Clause 93 - General duty to conserve and enhance biodiversity

Environment Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:15 pm on 17th November 2020.

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Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 4:15 pm, 17th November 2020

I beg to move amendment 140, in clause 93, page 94, line 13, after “biodiversity in England” insert

“, including in particular the species and habitats listed in section 41,”.

I am afraid that we are back to some of the interaction with different pieces of legislation. We welcome the change in the Bill to strengthen the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006—abbreviated to NERC—so that local authorities have a duty not just to conserve but to enhance biodiversity, as well as to follow the obligations of public authorities to plan for appropriate action in order to fulfil their duty and to report on their actions regarding that duty. That is the good news. That is the bit we support.

However, we have some concerns. Public authorities have a key role to play in turning around the state of nature, and the current duty on public bodies to have regard to conserving biodiversity has been rightly criticised for not being strong enough. A House of Lords Select Committee report on NERC in 2018 clearly outlined that

“the duty is ineffective as it stands, as a result of limited awareness and understanding among public bodies, weak wording and the lack of clear reporting requirements and enforcement measures.”

I cannot help but notice that those are exactly the kinds of concerns that I have been expressing all the way through this Bill as well. I guess what it shows is that there is nothing new about the difficulties that people have had trying to do good things but not necessarily doing them in ways that are clear and specific enough to translate into action.

The Lords Select Committee said:

“We recommend that the NERC Act should be amended in order to add a reporting requirement to the duty; the Government should also consider strengthening the wording.”

The measures taken in the Bill to do so are welcome, but we have concerns about the rewording of the duty of public authorities. We want to probe some of those points with some amendments. We will come to the more serious changes, but the first one is proposed in amendment 140. Currently, clause 93 stipulates that the “general biodiversity objective” be defined as

“the conservation and enhancement of biodiversity in England”.

Our amendment would broaden that to include the species and habitats listed in section 41 of the NERC Act. In effect, it is a clarifying amendment, as we feel that the provisions in the duty could be seen as being too open-ended to guide everyday action by public authorities.

We think it would be more helpful for there to be a direction that the biodiversity duty clearly requires authorities to act in order to further the conservation of the species and habitats listed under section 41. For those who are not familiar with section 41, it is a list of some of our most precious and vulnerable species, from water voles and otters to particular species of orchids and the short-haired bumble bee. We believe the amendment would provide a closer link between the public duty to enhance biodiversity and the species that need the most attention. Although I will listen with interest to the Minister’s comments, I do not think it is an amendment on which we will seek a Division.

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

I appreciate that the intent behind the amendment is to ensure that action that might be taken under the biodiversity duty is effective and is targeted where it is most needed. At the same time, one of the strengths of the duty is that it is broad, and we want public authorities to consider all functions when determining the best action to take. That could be action on limiting their biodiversity footprint or addressing wider, indirect impacts on biodiversity, such as from transport policy, water use or energy consumption. We would not want to stop authorities considering such action, even inadvertently, by focusing their attention on what can be done for a targeted set of species and habitats. Also, there are some 943 species, some of which the hon. Member for Cambridge named, including the hairy bumble bee.

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

There are some fantastic creatures and 56 habitats of importance on that list, as set out under section 41 of the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006. Interpreting this list and the actions required is likely to require specialist knowledge, which may not be available within every public authority.

In complying with the strengthened biodiversity duty, public authorities must have regard to any relevant local nature recovery strategy. If Government amendment 222 is agreed to, public authorities must also have regard to relevant species conservation strategies and protected site strategies, which will help public authorities to identify the actions with the most benefits for biodiversity, including for species and habitats listed in section 41 of the 2006 Act. I therefore suggest that the amendment is not needed; indeed, it might constrain public authorities’ actions to conserve and enhance biodiversity. While I think that it was a probing amendment, I urge the hon. Member to withdraw it.

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

We will not press the amendment to a Division. While the Minister and I might have a slight difference of opinion, the approaches are legitimately different. I was grateful for her reference to the short-haired bumblebee. Like many Members, I am a species champion. I stand up for the ruderal bumblebee, although I have never had the pleasure of meeting one—I live in hope. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I beg to move amendment 138, in clause 93, page 94, line 18, at end insert—

“(1ZA) A public authority which has any functions exercisable in relation to England must exercise those functions consistently with the aim of furthering the general biodiversity objective.”

This amendment requires public authorities to apply the biodiversity duty in the exercising of all of their functions.

This is a slightly more serious amendment, in the sense that this is a more difficult issue, as we think that the clause has a couple of key weaknesses. Section 40 of the 2006 Act currently states that any public authority must,

“in exercising its functions, have regard, so far as is consistent with the proper exercise of those functions, to the purpose of conserving biodiversity.”

That implies a biodiversity duty in all day-to-day public authority decision making. As it stands, although the new duty widens public authorities’ responsibility to both conserve and enhance biodiversity, the wording narrows the application of the duty. Its current drafting applies only to actions taken in line with specific policies and objectives developed in relation to clause 93(3), which requires authorities to consider from time to time what action they can take to further the biodiversity objective and to take the actions appropriate to do so.

I apologise that this is slightly complicated, Mr Gray, but, yet again, we see the interaction between different forms of wording in various pieces of legislation. The risk is that the Government are changing the duty on public authorities to have regard to conserving biodiversity in all their functions to a duty on conserving and enhancing biodiversity with specific considerations that they must make from time to time. The reach into their everyday functions is not made clear.

This is, I guess, a discussion about how local authority members should make their decisions—what they should take into consideration and when. We fear that a key opportunity is being missed to improve the effectiveness of public authorities’ biodiversity work, namely by requiring them to factor in the need to conserve and enhance biodiversity in all decision making, including statutorily required planning and spending decisions. This is actually quite a big issue.

Biodiversity work is in continual danger of being marginalised. I referred to that when I spoke about my experience as a councillor, and I suspect that others will have had the same experience. This is not a criticism of councils or local government—they are under pressure, and many, many demands are put on them. However, if we have the challenge of restoring nature to a level that every member of the Committee would agree is what we are seeking, and if that is actually going to happen, the agenda needs to be taken up in local government. Embedding biodiversity into all public authority decision making is vital to ensure that we do not miss the opportunities that are available.

During my time as a councillor, I very much enjoyed our discussions but, as I have said, I do not think I could honestly say that I recall, when we came to make big decisions—we did make some quite big decisions, such as when the new Norfolk and Norwich hospital was discussed, which was referenced at today’s Health questions—any discussion around biodiversity, although we tried to take many things into account. It would make a real difference if biodiversity was central to decision making.

It is worth noting that the House of Lords Select Committee identified the “have regard” wording in the current obligation as the main reason, in its view, why the duty has been ineffective. That point has not been properly addressed. “Have regard” is a perfectly innocuous term, but it is just that—have regard in passing, not as a central part of decision making. We would welcome an explanation from the Minister on that point.

The amendment would fix the problem with the current wording of legislation and prevent biodiversity opportunities from being missed by requiring public authorities to exercise all their functions consistently with the aim of furthering the general biodiversity objective. That would prevent biodiversity being siloed. It would be rendered as a critical factor to be considered in all public authority decisions, including statutory planning and spending decisions, which can have significant impacts on nature and biodiversity.

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

Our purpose in strengthening the current biodiversity duty is to ensure that public authorities take robust action to drive nature recovery. It is absolutely not the intention for biodiversity to become siloed, as the hon. Member has just said. He referred to the Norfolk hospital planning having no reference to biodiversity. I do not know what year that was—

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

How times have changed. That will change—biodiversity will come into the general parlance. This is an ambitious duty. All public authorities will have to undertake a thorough consideration of what they can do to enhance biodiversity at least every five years, and then take action. As I said before, they will need to have regard to local nature recovery strategies and, if Government amendment 222 is accepted, relevant species conservation strategies and protected site strategies will provide information, data and tools to identify the most beneficial action to be taken in the region.

Clause 93 requires all public authorities to take a broad look across all their functions to identify the action they can take that would be most beneficial for nature. In our view, the strengthened duty in the Bill strikes the right balance by supporting action to conserve and enhance biodiversity while retaining the flexibility for public authorities to balance competing priorities. The amendment risks distorting those priorities by requiring public authorities always to exercise their functions to further the objective of conserving and enhancing biodiversity. Public authorities must retain the power to decide the best use of their resources. I am sure that the hon. Member for Cambridge, having been a councillor, appreciates that point.

We expect public authorities to look across all their functions and prioritise the actions that will have the most impact, in contrast to the existing biodiversity duty, which is a reactive duty. It is intended to be universal but, as we know, in many cases it has not driven action on the ground, as the hon. Member suggests. The amendment risks replicating the reactive nature of the existing duty by requiring a case-by-case assessment of each individual function and decision to ensure that it is furthering the biodiversity objectives. We would thereby lose the advantages of the more strategic view, which allows the most effective measures to be prioritised, so I urge the hon. Member to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I hear what the Minister says, but the amendment is crucial to tilt the balance in local authorities. On that basis, I wish to divide the Committee.

Division number 35 Environment Bill — Clause 93 - General duty to conserve and enhance biodiversity

Aye: 5 MPs

No: 8 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

The Committee divided: Ayes 5, Noes 8.

Question accordingly negatived.

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 4:30 pm, 17th November 2020

I beg to move amendment 139, in clause 93, page 94, line 42, at end insert—

‘(1G) In this part, “public authority” has the meaning given by section 28(3) of the Environment Act 2020.”

Photo of James Gray James Gray Conservative, North Wiltshire

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment 147, in clause 99, page 99, line 16, leave out “95” and insert “93”.

Amendment 148, in clause 99, page 99, line 31, at end insert—

‘(4) “Public Authority” means—

(a) a Minister of the Crown, a government department and public body (including a local authority), and

(b) a person carrying out any function of a public nature that is not a devolved function, a parliamentary function or a function of any of the following persons—

(i) the OEP;

(ii) a court or tribunal;

(iii) either House of Parliament;

(iv) a devolved legislature;

(v) the Scottish Ministers, the Welsh Ministers, a Northern Ireland department or a Minister within the meaning of the Northern Ireland Act 1998.’

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

We tabled these technical but important amendments to interrogate the definition of “public authority” in the Bill as it applies to the biodiversity objective and the local nature recovery strategies—they are linked. Amendment 139 is consequential on amendment 147 and would clarify the meaning of “public authority” under section 40 of the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006 by using the definition set out in clause 28(3) of the Bill, as that particularly strong definition would apply well to biodiversity provisions. It would make it clear that the term “public authority” would apply to local authorities or organisations

“carrying out any function of a public nature”, which would ensure that bodies with key public statutory undertakings, such as water companies or rail providers, would have a responsibility to comply with the enhanced biodiversity duty.

Such bodies might not be included in a narrower definition, and that is important because we know that they have many responsibilities, or a lot of land or many rivers to look after. Keeping them within the ambit of the biodiversity duty would therefore give them a much stronger incentive to do the right thing. Such bodies’ legal status or corporate structures might be different from those of local government authorities, but they still provide key public functions. Amendment 148, like amendment 139, would make it clear that the term “public authority” in relation to local nature recovery strategies applies to planning authorities and all planning functions.

Amendment 147 would amend clause 99, which currently provides definitions of a “local authority” and a “national conservation site”. However, that clause applies only to clauses 95 to 98, which set out provisions for local nature recovery strategies. Our amendment would extend the definition of local authorities and national conservation sites to the Bill’s broader provisions on biodiversity objectives and reporting—clause 93 on the general duty to conserve and enhance biodiversity; and clause 94 on biodiversity reports. Yet again, our proposals would strengthen the Bill, so my question to the Minister is: why would she not choose to support us on that?

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

I thank the hon. Member for tabling the amendments—I shall rattle through them.

Amendment 139 would change the definition of “public authority” in relation to the strengthened biodiversity duty to that used in clause 28. Taken together, amendments 147 and 148 would have the same effect. Clause 93 does not alter the definition of public authority under section 40 of the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006, but clause 28 represents a different approach: it is drafted to be UK-wide, and then has carve-outs. Amending the definition to that in clause 28 would not make a significant difference to the bodies covered by the duty, although it would mean that the parliamentary estate would not be captured.

Amendment 147 would apply two additional definitions to the Bill’s biodiversity duty provisions, the first being “local authority”. The definition in clause 99 is very similar to the existing definition in section 40 of the 2006 Act. However, that definition includes parish councils, so the amendment would remove parish councils from the scope of the biodiversity duty—[Interruption.] “Shocking,” says the hon. Member’s colleague, the hon. Member for Southampton, Test.

I accept that many parish councils are very small and have limited resources, but they are likely to make a contribution to local biodiversity and we do not want to exclude them from the duty. I speak from experience: the hon. Member for Cambridge might have been a district councillor, but I was on my parish council for 10 years—I am very proud of it. We did a great amount of work on biodiversity, including by planting a chestnut avenue and creating a village garden out of a piece of tarmac. There is biodiversity if ever I saw it—we walk past it every day.

The second definition, “national conservation site”, is not a term used in the Bill’s biodiversity provisions, so applying it would have no practical effect. On its own, amendment 148 would have no effect. It would insert a new definition of “public authority” into clause 99. The definitions in clause 99 apply to the provisions relating to local nature recovery strategies, which are set out in clauses 95 to 98, but the term “public authority” is not used in a way that has an effect in those clauses.

I hope that that information was helpful, and I ask the hon. Member for Cambridge to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I am grateful for the Minister’s clarification and I endorse her comments about parish councils. I, too, started on a parish council, and as a district councillor, I diligently attended my five parish councils regularly. They have a hugely important role to play. We were trying to widen the scope of the bodies that would be drawn into the process. That might be something that we need to revisit in order to embrace both points, which would be a good outcome.

The amendments were probing, so we will not need to divide the Committee. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I beg to move amendment 137, in clause 93, page 95, line 1, leave out subsection (5) and insert—

“(5) After subsection (2) insert—

“(2A) the authority must act in accordance with any relevant local nature recovery strategy in the exercise of relevant public functions, including strategic and local land-use planning and decision making and in spending decisions, and in particular in complying with subsections (1) and (1A).””

This amendment would ensure that Local Nature Recovery Strategies are considered in day-to-day planning and spending decisions by public authorities.

Amendment 137 addresses a key issue in the Bill’s current drafting regarding local nature recovery strategies, which we welcome. If they are implemented properly, the strategies can enable a wide range of organisations to contribute to measures needed to address the biodiversity crisis and deliver the Government’s ambitions in the 25-year environment plan, in particular by supporting the creation of a nature recovery network.

By identifying local biodiversity priorities, including restoration opportunities, we think—I am sure that the Government agree—that policy integration and better value for money could be achieved at the same time as saving nature. I suspect that we all have good examples from our areas, but I am sure that the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire will join me in praising Natural Cambridgeshire, chaired by Richard Astle, and the excellent work that it is already doing through its nature recovery toolkit. I believe that the hon. Member addressed Natural Cambridgeshire recently. I hope to do so again soon, and I will be keen to bring news of a strengthened Bill.

At the moment, despite local enthusiasm, the duty to use local nature recovery strategies is very weak. It is included in the duty to conserve and enhance biodiversity under clause 93(5), which requires local authorities to “have regard” to the strategies when making plans to conserve or enhance biodiversity, but that risks creating obligations for local authorities to develop local nature recovery strategies, thereby expending precious local resources, only to see that that effort might be wasted through a failure to give the strategies any influence on real decision making. That is a problem.

The duty should be a much stronger requirement to take the strategies into account in the exercise of public functions, including in the statutory planning system and in spending decisions. This mirrors arguments that I have previously made. Unless such a change is made, there is a real risk that local nature recovery strategies will overburden local authorities and once again risk sitting on the proverbial dusty policy shelf.

This is not a criticism of local authorities, but a reflection of the fact that many are already hard pressed and will not have the capacity to do what is asked of them. When I raised this previously, the Minister reassured me that all necessary funding will be made available under the Bill. I liked her reassurance, but she was not able to point me to where that was specified. I invite her to do so again, but I do not think she will be able to do so, because it is not specified—it is just an aspiration. This is not a party political point, but anyone who has been in local government well knows the problem that while central Government frequently make promises, the outcomes rarely transmit. They often end up in general funding, and we are told that it is in there somewhere, without clarity that it is enough. It is important to note that the success of the measures in general will be dependent on the Government making those funds available. I recognise that at this stage it seems difficult to predict the costs—there was some discussion in the impact assessment about how it was not entirely clear how much would be needed—but I ask the Minister how the Government intend to carry out an assessment of how the new duties operate and how they can ensure that resources are available to make the duties work.

The strategies are potentially a very useful tool. If they work well, they could effectively co-ordinate the actions of multiple stakeholders and direct local use of biodiversity gains from the planning system, environmental land management systems and other sources, helping to build and maintain ecologically coherent networks and nature recovery sites. That leads me back to the 25-year environment plan, particularly page 58, which is littered with “we will”, “we shall” and “it will happen”, including the statement that we

“will coordinate our action in England with that of external nature conservation…as well as farmers and land managers.”

That is great, but I have to ask when that will happen.

I had the pleasure of being an Opposition spokesman on the Agriculture Bill, and we were begging constantly, and tabling amendments, for an integrated approach between this Bill and the Agriculture Bill. I am afraid that we were constantly knocked back. Here we are, just a few weeks from the beginning of the phasing out of basic payments, and we do not have ELM schemes in place. The Secretary of State will have to deliver a fix in 10 days’ time. I am happy to be corrected by hon. Members on the other side if that is not correct, but that is what I hear. While the sustainable farming initiative sounds fine, it is a missed opportunity to link to the local nature recovery strategies that we are discussing today. Because of this weak duty to apply the strategies in decision making, I am afraid the potential that these have may well fall short.

Amendment 137 aims to strengthen the duty to use local nature recovery strategies by requiring all public authorities to “act in accordance with” any relevant local nature recovery strategy in exercising their duties, including the statutory requirements, planning and spending decisions. That would make a big difference and deliver real change, and that is why I worry that it is not in the legislation as it stands at the moment. It is essential to ensure that the local nature recovery strategies actively influence important day-to-day decisions that affect nature.

Photo of Fleur Anderson Fleur Anderson Labour, Putney

I, too, would like to support amendment 137. I can picture the scene in the drafting committee. One group wanted to have “act in accordance with”, to make the duty very strong so “we would definitely put this into action”, and on the other side was the “must have regard to” group. I would like to speak on behalf of the “act in accordance with” group, and it was a mistake that the “have regard to” group won the day.

The provision for planning to work for nature is very welcome, but there is a risk that it will be stalled indefinitely if we do not have the amendment in the Bill. The duty to use local nature recovery strategies is very weak. The environmental coalition, Greener UK, has similar concerns. The amendment would embed biodiversity in public authority decision making, because here the rubber hits the road—or the hedgerow or the greener area of a siding. The amendment includes complying with spending decisions, and that is what will ultimately decide whether this is put into action.

There is great potential for these strategies to be a highly effective tool, and I welcome the five pilot schemes, as I know the Minister does. However, as it stands, the potential will not be realised because the duty is so weak. The amendment would ensure that local nature recovery strategies actually influence day-to-day decisions that affect nature. There are two examples of how that would work out in my constituency. We have many wonderful green spaces which have “friends of” groups, and they are knocking on the door and trying to get the attention of the local authority all the time. It is not a given that that will happen. Those groups really care about biodiversity, but the day-to-day work of the local authority is not reflecting that.

I have a very active save our hedgehogs group, and I am surprised that they have not been mentioned this afternoon up to now, so I want to put that straight. Those vulnerable mammals have been in decline by 30% in urban areas and 50% in rural areas since 2000. That is dreadful. If the local authority will have regard to the local nature recovery strategies, rather than acting in accordance with those strategies, there is a danger that the work to reverse the decline of hedgehogs will not happen. There is a mention of hedgehogs in the environment plan, but this amendment would cement action to save hedgehogs and all other biodiversity in our planning system.

Photo of Rebecca Pow Rebecca Pow The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 4:45 pm, 17th November 2020

Some strong points have been made about local nature recovery strategies. I think we all agree that they are a good idea. When I was a trustee of the Somerset Wildlife Trust many years ago, it was working on a similar idea to that which is now coming into legislation. Subsequent Government amendment 222 changes the provision so, if accepted, public authorities will be required to have regard to species conservation strategies and protected site strategies. However, I will speak only to the original purpose of the amendment now.

We want public, private and voluntary groups to engage openly in the development of local nature recovery strategies and for this to follow through into their implementation. That is exactly what the hon. Member for Putney is asking for, so that those hedgehog highways and interlinking runways through fences in towns will stay there. I love a hedgehog as much as she does. I had some rescue ones from the rescue centre sent to my garden. We need to look after our hedgehogs.

Requiring public authorities to have regard to a specific document is an established and effective means of achieving that aim. I have discussed this with the officials. They have convinced me that this is the right terminology. We should also be mindful that public authorities have a wide range of existing duties such as housing, health and social care, which have to be considered. Some flexibility to take these wider considerations into account is important. Similarly, local planning authorities are required to balance a wide range of important considerations when establishing their planning policy for this area. I am keen that we continue to work with the planning system, rather than create complexity by making separate demands on planning authorities. The spatial information provided by the local nature recovery strategies will support the development of local plans.

I want to reassure the hon. Member for Cambridge that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, will continue to work closely with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to set out clearly the role for local nature recovery strategies as part of the ongoing planning reforms. The work has already started, and it has been clear that this must be an integral part of our future going forward. Those five pilots will inform the local nature recovery strategies. They have already been announced and money has been agreed for them. We will learn a lot from those about how these strategies will work.

We want the reformed system to play a proactive role in promoting environmental recovery and long-term sustainability. We have really high ambitions for the local nature recovery strategies in helping to do this. They are a crucial tool towards the whole endeavour of biodiversity from the ground upwards. I therefore urge the hon. Gentleman to withdraw his amendment.

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I am grateful particularly to my hon. Friend the Member for Putney for enlivening our discussions late in the afternoon—well past teatime, in some people’s view, which I understand—and for introducing hedgehogs into the discussion. I had a side bet with one of my colleagues as to how long it would take for the Minister to raise a hedgehog highway. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Putney because that allows me to mention Nora the rescue hedgehog. The Cambridge Wildlife Trust allowed her to escape down a hedgehog highway in my sight. I am not sure where she went, but hedgehogs are very important.

The problem was confirmed by the Minister, who admitted that she had been convinced by her officials that this is the correct terminology. We do not think that it is the correct terminology; it is not strong enough. I invite the Minister perhaps to go and have that conversation again. That point takes us back to the beginning of our sitting, when my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test and I questioned why some of these things are as they are. I am led to conclude, I am afraid, that despite the admirable enthusiasm, there are flaws in the process.

The Minister said that we do not want to put too many demands on planning authorities. Actually, we do want to put demands on planning authorities; that is exactly what this will be about if our goals are to be achieved. We get distracted by the hedgehogs and the bumblebees, but at heart there is a serious question of allocation of resources, effort and money through the planning process. That is often what it is about, and my fear is that, wonderful though much local effort is, sadly if it cannot be translated into action it will go on being just good effort, without the kind of gain that we want to see.

I suggested at the beginning of our sitting that there were some villains in the piece, and I think the Committee has a sense of who I think one villain is, but it is not just about the current Prime Minister. It is worth remembering that in 2011 the then Chancellor, George Osborne, described the EU habitats directive as placing

“ridiculous costs on British businesses”, and spoke about companies being burdened with

“endless social and environmental goals”.—[Official Report, 29 November 2011; Vol. 536, c. 807-808.]

The point is that there is a view out there that this is all “green crap”, as another eminent former Prime Minister described it. That is why we are worried, why this matters, and why the Bill needs to be strengthened.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Conservative, North Wiltshire

The hon. Gentleman used the word “villain” with regard to the Prime Minister. He might wish to withdraw it as unparliamentary.

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I withdraw the comment. [Interruption.] But I would like to press the amendment to a Division. I was distracted by the pantomime.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Division number 36 Environment Bill — Clause 93 - General duty to conserve and enhance biodiversity

Aye: 5 MPs

No: 8 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

The Committee divided: Ayes 5, Noes 8.

Question accordingly negatived.

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

I beg to move amendment 222, in clause 93, page 95, line 3, at end insert

“and

(b) any relevant species conservation strategy or protected site strategy prepared by Natural England.”

This amendment requires a public authority to have regard to a species conservation strategy or protected site strategy in complying with its duties under section 40 of the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Conservative, North Wiltshire

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Government new clause 25—Species conservation strategies.

Government new clause 26—Protected site strategies.

Government new clause 27—Wildlife conservation: licences.

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

The overall purpose of this group of amendments is to enable better species and habitat conservation in England as part of the Government’s commitment to growing back better, faster, greener. They will allow for the creation of two new types of strategies and will resolve inconsistencies regarding the licensing of development.

New clause 25 will allow Natural England to create species conservation strategies, which are innovative approaches to safeguard the long-term future of species that are at greater risk. The strategies will be developed using up-front surveying, planning and zoning across a wide area. Natural England will then develop measures to mitigate, or compensate for, the impact on species— from building projects, for example. This approach helps to avoid the need for reactive site-based assessments and mitigation.

The legislation is based on the successful district-level licensing approach to the conservation of great crested newts, which have already been mentioned today. An area is comprehensively surveyed in advance and a licensing strategy is developed. Up-front mitigation work is then carried out to cover the creation or restoration of ponds in areas that are known to provide the best habitats for newts to thrive in. Developers then make a conservation payment and can begin work without delays.

New clause 26 will allow Natural England to prepare and consult on protected site strategies. These will enable the design of bespoke solutions for sites that are affected by a combination of different impacts, such as pollution from agriculture and pressure from development. Protected site strategies are also based on existing, innovative schemes such as that in the South Humber Gateway, which has unlocked development on hundreds of hectares of land while creating 275 hectares of new wet grassland for birds, and is held up as something of a model.

For both species conservation and protected site strategies, local planning authorities will be placed under a duty to co-operate with Natural England. They will also be required to have regard to relevant strategies as they carry out their planning functions. These new strategies will deliver better environmental protections through simpler processes, and are therefore fully aligned with the proposals set out in the “Planning for the future” White Paper. The planning reforms will reinforce the implementation of these measures.

Amendment 222 adds an important provision to support the new strategies. Clause 93 strengthens the existing duty under the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006 to require public authorities to take action to further the conservation and enhancement of biodiversity. It also requires public authorities to have regard to local nature recovery strategies as they do so. This amendment extends that duty so that public authorities must also have regard to any relevant conservation strategy or protected site strategy as they consider what action to take, so the three kinds of strategies are designed to work together. The local nature recovery strategies will be a system of strategies covering the whole of England, and will identify where action can be taken to reverse the decline of nature as a whole. Species conservation and protected site strategies are more bespoke, targeted measures to help protect specific species and sites that are at risk, and are intended to ensure public authorities comply with legal protections in a way that achieves better outcomes for nature. It is therefore important to make this amendment, to ensure public authorities have regard to all three types of the new strategies.

Finally, new clause 27 makes three changes related to protecting species licences granted under section 16 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. Those changes are intended to unlock the full potential of strategic licensing for protected species. First, the new clause will introduce an additional “overriding public interest” purpose for granting a licence. Secondly, it will introduce two additional tests that must be met before a licence can be granted if

“there is no other satisfactory solution, and…the grant of the licence is not detrimental to the survival of any population of the species”.

Thirdly, the new clause will extend the maximum permitted licence period from two years to five years.

Taken together, the amendment and new clauses strengthen the nature chapter of the Bill and help to protect and restore species and habitats at risk, while also enabling much-needed development. I have rattled through them, Chair, and there is a lot of detail there, but I commend amendment 222 to the Committee.

Amendment 222 agreed to.

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I think I may have missed a point. We discussed all those new clauses, did we?

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

In which case I apologise. I should have come in earlier.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Conservative, North Wiltshire

There was no sign from the Opposition that the hon. Gentleman wished to discuss Government amendment 222, so it was passed. Therefore, we will move on to Government amendment 223. If you are waiting for votes on Government new clauses 25, 26 and 27, they will come at the appropriate point in the consideration of the Bill—not now.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Conservative, North Wiltshire

We can perfectly happily do so if that is what people like.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Conservative, North Wiltshire

Hang on, this is not a general conversation. It is of course possible that if anyone in Committee wishes to have a stand part debate, they may do so at the appropriate moment. That is absolutely fine, but it is not to become a discussion.

Photo of Rebecca Pow Rebecca Pow The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 5:00 pm, 17th November 2020

I beg to move amendment 223, in clause 93, page 95, line 21, after “England))” insert—

“(a) in subsection (1), after ‘conserving’ insert ‘or enhancing’;”.

This amendment adds a reference to enhancing biodiversity to section 41(1) of the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006.

This amendment makes a small change to section 41 of the NERC Act. The section requires the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to publish a list of species and habitats that are of principal importance to conserving biodiversity. The amendment will change the requirement to “conserving or enhancing” biodiversity.

The language mirrors that of the strengthened biodiversity duty under section 40 of the NERC Act, as amended by clause 93. The duty will require public authorities to take action to further the conservation and enhancement of biodiversity. The amendment will therefore create consistent language across two related sections of the NERC Act.

When the list is updated in future, the amendment will allow wider consideration of which species and habitats should be included. That is consistent with our intention, as expressed in the 25-year environment plan, to improve beyond merely trying to maintain the status quo—or conserving—and instead recovering and restoring nature. This small amendment further signals our ambitions to enhance biodiversity.

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I regret to say that we have some extensive questions about clause 93 as amended, which may not come as a welcome moment for the Government. I get the sense, however, from looking at the Government Whip, that he may think tea has come.

Ordered, That the debate be now adjourned.—(Leo Docherty.)

Adjourned till Thursday 19 November 2020 at half-past Eleven o’clock.

Written evidence reported to the House

EB78 Agricultural Industries Confederation (AIC) (Due diligence on forest risk commodities for NS1)

EB79 Energy UK and RenewableUK (Schedule 14 amendments 75 and 168)

EB80 British Glass

EB81 Letter from Rebecca Pow to Dr Alan Whitehead re: OFGEM