Biodiversity

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:44 pm on 14th June 2006.

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Photo of Barry Gardiner Barry Gardiner Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Biodiversity, Landscape and Rural Affairs) 4:44 pm, 14th June 2006

This is the first time I have responded to a debate under your chairmanship, Mr. Williams, and I am very pleased to be doing so.

I congratulate my hon. Friend Mrs. Moon on securing this debate on biodiversity issues. Her timing is impeccable; as she mentioned, this is Wales biodiversity week, and many events are taking place to raise awareness of biodiversity. They will get people out there to experience the huge variety of life. I took the precaution of looking some of them up on the website; one of the events is a bats and moths barbecue, which takes place in Bridgend on Sunday. That is not, I am relieved to hear, a chance to try out unorthodox recipe suggestions, but a project involving the use of ultrasound to pick up bat activity in a local park. That is great—the event is being promoted in a humorous and interesting way and getting people engaged. That is the point.

Such awareness raising is becoming more and more essential. As my hon. Friend said, across the world, changes in biodiversity due to human activity have happened more rapidly in the past 50 years than at any time in human history. The issues highlighted, particularly by the latest scientific evidence, show that an unprecedented effort is needed at all levels in all countries to achieve significant reductions in the rate of biodiversity loss.

My hon. Friend mentioned various levels of possible action, and I absolutely agree that the commitment to biodiversity knows no boundaries, whether within or without the United Kingdom. It is not simply a matter of Offa's dyke, but a global issue that we have to tackle at international, national and local government level and within local communities. That is how we must address the issue.

Progress is crucial. Biodiversity is a vital component of the planet's life support systems. It helps regulate our climate and benefits people directly through its contributions to health and well-being. It provides food, fuel, water, air and natural medicines—all the ecosystem services that we have taken for granted and assumed were free goods for far too long. We are beginning to discover that in the whole battle against climate change. We know that the pressures on global biodiversity continue to increase, particularly as a result of global warming, the degradation of habitats and continuing infrastructure development.

The Government remain absolutely committed to meeting our targets and improving biodiversity conservation in this country and abroad. Our key commitment is to meet the 2010 target of reducing the rate of biodiversity loss. All our domestic targets in England, Wales and other UK countries are consistent with and represent important milestones along the way towards that aim. Considerable work is being done to meet those targets and much has been achieved already.

Indeed, I would like to congratulate the Welsh Assembly on the publication of their Wales environment strategy, a document that reaffirms the commitment to halting biodiversity loss and working towards a definite recovery from the losses that have occurred to date. The document clearly identifies actions to help achieve further progress and underpins Wales's contribution to our UK and international commitments, directly supporting the challenging targets for 2010.

Our overall goals, as stated in the UK's biodiversity action plan, are to conserve and enhance biological diversity in the UK and contribute to the conservation and sustainable use of global biodiversity. The biodiversity action plan sets out the Government's commitments through a series of individual habitat action plans and species action plans, which specify clear targets and the actions designed to meet them.

The UK BAP is of great importance in co-ordinating and driving conservation work at national and local levels, identifying priorities for action and setting biological targets for the recovery of species and habitats. It provides the framework for costed and targeted national action to address 436 of our most threatened habitats and species in the UK. Across the UK, further support comes from approximately 150 local biodiversity action plans developed by local partnerships to engage local communities and help deliver conservation action. In many cases, those plans are really making a difference.

The 24 local biodiversity partnerships in Wales have done an enormous amount of work to prepare and implement local plans that support the UK biodiversity action plan. Local biodiversity action plans in Wales comprise a range of successful projects that are inspiring and enthusing new partners and sectors, including tourism and business, to get involved and contribute to further progress. The plans are also helping to demonstrate the wider social and economic benefits from conserving and enhancing our natural environment. In particular, recent activities have led to the completion of an intertidal survey for the entire Welsh coastline, the rediscovery of a rare lichen, Cladonia peziziformis, at two separate sites in Wales and the establishment of a valleys bat group.

I am aware that the biodiversity action plan for Bridgend has immense value as a means of harnessing the enthusiasm and commitment of local people to help the Government towards meeting their targets for biodiversity. The plan, which also focuses on local conservation priorities and targets, continues to operate alongside the Bridgend unitary development plan and helps to inform it.

At the national level, effective co-ordination of a considerable range of activity is driven by the UK biodiversity partnership. That forum brings together all the partners involved with the BAP, including funders, experts, business, Governments and non-governmental organisations. A standing committee guides and supports the partnership in implementing the BAP, helping to facilitate the exchange of information and overseeing progress reporting.

The biodiversity partnership is currently taking forward a series of review processes, including action to examine the targets set for UK priority species and habitats. New revised targets will be published this year. In addition, a national reporting round will provide the latest measure of progress under the UK BAP. It will be published next week, and the results are likely to show that while some priority species and habitats are still declining, the past three years have seen some notable successes. Some 22 per cent. of habitats and 11 per cent. of priority species are increasing. Overall, more priority species are showing improved trends in 2005 compared with 1999 and 2002.

It is particularly encouraging that we are starting to see improvements in a range of important species—in parts of our long-cherished national biodiversity. The population of the lesser horseshoe bat has increased by 42 per cent. in Wales and by 39 per cent in south-west England since 1999, and the population of the Deptford pink has increased substantially at a number of sites in England and Wales. The status of those species as BAP priorities has been a major factor in the success.

A number of species of moths have been designated as top priority under the UK BAP because of their widespread decline. As my hon. Friend mentioned, we know that moths are vital to the countryside; they both pollinate plants and provide food for other species. It is therefore significant and worrying that more than 50 species of larger moths are highly threatened, and others are also at risk. Sadly, more than 25 species of moths have become extinct in Britain during the past century, ranging from the gypsy moth, last seen as native in around 1907, to the Essex Emerald, which disappeared just 15 years ago, in 1991.

Those data highlight our concerns about the pressure faced by native species and emphasise the need to create better opportunities to conserve our wildlife. However, there is some good news in that the discovery of new colonies, ecological research and habitat management have helped the situation of 27 priority moths since the UK BAP was published a decade ago. Research also shows that the greatest proportion of species with relatively stable populations lies in the south-west, including Wales. The current review of national priority species under the BAP will examine those issues, and may increase the number of priority moths that benefit from increased awareness and additional resources for survey, monitoring, research and conservation, although there is a range of important species to consider.

Clearly, there are considerable challenges that we must address. Overall, however, I am pleased that the latest BAP reporting round shows many individual successes. Many more populations and habitats are remaining stable or their rate of loss is at least now beginning to slow. Much hard work has led to those improvements, and the progress is significant and pleasing, given that it can take time to reverse the serious decline of previous decades, however successful our policies and actions might be over a limited period.

Further important progress has also been made in protecting our nationally important wildlife sites across the UK. More than 72 per cent. of our sites of special scientific interest are now in favourable condition, which represents a tremendous improvement in the past few years. It means that we are on track to meet our 95 per cent. target by 2010.

Significant work is taking place at all levels and across all sectors to deliver the additional progress that we need. Environmental stewardship has already made an important contribution by supporting farmers in adopting new approaches that can conserve our biodiversity. A real, positive difference has been seen in wildlife and in the countryside since environmental stewardship was introduced. In particular, we are seeing more farmland birds, and a greater variety of bird life. More than 1 million hectares of land are now covered by environmental stewardship agreements. That means that more and more farmers are being rewarded for farm management that conserves and enhances wildlife and landscapes rather than simply existing as farming for the subsidy, as under the old common agricultural policy principle.

We also need to build on the progress that we are making in urban areas. The consideration of the impacts on local biodiversity of new house building is a matter that should be addressed by regional planning bodies and local planning authorities when preparing regional spatial strategies and local development documents. In preparing those plans, they must have regard to national planning policies. I am pleased to tell my hon. Friend that relevant policies are set out in planning policy statement 9 on biodiversity and geological conservation, which was published in August 2005. At local authority level, as well as at national, regional, Government and Whitehall level, this issue, specifically the point that she made about incorporating biodiversity into the thinking of local planners—that is essential—is being addressed. The Government took the step last August.

PPS9 makes it clear that planning policies should aim to maintain and enhance, restore or add to biodiversity interests, and recognises that it is possible to build in beneficial biodiversity features as part of the design of new developments. PPS9 is also supported by a recently published good practice guide, which includes practical examples of how authorities can plan positively for biodiversity.

In addition, under the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006, which comes into force on 1 October 2006, we have created a formal duty for all public authorities in England and Wales to have regard to the conservation of biodiversity in the exercise of their functions. Furthermore, the launch in June 2005 of the Government's new policy for ancient and native woodland, backed by numerous practical initiatives and projects, represents another important step forward in promoting enhanced biodiversity in our woodlands and forests.

Last month, I also launched a consultation on the review of the England forestry strategy. The consultation identifies national priorities and policies over the next five to 10 years, to which our trees, woods and forests can make a particularly significant contribution. The aims include the safeguarding of our national resource of trees, woods and forests for future generations to support the protection and enhancement of our environmental resources, biodiversity and landscapes.

Climate change is having a major impact on biodiversity in the UK, just as it is around the world, and we can only expect much bigger challenges to come. In the past year, we have seen some very sobering trends, particularly on migratory species at home and abroad. It is imperative to act now to reduce our emissions of carbon dioxide and to combat the effects of climate change on our natural habitats and the plants and animals that rely on them.

We need to base our policies and actions on the best possible scientific advice. Our priorities in moving forward include the development of a more robust evidence base to support our scientific understanding of the impacts of climate change on biodiversity. We must use the evidence to raise awareness, to aid decision making at all levels and to shape our policies and adaptation strategies for the future. Already, important work has been carried out on compiling a framework of biodiversity valuation methodologies and on providing information on economic values of biodiversity that are currently available.

The Government are also aiming for a wiser and more sustainable use of water and wetlands. I am pleased, for example, that more than 170 water and wetland sites of special scientific interest will benefit from £500 million of investment as a result of the fourth periodic review of water prices. In the past 12 months, substantial progress has also been made on action to include wider biodiversity requirements in river basin planning and management.

Sound progress has also been made in developing proposals—

It being Five o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the sitting lapsed, without Question put.