was made: where do we stop with these lists of things? That is important to remember. The definition also covers—I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Truro and Falmouth and for Keighley for mentioning this—the land that includes the seabed, the intertidal zones and the coastal plains. They are all part of the natural environment. Any plant, wild animal, living organism or habitat is also included in the definition, regardless of where it is physically.
Out of interest, I want to touch on the target-setting powers in the Bill. Targets can be set on any matter relating to the natural environment, which could include the marine environment. That means we can set long-term targets or legally binding targets that can help improve the marine environment. The Government must set out at least one target in their four priority areas, which include air, biodiversity, water and nature. The initial round of targets might include a marine environment target, and that could be one of the biodiversity targets. That measure is already in the Bill; it will actually bolster, protect and strengthen the myriad measures we already have in place for protecting the marine space. All of this will dovetail with the sustainability elements in the Fisheries Bill, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Newport West, so it is all part and parcel.
I hope I have provided some assurances. The marine environment is very much included within the definition and, as such, each element of the environmental governance framework—including the OEP—will apply to it. On those grounds, I propose that the amendment is unnecessary, and I respectfully ask the shadow Minister to withdraw it.
The Minister has given some good and solid assurances concerning what she thinks the clause could be interpreted to mean. Clearly, the fact that she has said that this morning suggests that it might be possible, should there be a dispute about this, to draw upon her words as underlining the Government’s good intentions. We have never disputed that. We are happy that the Minister thinks in that particular way.
I emphasise what my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge said, which is that it seems straightforward to us that this should be included in the Bill. There is such potential dissonance between the Minister’s warm wishes for the marine environment and what is actually in the Bill. We think overwhelmingly that it would be a good idea to accept the amendment and seek to divide the Committee.
I hope it is not impertinent of me to point out that we have now been at this for more than an hour and have achieved only clause 41, which is less speedy progress than other Committees I have chaired. It might be helpful to the Committee to seek to make speedier progress.