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Biodiversity

Volume 447: debated on Wednesday 14 June 2006

I am sure that you, Mr. Williams, are well aware of the fact that this is Wales biodiversity week. Interest in and support for biodiversity is manifest in the increasing number of people who are becoming members of wildlife organisations such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Butterfly Conservation, local wildlife trusts, recording groups for bats, badgers, fungi, insects, plants, invertebrates and arachnids, and the National Trust.

People want to get involved and do what they can to help biodiversity. They join wildlife groups, watch wildlife programmes on television, read the myriad press articles, and attend events in large numbers, even in the inner cities, including events like the excellent sustainability week in London. Why? They do it because biodiversity impacts on our whole life. It provides the support systems that sustain human existence, from our health to the fertility of our crops. The many species of plants, insects and animals that live in a diverse range of habitats gives us that sense of the place where we live, and can act as an incentive to visit other places.

The world is losing biodiversity at an ever-increasing rate as the result of human activity. In the United Kingdom, 71 moths are recognised to be endangered or vulnerable, mirroring parallel declines in common bird species such as the ptarmigan, the skylark, the grey partridge and, in some areas, even the common sparrow. Summers are not the same without our butterflies; the high brown and marsh fritillaries and the wood white and white-letter butterflies are all in decline. When farmers need to import bees to pollinate their crops, we know that we have a serious problem. Sadly, the list of decreasing species in the Joint Nature Conservation Committee barometer is at about 45 per cent., with insufficient data on a further 15 or 20 per cent. of species.

In preparing for the debate, I communicated with a number of organisations and they raised the same concerns. There is tremendous recognition of the Government’s commitment to biodiversity, through the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006, the Commons Bill and the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act 2005. However, it was felt that we urgently need statutory reporting responsibilities to be built into legislation to take forward the Government’s commitment and to record progress.

There is a need for increased species and habitat prioritisation, data collection and research, so that policy making can be evidence-based. Finally, dare I say it, we need increased financial resources for UK BAP—biodiversity action planning. Clear commitments have already been given, and I stress that biodiversity and wildlife groups recognise how much the Government have done.

The Government, with European Environment Ministers, set a target in a Commission communication entitled “Halting the loss of biodiversity by 2010—and beyond”, yet in Wales, where the natural environment runs deep within the soul, the Welsh environment strategy has a different target. By 2015, 95 per cent. of Welsh sites of special scientific interest are to be in a favourable condition, and by 2026 all sites of international, Welsh and local importance are to be in a favourable condition.

Although I recognise that setting such targets is a devolved matter, wildlife groups are concerned that the disparate nature of those lower targets will have a major impact on the UK’s ability to meet its target. The environment does not recognise man-made borders, and Offa’s dyke will not hold back the tide of biodiversity loss.

RSPB members have called for increased funding for management agreements and the species monitoring of agri-environment schemes in Wales. However, with the Countryside Council for Wales losing more than 30 staff in the past year, meeting common targets has become almost impossible. If we in Wales are to play our part in meeting the UK target, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs must help by ensuring that additional funding and support is available.

Section 40 of the 2006 Act replaces section 74 of the 2000 Act, so that from October 2006 Departments must allocate a Minister with a duty to conserve biological diversity and to monitor how public bodies working with the Department are conserving biodiversity. To see how this was working, I asked questions of all Departments on the allocation of ministerial responsibility, which revealed that although most Departments had assigned Ministers, they were awaiting guidance from DEFRA—guidance that will also be followed by local authorities—on how they should undertake their monitoring role. I give credit to the Department for International Development. It sent the most comprehensive reply and demonstrated a clear commitment to the task, which stood out against the replies of other Departments

The need for a statutory responsibility to report progress in meeting biodiversity duties was raised by all the wildlife organisations to which I spoke. I am aware that DEFRA commissioned Entec to look at the subject some time ago, and there is universal hope that that will lead to targets being set as part of the comprehensive performance assessment and to best value performance indicators, with biodiversity integrated into performance assessment systems, especially in local government. Yet again, it will fall to DEFRA to urge the Audit Commission and the Department for Communities and Local Government to take that forward.

Indeed, local, regional and national Government could follow the excellent example of Hampshire county council, which has a corporate biodiversity management plan in place for all its directorates—they must all demonstrate how they will meet biodiversity targets. It would be good, would it not, if Departments, and local and regional government, had such plans in place by the 2010 deadline?

Targets need to be integrated for the purposes of recording, monitoring, mapping and tracking habitat, species loss and the growth of invasive species at local, regional and national levels. I urge that butterflies are recognised as indicators of both a healthy environment and the effectiveness of the Government’s land use policies.

I am glad to see that the Minister agrees.

Funds must be available to continue with moth recording and monitoring. I have arranged a moth recording night in the Palace, with moth recording equipment being installed on the roof of the House, and I hope to integrate that with a bat recording evening, so that we can show that there is wildlife even in this most sterile of places.

The statistic that 50 billion moths are required to feed the blue tit population of the UK is staggering, but it is frightening to know how many birds are estimated to have died this spring because their food supply was not available. We need Natural England to commit to species-based project work at its launch in October, so that recovery work on species such as stone-curlew, bittern and black grouse can continue.

How are we to do that? The UK BAP is key to the way in which the Government work in England and Wales, through its agencies and non-governmental organisations and the voluntary sector. I am aware that the 2005 UK biodiversity action plan reporting round will be announced on 20 June by DEFRA. It is hoped that the new Natural England body will place greater emphasis on the UK BAP in its strategic direction document, following the DEFRA announcement. Strategic partnerships to implement the BAP targets with NGOs have proved critical in the past, but it is unclear if that will continue with Natural England, and I would welcome clarification. There is concern that the UK BAP has lost its momentum and that commitment has dwindled. I received an e-mail from a biodiversity co-ordinator who described the situation in her region thus:

“We have a lack of knowledge of BAP habitat and species distribution. Our Phase 1 habitat data is now 10 years old and was not completed in the first place. There is no finance available for commissioning up to date survey work. This makes it difficult to set local targets and to evaluate the importance of sites and parcels of land in the local and national context. Our SING site network falls into this same category. I think it would be fair to say that the only ones that have been thoroughly surveyed are the ones that are about to be developed.”

She ended with the words:

“God, I feel quite miserable now!”

We need to acknowledge that securing the capacity to move towards the 2010 halting of biodiversity loss is becoming harder. Setting up local nature reserves is becoming a problem for NGOs and local authorities, and no finance is available for their management. Short-term, project-style funding prevents the setting of local priorities and reduces the capacity for long-term planning, and voluntary organisations are unsure about whether they can continue to research, keep staff and match fund grant aid for projects. The RSPB tells me that it estimates that the additional extra expenditure required to meet the UK BAP targets is £338 million a year. Where is that money to come from?

I am sure that the Minister will be pleased that there is positive news amid the gloom. The Government have recognised the critical role played by volunteers in the life of the UK. The role of NGOs and their volunteers in promoting Government policy and halting biodiversity loss must also be recognised. Butterfly Conservation, wildlife trusts, the RSPB and local wildlife groups rely heavily on volunteers for their monitoring work. Butterfly Conservation’s volunteer audit showed that their volunteers alone contributed 77,000 person days a year, equivalent to more than £5 million, even at a basic rate of £60 a day. Add to that the huge army of volunteers working with the wildlife groups, and volunteers’ value to biodiversity becomes incalculable.

EU structural funds could be set up to fund the creation of jobs to promote and enhance biodiversity, and funding for any development likely significantly to damage biodiversity could be refused. Planning application forms could include a requirement to report on the impact on biodiversity of a proposed development, and a percentage of the planning delivery grant in England could be specifically targeted for biodiversity. I recognise that some of the issues are outside the Minister’s responsibility and that of his Department, but I am sure that it will be for DEFRA to promote such things in other Departments.

We must harness the new interest shown by industry in environmental matters. This week I was especially pleased to receive an invitation from the CBI to a meeting that aims to bring together business people and parliamentarians with an interest in the opportunities and challenges posed to businesses by action to protect and improve the environment. The Government placed the environment high on their agenda back in the mists of 1997, when some other political parties could not even spell “biodiversity”. They introduced significant legislation to increase environmental protection and biodiversity. To keep up that momentum, we need statutory duties to report on progress. We need a renewed commitment to the UK BAP agenda from all agencies, including Natural England. We need funds to ensure that policy decisions are based on empirical evidence gleaned from monitoring and research, and, of course, the finances to do it all. The legacy of the Government should not be the national threat of the spread of Japanese knotweed or the 21,000 per cent. increase of the Blair’s shoulder-knot moth as a result of the growth of suburban cypress trees. In the words of the RSPB,

“We must stop the rot, protect the best and restore the rest.”

Minister, I am afraid that responsibility lies heavily on your shoulders.

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 the Member for Bridgend (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.