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World Health: 25-Year Environment Plan

Volume 658: debated on Tuesday 9 April 2019

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the effect of the 25-year environment plan on world health.

I am grateful for the opportunity to lead this debate. It is only right that following World Health Day on Sunday we put time aside for an issue that I believe presents significant challenges and opportunities for Great Britain. The Prime Minister, who arguably is in a stressful job, takes time to go on walking holidays. A walking holiday I particularly remember was in 2017 but, if we put that to one side, what an endorsement that is of our countryside, and what a reminder it is for us to ensure that everyone has access to the natural environment.

I am greatly privileged as a west Cornwall MP. Some show pity that I have to travel such a distance to Westminster, but they forget that I go home to one of the most beautiful natural environments in the UK, which lays claim to areas of outstanding natural beauty, sites of special scientific interest, marine conservation zones, national nature reserves and special protection areas, to name just a few. My constituency attracts tens of thousands of visitors who flock to appreciate and soak up the good that comes with that largely unspoilt natural environment.

I notice that the Government are planning a nature recovery network. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that should include in law the protection of nesting sites of returning migratory birds such as swallows, swifts and martins, rather than the current law as it stands, which is just about bird nests with live birds in them?

I welcome that intervention and I am grateful for it. I shall come on to that point later on, particularly because I am the species champion for the Manx shearwater, a bird that is recovering faster than any other species and is rare to the UK, nesting only on Lundy island and the Isles of Scilly. I will talk about that very point in a minute.

I invite the Minister to come on holiday to west Cornwall —she would be welcome—and to really get the benefit of the natural environment by going on our open-top buses. At speed, people get an awful lot of fresh air, but they also come close to the vegetation that is all around—sometimes too close. It is a great way to see west Cornwall’s natural environment in all its beauty, so I ask hon. Members to come and make use of our open-topped buses, which are also better for the environment in that they take cars off the road.

I understand why people come to west Cornwall to enjoy our natural environment. I can give testament to the fact that after recent weeks, and after last week in particular, time in nature can bring clarity of thought, perspective and resolve.

The hon. Gentleman is making a very good point. Does he agree that the value to our mental health of the environment and of time spent in it is clearly proven? In my constituency, Growing Well at Sizergh does a wonderful job, saving the NHS thousands of pounds a year by keeping people well. Does he regret, as I do, that there is no social prescribing in Cumbria to allow local people such as those at Growing Well to support more people and keep them well?

Again, I welcome that intervention. Social prescribing has proved to be a fantastic way of treating people that hopefully moves them away from medicine and drugs. In my constituency, we have a proud record of social prescribing, particularly at the Stennack surgery in St Ives, which has been doing that for some time, based primarily on the national environment and woodland, with people benefiting not only from company, but from the environment we live in.

I know the hon. Gentleman is a keen walker, like me, but does he also watch television? Did he see “Countryfile” on Sunday, which celebrated the birth of the national parks? The only thing I resented about that programme this week was that it never mentioned Clement Attlee or the Labour Government, the people who campaigned so strongly for national parks. Does he agree that there is an interesting balance between access to nature and protecting the very nature that people go to see?

Yes, and I will address both that and the earlier point about social prescribing later. We have an amazing national park on the Lizard, which we are hoping to extend, and there are things there that predate modern crops. We have the potential to gain access to very early cropping, which we could use again if something happened and we ever needed to return to it. National parks are hugely important for science, research and our wellbeing.

The role of nature goes much further than just somewhere to go for a walking holiday when we are considering the future of the country. Evidence suggests that living in greener environments is associated with reduced mortality. There is strong and consistent evidence of mental health and wellbeing benefits, as has already been said, arising from exposure to national environments. Those benefits include reductions in stress, fatigue, anxiety and depression. Exposure to natural environments has been linked with improvements in heart rate, blood pressure, vitamin D levels, recuperation rates and cortisol levels. Green space may also help to reduce the prevalence of type 2 diabetes.

Respected and influential bodies have made bold claims in support of the benefits of the national environment for our health. For example, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, in its own environment plan, claims:

“Spending time in the natural environment…improves our mental health and feelings of wellbeing. It can reduce stress, fatigue, anxiety and depression.”

I think we could all do with going out in the countryside more. It continues:

“It can help boost immune systems, encourage physical activity and may reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as asthma. It can combat loneliness and bind communities together.”

That is something we really must prescribe at the moment.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. He has outlined the benefits of the countryside, but does he also recognise that the foundation for any 25-year environment plan must be sustainability in the countryside? Does he agree that countryside management through country sports, for example, as promoted by notable projects such as Green Shoots, links members to local biodiversity plans and wildlife management that the countryside cannot survive without? Landowners and those who have a love of the countryside make it available for everyone else.

Two things come to mind. First, the environmental plan talks about protecting and enhancing the natural environment. Secondly, in our part of the world, we are seeing the roll-out of the coast path as we speak, which gives far greater access to people to get around the coast and enjoy all that is around us.

To continue with the theme of people supporting this agenda, the Office for National Statistics produced a 2017 report: “The UK environment—fighting pollution, improving our health and saving us money.” It set out the role that the environment plays in tackling air pollution and improving health. The ONS website states:

“Overall, an estimated 1.3 billion kg of air pollutants were removed by woodlands, plants, grasslands and other UK vegetation in 2015”,

saving about

“£1 billion in avoided health damage costs.”

The study by UK Natural Capital states:

“Trees in particular provide a wide range of services and account for most of the volume of air pollutants absorbed by natural vegetation in the UK”.

My hon. Friend is making a powerful case and I thank him for securing the debate. I have tried to get one for ages, so many congratulations to him. On trees helping with pollution, soil is brilliant at combating climate change because it can hold so much carbon. Although we are talking about how soil management should be better, soil health is not listed as a headline indicator in the 25-year environment plan. Does my hon. Friend agree that we should try to get it in there as an indicator because the payback to society would be considerable, given that we pay £1.2 billion a year to combat soil erosion?

The Minister is best placed to respond to how we get that into the plan, but my hon. Friend is right. I have been to see scientists in my constituency who work to improve the soil not only to produce food but to protect our environment and improve and enhance natural habits. She is absolutely right to raise that point.

Public Health England states:

“There is a very significant and strong body of evidence linking contact and exposure to the natural environment with improved health and wellbeing.”

I will continue with these influential bodies. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence encourages local authorities to put pedestrians and cyclists first when designing roads, ensuring our local areas have safe and well-maintained open spaces and that everyone can get around the local area easily.

If the benefits to our physical and mental health are not enough to convince the Treasury of the importance of investing in our natural environment, the Natural Capital committee estimated in its 2015 annual report that well-targeted investment could generate large economic returns: for every £1 invested, the return was between £3 and £9. It stated that

“carefully planned investments in natural capital...will deliver significant value for money”

and generate large economic returns. It is vital that we get the Treasury on board in this debate, as well as the many other debates that happen in this place.

My hon. Friend is making important points about natural capital and health, and I agree with all that he has said so far. However, does he agree that the real elephant in the room is the issue of climate change and its impact on human health not only in this country, but globally? Would he like to see the Government go further and faster in planning for the long-term goals on carbon reduction targets? Although we are currently meeting our carbon budget for this period, we will not meet it for the fourth and fifth carbon budget.

I am concerned now, because people have clearly read my speech. I was about to move on to that subject. I have the great honour of being a Cornish MP, as Members might have noticed. The Duchy of Cornwall was first to proclaim a climate change emergency. On Friday, my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) and I worked with the council on its plans to be carbon-free by 2030.

It is right that we need to up our game. It is about caring for our environment, but it is also about spreading wealth around the country, improving the quality of our homes, improving attainment for young people, using whatever renewable means of energy we can and providing a healthier, happier environment for all of us who live on this great planet. We can be a global leader, because we have real influence to help support other countries to take this issue seriously.

The hon. Gentleman is being generous in giving way. The 25-year plan is tremendous and wonderful, and I think everyone in the Chamber would applaud it, but as yet it has no teeth and no sense of urgency about climate change, the degradation of the environment or how we get young people to visit the natural world and fall in love with it. If they do not love it, they will not protect it. Does the hon. Gentleman agree?

That is right. We had a beautiful day this week—I think it was Sunday—when I banned my children from going in the house, but I still found my 12-year-old sneaking in to play with Lego. I spent the whole day battling with him—that probably ruined it for him completely; he will never go in to the environment again.

To respond to the point made by the hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston), young people are making clear their concern regarding the health of our planet. In 2009—long before I got involved in this place—I was glad to lead an activity with young people to plant hundreds of trees in west Cornwall. Those trees now stand taller than those who planted them. I am glad that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has committed to the planting of 1 million trees and that schools can access trees to plant under a Government-funded scheme. I am also glad that DEFRA’s website supports the benefit of tree planting to combat air pollution and that, responding to my question two weeks ago on plans to plant trees in west Cornwall, the Minister showed that she sees the value of community tree planting schemes.

I thank my hon. Friend for bringing this debate to Westminster Hall. Trees are not only good for capturing carbon and converting it to oxygen and generally good for the landscape; by planting them on banks, and using them as flood mitigation systems, they can do good for air quality and reduce the chances of flooding in the future.

That is all part of the agenda on climate change and caring for our environment, so that we can all enjoy it. I am glad that schoolchildren who care about our planet can take action by planting trees and clearing our beaches and seas of the plastics that threaten to suffocate the health of our oceans.

On tree planting, just this week in my borough Persimmon Homes has cut down 260 trees, outside planning permission. How does the hon. Gentleman see the balance between the future built environment and the 25-year plan?

I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. I will come to that, because the environment plan commits to environmental net gain measures in planning. That is why, as was mentioned earlier, it needs some teeth. We need to see the environment Bill, which I will ask the Minister to comment on later.

I am an enthusiastic advocate of the challenge from DEFRA to make 2019 a year of action for the environment, working with Step Up To Serve and other partners to help children and young people from all backgrounds to engage with nature and improve the environment. The hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) is right that if we are tearing down perfectly healthy trees to build the houses and buildings that we need, that is not the example our children need to see. The Woodland Trust can provide up to 400 trees for schools to plant, and many of my schools have done so. It has 40,000 trees left—and I am hoping to get half of them, so hon. Members will need to get in there quick.

That recognition of the biodiversity net gain principle is incredibly important. Will the hon. Gentleman join me in condemning what seems to be becoming a pattern of developers netting off hedges? The most recent case was at the Bacton cliffs, where there was terrible footage of a sand martin that had flown back from its winter migration and was trying to return to its nest, but was being prevented by netting. It is an attempt to flout the rules that say, basically, that developers cannot interfere with hedgerows once the nesting season has started. Is it not absolutely appalling that that is going on?

I completely accept that. We must find stronger methods to manage that practice, and I wrote to the Secretary of State in the last two weeks or so to ask him how we can toughen up on it. The hon. Lady is absolutely right to raise it, and I am glad that she has had the opportunity to do so.

I mentioned how important west Cornwall and Scilly is. It boasts some of the most important and precious parts of natural England. For example, due to careful management we are seeing the recovery, as I said earlier, of the Manx shearwater, a rare seabird, and the storm petrel on Scilly. That seabird recovery project has brought members of the community together to rid some of the islands on Scilly of litter and rats, which has led to the survival and remarkable recovery of these rare seabirds. There is a need to continue that work and to expand it to other islands on Scilly—as I said, there are just two places across the UK where the birds nest—and I would welcome a commitment from Government to fund this valuable and successful initiative.

The debate title contains the words “world health”, so we are not talking just about the United Kingdom. Would my hon. Friend therefore welcome the financial investment that the Government have made in the island of South Georgia to do precisely what he was just talking about? Thanks to the RSPB, we have annihilated the mice that were destroying the birdlife. The birdlife on that extraordinary ecosystem is now returning to the vibrancy that existed before the whalers arrived more than a century ago.

That is a really valuable point. As my right hon. Friend described, and as I described in relation to Scilly, managing the rat and mice population to protect ground-nesting birds is essential. We must look at how we can develop new schemes, particularly as we leave the EU, to ensure that we fund such work properly.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) I have been applying for this debate since July of last year. I stumbled on World Health Day, and I thought if I included those words in the title I might get the debate. That is a tip for the future. As I said to the hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston), there is an opportunity for global Britain; that was my reference to the world.

We are also seeing the recovery of the Cornish chough in west Cornwall—another reason to visit. When we protect and enhance those natural habitats, the benefits are widespread. Wildlife, the natural vegetation and humankind all win when we get this right. I thank the RSPB, which has already been mentioned, in particular for the time that its representatives have taken to show me around some of the remarkable work that is being done to support natural habitats. I call for Government support so that that work can thrive.

As has already been said, the Government should be commended for the 25-year environment plan, which sets out the approach to protecting and enhancing our natural landscapes and habitats, leaving our environment in a better state than we found it. As we know, the plan sets out goals to create greener, cleaner air and water, goals to support plants and animals to thrive, and goals to provide a cleaner, greener country. That is the right course of action. Everyone deserves to live in a healthy, wildlife-rich natural world.

The truth is that, unlike the Prime Minister and me, many have little access to clean and green countryside. The lack of access to nature is a significant factor in health inequalities. Those living in the most deprived areas are 10 times less likely to live in the greenest areas, according to the Wildlife Trusts. Increasing access to wildlife-rich natural surroundings can help to stop the rise of preventable, life-limiting and costly illnesses, and reduce avoidable health inequalities.

Despite all the benefits of the natural environment that I have set out, public engagement with nature is low. Nearly 40% of the English public do not visit nature even once a month, with 13% of children reported as not spending any leisure time outside. I call on the Government to act quickly, and implement the nature and wellbeing policies promised in chapter 3 of the 25-year plan.

Those policies include progressing the natural environment for health and wellbeing programme, and delivering environmental measures through planning—for example, by making environmental net gain mandatory. For the Duchy of Cornwall, which has committed to becoming carbon-free by 2030, these tools are essential if we are to achieve our carbon-free ambition. Local authorities must be supported by Government and given the right resources for the right ecological expertise to ensure the greening of our towns and cities—or, in our case in Cornwall, a single city.

I am asking Government to provide an update on the progress of the commitment to incorporate nature-based, health-interfaced interventions in the NHS and the three-year natural environment for health and wellbeing programme, all of which feature in the environmental plan. GPs in my constituency have led the way in the innovation of social prescribing, as we discussed just a moment ago. It is important for the Government to clarify the timeline of the natural environment for health and wellbeing programme, so that the good work being done is adequately funded and replicated.

For the ambition of the 25-year environment plan to be realised, it is essential that the Government introduce an environment Bill that contains a legal obligation on this and future Governments to take action for nature’s recovery. As has already been mentioned, we need a nature recovery network to bring nature into every neighbourhood, and to ensure that everyone—whatever their background—has access to wildlife-rich natural green spaces every day. All this should be underpinned by statutory targets and a robust, independent watchdog that will uphold the law and stand up for the environment. I would be glad if the Minister can set out when she hopes to bring forward the environment Bill.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker, on a subject that I know is close to your heart as a friend of the fishing community and the chalk streams, and to hear such an eloquent exposition of the problems facing our country from the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas). Our paths have not crossed very much since he was elected to the House. I am sure I join other members of my Committee—my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) and the hon. Member for Falkirk (John Mc Nally)—in inviting him to join us on the Environmental Audit Committee, for which we currently have at least one vacancy for Conservative Members. His expertise and eloquence would be very welcome, and this is a subject that we are currently exploring in our inquiry on planetary health, which is based on the

“understanding that human health and human civilisation depend on flourishing natural systems and the wise stewardship”

of the natural world.

I want to signal to the hon. Gentleman that we are about to start an investigation on toxic chemicals—the various pollutants that are around us and are affecting our hormone systems and lungs—straight after the recess. We are also about to start an inquiry on invasive species—back to the mice and rats on South Georgia—so we will have some very interesting discussions to come. Perhaps we will end up going fishing for some invasive crayfish and having a crayfish boil.

I want to say a couple of things to emphasise how grave the position of our planet’s health is, highlight the link between the health of the planet and that of humans, and explain why it is so important to act now and how the 25-year plan goes some way, but still needs further work to deliver the roadmap that we need. Everything we do to the Earth, we do to ourselves. We saw that with microplastics, as we discovered that these tiny plastic particles are being pumped into our cosmetics, shower gels and shaving gels and then flushed down the drains. They now appear in every lake and river in the UK. Indeed, I believe that the River Tame in Greater Manchester is the most polluted by microbeads—again, the science is emerging in this new area of pollution.

Humanity’s footprint is now so great that we are in new ecological epoch called the Anthropocene. It has been defined by scientists as

“the mass extinctions of plant and animal species, the pollution of the oceans”,

and a radically altered atmosphere because there is so much carbon.

On microplastics, has my hon. Friend had any thoughts about how they got into the food chain, in particular through fish? There is a plan for fishing and its sustainability, but how can we know the health of the fish that we consume?

One of the shocking things that we discovered in our microbeads inquiry was that if someone eats a plate of oysters or mussels, they consume 30 microplastic particles. It is particularly into those bottom feeders—that seafood—that this material goes. There is evidence, I think, that it can pass through the fish gut, so as long as the fish is cleaned, people will be okay, but we know that it is accumulating in the guts of seabirds, and we do not want our marine life to be choked, entangled and starved to death, whether that is by large plastics or smaller plastics, so I welcome anything that is done on this. We do not know whether the plastic particles act as vectors for chemicals such that the pollution that exists in the sea, that persists in the environment, attaches to these plastics and then potentially is delivered into our bodies. These are big emerging areas of science, and I am grateful to the chief medical officer for commissioning research on the matter.

We know that insects are the canary in the coalmine. That is a slightly mixed metaphor, but there is the issue of insects and insect loss. They make up two thirds of all life on Earth, but they are almost invisible and are being lost at alarming rates. Forty per cent. of species will be at risk by the end of the decade, and there is a 2.5% decline in insect biomass each year.

As the hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) said, this has to do with climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change special report entitled “Global Warming of 1.5°C”, published last October, warned that we have just 12 years to avoid catastrophic climate change. It warned that the rate of biodiversity loss will be twice as severe in a 2° warmed world as it will be in a 1.5° world. The difference that that makes is that in a 1.5° world, 90% of the coral reefs will be lost, so our children will be able to see the remaining 10% of coral reefs, whereas in a 2° warmed world, our children will never see a coral reef. That includes the cold-water coral reefs on the southern border of the UK as well.

Does the hon. Lady share my increasing anger that our conversation in this place and the conversation in this London postal district of SW1 among the commentariat is obsessed with one issue, which will pass and will be, in history terms, a blip in the road? What we are talking about in this debate is an existential issue, and we have to wise up to that. The young people who campaigned recently on the doorsteps of MPs need to be listened to. This is their future. We as a Parliament have to start reflecting the anger that people are starting to feel about their future, and we have to start doing something about it.

Order. Let me just say to the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) that I would like to get one more speaker in, so if she could finish at three minutes past 5, I would be very grateful.

Thank you for that guidance, Mr Walker. I totally agree with the right hon. Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon). This issue is a passion of his, and I agree with him. Young people are starting to campaign on the issue. They are being educated—this generation is certainly better educated than ours was about these issues. I pay tribute to the work of schools such as Horbury Bridge Academy in my constituency, which is doing a series of workshops on the sustainable development goals—that is the plan that the Government have signed up to—to educate primary school children about the small actions that they can take to make the big changes that we need in our world. One problem is that we can feel overwhelmed, so one of the things that we need to do is to say, “We have to start here in the UK. We have to start in our own families and in our own Parliament.” I pay tribute to the parliamentary authorities for doing so much to clean up our plastic use.

I will skip on to how the environment changes health. For example, environmental pollution causes up to 16 million premature deaths a year. That is three times the number of people killed by malaria, AIDS and TB put together and 15 times the number killed by violence and war. It is amazing that we are tackling AIDS, TB and malaria, but we are not tackling pollution because, as economic activity, it falls under “too hard”. There is something for us to think about there. We know that there are impacts here in the UK. We are seeing a rise in non-communicable diseases. Incidences of diabetes have more than doubled in the past 20 years. Two thirds of males and more than half of females in England are overweight or obese.

Another inquiry that our Committee did was on heatwaves. We have warned that a 2° rise in temperature could see the average number of heat-related deaths in the UK more than triple, to 7,000 a year by 2050. The Environment Agency has warned that within 25 years England will not have enough water to meet demand, and that problem is particularly acute in the south-east and east of England. We have rehearsed the dangers of air pollution over and over again, and I welcome the Mayor of London’s introduction of the ultra low emission zone. As I cycled in yesterday and cycled home last night, there was a notable drop in the number of cars and vans that were circulating. Perhaps that was to do with the Easter holidays, or perhaps it was all in my imagination, but it certainly felt a lot cleaner. We await the Committee on Climate Change’s review of how we cap emissions at a 1.5° rise.

To finish, I will briefly talk about the Government’s 25-year environment plan. That plan is necessary because of the decision to leave the European Union—a decision that I profoundly regret and that many of my constituents also profoundly regret. A tricky third of environment legislation on air, waste, water and chemicals cannot simply be cut and pasted through the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018. We need to put into practice the environmental principles that we have signed up to in international law. We want our climate change commitments to be actionable and measured by any new Office for Environmental Protection, and we want an architecture of long-term, legally binding environmental targets that is supported by a five-year planning cycle and takes the Climate Change Act 2008 as its model. I welcome the plan, but I am worried about the lack of targets.

I am also worried about the lack of measurable targets to increase our green space. We on the Committee recommended that we should get urban green space back to 2001 levels to reduce the urban heat island effect. These issues are not just for DEFRA; they need to be dealt with across every Department. Great work is being done in my constituency. We are getting a new garden at the Hepworth gallery, and we have some brilliant groups, such as Friends of CHaT Parks. That group helps to run the nurseries at Thornes Park, working with adults with learning disabilities. I was also proud to plant some trees to mark the Queen’s Commonwealth Canopy locally. However, achieving net zero emissions simply cannot wait. We need action across Government. We need greener cities, greener cars, greener diets, greener finance and greener Government if we are to meet that challenge. I look forward to working with the many people of good will across all parties, and of course with the Minister—who I know is working hard on these issues—to make that a reality.

The wind-ups from the Front Benchers will start at 5.8 pm. The Opposition parties get five minutes, the Minister gets 10 minutes, and the proposer gets two minutes.

Thank you for squeezing me into today’s debate, Mr Walker, and I again thank my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) for securing it. At the outset, I will welcome the 25-year environment plan, which is a great step forward for this Government, and the environment Bill, which is the most exciting piece of environmental legislation that we have had in this country for decades. I am so proud to be part of a Government that will be bringing that Bill forward, and I hope that I can get involved in doing so.

As has been touched on, that Bill is much needed. We have had terrible crashes in biodiversity, not just in the UK but internationally. I will quote a couple of statistics. First, we have had a 75% crash in the number of farmland birds in the UK since the 1970s. I grew up on a farm, and I used to see yellowhammers every day as I went to school. I have not seen one in years and years; I do not know who else has.

I will go to my right hon. Friend’s farm in Berkshire, but there are certainly very few yellowhammers left in Somerset.

There has also been a two-thirds crash in the global population of flying insects. Insects are our friends: we need them, and we cannot survive without them. I did entomology as part of my university course, and people probably thought that was amusing, but it is proving very useful. Insects pollinate our crops, and we need a world in which they can thrive. It is very important that we put legal obligations into the environment Bill that commit us to achieving all the things that are stated in the environment plan and that will hopefully be put into that Bill.

Nature recovery networks have been mentioned. I have been involved with the Somerset Wildlife Trust, which has a very good model for those networks; I believe the Minister knows about them. They are like a framework for all land use and all the things that go on to a piece of land, so that we can work out what is important, what to concentrate on, what has disappeared, what we can add and what we need to work on. They are very important.

I would also say that our rural areas will be important to us in the future, because they are like the lungs for the urban centres. They provide us with green space, places for tourism, places to grow food, flood control and all those things. We need a much bigger agenda to bring the rural area into helping us to solve our biodiversity problems.

Does my hon. Friend feel that there should be greater penalties for acts of environmental vandalism, where developers come in and clear wildlife corridors and later on we find that the tree survey, for example, shows that there are no trees because they have cut them all down? The current penalties for that are simply not sufficient. It has happened in my area in Dartmouth and caused great upset and loss to the environment.

I thank my hon. Friend for mentioning that, because it leads me on, interestingly, to ancient woodland. I am pleased that this Government, through the all-party parliamentary group on ancient woodland and veteran trees and the Woodland Trust, and working with many colleagues, have managed to get extra protection for ancient woodland. In future, developers should not be able to bulldoze ancient trees down in the way they used to. Those trees are very precious, as is the soil underneath them. We must get teeth so that we can hold people’s feet to the fire and ensure that those things do not happen.

I was pleased to hear just this week that we have nearly one quarter of a million pounds to do an ancient woodland inventory. That money came from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, but I am sure that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will be interested in the project. It will mean that we can identify all those precious woodland sites and trees, so that we can help to protect them in future. If we do not know what is there, how do we know whether we can protect it?

I praise the Select Committee on Environmental Audit, which I was so proud to be a part of, because that Committee held the inquiry into plastics and microbeads—all credit to the Government, again, for bringing in the microbeads ban. They are only 2% of all plastics, but they were something controllable. The ban is a good start and proves that we can do these things if we want to. The Committee also conducted the soil inquiry, which revealed so much; I do not think soil had ever been talked about in Parliament before.

As I mentioned earlier, it is so important to get the biodiversity and health of our soil right. I reiterate my call to make it an indicator in the 25-year plan and give it the credit it needs as a public good in the Agriculture Bill, because without it we cannot have healthy food. It holds our carbon. We can achieve all our climate change commitments because of that property of soil—its ability to hold carbon. If we get the management of that right, we have ticked a massive box on the way to meeting our net zero targets. I am optimistic on climate change; this Government are making huge strides on the issue, for which they are not getting enough credit. I am optimistic, having had many meetings about this, that we are going in the right direction, and I believe that we will meet our net zero targets sooner than we think.

I have to wind up, so I will say that we need to get climate change sorted. I understand how important it is. As part and parcel of that, we need to get biodiversity sorted. We owe it to the nation. I am pleased that the Chancellor mentioned all that in his spring statement, and I am pleased that we have a Minister who understands this.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. I congratulate the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) on securing this great debate. I must tell him that I visited his constituency some time ago on a painting holiday. It is obvious that he values the role of communities and I can honestly say that, like my mum Rosa, he appreciates the importance of how great little things are in our communities. That came across very well.

When reporting on the Government’s 25-year plan in July 2018, the EAC welcomed cross-Government ambition for the restoration and recovery of our natural environment, but what worried the Committee was the lack of detail on how to achieve those objectives. We all know that behavioural change is required worldwide, within Government, in our towns, cities and streets, and across our communities.

As the Scottish National party spokesman on the environment, I will take this opportunity to speak on Scotland’s role in planetary health. All political parties in Scotland have placed the environment at the heart of the Government’s plans. Indeed, other countries are now looking to Scotland for a lead. For example, our progress on climate change was praised as “exemplary” by the United Nations climate change secretary; for your information, Chair, the Scottish Government are on course to smash our goal to reduce emissions by 42% come 2020.

Some examples of the Scottish National party’s progressive government have resulted in praise from Norway for our proposed deposit return scheme, an initiative that is soon to be introduced. Confor—the Confederation of Forest Industries—the aim of which is to support sustainable forestry and wood-using businesses, welcomes the Scottish Government’s pragmatic and positive approach to forestry and land management. Those are good examples of working with and listening to professionals.

If I may be a wee bit self-indulgent, I should like to point out the contrast between the Scottish Government’s thinking and Westminster’s dismissive thinking. On 12 February, I petitioned the Department for Transport to consider using the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency to issue penalty points to drivers caught littering from their vehicles. The Minister’s reply was disappointing. He said that the courts issue penalty points, not the DVLA. To me, that showed more concern for process than for progress.

In contrast, last week Rosanna Cunningham MSP said:

“There can simply be no excusing the practice of littering from vehicles”.

She has committed to bringing forward new legislation, as part of the Circular Economy Bill, to tackle that avoidable national embarrassment. Scotland’s Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform not only says what she means, but means what she says.

Scotland’s rich and diverse natural environment continues to offer fantastic opportunities to our economy. The Scottish Government recognise the link between access to quality natural spaces and the benefit to health and wellbeing. Scotland accepts its responsibility for leaving a better planet to future generations and is taking a leading role in reducing carbon emissions by setting the most ambitious statutory climate change targets of any country in the world for 2020, 2030 and 2040. That means that Scotland will be carbon neutral by 2050.

Furthermore, the Scottish Government are encouraging reduction of energy use and promoting more energy-efficient lighting to reduce Scotland’s overall carbon emissions and maintain the quality of our skies. I have attended busy meetings in our local communities to promote better lighting, the more efficient use of everyday products and products that use a traffic light warning system to reduce water waste. In short, our communities care about their environment.

In Scotland, we have a rich and diverse natural environment. My job here is to speak up both to protect that environment, which supports a huge variety of opportunity for our community, through jobs and a sense of wellbeing, and, importantly, to prevent any slip back to the UK becoming known as the dirty man of Europe once again.

Order. The sitting is suspended for 15 minutes for a vote in the House. The SNP spokesperson has 50 seconds to wind up when he gets back.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming—

Apology accepted; it is not your fault, Mr Walker.

It is important that we all do our bit to help the environment and the wellbeing of our wider world. Biodiversity is at the heart of a thriving, sustainable Scotland. I believe that if we want to change the world, we should get busy in our own little corner. In Scotland, we are doing just that.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. I congratulate my fellow west country MP, the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas), on securing this important debate, and for introducing it so eloquently. I especially liked his phrase that we have to “up our game”. He rightly encouraged ministerial colleagues to do that. Our environment needs to be taken more seriously by all Members of Parliament and all those in public office if we are to meet the challenge that we face.

It has been a good debate. The Division has led to a slightly emptier Chamber than we had a moment ago, but we heard some fantastic contributions from speakers from right across the political spectrum. I especially pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) and for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), who spoke about the importance of bird nesting—a subject that now has media attention, not only because of the horrendous footage on social media today of sand martins trying to get through nets to get back to their nests.

There is also concern about the practice of developers netting trees to prevent birds from nesting, and the sense that that is being done against the best interests of our natural world. Hon. Members on both sides of the House feel aggrieved by that, but we have the powers in this place to do something about it. We must call out developers who use cruel, inhumane tactics against our wildlife and, if they persist in such behaviour, we must introduce regulation to prevent it.

I also pay tribute to the Chair of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh), who spoke so eloquently about microplastics. We need Ministers to rise to the challenge of how we test for microplastics, ensure that we are using common science across all forms of testing and create a safe level and an action plan not only to reduce microplastics and microfibres but to tackle what is already in the natural world.

I pay tribute to those Members across the House who mentioned insect loss, a subject which my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) led a good debate on only a few weeks ago. Despite many of us not being huge fans of creepy crawlies, we need to spend more time on that. We need to focus not only on bees but on a wide variety of insects that are vital to our natural world.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for St Ives for talking about public engagement with nature. If we are truly to value and protect our natural habitat, we need to ensure that people visit it, understand the value of it, and get something from it. It is deeply disturbing how few people engage with our natural world. I am leading the campaign for Plymouth Sound to be designated the country’s first national marine park—the first, but I hope the first of many. Some 20% of our young people in Plymouth, Britain’s ocean city, have not even seen the sea, and 50% have not visited a beach. Those were the findings of the fairness commission that was run by Plymouth City Council. Those should be the type of statistics that scare us all. That is a city right on the coast, so much more needs to be done.

At the last DEFRA questions on 28 March the shadow Environment Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Sue Hayman), declared a climate and environment emergency, on behalf of the Opposition, at column 534. She challenged the Minister to join us in cross-party working to jointly declare a climate crisis. Ministers did not agree to do that, but I hope that the Minister will recognise the importance of cross-party working in relation to declaring a climate crisis. In local government up and down the country, Conservative, Labour, Green and Liberal Democrat councillors, and others besides, have been working in collaboration to declare local climate crises. The public and the young people whom the right hon. Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) spoke about expect politicians in this place to do something similar and declare a climate crisis at national level. We can then take cross-party action against it.

The 25-year environment plan is a good start, but we need much more besides. My hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) spoke with passion about the need for action and that is something I want to impress on the Minister. Since the Environment Secretary took office there have been 76 DEFRA consultations, but only one piece of primary legislation. It is not good enough to be the Secretary of State for consultations. We need to tackle climate change properly, which means that we need proper action. I implore the Minister to tell the House when the Agriculture Bill and the Fisheries Bill will make a comeback, and when the environment Bill, for which the hon. Member for St Ives made a good case, will be seen. We need action, not just warm words.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) on securing the debate. He spoke eloquently about the beautiful part of the country that he represents. Of course I have visited it more than once, and for me Mousehole stands out particularly. It is right that we should talk about elements of the countryside, but I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that we also need to tackle the urban environment, recognising that more than three quarters of the population live in towns and cities.

The 25-year environment plan sets out how we will deliver our commitment to pass our planet on to the next generation in a better condition than it was in when we inherited it. As I said last week to the Environmental Audit Committee, during its inquiry into planetary health, the 25-year environment plan is one of a growing set of strategies intended to have a positive impact on the health of humans and the planet that sustains us. It may be a plan for England, but its ambition extends to the world beyond. It commits us to taking on an even more prominent international role in protecting the planet, whether by pushing the agenda on climate change, tackling biodiversity loss, or leading by example through the development of innovative approaches such as natural capital accounting.

The hon. Member for Falkirk (John Mc Nally) is right to say that Scotland is playing its part—certainly with respect to biodiversity. He mentioned littering from vehicles, and the Government have already taken the power in question. The legislation is in place and councils have powers to make it easier to find the owners of vehicles from which littering takes place. I look forward, on this occasion, to the Scottish Parliament and Government catching up.

A key component of the 25-year environment plan’s domestic strategy is connecting people with the environment to improve health and wellbeing. There is increasing evidence, which has already been widely discussed in the debate, that spending time in the natural environment improves our mental health and wellbeing. It can reduce stress and depression, boost immune systems and encourage physical activity. It may even reduce the risk of chronic diseases. Several Members referred to a mental health programme, the natural environment for health and wellbeing programme. DEFRA, NHS England, Public Health England and Natural England, along with the Department of Health and Social Care, are already working together in alliance, and more information will be made available later in the year. However, I want to stress that this programme has already launched two evidence-gathering projects to inform the design of the programme. We have also established a board to oversee the implementation and, once the evidence-gathering exercises have been completed, more information will be available.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care announced last year a £4.5 million investment to boost social prescribing. As the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) said, that is an important part of what can be done. I know that several Members recognised that in the debate.

In terms of our youth, the Government have committed £10 million to our Children and Nature programme. That programme will make school grounds greener and make it easier for pupils to visit green spaces, particularly those children from disadvantaged areas. It is also intended to increase community forest and woodland outreach activities and to transform the scale and scope of care farming.

Is the Minister, like me, pleased that, when she was working in 2011 with her boss, the current Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, when he was Secretary of State for Education, the natural environment White Paper reduced the health and safety guidance for schools for learning outside the classroom from more than 100 pages down to just 11 pages? It is that kind of change, right across government, that can make a difference to getting people out into the countryside—particularly the young.

My right hon. Friend makes an important point. Of course, he authored that paper, which is why it is so excellent and long-standing. He is right to push that particular issue. He should not be modest. I am sure that he will give credit to my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman); but I know that he was the driving force.

As has been said, 2019 is the year of green action and is providing a focal point for organisations, individuals, communities and businesses to learn more about their environmental impact and take action to reduce it. That is why we have partnered with the charity Step up to Serve, to help encourage environmental youth social action through their #iwill4nature campaign. I also met with the Minister for Civil Society and know that she will be taking this up with the National Citizen Service, to make sure that it is also fully involved in these projects, not only this year but, I hope, going forward.

My hon. Friend the Member for St Ives referred to the benefits of tree planting. Besides the social benefits of community forests, to which I have already referred, it is true that trees benefit us economically and environmentally, in particular in sequestering carbon dioxide. That is why the 25-year environment plan sets out our ambitions for tree planting. In addition to the 11 million trees that we have committed to plant across the country, we will ensure that 1 million more are planted in our towns and cities. We have also been consulting on the rules that we want to see in place to make it harder for councils to cut down trees when they become a nuisance, rather than being cherished for what they are.

The Minister is making some powerful points, particularly about community forests—bringing forests closer to people. That is certainly a welcome change, after the attempts to sell off the forest. Can she tell us who is monitoring these 1 million trees? Who is counting them, and how will we know when those targets have been reached?

I used to have the forestry portfolio, but that is now the role of my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (David Rutley). I am afraid that I do not have that information to hand; the hon. Lady may wish to pursue that question in a different way.

In January last year, alongside the launch of the plan, the Prime Minister announced £5.7 million to accelerate development of a new northern forest, signalling the importance that we attach to tree planting. As my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives said, he is supporting a group of schoolchildren in his constituency to plant more trees. I am very pleased that they have taken up that project. In 2016, the Government launched the Schools for Trees project, and provided funding for 400,000 trees to be planted, which directly matched the corporate-sponsored programme already organised by the Woodland Trust. I am glad that he is taking advantage.

Hon. Members have referred to climate change. There are many stressors on planetary health, which have already been referred to—human population growth and climate change being the most significant. As climate change affects the environmental and social determinants of health, under future climate change scenarios impacts could intensify, increasing existing disease burdens and widening health inequalities if no interventions are made. Mitigating and adapting to climate change is one of the fundamental goals of the 25-year environment plan. Once we leave the EU, we will introduce an environmental land management system that will be the cornerstone of that intervention, changing the way farmers and land managers manage their land to deliver this crucial goal. Although I do not know when the Agriculture Bill will complete its stages, that will of course be part of it. Environmental land management will be supported by other interventions related to waste management, soils, agriculture and forestry—each playing a critical role—as set out in the plan.

I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) that we undertook a recent consultation that proposed an indicator framework including soil. She will be aware of some of the challenges in trying to make that assessment. I suggest that she looks out in the next couple of days for my written answer to the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy).

Globally, the UK played a leadership role in securing the 2015 Paris agreement and continues to work to ensure that subsequent negotiations unlock ambitious action. The Government are on track to deliver their commitment to providing at least £5.8 billion of international plant finance between April 2016 and March 2021. Through this fund, the UK has helped 47 million people cope with the effects of climate change. DEFRA’s investments alone are expected to save 70 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions. This funding will go to projects such as the Blue Forest project in Madagascar and Indonesia—a £10.1 million programme that is reducing deforestation of mangrove habitat, helping to support sustainable livelihoods and community health and increasing climate resilience in coastal communities. I am pleased to say that we have also added some funding to a project to prevent mangrove deforestation in the Caribbean, focusing particularly on Belize.

Although much more progress is needed globally on the greenhouse gas emissions generated by energy and transport in particular, we need to increase substantially the focus on nature-based solutions, to reduce the pace of climate change and fulfil much climate change mitigation as well as adaptation.

Biodiversity change is intrinsically linked to climate change and is another key indicator of planetary health. It underpins many benefits enjoyed by individuals and communities, from the food we eat to clean air and water and the endurance of nature. The plan represents a step change in ambition for nature through its goal to see thriving plants and wildlife. As such, we are investing in peatland and woodland restoration, which contribute to climate change mitigation and provide important wildlife habitats. The House will know that we are establishing a nature recovery network as a key contributor to our ambition to create or restore 500,000 hectares of wildlife-rich habitat, which will provide wider benefits for people. I expect the new environment Bill, which will include a number of ambitious measures, to be the first Bill in the next Session of Parliament. Internationally, the UK is committed to playing a leading role in developing an ambitious post-2020 framework.

On bird netting, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government is on the case. On Bacton cliffs, the nets are there so that the birds rest somewhere else; they are protecting the birds. The challenge is that the eroding coast is a risk to birds, and the nets are being checked three times a day to make sure that no bird becomes stuck. I am conscious of what is being said about the matter, and we will continue to look at it carefully, but there are balances that we must strike to ensure that nature is preserved.

I am grateful to Back-Bench Members and Front-Bench Members for their contributions. I am glad of the opportunity this afternoon to talk up the environment plan, and I am grateful to the Minister for setting out some of its benefits. I was pleased to hear her talk about the value of nature-based solutions to climate change. We were right to focus on that this afternoon. This is an urgent issue that engages people in politics—even if we have our eyes elsewhere—and I am grateful to have had the opportunity to talk about something that matters to people and in which they can engage and be part of the solution. I am pleased that we are beginning to look at how we can give equal access to the great planet that we live on and to our natural environment.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the effect of the 25-year environment plan on world health.

Sitting adjourned.