– in Westminster Hall at 4:50 pm on 22nd June 2021.
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I aim to start the Front-Bench speeches promptly at 5.35 pm, so an immediate time limit of three minutes, which might need to be reduced as we go on, will apply in order to include everybody in the debate. Please consider keeping interventions to an absolute minimum. I call Claire Coutinho to move the motion.
I beg to move,
That this House
has considered a proposal for Wildbelt designation in planning system reforms.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Cummins. In the UK, we have seen a 41% decline in our species since 1970, and in England one species in eight is threatened with extinction. Wildlife habitats in this country are fewer, smaller and more distant than they ever have been, which is a problem not only for biodiversity, but for our fight against climate change. When nature is working, it can capture carbon, improve our air and water quality, and act as a flood defence. Restoring and protecting our natural system could provide more than a third of the carbon mitigation needed by 2030 to meet the Paris climate agreement. When nature is broken, however, it cannot protect us.
The Government are already taking action. We have an ambitious goal to build a new national nature recovery network in order to create 500,000 hectares of connected wildlife-rich habitat by 2042. To give some context, that is equivalent to 200,000 football pitches. The Prime Minister has also committed himself to protecting 30% of our land and sea for nature recovery by 2030. We are backing up those pledges by investing close to £750 million in the Nature for Climate Fund and restoring wetlands, peatlands and woodlands. Our historic Environment Bill introduces a new biodiversity net gain requirement for development, creating a sustainable funding stream for environmental improvements and ensuring that, when we build homes for people, we build habitats for wildlife alongside them.
As things stand, the sites of those hard-won green gains, where we are investing in restoring and repairing nature, are not protected under existing designations. In England, we have lots of land designations, but none of them exists to protect nature in recovery. The site of special scientific interest designation is critical for preserving individual sites that have been identified as wildlife hotspots, and the national park area of outstanding natural beauty and green belt designations—many hon. Members have them in their patch—protect landscape and amenity value, but do not directly protect biodiversity value. Although we very much like to spend time in beautiful green fields—I feel honoured to represent a seat with 94% green belt, which I think is the highest total of any seat in England—they can often be quite poor in terms of wildlife habitat. That is why I propose the new designation of wild belt to plug the legal gap and to safeguard our investments.
Wild belt is the brainchild of Craig Bennett, chief executive of the Wildlife Trusts. His proposal would provide longer-term protection for land being managed for nature’s recovery—a new designation that goes beyond conserving the nature we have to creating and connecting corridors across the land, making sure that wildlife and the natural environment have the time and space they need to flourish.
One site that would benefit from a new wild belt designation is Holmesdale wetlands in Godstone, east Surrey, which is one of three biodiversity opportunity areas being restored by the Surrey Wildlife Trust to create a connected living landscape across Surrey. All three are exposed under the current system, but could be protected by a new wild belt designation.
Left to degrade, those wetlands would emit carbon to the atmosphere, fuelling global warming, but restored they would be one of the most cost-effective methods of removing carbon—sucking out carbon, sponging up flood risks and enabling the return of a riot of bugs and insects. Those wetlands are a cost-effective natural means to achieve our aims, which is why this work deserves protection.
Across the UK, we see that nature recovery work is creating signs of hope. Take the return of the noble beaver, which is one of the best natural flood defenders, flow regulators and flora supporters we have. The beaver was once native to England, and we are seeing the beaver return after four centuries of extinction in Britain. Last summer, we had another biodiversity boost from the return of the white stork. Extinct for more than six centuries, it is back and successfully breeding in the south-east of England.
Last winter, we saw an ecological miracle on the River Don, which was once considered the most polluted river in Europe—for the first time in two centuries, salmon have spawned. East Surrey’s own natural haven, the Lingfield nature reserves, after decades of restoration work by hard-working volunteers, is home to more species of butterfly than are found across Northern Ireland. I am hopeful that our environmental treasure chest will expand again this year with the return of sand martins, nesting in Surrey for the first time in 25 years thanks to the work of the Surrey Wildlife Trust.
Bringing back species will be a key part of helping ecosystems to function, yet the examples I have mentioned are in the minority. We have seen a decline in our hedgehogs because their habitat has become so fragmented that many have struggled to find a mate. We have seen a decline in our bee population, whose abilities we rely on so as to grow food and crops, but the creation of a wild belt could create stepping stones for our hedgehogs and pollinator pitstops for our bees.
The benefits of wild belt would be far reaching not only for nature, but for our own health and wellbeing. We have seen time and again, especially during the past year, that people feel better when they are surrounded by nature-rich space. A survey carried out at the peak of the first lockdown last year found that 87% of people agreed with the statement, “Being in nature makes me happy.” The science is pretty clear: having good access to nature can reduce our risk of developing obesity, heart disease and diabetes.
The proposal also makes socioeconomic sense. Poorer households are 3.6 times less likely to live close to nature-rich space than richer households, and it remains the case that poorer neighbourhoods have poorer-quality green space, but by stretching round, through and between England’s towns and cities, wild belt could knock down those barriers and level up green access.
Making sure that we can build the right homes is our moral duty to the next generation and an important part of maintaining this country’s competitiveness in an increasingly competitive world, so it is important that wild belt works alongside housebuilding, not against it. Wild belt would, however, help to address the real concerns of my constituents about species loss, and help us to live in harmony with nature.
Schemes such as the Trumpington Meadows development in Cambridge have synchronised housing and biodiversity ambitions, although it was degraded agricultural land when the housing developer and the wildlife trust came together to build in an ecological way. Now it is home to a 1,200-strong community where 80% of the land remains biodiverse space and 40% of the properties are affordable housing.
Wild belt might encompass some greenfield sites, but it could overlay the area of outstanding natural beauty and greenbelt designations and make use of forgotten bits of land: river valleys, roadside verges, railway lines, scraps of golf courses. Members here today will all have such pieces of land on their patch and those could be rewilded to create a network of green continuous corridors from the countryside all the way through our towns and cities.
I shall bring my remarks to a close and allow time for other Members to speak. However, just as we have led the world in reducing carbon emissions and in renewable energy, we now have an opportunity to lead the world in restoring nature. Alongside COP26 in Glasgow this year, we have the largest biodiversity conference in a decade a month before, in COP15. I believe these planning reforms are a national opportunity, and the introduction of a wild belt designation would give us the chance to put nature at the heart of our recovery.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Claire Coutinho on securing the debate. My right hon. Friend the Minister will understand that, because of time constraints, my remarks will have to be fairly brutal, but I mean no discourtesy to him.
My hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey mentioned that 41% of our native species are in decline, and 15% of those species are threatened with extinction. We have lost 97% of our meadows, 80% of our chalk grasslands and 50% of our ancient woodlands. The United Kingdom, to our shame, is one of the most nature-depleted nations in the world. The Prime Minister set a target of having 30% nature-friendly land in the United Kingdom by 2030. If we are to hit that 30:30 target, we will have to take some fairly serious action.
The Wildlife Trusts said in response to the “Planning for the Future” White Paper that it would
“do little to create better homes and communities for wildlife and people. The proposals for three new zones do nothing for nature’s recovery—both the ‘Growth’ and ‘Renewal’ zones fail to integrate nature, and it is business as usual in the ‘Protected’ zone.”
The proposal for a wild belt is certainly a useful tool and a good suggestion for a way forward. However, I say to my right hon. Friend the Minister that the hedgerows of this country, the headlands on agricultural land and the agricultural land itself, with the changing crops and changing seasons, provide the best possible habitat, if we are serious about renewing this country. We have to protect agricultural land. I look to my right hon. Friend to assure me that that will happen.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Cummins, I think for the first time. I congratulate my hon. Friend Claire Coutinho on securing such a timely debate. Following the Chesham and Amersham by-election, the issue of planning has indeed been raised, although it is a little disappointing that no Liberal Democrat Members have decided to come along and contribute to today’s debate.
A revision of the planning system in England and Wales is long overdue. The emphasis has always been on the number of properties constructed; largely ignored has been the effect of developments on biodiversity, natural habitats and types of landscape that have not been considered worthy of designation. The proposal from the Wildlife Trusts for a new wild belt designation to protect land that is being restored for nature is a good idea. A wild belt designation would enable land that does not do much for wildlife to be protected so that efforts to create or restore natural habitat or rewild the area were secure from future changes to land use. Therefore, I particularly support the five proposals in the Wildlife Trusts initiative.
I want to raise two issues through a constituency example. My constituency contains the Welsh Harp, which is a site of special scientific interest due to the migration of birds from throughout Europe to our country to breed in that location. The site is enormous, and it is very near Wembley, between West Hendon ward and the Welsh Harp ward in Brent. Those are areas of deprivation, but the site is a real gem.
Recently, we have had a regeneration of the West Hendon estate—something that needed to be done and was long overdue. Indeed, some of the properties have been marketed as waterside living, and that is correct—they are. However, I am concerned about a proposed bridge across the northern section of the Welsh Harp. That would mean the west side of the bridge being located in an area that is known as woodland, but is actually wetland. I return to the Wildlife Trusts’ point that all decisions must be based on up-to-date data. We are in danger of losing a magnificent wetland that is used by creatures not only to breed, but to forage, which increases our biodiversity.
The second point I want a raise with the Minister is enforcement, which does not occur, particularly in my Welsh Harp location. My local authority, Barnet Council, simply does not have the money to ensure enforcement on a site of special scientific interest. Something must be wrong in that example. When local authorities cannot afford to fund adult social care, they certainly cannot afford to provide enforcement at such locations. I urge the Minister to look at the issues of data management and, indeed, enforcement resources.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Cummins, and I extend my congratulations to my hon. Friend Claire Coutinho on securing this important debate. She has clearly struck a chord.
I will always claim that the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust is visionary and ahead of the curve, and I should declare an interest as a member of it. The trust does brilliant work in my constituency, specifically around rewilding. Fishlake Meadows on the edge Romsey, a bog in North Baddesley, and, of course, the Wilder Wallops project, which it has supported, are brilliant ways to inspire local communities not just to visit nature, but to volunteer and become part of it, and to ensure that facilities in those areas improve and increase. A specific designation could do exactly that.
I want to turn the clock back 10 years to when the chief executive of the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust came to visit me and spoke of wildlife corridors—perhaps the forerunners of wild belts. That was a recognition that a belt in itself is not adequate: we need areas where wildlife can spread, move and migrate, and we need to ensure that they are linked so that where there is development, green corridors can surround that development to make sure that our wildlife can thrive. That is why a new planning designation could really help, giving strategic planners the opportunity to look at things holistically and work out how to integrate development and green areas in a managed way.
We know that nature, when left to its own devices, can be incredibly rich and can provide some of the solutions to climate and pollution challenges. In Romsey and Southampton North, we have some important designations. We have national park, SSI, SINC—site of importance for nature conservation—and ancient woodland, but no green belt. I will always make a pitch to the Minister to consider having some green belt in Hampshire. We have farmers who have embraced high-level stewardship and have pioneered environmentally friendly techniques and low plough strategies to prevent soil erosion. We have the Broughton water buffaloes, which are used as part of a regenerative farming policy that enables carbon to be captured and has built biodiversity.
None of that happens by accident. People take deliberate, carefully thought through decisions to improve the local environment. I am extremely envious of the green belt that my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey has in her constituency. I also want to pick up the comment about enforcement made by my hon. Friend Dr Offord. In the valley of the River Test, we have seen over the last few days a horrific pollution incident, which I sincerely hope agencies such as the Environment Agency will seek to remediate as quickly as possible. That incident reinforces the message that where we put in protections for our environment, we must also give authorities the power to enforce when accidents happen or, indeed, when deliberate acts cause pollution.
Fundamentally, I want to leave the Minister with one thought: we need planning policies and strategies that will help nature and our environment, and the proposal for a wild belt could do exactly that.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Cummins, and I join other Members in congratulating my hon. Friend Claire Coutinho on securing such an apposite debate. It is a testament to her and to the importance of the issue that so many colleagues have joined us. It is always a pleasure to follow my right hon. Friend Caroline Nokes.
If hon. Members will indulge me, I will stake a claim to representing rewilding central, because I share not only the estate of Knepp with my hon. Friend Jeremy Quin, where we have beavers and white storks, but the Norfolk estate, which has done such a fantastic job nurturing the difficult-to-rear grey partridge.
Last week, the Minister visited the Barlavington estate in my constituency, where there is one of the last surviving populations of the rare Duke of Burgundy butterfly. Unlike a fellow yellow or orange-tiered species, this is one that we do wish to foster in the south of England. All this is connected by places such as the Wiston estate, where Richard and his family continue to nurture environments. Sadly, we do not have any water buffalo—I shall take the message back to west Sussex that no rewilding project is complete without them.
We benefit in many parts from the South Downs national park, where genuine protection is given. Areas between the national park can be knitted with areas of natural beauty, such as Chichester harbour or the North Weald. However, too often—and increasingly—they are separated not just by islands of concrete, but by encroaching areas of it. The wild belt proposal from the Wildlife Trusts, which has my full support, would be a magnificent endeavour to protect the precious species we have heard about. It commands my support and I hope the Minister will take that into account. We know he is listening and has been extremely diligent in consulting with colleagues. However, as we bring forward proposals, would the wild belt not be a wonderful component within a new planning system that put nature at its heart?
I am going to change the tone of the debate slightly, to be more pragmatic, and talk about protection and responsibility. The biggest local issue in my patch before covid was planning: the need for homes for those who retire to downsize and for families wanting to grow, and of course the aim of reducing cost. Crucially, we need the right homes, in the right place, with the right infrastructure, all while protecting the character and promoting the environment of our community. Who is responsible for that? Nationally, MPs set the broad framework of how we deal with this. We have the system and we protect the environment. Locally, county councillors deal with the roads and infrastructure. Fundamentally, at the core of our process, it is the responsibility of borough councillors to make those decisions.
The best way to protect areas responsibly is through local plans. I know that the Minister wrote to our borough leader in Hinckley and Bosworth because there have been delays in adopting a local plan. That causes a huge problem, because every month we get more speculative developments. The second way is through neighbourhood plans. My community is passionate about deciding the best way to support home growth in a sustainable manner. The third way is the designation of areas of outstanding natural beauty, sights of special scientific interest and special areas of conservation, and now a proposal for wild belts.
In Leicestershire, that is a real opportunity. We have no green belt. We are sandwiched between Birmingham and Nottingham, which both do have green belt. We are a prime area for development and well connected. However, that needs to be done responsibly, with priorities put into maintaining the character and environment. A shining example is the areas around Burbage Common, which are constantly under threat.
I see wild belts working on two levels: on a macro level, with channels around the A5 joining Birmingham and Leicestershire; and on a micro level, in parts of neighbourhood plans to allow protected development to happen, with the local community at the heart of what that character looks like. It fits with the Government’s ambitious proposals to have 30% of the land for nature by 2030. Most importantly, it would give protections to our wildlife and communities, for which we all have the responsibility.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Cummins. I thank my hon. Friend Claire Coutinho for securing the debate. I am pleased to speak on this crucial topic, and to see many of my hon. Friends doing the same. I welcome the publication of the Government’s planning White Paper and the Wildlife Trusts’ response. It is vital that the planning system takes into account the natural environment and does so as soon as possible. During the past year, our dependence on local parks and outdoor spaces has increased. Local communities have relied on those spaces, and we have appreciated more than ever the huge benefits for both mental and physical health afforded by being outdoors.
Having green spaces for purposes such as active travel is vital. I believe that our communities are better off when planning decisions have cycling and walking in mind, not just for our physical and mental health but for the environment. Currently, around 8% of the land area of England is designated as a national or international protected area for conservation. However, in Nottinghamshire the proportion is below that level and the protection of more land will be vital, if we are to ensure that 30% of England is in nature recovery by 2030.
Adjacent to my constituency of Broxtowe are locations, such as the Erewash valley, that need to be at the heart of our green recovery. The Midlands Engine recently published the green growth action plan, which demonstrates the potential of the midlands to lead the way with investment in blue and green infrastructure, green jobs and protection of our landscapes. The Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust has also undertaken fantastic work to ensure the protection and preservation of our environment.
We are fortunate in Broxtowe to be linked to the East Midlands Development Corporation, which through its partnerships is spearheading world-leading research in green growth. For example, there are plans for the Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust to have a unique research hub. That research hub, based at Attenborough Nature Reserve, a much-loved and well visited nature reserve in my constituency, will focus research on nature recovery techniques. Those techniques will help us meet the challenges of the combined climate, ecological and health crisis, while driving investment and creating jobs. Such plans are a demonstration of how we can harness research and partnerships within the community easily to incorporate wild belts in our local area, benefiting both the environment and our economy.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey once again for securing the debate. I conclude by saying that I fully support the Wildlife Trusts’ proposal for the introduction of wild belts. I believe it is our right to step up to our responsibility and protect our natural environment for future generations.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Cummins, and I congratulate my hon. Friend Claire Coutinho. Let me put my cards on the table: I wholeheartedly support an additional designation of wild belt within a formal legal framework. I want to focus my remarks on what is true for many things in this place. It is crucial not only to have a good idea but to define what it is, to ensure that it is effective and achieves the aims that it seeks. In doing that, I ask Members to bear with me, as I draw on past experiences to describe the wild belt today.
Trophic pyramids—my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey once misunderstood and thought that I had said “tropical pyramids”—are a fancy title for the web of life in an ecosystem. From the bottom to the top, any extensive study, or any child, will tell us that all elements of a trophic pyramid are required to be in place for an effective ecosystem, as the chain of energy flows up, from the soils and decomposers, the detritivores and fungi, primary producers, the plants, the chemivores, the primary consumers, the herbivores, caterpillars, grasshoppers and cute rabbits. There are the secondary consumers; omnivores and carnivores—hedgehogs and birds, in English. Then there are the tertiary consumers: carnivores—the wild cats. Any ecosystem requires all of those things.
The only way to return the UK to its natural state is for us to wind back the clock 15,000 years and for all human beings to clear off. That is not going to happen. At that point, we would see bears, wolves, giant elk, wild cats, beavers and a truly natural ecosystem. I hug trees, but we are not going to clear off deliberately. What can we do to manage responsibly a patchwork of natural state environments to a self-sustaining state? What does that mean for the legal framework and the law?
I have highlighted, as have colleagues, the importance of reservoir populations, on a scale that allows for a viable population of at least secondary consumers—the hedgehogs. That needs two things. First, that needs space, in the form of viable access habitat that we can measure in multiples of field. For that to be effective, the dots must be joined up by wildlife corridors. Secondly, the most important thing to make the effective ecosystem is something that no politician can produce or promise: time. To introduce another term, that is sere succession. They need to be left in place to occur—the bramble patch and the foxgloves that are slightly messy on the eye. This is as important as those wonderful mature forests or the wetlands in South Ribble, the salt marsh and peat bog.
What can we do as the House of Commons to highlight their importance? We need additional categorisation: growth renewal protect wild belt, and the space designation to allow it to happen, but also the acceptance that a wildlife corridor even 3 metres deep will allow it to happen. Create the space and time and do not let it swap in and out over five and 10-year periods.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Claire Coutinho on bringing forward this important debate. In a past life, I was environment editor for the Observer and Times newspapers. I was always struck how, when we look at this country, we see it as it is now, not as it has been in the past or could be in the future. We have become completely accustomed to the phrase “nature depletion”. We do not see it.
Half of the reason is because I spent a lot of my youth in Norway, which is a country of pure wilderness. I have spent time in Norway seeing nature as it is. I come back here and see a real lack of nature everywhere. We have cut down almost all our woodland in the UK. We have only 11% tree cover in the UK, which compares with the European average of over 30%. In Europe, only Ireland and Denmark have fewer trees than we do.
As people have mentioned, we have lost a lot of our major species. Some of them are coming back. Reintroductions are going on and that is great news. Our largest predator in the UK is the badger. It means that species such as deer have no natural predators whatsoever and we have to cull them. We need to have a vision of how we are getting nature back. One of the great things that is happening is that people are now thinking about that and the Government are supporting that. They now support stopping biodiversity loss by 2030. They have big programmes, such as the nature and climate fund, to bring back nature in all its glory.
In Cambridgeshire, we have a vision for doubling nature by 2050. I am working with the Natural Cambridgeshire group, which works with Natural England and various other groups, such as the Wildlife Trusts, to try to double the amount of biodiversity in Cambridgeshire by 2050, but we need help. We are one of the most nature-depleted parts of the UK. We have only 3% tree cover, which is one tenth of the European average and one quarter of the UK average. It is partly because the land is so fertile that it has all been cleared for farming, quite understandably, but we need to bring nature back and that is very much supported.
How can the Government help? Planning is a big issue in Cambridgeshire. We have a huge amount of house building, but it would be great if the planning Bill, when it comes forward, could help to promote biodiversity and put nature back. It needs to bring back biodiversity in the UK rather than hurt it. One of the great ways of doing that would be through wild belts, as proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey and the Wildlife Trusts. We have lots of green belt, but that does not help to promote or protect biodiversity. Wild belts will be able to do that, but the devil will be in the detail on exactly how they fit in with the legal framework and the protections they will give to nature.
I thank my hon. Friend Claire Coutinho for her excellent proposal to promote and increase nature biodiversity. We know that this is important and have heard that from across the room. However the proposals for planning reform shape up, it is absolutely imperative that we put nature and biodiversity at their very heart. I am pleased to see that is happening. Let us not forget that the UK, along with nearly 90 other countries, is committed to reversing biodiversity loss by 2030, through the leaders’ pledge for nature.
We know that globally, let alone in the UK, nature and biodiversity are still declining alarmingly. That is why I wanted to speak in this debate, because giving legal protections to aid nature recovery is vital. Creating wild belts as the mechanism for areas set aside for nature recovery, and providing green corridors for wildlife to move between biodiversity hotspots, is an excellent idea.
Many of us were lucky during lockdown, because we could count on having access to green space, but what about the 11 million people—one in eight—who do not even have a garden? A wild belt designation could easily sit alongside an AONB, a national park or an SSSI. If it gives more access for the public to enjoy protected green spaces that cannot be developed on because they are there for nature to recover, it would give enormous benefits, and not just for nature and biodiversity, but for our wellbeing and health.
The Government are doing enormous work on decarbonisation and setting world-leading targets, but the focus on nature and biodiversity must have equal standing with those targets. We know that the landmark Environment Bill legally binds us to improve air quality, soil quality and water quality, and to leave the planet in a better state than we inherited it, as does the Agriculture Act 2020, which focuses on the environment and promoting biodiversity. It is hugely important, and the Government are doing it. They are weaving it into the very fabric of every piece of legislation coming forward, to enhance and protect nature, and I can see that a wild belt designation would do the same thing. That is why I entirely support it as part of the planning reforms.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Cummins. I particularly welcome the comments made by my hon. Friend Claire Coutinho in her introduction, and the comments made by my hon. Friends the Members for South Cambridgeshire (Anthony Browne) and for Bosworth (Dr Evans) in setting out the impacts on their constituencies, which mirror those in my constituency.
The London suburbs are an area where we serve the needs of a capital city, but they are also a very popular area for people who are looking to access nature. They often enjoy some planning protection as green belt, which for many years—sometimes many centuries—has been vital as the lungs of the city and as part of the agricultural infrastructure that maintains the life of the city. In Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner alone, we have the beautiful Colne valley, Ruislip woods—oaks that formed the roof of Westminster Hall—and Ickenham marshes, all of which are successful examples of where the local authority and local voluntary groups have undertaken rewilding efforts. That has benefited native species such as stag beetles, various kinds of river fish and red kites, which are now quite common across the area, having been on the verge of extinction not so many years ago.
Despite the impact that we see from projects such as HS2, it is clear that the planning process offers a real opportunity to protect and enhance the wildlife in areas that may be green belt but that certainly surround our towns and suburbs. I can give examples of where local authorities serving my constituency have required everything from bat tunnels to newt ponds as part of planning developments, in order to ensure that wildlife enjoys the protection that the local community expects.
However, as we go into the debate about what type of approach we want to take as part of levelling up, we need to be more strategic about supporting, preserving, developing and improving our green spaces and the part that plays in everything from climate emissions to animal welfare in our country. That is where the concept of a wild belt offers a huge advantage, and it is certainly one that I encourage Ministers to take forward. It is ancillary to the benefits that we see from the green belt, but with a specific focus not just on places that look beautiful and are easy to enjoy, but on places that can provide vital parts of our ecosystem for wildlife; places that may often be found at the margins of our towns and cities, but which are so incredibly important for nature. We must ensure that we support the biodiversity of our country for the future. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey for securing the debate, and I hope the Government will give the issue very serious consideration.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Claire Coutinho on securing this important debate. I will be brief and focus my contribution on public transport and the inclusion of waterways in any wild belt.
I have had excellent meetings with Staffordshire Wildlife Trust, which is a force of nature in itself. I know from its briefing that wild belt could happily overlap with other designations, such as national park and SSSI. However, we perhaps need further clarity on what wild belt designation would mean for mothballed and protected transport routes. A wild belt that can be enjoyed by people reconnecting with nature is surely one that needs to be connected to public transport corridors.
My bid, along with colleagues, to reopen the Stoke to Leek line is compelling precisely because of the transformative opportunity it presents to reconnect urban communities with the wider countryside. It will involve clearing quite a lot of vegetation and decades-old trees on the old mothballed line, but the net socioeconomic benefit will be substantial, on top of the environmental benefit of modal shift from road to rail.
I also want to see Etruria station reopened and built back better as an interchange with local buses and, crucially, with the existing blue-green corridor of the Trent-Mersey canal, which is on the national cycle network. I want to go further. My reverse Beeching bid for Etruria includes exploring the rewilding of Fowlea brook as a new blue-green corridor running through Etruria valley. The brook runs through concrete channels and culverts, and it still suffers the effects of centuries of heavy industry, even though it need not and should not.
The Environment Agency is already investing in flood protection in the brook by increasing its capacity in Stoke town, but I want the ambition of rewilding Fowlea brook to match what we are delivering on the River Trent. I said in my maiden speech that we need “more Trent in Stoke-on-Trent” and I am delighted that we are getting on and doing that. The Sunrise project has reintroduced meanders, canopy shade and spawning grounds to the Trent. The BBC’s “Countryfile” was hugely impressed with Trentside walks. Trentside walks will undoubtedly make Stoke-on-Trent an even better place to live, visit and study.
We could have a wild belt walk all along the urban Trent, levelling us up and even exceeding the ambition shown by central London’s Thames path. Causley brook and tributary brooks through Bentilee and Eaton Park could be superb trout-spawning grounds and walking routes, with a few interventions, and the route along Foxley brook through Abbey Hulton could be a much more attractive blue-green walking route if it were rewilded out of concrete and restored to the glory that attracted the abbey’s monks to the confluence of the Foxley and the Trent in the first place. In short, a focus on blue-green routes would mean rewilding for nature, for residents and for the leisure tourism economy. Waterways should be a priority.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Cummins, and well done to my hon. Friend Claire Coutinho for securing this debate.
I have hardly any time, so let me cut to the chase. We have a huge challenge here, which is to stop biodiversity loss by 2030 and, in fact, to reverse it. We talk of nature and natural recovery, but what do we mean by that? Nature for the United Kingdom is truly an overwhelmingly forested land mass, whereas the rural landscape that we have come to know and love is, in fact, entirely man-made and a managed environment. We need a realistic solution. One such solution is a shared approach with improved agricultural practices—that is crucial, because only 6% of our land mass is developed and the rest of it is used for agriculture—plus rewilding of marginal land.
What is the bad boy here? It is farming practices post world war two, when, frankly, we broke the co-existence between nature and food production. That was encouraged by the common agricultural policy, whereby we had subsidies to remove hedges, subsidies to put subsoil drainage in our fields and huge subsidies to bring as much land as possible back into production. That was then followed up by agronomists who had been employed by agribusiness to pitch for the use of agrichemicals on the land in ever-increasing amounts, in the pursuit of yield above all else. The result has been a reduction in long-term rotations, the increasing use of expensive inputs, reduced profitability and therefore reduced margins, both in profit and loss terms and in terms of margins around fields. The result was reduced space for nature. As we have heard, that has led to a 97% reduction in our meadows and an 80% reduction in our chalk grasslands.
What should we do about that? The big answer is that we need to move our agriculture substantially towards regenerative principles and farming, but I do not have time to talk about that now. The second answer is to take marginal land out of production and use it for wildlife restoration.
A wild belt designation, with the consent and support of landowners, will help in the nature fightback. It could build on the concept of conservation covenants, which already exist, but bring that concept into the planning process. It would be a recognition of the new approach to natural recovery, bringing it within the planning system, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey so ably described. Together with ELMS and our new approach to agriculture, that could change mindsets and highlight that nature has a value in its own right.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Cummins. I, too, congratulate Claire Coutinho on securing this debate on a wild belt in the planning system. I commend her contribution, and those of so many others, about the importance of wildlife and the added value that local wildlife trusts and others provide by increasing biodiversity and protecting nature in their constituencies. We have heard so many good speeches.
The importance of our wildlife, and the need to protect and enhance it, is not in doubt. What has been in doubt is the Government’s commitment to bring forward legislation that will be effective in halting and reversing that decline in the UK, and specifically in the planning system, on which so much of the future of our country’s land is dependent. The Government claim to be protecting native and endangered species, but we need to ensure that the rhetoric and the reality match.
I will not reiterate the facts about the level of the crisis of nature depletion in the UK—I thank the Wildlife Trusts for the excellent briefing—but there is no doubt that the UK is one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world. We failed to meet 17 of 20 UN biodiversity targets, while funding for UK wildlife and environment has been slashed by 30% in two years. We need a serious plan for delivery of the recovery of nature but, unfortunately, we have a Prime Minister who has dismissed those trying to protect our natural environment as “newt counters”. Funding has dropped, particularly to Natural England, where staffing has halved since 2010.
The planning system needs to be at the centre of the challenge. It can and should be shaping a path towards net zero emissions and our work to improve biodiversity and our natural environment across the country. I will not rehearse the concerns expressed by many Members in last night’s debate about proposals to amend the planning system, but there is no doubt that those working in the field say that the existing protections are inadequate to protect wildlife and wildlife sites.
Ministers at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs have said in the main Chamber that with the Environment Bill, they want to protect the environment and include new species abundance targets. However, the amendments that we have now seen commit only to
“further the objective of halting a decline in the abundance of species.”
In those amendments, there is no commitment to reversing the decline in nature. That is left to the planning system to achieve, and the proposed planning Bill will be crucial.
I will close my remarks with some questions for the planning Minister. Will the forthcoming planning legislation do what the Environment Bill clearly does not? The Government have said that they want to ensure that street trees are planted in every new development. That is a clear and measurable target, and it is to be welcomed. Will they do the same for other natural environment targets? If the Government have given consideration to introducing the status of a wild belt, how will we know that that is binding and a reality, not yet more rhetoric?
How exactly will the Government strengthen planning powers? How will developers be held to conditions once they have gone and future landowners manage the land? The Government intend local plans to be the primary tool for shaping and delivering future development. That will require huge resources and specialist expertise from both councils and non-governmental organisations, particularly if wild belts are to be a factor in all local plans; that is the only time the public will get a say in planning decisions in growth areas, which will cover a fair bit of the country. As it appears as though the public will be excluded from decisions around planning applications in growth areas, how will local wildlife trusts and other community organisations input their concerns and expertise into the decision making on specific planning applications? I leave those questions with the Minister, who may reply now or in writing.
I gently remind the Minister that he may wish to leave a couple of minutes for the Member in charge to respond.
Thank you, Mrs Cummins. It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I will certainly leave as much time as I am able to my hon. Friend Claire Coutinho. I congratulate her on bringing forward this debate and on assembling such a passionate, wild bunch in favour of her wild belt designation proposals.
I will say a few words about our planning proposals before I turn to my hon. Friend’s proposals. We have said that building back better from this pandemic means ensuring not only that new developments are greener and better for the environment, but that they support healthy, happy and flourishing communities and habitats. I want to be absolutely clear that one of the key purposes of our planning reforms is to leave a legacy of environmental improvement.
Our new planning system will improve both the quality and the standards of development. It will secure better outcomes, including for our countryside and the environment, alongside increasing the supply of land for new, beautiful homes and sustainable places—not least by getting local plans in place; as my hon. Friend Dr Evans rightly noted, that is a significant contributor to preventing speculative development and building in the wrong places, rather than the right ones.
To deliver on our ambitions, we have announced a number of proposals for driving forward environmental benefits, through both the Environment Bill and our proposed reforms to the planning system. The Environment Bill, which has already come before the House, mandates, for the first time, a 10% net gain for biodiversity as a condition of most new developments. We are now proposing to extend that to the nationally significant infrastructure regime.
Recognising the relationship between the environment and development, we want to broaden the use of measurable environmental net gains beyond biodiversity to include wider natural capital benefits, such as flood protection, recreation and improved water and air quality, as my hon. Friend Duncan Baker suggested. Alongside existing regulations that protect our most threatened or valuable habitats and species, that will allow us to establish a strategic, flexible and locally tailored approach that focuses, above all, on positive outcomes. We want to capitalise on the potential of local nature recovery strategies, including opportunities for new habitat creation, as we seek to make the system clearer and more responsive.
To complement this, we are examining the current frameworks for environmental assessment. They are often complex and lengthy, and we believe they lead to unnecessary delays, hindering opportunities to protect the environment and open up appropriate development. Our intention is to bring forward a quicker, simpler framework that encourages opportunities for environmental enhancements to be identified and pursued early in the development process. We will embed this approach through further updates to national planning policy, ensuring that environmental considerations feature fully in planning decisions, including their role in mitigating and adapting to climate change.
As several hon. Members have suggested, our reforms also encourage the sector to think more creatively about biodiversity and about how bee bricks, green roofs and community orchards can improve the quality of our air and the quality of our lives. We are taking action through the national planning policy framework to set the expectation that all new streets will be tree-lined, aspiring to the beauty of green infrastructure such as we see in the cherry blossom trees that line the streets of Bonn in Germany.
Protecting and enhancing the green belt is very much part and parcel of this. I said that yesterday in the debate on planning brought forward by the Opposition, and I say it today specifically to my right hon. Friend Caroline Nokes, who is keen on the green belt—she said as much in her speech. I trust that she will encourage her local council to be equally keen on the green belt. I can certainly assure her, as I assure the shadow Minister, that it is our intention to undertake a wholesale reform of local authority resourcing, including looking at the fee structure to ensure that local authorities have the wherewithal do the job we ask of them.
If she will be very brief, I will give way to my right hon. Friend.
We have no green belts in Hampshire, and it would be lovely to have some. Would my right hon. Friend the Minister consider it?
In consultation with local authorities, I am happy to have that discussion with my right hon. Friend.
Before I turn to the issue of wild belt designation, our White Paper proposes a new approach to the categorisation of land, reflecting its potential for growth, for renewal and for protection. We are now considering responses to our consultation carefully, so I hope that hon. Members will understand that I cannot say overmuch about the proposals while they are still being digested. I can say, however, that I am open to some of the proposals that my right hon. Friend has suggested, but with this word of caution. It is not only roots and vines that creep; the scope of Government Departments and their arm’s length bodies also creeps. We must be very careful that by giving statutory powers to such bodies, we do not allow them to make use of land—or rather, designate against development of land—that could be good brownfield sites, such as land close to railway lines. That simply places the weight of expectation of development on other places, such as greenfield sites. We need to be careful about what we wish for.
What we want to do is to build on more brownfield sites to protect the sort of land that my right hon. Friend Sir Roger Gale talked about. That is why we have increased the local housing network calculation for the 20 largest cities in our country; that is why we increased brownfield regeneration funding by £500 million; that is why we have introduced an urban taskforce; and that is why we have introduced PDRs, to allow better and easier gentle densification of urban and town centre landscapes.
We are determined to support our environment through our planning reforms, we are determined to build on brownfield first and we are determined to take forward the views and aspirations of all in this Chamber who want wildlife to be placed first and foremost at the heart of our planning reforms. I appreciate that the fickle finger of time is ticking down the clock, so I am very happy now for my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey to retake her rightful place and close the debate.
I thank the hon. Members who contributed today; looking around this room, I see such a wealth of experience in environmental matters, and it has been a privilege to hear from everyone. I am grateful to hear so much enthusiastic support for this proposal, and I am grateful to the Minister for a gracious and detailed response. Most importantly, I welcome his wise recognition of the level of support that he has heard in this room.
We have heard passionate speeches today about the tragedy of species decline and the importance of access to green space, but I think the most important word has been “strategy”, which was mentioned by my right hon. Friend Caroline Nokes and so many others. It is always a good day when I hear my hon. Friend Katherine Fletcher talk about trophic pyramids. Finally, I thank the Wildlife Trusts; those are the words we have heard the most today, and for very good reason. I am very glad to put this proposal forward.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered a proposal for Wildbelt designation in planning system reforms.