Examination of Witnesses

Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:29 pm on 23rd June 2022.

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Dr Richard Benwell, Carolyn McKenzie and Paul Miner gave evidence.

Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough 3:10 pm, 23rd June 2022

Q One of the witnesses is in the room with us, and the others are on Zoom. Starting with the witness in the room, could you say who you are and who you represent?

Dr Benwell:

Good afternoon, and thanks for having me. My name is Richard Benwell, and I am the chief executive of Wildlife and Countryside Link, a coalition of 65 environmental charities.

Paul Miner:

Good afternoon, everyone. My name is Paul Miner, and I am the head of policy and planning at CPRE, the countryside charity. I am a chartered town planner.

Carolyn McKenzie:

I am Carolyn McKenzie, director of environment at Surrey County Council. I chair the energy and clean growth working group at the Association of Directors of Environment, Economy, Planning and Transport.

Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough

Thank you. The witnesses can expect questions from Ministers because the object of this Committee is to gather evidence to influence our detailed consideration of the Bill.

Photo of Matthew Pennycook Matthew Pennycook Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

I thank the witnesses for their attendance, which is appreciated. I have a general question to start, and then a few specifics. Do you think the Bill is a missed opportunity to respond as needed to the climate and environment emergency? If that is your view, in what ways would you like to see the Bill overhauled to that endQ ?

Dr Benwell:

It is definitely not a missed opportunity yet, because we are only at the start of the process. I would say it is a huge opportunity to tackle two important environmental problems associated with planning and levelling up.

The first of these is environmental inequality. We think of the levelling-up agenda as being about economic inequality, but we live in a country of really deep environmental inequality. We have probably all heard the statistic that there are 40,000 premature deaths a year from air pollution, but it can vary street by street, let alone town by town. It goes deeper than that, because there is environmental inequality in things like access to natural green space, which has been brought to the fore over the past couple of years when so many people have depended on it. Those inequalities are, again, really deep. People from the lowest socioeconomic backgrounds are nine times less likely to have access to high-quality natural green spaces, which is hugely important for our physical and mental health. People from ethnic minority backgrounds are twice as likely to live in places that are bereft of access to natural green space.

At a wider level, there are deeper environmental inequalities still. Think, for example, of folk living in areas where degraded uplands mean that water flows more quickly over surfaces, flooding homes and businesses. Think of the same in urban areas, where densification and the use of impermeable surfaces is increasing flood risk and other environmental risks. There are huge levelling-up aspects to environmental inequality, which this Bill is an opportunity to fix.

Secondly, the planning system can help us environmentally through its impact on nature. We know that more than 40% of species are in long-term decline, and 15% of species here in Great Britain are at risk of extinction. The last “State of Nature” report made it clear that planning and unsustainable development play a big role in that. The Bill is a chance to make sure that, in future, the planning system is not imbalanced as it so often has been in the past when it focused on things like housing numbers alone. We need to balance that with the need for spatial planning and careful development that contributes to nature’s recovery. At the moment though, those opportunities have not been realised. On the contrary, some provisions in the Bill will do quite the opposite and bring in new environmental risks.

I will quickly address how to grasp those opportunities. It would be excellent if, among the levelling-up missions set in clause 1, you included access to a healthy natural environment. I was really surprised to see that the levelling-up White Paper’s list of capitals included human capital, financial capital, intellectual capital and social capital but not natural capital. Not to list environmental capital as one of those fundamental assets reflects a 1980s philosophy, really. So we should have access to a good-quality natural environment as a levelling-up mission, and a duty on public bodies to help people achieve that with access to natural green space.

On improving the planning system, there are some obvious missed wins there, such as making sure that planning and development decisions are in line with section 1 of the Environment Act 2021 and section 1 of the Climate Change Act 2008, to meet our carbon budgets and halt nature’s decline by 2030. You could go further, with things like implementing the findings of the Glover review to improve the contribution of national parks to restoring nature here in the UK. So there are some really missed opportunities for positive planning.

On the negative side, I do not know whether we will touch on this later, but although the environmental outcome reports proposed in the Bill sound positive in principle for the natural environment, the way they are framed risks undermining some of our most important conservation laws. Those clauses and that part of the Bill need some attention to make sure they do what I think they are intended to do, which is to add a new layer of protection, not to weaken our long-standing, important environmental protections in this country.

Photo of Matthew Pennycook Matthew Pennycook Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

Q Many thanks. Ms McKenzie and Mr Miner, do you have anything to add?

Carolyn McKenzie:

The earlier speaker made some really good points; I back up all those points, but I will not reiterate them. At the local level, it is very much about integration across different policies. There is some really good stuff in the Bill, but integration across all the different policies will be key. This is not just about the big infrastructure, such as wind farms or EV charging; it is about making sure that environmental considerations are integrated across all projects in infrastructure and all levelling-up projects, because a pound spent on levelling up can deliver on your outcomes for net zero or biodiversity, and investment in net zero and biodiversity can deliver on your levelling-up ambitions as well.

In addition, although there is a real need for some of the big infrastructure projects, if I take a look at Surrey as a whole and our net zero emissions, the biggest proportion of those emissions, 41%, is down to private sector transport, and 31% to 33% is down to domestic housing. Those local actions—local public transport and active travel to get people out of their cars, and remote working, as well as tackling retrofit—have the potential to not only reduce emissions, but to drive jobs and growth and tackle inequalities, because inequality is hugely linked to the environment: a lot of our poorer communities have the poorest environments. The one thing I will repeat from Richard’s comments is that there is a lack of recognition that a healthy environment for all is really important when it comes to having a healthy economy and a healthy social area as well.

The last point I would like to make is about taking a place-based approach. Funding is often fragmented, competitive, and focused on specific things like EV cars or renewable energy. At the county level, we are very much looking at a place-based approach where we can link things together and look at a community as a whole. If we could link all that funding together and have a pot that delivers on an evidence-based approach that says what is needed in the area and links up all of our ambitions around health, economy, social and environment, that would be a lot easier, and we could make funding deliver more than the separate, individual pots could. Having place-based funding that is based on local evidence of need would be really helpful.

Paul Miner:

I should say at the beginning that I am speaking today on behalf of CPRE, the countryside charity, and point out that CPRE is leading the Better Planning Coalition, which includes a wide variety of environmental, social and community organisations that have come together to put forward a shared view on how we can improve the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill and make it stronger for people and nature more generally. We are working in a number of key areas. Climate change is one of them.

In CPRE’s view, at the moment the planning system has an institutional weakness in dealing with climate change. There is a duty on local authorities in the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 for their development plan document—so local plans essentially—to contribute towards the mitigation of and adaptation to climate change. However, that duty is not strong enough. It does not consistently influence local authorities or planning inspectors examining plans or appeals. The Bill merely reiterates this existing and insufficient duty. We have seen, for example, recent planning stats reports for 24 recently adopted local plans that show only one mention of climate change for 24 of boosting housing supply. The priorities of the planning system have become massively skewed and unbalanced.

We want to see in the final version of the Bill some additional clauses that apply the climate change duty both more meaningfully, so that it clearly reiterates the national commitments made in the Climate Change Act 2008, but also applies the climate change duty to national planning policy as well as just local plans. It should also apply to decision making on specific planning applications, as well as just in the making of local plans. We also need to see more detail about what the duty means both in terms of mitigation, achieving Climate Change Act targets on budget and climate budgets, and in terms of adaptation, relating it to relevant statutory risk assessments and compliance. The coalition is coming forward with some further ideas on this, which we are very keen to discuss further with the Committee in due course.

Photo of Matthew Pennycook Matthew Pennycook Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

Q There were lots of very general points there; I want to get into the specific. I would like to ask you two questions, so I ask the witnesses to be as brief as they can to ensure I can do that. Dr Benwell, you mentioned environmental outcome reports. What is the panel’s view on them as a replacement for environmental impact assessments and strategic environmental assessments? To an extent, can you give a considered view given the lack of detail in the Bill as to what they will look like in practice?

Dr Benwell:

We cannot give a complete view, because so much is proposed to be done in regulations and that itself is a problem. The idea of taking a more outcome-based approach to environmental impact assessments is a good one and there are definitely areas where environmental impact assessment and strategic environmental assessment can be improved. So things like making sure that you get the thresholds right to include all potentially environmentally damaging plans; that could be improved. Things like making scoping decisions mandatory; that could be improved. The problem as we see it with the environmental outcomes proposed in the Bill is that the outcomes set can simply be spliced in in place of existing environmental requirements. We do not know that those will be robust enough.

For example, in the environmental impact assessment process, if anything proposed in a plan or a project is likely to cause significant harm to the environment, there is a duty to avoid, mitigate or compensate for that potential harm. In the new system, if an environmental outcome is set that, for example, talks about a general outcome of improving the abundance of species at the national level, any sort of project that claims to be doing that nationally could ignore local impacts. It could ignore the impacts on particularly important sites and species at the local level. That could be extremely damaging for things like sites of special scientific interest and UNESCO sites, which are afforded their main protection through the planning system and through the EIA and SEA.

I should point out that these clauses will affect not just the EIA and SEA; it is really important to note that the habitats regulations and the habitats regulations assessments are also affected. If you look at clause 127, you will find an extraordinary provision that says that anything done in an environmental outcomes report can be treated as satisfying any existing duties under the habitats regulations assessment process. That process, which is what protects our most internationally important wildlife sites from harm, is even stronger than the EIA and SEA, because under the habitats regulations process, before a site can be affected by a project that causes significant harm on site or by contiguous activities, the developer must prove that mitigation is in place to avoid that significant harm, or that there are imperative overriding public interest reasons to proceed and compensatory measures are in place.

That is a really high legal bar to protect our most important sites and species of international significance. Under the Bill, the Government could put in its place a more parochial and limited environmental outcome, such as saying that the best available technology has been used to reduce water pollution, or that overall national trends will be going in the right direction. That would weaken and undermine the extremely important protection provided by the habitats regulations. You do not often see a clause in a Bill that says that anything in regulations can be treated as satisfying existing legal duties, or indeed that anything in them can amend, replace or repeal any of the most fundamental parts of the habitats regulations that we have come to rely on for decades. The concept is quite good, but the way in which it is being applied brings serious risks of undermining long-standing environmental rules that would potentially create huge uncertainty in the planning system, because developers and conservationists alike have become used to operating under this system.

Paul Miner:

I agree with Richard about the environmental dimension of the environmental outcomes reports. It is also worth the Committee considering that under the current system, local authorities have to do a sustainability appraisal, looking not only at environmental factors but at social and economic factors.

To pick up on what Richard and Carolyn pointed out, there is quite an important issue about the effect of the planning system on human health. It seems particularly strange that in a Bill about levelling up we are not using the outcomes reports as a means of embedding the Government’s levelling-up objectives in the planning system. For example, the levelling-up White Paper calls for measures on increasing healthy life expectancy and regenerating town centres, but those will not be assessed at all through the planning system under environmental outcomes reports, whereas they would have been under the current system of sustainability appraisals.

Carolyn McKenzie:

I agree that taking an outcome-based approach allows us to be more flexible and achieve more, but it depends on how narrow the outcomes are, which is Richard’s point. It would be really good to ensure that the outcomes in the Bill match the performance targets and indicators that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is currently consulting on under the Environment Act 2021. They need to link up so that we have one set of environmental indicators that all sectors and all areas are delivering on.

To pick out one example, there is no mention of natural capital in the Bill, as Richard pointed out. How can we put in an outcome relating to natural capital, which could be really important for health, attracting businesses to areas or carbon sequestration? That is a key element of levelling up, so I urge caution in ensuring that any new outcomes link directly to the Environment Act and the 25-year environment plan.

Photo of Matthew Pennycook Matthew Pennycook Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

Q Finally, do you believe that clause 117 could potentially lead to an erosion of existing environmental protections? Do you believe that clause 120 provides adequate protection? Will it ensure that, at a minimum, there is no regression from existing protections? If not, how would you ideally like to see the Bill strengthened?

Dr Benwell:

I should have brought my copy of the Bill. There are actually some very good bits in clause 117. The Government have done quite a good job of writing in the mitigation hierarchy, which is welcome to see. The problem is linked through to clause 127, which allows everything in preceding parts simply to replace existing environmental law. It would be much better if the Government came forward with fully worked-up proposals for how to strengthen the existing system of the EIA and SEA, rather than taking the approach of giving themselves the powers to take out layers of environmental law and put in something different.

You mentioned clause 120, the so-called non-regression clause. It is obviously a good thing to have a commitment not to weaken environmental protection, but I am afraid that the efficacy of such a clause is really in doubt, for a number of reasons. First, it is the Secretary of State in whose opinion environmental law has to be maintained at an equal level. That is a highly subjective opinion left in the hands of Ministers—and, just to emphasise, not a court in the land would challenge that on the basis of ultra vires without it being patently absurd. Courts are really deferential to decision makers, so if a Minister were to say, “Yes, this is equivalent,” that statement would have to be really, really daft for a court to challenge it. So we think that that kind of non-regression provision is unlikely to be robust.

Secondly, the other noteworthy part of the non-regression provision is that it talks about overall levels of protection. That is where we come back to the idea of talking about the environment in aggregate and those big broad trends of species-level data, which is really important—like Carolyn, I think that we should be linking back to the Environment Act targets—but it is not sufficient. We must keep in place the rules that protect the particular, the peculiar and the exciting at the local level that matter to important people, and those local populations of species and habitats that are so important. Otherwise, we get into a runaway offsetting mentality where the assurance that things will be better overall can be taken to obscure a lot of harm to the natural environment at the local level.

So there are some good things in clause 117 and some nice sentiments in clause 120, but overall they do not give the reassurance that would be provided by simply taking time to work up provisions in full and bring them forward in primary legislation rather than giving Ministers the power to swip and swap through regulations.

Paul Miner:

I have nothing further to add on this question.

Carolyn McKenzie:

I have nothing further to add other than to reiterate the local element. You do get lots of peculiarities in different areas, and they can be lost, so we must make sure that they are not.

Photo of Neil O'Brien Neil O'Brien Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

This question is directed at Paul in the first instance. The Bill contains a number of measures from the infrastructure levy to strengthening compulsory purchase order powers, high street rental auctions and heritage protections that are intended to drive more brownfield, urban regeneration. It also contains measures to create more combined authorities with transport and regeneration powers as part of building on the Government’s urban uplift and shift towards a regeneration-led approach to planning and housing. What assessment have you made of the advantages in embodied carbon of building reuse and of denser, better public transport-connected cities in reducing pollution? What is your take on that model of development?Q

Paul Miner:

We think that a brownfield-first approach to new housing and commercial building development can have a number of benefits. We have seen constantly over the years that there is enough brownfield land available for over 1 million new homes in any given year, and this supply of brownfield is constantly replenishing as more sites come forward, and it is possible to build at higher densities.

We think there are a number of clauses in the Bill that could help with brownfield regeneration, such as those relating to changing compulsory purchase order powers, as you have mentioned, and the infrastructure levy. Getting local plans in place more quickly will also help to bring brownfield sites forward. So we see a lot of benefits to a brownfield-first approach.

However, the problem we have consistently had over the past 15 years, under both Conservative and Labour Governments, is that it has been easier for large housebuilders to bring forward speculative developments through the planning system, often not contained within local plans, than to be able to get these schemes through at appeal. We think there are a number of measures the Government need to look at.

Some of these may involve legislation but more involve changes to policy to give councils more power to set targets for the amount of housing needed in their area, to make sure that housing targets reflect what is likely to be built in the area, as opposed to what house builders say when they claim to be meeting housing targets that they then do not build, and to identify local needs for affordable homes. In many areas of the country they are crying out for affordable homes, but the kind of housing that is being built is not meeting those identified needs.

We recognise that there is a lot in the Bill that is helping to bring forward the benefits of a brownfield-first approach, in terms of, as you say, embodied carbon, saving precious agricultural land and regenerating communities in of need levelling up. At the same time, we think there is scope to do much more.

Carolyn McKenzie:

To build on what Paul has said, I think the circular economy is missing from the Bill. There is not much that is looking at what can be reused, recycled or reclaimed. It is about the new, and sometimes that is not the best way to go. Specifically around things like housing retrofits, it is about repair and regenerate rather than new housing. There is not that look at retrofitting that there should be, bearing in mind that the majority of housing we have is already in existence.

Photo of Neil O'Brien Neil O'Brien Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

One of the other things the Bill does is take forward measures to widen and deepen the devolution agenda by making it easier to set up new combined authorities, for authorities to join them and for them to gain new powers. How would you like to see the devolution agenda drive positive environmental outcomes? Is it primarily through helping towards our transport mission and better public transport? Is it through the housing quality mission? Or is it something else entirely? How do you think the devolution agenda can best serve a wider environmental agendaQ ? I put that to Carolyn first.

Carolyn McKenzie:

The first thing would be to actually have a mission in the Bill that relates to environmental outcomes, as the Bill does not have such a mission in there. Even though there has been some commitment to sustainable and non-competitive funding, if there is no mission then you cannot link that back. When you have funds such as the shared prosperity fund, which will take regard of the environment, if there is no mission you cannot just say, “Well, this is a priority.” So having a mission on the environment would definitely push this along.

There is a need within devolution to be clear about people’s roles. At the minute, everything that is done around climate change is done by local authorities, both at county and district level, because they have been driven to do so by the public through climate emergencies. It is not because we are being asked to do it. That drives action, absolutely, but it drives different types of action—inconsistent action—and the data is different so you cannot compare.

Also, when you get things like covid coming along, or Ukraine, or inflation, the risk of dropping down the agenda is really high, so that sustainable approach to funding is needed, rather than there being small pots of funding and grant-based funding, which can change and is short-run and competitive. That approach is not great for really putting down the foundations and encouraging local authorities to work with partners and to partner up. We are looking at working with the private sector, residents and other public sector bodies to really partner up their funding with our funding, to get more bang for our bucks and to achieve more through things like volunteering to plant trees, which involves health and social, and tackling fuel poverty, which keeps people out of hospital as well as reducing carbon emissions. As I keep saying, that integration is really key.

Again, when we look at things to spend money on, we really need to look at what is needed at the local level. There are lots of things that will be consistent that people need to spend money on, but there will be lots of differences and nuances at the local level that will make it better spent. I reiterate again that 41% of Surrey’s emissions—we are not unusual among other authorities—are down to the private car. With little or no funding for public transport, it is a really difficult target to hit to get people out of the car. You can get people to change to electric vehicles, but that has an equalities aspect to it: not everybody drives and not everybody can afford it. Public transport and good safe routes for walking and cycling are really crucial, as is the housing side, again.

Photo of Neil O'Brien Neil O'Brien Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

Thank you. Paul, on the transport powers that are devolved through devolution deals, as well as getting more people on to public transport, which is good for the environment, what is the potential impact of improved public transport in driving more brownfield regeneration rather than sprawl? You must have done quite a lot of work on this kind of thing.Q

Paul Miner:

Yes, we have done plenty of work on that, which we can send to the Committee. In particular, we produced a report a few years ago on public transport-oriented development, which showed that you could get much higher densities in urban areas that were already served by an intensive public transport network. In turn, that mutually reinforced and made sustainable public transport improvements within that area. There is certainly more on that that we could send to the Committee, which we would be very happy to do.

In addition to Carolyn’s point, I also want to say something very quickly on the rural aspect as well. Cornwall in particular is a possible trailblazer on rural devolution, in terms of what it has been able to do to integrate its transport network—that is in trains, ticketing and single points of information. It has also done some great work in terms of setting housing policies and on retrofitting rural housing stock. It does seem to be an exciting model that others could look at.

Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough

Richard, we have not forgotten you; we will ask you to comment in a second.

Carolyn McKenzie:

The key point on that is that there are so many different actors and so many different funds in respect of devolution. It is about looking at how we co-ordinate that. I am proposing to my authority to look at taking a lead climate change authority approach, similar to the lead local flood authority approach, so that we can actually co-ordinate, get the data down, look at what is relevant for the local level and deliver on that. We can then use that data to influence the funding that we bring in or to influence Government funding pots, so it is appropriate. That co-ordination element among all the different sectors is really key. At the minute, it is not there around environment. There are lots of different people and lots of different areas to come from.

Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough

Richard, you have been very patient.

Dr Benwell:

Thank you, Chair. I have been expansive on other questions, so it is no problem.

I will make two points very quickly. First, it would be great if we could always preface “brownfield” with “low-biodiversity value”. My friends at Buglife would send a plague of spiders my way if I did not point out that sometimes brownfield can be really important for nature. That has a really important link through to localism, because it is often local communities—our brilliant heritage of amateur ecologists—who know about these things. It is really important for the planning system to keep being able to investigate and interrogate what is on individual sites.

It was welcome, in this version of the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill, to see the move away from the previous proposals in the planning White Paper, which would have taken a broadbrush zoning approach, taking away some of the granularity of local information. It is really important that we keep doing those site-based surveys and that, as we move to digitisation, for example, we do not do everything from a laptop computer and assume that there is nothing important there.

Quickly, on another aspect of devolution, on the environmental outcome reports, it is noteworthy that the outcomes can be set for the devolved nations as well, after consultation. I do not know anything about devolution politics, but it would be great if it can be clear that whatever is set by Westminster is a base, not a cap. If other countries wanted to move further and set bolder outcomes, it would be unfortunate if a new power that enables those things to be set from Westminster prevented Wales, Northern Ireland or Scotland from being able to go further if they wanted to.

Photo of Rachael Maskell Rachael Maskell Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

Q Communities are facing multiple challenges, and not just on flooding but on drought. How could the legislation be strengthened to mitigate those climate risks?

Dr Benwell:

It would be wonderful if climate and nature were at the forefront of the Bill. A modern planning system ought to have environmental recovery embedded in its very purpose. Some of the things in the Environment Act 2021 moved us forward in thinking about compensating for environmental harm, and indeed things like biodiversity gain set a precedent, but actually some of those big sectors have a role not just in offsetting the harm that they do, but in contributing to improvement.

I know that there is some suspicion about purpose clauses in Bills, and that those are not something we do in UK law, but what you could do is to set a requirement that plans and individual decisions are compatible with nature’s recovery under section 1 of the Environment Act and with climate change mitigation under section 1 of the Climate Change Act 2008.

More locally, you could take a real step forward by bringing into statute some of the things that the Government have already promised. For example, we have this excellent commitment to protect 30% of land and sea for nature. Would it not be great if the Bill were to bring that into statutory form by setting an aspiration, or a requirement on Ministers, to ensure that all sites of significant importance for nature are properly designated by 2030; and to bring in some of the exciting new proposals for things like a wild belt, a new planning designation not just to protect what we already have for nature, but to provide areas where nature could recover?

On your question about the growing environmental risks that come from climate change and nature degradation, that comes back to the question of natural capital. Really, we ought to be thinking about levelling up not just geographically, but temporally: we ought to be thinking about the concerns of future generations. This is about making sure that geography does not define destiny. If you are more likely to be flooded, less likely to breathe clean air, or going to be in a place where you cannot access clean rivers or access a positive natural environment, there ought to be something of the past; that the length, quality and happiness of your life are defined by the physical environment around you. Surely that gap, having natural capital and a healthy natural environment as one of the missions that came in the White Paper, should be filled by a clear duty in the Bill—to set that as one of the missions, when they are formally set in statute.

My final point is that with some of the questions about, for example, flood risk mitigation versus housing development and space for agricultural land, there are inevitably trade-offs. It is really difficult. We know that if we are to meet net zero, a third of that effort has to be delivered by nature-based solutions—so, finding space for land to sequester more carbon through better agricultural soils, and through more trees and wetlands.

If we are going to do that at the same time as ensuring that we have space for business and development, and space to grow enough food, we have to improve how we do spatial planning and we have to make those trade-offs explicit, and a planning system that is still weighted towards housing numbers over those other considerations is one that will never make those choices properly. A spatially explicit planning system that has nature’s recovery and climate change mitigation at its heart is one that would make a real boon of this Bill.

Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough

I am afraid that we are going to be caught by the clock, because I now have another Member who wants to come in. Paul and Carolyn might want to come in too. We could have gone on with this session for ages. Quickly.

Photo of Rachael Maskell Rachael Maskell Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

Q I will be brief. There has been a lot of talk about brownfield development first, and I understand that, but if are we talking about levelling up—you referred to the whole wellbeing of an individual—should we not also be looking at how brownfield could perhaps be swapped with some greenfield, in order to ensure that we do not build such density in urban areas, which is actually quite harmful to personal wellbeing and health?

Dr Benwell:

It is hugely important, and we need to make sure that those existing green spaces are not just little patches of grass that are full of litter and dog mess. They need to be thriving natural abundant places that people can go and enjoy and find solace in nature. You are absolutely right; we need a system that can identify those spaces that really matter to local communities, whether they be notionally brownfield or not. We have seen an 11% loss in urban green space over the past 15 years. Were that trend to continue, you would find more people left bereft of nature. You would find productivity falling and ill health growing, so these things are hugely important. Things like—

Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough

Sorry, I am just going to have to stop you there and move on.

Photo of Sarah Atherton Sarah Atherton Conservative, Wrexham

Dr Benwell, you spoke about bolder outcomes in devolved Administrations, so you will probably know about this. The Welsh Government have introduced phosphate mitigation targets in areas of special interest, which Q covers my constituency. In practice, that has halted all development for many months, including care home extensions, and the impact is delayed discharges from care. A homeless hostel has not been built. It has been left to the local authorities to scramble around with developers and Natural Resources Wales to find a way forward. That still has not happened, so how could the Bill square that?

Dr Benwell:

This situation that we have got to, where I think 70 local authorities are facing moratoria on development because of nutrient loading, is a real problem, but it is a problem because in some ways the system is working. We have allowed ourselves to reach a threshold where our rivers are facing ecological destruction because we failed to halt diffuse pollution from agriculture and to halt run-off from urban areas. We need to find a way through it, absolutely, and there are a couple of ways to do that.

In the short term, we should make sure that developers have options to mitigate and compensate for any additional load that they would put on those water bodies—that is absolutely crucial. We have seen some brilliant examples around Poole harbour, where developers have been allowed to invest in treatment wetlands or to work with farmers to reduce artificial inputs of fertiliser—nitrate and phosphate—to reduce that load on the system so that you can go forward and provide that infrastructure and development that you need, but not in such a way that we leave our rivers and streams ecologically dead.

In the long term, we need to move to a more systematic approach, where we take these problems into account in advance and we permit plans and projects only when they are within a nutrient budget in the system. It is about having a catchment-level nutrient budgeting plan that says, “This is what is currently in the system and what it is adding to our waters; this is what we can bring forward; and this is what we have to take out of the system.” Other countries have done that really successfully, and it has enabled development to take place in a way that does not take them over those critical environmental thresholds.

So we should not knee-jerk and get rid of the rules that are in place, because they are serving a vital ecological function, but we should help developers to do their bit by taking away aspects of the problem. In the long term, we need to use things such as environmental land management to help pay farmers to shift towards more agroecological systems. We need to help developers to come forward with permeable membranes and reduce the load on the sewerage system so that they are not contributing to the problem.

Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough

Paul, did you want to add anything—in 60 seconds?

Paul Miner:

Just to go back to Rachael’s initial question, one area of the Bill that gives us real cause for concern, in terms of local authorities’ ability to adapt to climate change, is the proposal on national development management policies. We think that, as the clauses are currently drafted, it will make it more difficult for local councils to have what is known as Merton rule-style policies, requiring a higher amount of renewable energy generation in new developments compared with the national building regulations. Similarly, on biodiversity net gain, the national policy is to ensure 10%, but some local authorities want to go beyond that. They would not do so if we had a national development management policy that told them to keep to what is nationally mandated.

We therefore think that clause 83 needs to be changed so that it just says that local authorities should be able to decide applications in line with both local and national policies, but not always have to give supremacy to national policies. We hope the Committee will look further at that in due course. We know that, for many members of the Committee, it is a major cause of concern, which they have raised already.

Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough

I am really sorry to our witnesses. We could have gone on for much longer, but time has beaten us. We must move on now to our sixth panel. I very much thank the witnesses for their evidence.