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Volume 530: debated on Thursday 30 June 2011

4. What recent discussions she has had on the delivery of her Department’s biodiversity strategy. (62877)

My Department has regular discussions with interested parties on the delivery of our biodiversity strategy. The Government’s vision for the natural environment, including biodiversity, is set out in the natural environment White Paper, the first in 20 years. The UK also endorsed the EU biodiversity strategy last week. We will shortly publish a new biodiversity strategy for England, which will build on this.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s commitment to biodiversity, particularly the idea of biodiversity offsetting set out in the White Paper, but will she confirm that the rules on offsetting that she will put in place will keep it local, so that any development affecting biodiversity in Tamworth must be offset in Tamworth, not in some other part of the country?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We have given an undertaking in the natural environment White Paper that biodiversity offsetting should be in the local area, because local communities need to feel the benefit if they are to take the development. At present it is section 106 agreements that should deliver on biodiversity offsetting, but what happens is often so far removed from the community that the connection is not made.

What plans does the Secretary of State have to include green belt land in the biodiversity strategy, to ensure that it is protected for generations to come?

My hon. Friend is speaking to a Member of Parliament whose constituency is entirely in the green belt, so I can give him a strong assurance about the protection of the green belt. The Department for Communities and Local Government has given an undertaking on that, which will be repeated in the national planning policy framework. DEFRA’s strategy of course includes the protection of the green belt, but even within the green belt, communities will have the opportunity to designate green areas to provide extra protection and enhance biodiversity.

The wildlife crime unit plays an important part in protecting endangered species and preventing the trade in endangered species. How will the Secretary of State ensure that that continues, given that its budget is guaranteed for only two years?

We have said this on a previous occasion, but it is worth repeating because it is important. We have secured the funding for the wildlife crime unit. It is an important part of combating the threat to endangered species from those who seek to do them damage.

Has the Secretary of State seen the concerns of the Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management, based on a survey of businesses, that although the aims of the biodiversity strategy are laudable, there may be a skills shortage so that we cannot reach the required level by 2020? What steps will she take to assess the skills required and build the skills base to achieve the objectives?

I am happy to share with the House the fact that I co-chair the green economy council, where businesses from all sectors of the economy come together on a regular basis to discuss with us how to green the economy. As part of that, we have a focus on improving green skills, precisely to ensure that we have people with the experience and training to deliver on our important commitments to protect and enhance biodiversity while growing the economy.

In the natural environment White Paper, we announced that we will establish a voluntary approach to biodiversity offsetting and test it in a number of pilot areas. We want local authorities to express an interest in taking part in the pilot, and to hear from developers, conservation and community groups and others who want to test offsetting.

In an earlier reply the Secretary of State referred to section 106 agreements. In Bristol there has been a scandalous failure to enforce section 106 agreements, and hundreds of thousands of pounds have not been spent on the projects they should have been spent on. When the Minister evaluates the pilots, will he ensure that new biodiversity schemes are actually realised?

I can give the hon. Lady that assurance. That is one of the attractions of this scheme, and is why it works well in other areas. We want to dovetail it into our planning system because it offers clarity. She is right to point out that section 106 negotiations can sometimes be a bit of a horse-trading operation and can result, in certain circumstances, in token biodiversity protection activities. This scheme offers a clear, understandable, auditable, accountable system. We are delighted by the response from a number of local authorities through the consultation process. More are now coming forward since the natural environment White Paper was published, as are developers. I hope that in the coming months we will be able to give her the assurance that she needs.

There is, of course, an excellent pilot project that will bring enormous biodiversity benefits to Pickering, in the form of the slow-the-flow flood defence scheme. Will the Minister assure me that the guidance regulations under the Reservoirs Act 1975, which are preventing that project from going ahead, will be swept away?

I have just won my bet that my hon. Friend would raise that issue, and she is entirely right to do so. I share her concerns about the application of the Reservoirs Act and its implications for Pickering. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has visited the site. We want to do all we can to ensure that the scheme goes ahead, because we think that it is a good example of how biodiversity, slowing up water, and flood protection can fit together in many areas. We want her constituents to know that the Government will look into any means possible to ensure that such schemes go ahead.