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Peatlands

Volume 757: debated on Monday 8 December 2014

Question for Short Debate

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what policies are required for the future conservation and upkeep of peatlands in the United Kingdom.

My Lords, I start by thanking everyone who has put their name down to speak in this short debate. I also thank the various organisations that have sent copious briefings. There is far too much to discuss in the time available; nevertheless, it is extremely interesting. I particularly mention the John Muir Trust, which motivated me to table this Question.

I live in the Pennines on the border of Lancashire and Yorkshire, where I am surrounded by peat-covered moors. This becomes obvious every time there is heavy rain and our local becks turn dark brown. I first came across peat in a big way when I started wandering round these moors when I was still at school. I remember a friend and I doing that on Kinder Scout when we would have been about 15. We discovered the peat-covered plateau and the groughs, which dissect the peat. We thought that it was wonderful and a great playground and we went racing up and down the peat, and all the rest of it, probably doing no good at all to it. Those groughs themselves are a significant indication of the erosion of the peatlands that is taking place in many places. When I was in university, I did an undergraduate dissertation on the North York Moors and came across a wonderful book written by a man called Frank Elgee, The Moorlands of North-Eastern Yorkshire, where he divided the peat-covered moors into the fat moors and the thin moors. The fat moors were where the peat was six feet thick or more and the thin moors were where it was just a few inches. I learnt to love peat and I have spent a lot of my life since on mountains and moors and in peat areas.

While peat is important, most people would not consider it an exciting subject; they think of it as fairly uninteresting, so it is undervalued. But it dominates our upland landscapes and the moors and mountains of all the countries in the United Kingdom. Both the upland blanket bogs and the lowland peat bogs are an ecological treasure house that has reduced in size enormously in the past 150 years, particularly in the lowlands, yet it is our largest natural carbon store and a vital part of our water environment—it is vital for water management and flood prevention, which is pretty topical nowadays.

Peat is the remains of plants, particularly sphagnum and other mosses, which are not fully decayed; they are only partly decayed due to the presence of water and a lack of oxygen. The great blanket bogs of the British Isles have developed mainly in the last 4,000 years, some over a longer time than that. Peat bogs are very slow growing, whether they are the raised bogs of the lowland or the blanket bogs of the uplands. They form very slowly. It is estimated that they form at no more than 0.5 millimetre to 1 millimetre a year, so they are not something that can be quickly replaced, in comparison with ancient forests—those are impossible to replace, but you can at least replace the trees. In the case of peat, offsetting is simply not an option when development takes place. The United Kingdom peatlands store more than 3 billion tonnes of carbon, so it is vital to preserve what we have and restore the quality of the bogs that we have, thereby reducing the annual loss of carbon from them.

What are the problems? First, there is digging it up for commercial purposes, particularly as fertiliser in the horticultural industry, in the case of the lowland bogs. There is still a certain amount of digging up peat for fuel, particularly in the Western Isles, but I do not think that that is a major contribution to peat loss. Then there is destroying it for development of any kind and degradation by past activities, particularly agricultural activities. Government grants were given to drain the uplands and moors and dry out the peat, resulting in the exposure of peat and its serious loss by erosion, of which the prime example is Kinder Scout. Only 18% of the United Kingdom’s blanket bog is in natural or near-natural condition and, overall, the position is getting worse. It is better than it used to be in that people recognise the importance of peat and recognise the problem, but it is still getting worse year by year.

I have a number of questions to put to the Government. I had hoped to send them in advance to my noble friend the Minister but, unfortunately, other things got in the way. Nevertheless, I hope that he will be able to answer some of them. First, the new Scottish planning policy from the Scottish Government reads:

“Where peat and other carbon rich soils are present, applicants should assess the likely effects of development on carbon dioxide … emissions. Where peatland is drained or otherwise disturbed, there is liable to be a release of CO2 to the atmosphere. Developments should aim to minimise this release”.

I would like to ask the Minister whether the National Planning Policy Framework that refers to England and is the direct responsibility of the Government could include a statement similar to this. The Minister will not be able to answer that now, but he may be able to do some digging within the Government and have discussions with his colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government. Will the Government consider amending the National Planning Policy Framework to include a requirement that where significant development takes place on peatlands, an assessment of the balance of carbon emissions must be made as part of the assessment of the planning application?

Secondly—and this may be more in the Minister’s own domain—will the Minister give an update on progress on the Peatland Carbon Code and the pilot phase, which was expected to run from September this year? In the past he has been quite enthusiastic about this, I believe. Thirdly, will the Government promote the best practice guide that is currently being updated by the John Muir Trust and the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust? Will they put their weight behind it?

Fourthly, most upland peatlands are mapped as access land under the CROW Act. Will the Government work closely with the Ramblers and the British Mountaineering Council and similar organisations—I declare my interest in relation to the BMC—to promote better understanding of good practice in relation to peat both by walkers in areas of blanket bog and the people managing the areas where people walk?

Next question: following the statement of intent to conserve peatlands issued in February 2013 by the four United Kingdom Environment Ministers—that is, the United Kingdom Government in relation to England and the three devolved Administrations—what further progress is being made for joint action by the four countries?

What measures are included in the new environmental grants under the common agricultural policy that are replacing the old environmental stewardship schemes, particularly in relation to the conservation of areas of peat? What measures are being taken to close down the use of peat for horticultural and gardening purposes? That is entirely unnecessary. There are perfectly good substitutes that can be used and the time has now come, surely, to phase out in a serious manner the use of organic peat.

What action is being taken to ensure that the burning of heather moors occurs only under best practice conditions? This refers to the burning of heather on grouse moors, which, if it is carried out in inadequate ways, results in huge releases of CO2 from those moors. It is estimated that burning accounts for 74% of all emissions from blanket bogs. I am not against heather moors. I am not against grouse shooting. But the heather moors are one of the glories of the north of England and the burning of them, which in my part of the world is known as swithering, should be properly controlled.

Finally, what progress has been made in developing a national plan for the restoration of England’s peatlands and when will such a plan be published, particularly as our peatlands are such a big factor in future flood mitigation measures? I would be very grateful to have answers to these questions from the Minister. If he cannot answer any today, perhaps he could write to me. I look forward to hearing everybody else in this debate.

My Lords, I am very grateful to my noble friend Lord Greaves, who has been assiduous in pursuing this important interest. I need to declare my interest in that my family leases to Natural England 750 acres of lowland peat bog, or raised mire as it is sometimes called, situated in south Cumbria. It adjoins one of Natural England’s oldest nature reserves, called Roudsea, which is also part of our estate. The total land involved is about 1,000 acres. Much of the remainder of the estate falls under one or other of the numerous designations that will be familiar to your Lordships.

Natural England pays us a decent rent, on time, and relations between us are mostly cordial. Whatever opinion I might venture this afternoon, let me be clear that I feel no animosity towards Natural England personnel and that I would single out the senior reserve manager, Mr Rob Petley-Jones, as being especially approachable and, I would even say, visionary. That said, while they are all experts in their field, I would argue that their field is a narrow one and it is that which contributes to the problems which I want to touch on this afternoon.

As I understand it, until the Great War there was quite extensive exploitation of these bogs; I believe a number of families had turbary rights over them. The experts agree that the integrity of the bog, which the noble Lord has touched on, cannot be restored to pristine condition but that a high enough proportion can. It will therefore be rewetted, restored and preserved in line with whatever European directive deals with matters of this sort. The directive’s authors are specific that our bog is important and merits the expenditure that, in my estimate, runs to millions of pounds.

I am not qualified to challenge this assessment of the desirability of making this bog boggier. However, when I am told something is important, I feel entitled to ask how importance is measured against other desirable things such as education, health, care for the mentally ill, the plight of refugees and much else. Plainly, no one is pretending that the well-being of a raft spider ranks alongside that of a child trafficked into slavery, but what no one can tell me is whether anyone looks at this kind of policy and this kind of expenditure with the independence of mind capable of determining where the balance of advantage lies. Is a totally committed bog buff really the right person to give the Government advice? Can such advice realistically be impartial? What mechanisms are in place to allow Ministers to challenge both policies and outcomes?

When I commented gently to Natural England in passing on the cost of its operation, I was truly shocked by the reply that I need not worry, as it was mainly “European money”. It is difficult to imagine a better illustration of the attitude of so many in the public sector to matters of financial accountability. I very much doubt that our local experts would agree with one bog owner who observed some years ago:

“Many of these sites are cultural landscapes, forged by a subtle interaction between people and nature over centuries”.

Natural England is clear with us that its intention is to obliterate that interaction. Its ambition is to eliminate trees, mainly by drowning them. Its original plan was to remove these trees by helicopter, although that plan was mercifully abandoned. I like to think that the prospect of implementing such an insensitive plan within view of hill farmers suffering the effects of foot and mouth and low farm prices might have contributed to this change of heart. Rural poverty deserves more attention than it gets. It seems to have bypassed many of those who have safe jobs in the countryside and who are more comfortable with high-vis jackets and clipboards. I see scant evidence of policymakers in Brussels losing much sleep over rural poverty in the Cumbrian fells.

The up-to-date position on our bog is that Natural England has already killed some of the peripheral trees that it promised to preserve for amenity reasons and seems very well pleased with that outcome. It is hard to see how destroying perhaps half a million naturally regenerated trees sits with a mission statement of protecting England’s nature and landscape, especially given that no one disputes the fact that Britain has too few trees rather than too many. In fact, the world has too few trees. Natural England will not tell me—it probably cannot tell me—what the impact will be of this destruction and what habitats will be lost. What will the effect be, for example, on our nightjars? How will the destruction of our unique post-war wilderness impact on the safe haven it offers to a range of species seeking refuge from ever increasing human access, dogs and noise? There is no balance to be found in the argument. Who will benefit from these policies and how? The website offers a few bland lines, which itself is a failure of accountability, given the scale of change being imposed. I even understand that the alleged value of peat bog as a carbon store has been challenged by some scientists, and it remains an uncertain field.

It is fashionable nowadays for experts to run things. Experts are wonderful people—we could not do without them—but with every year that passes, I move increasingly to the view of Winston Churchill, who believed that experts should be on tap, not on top.

My purpose in speaking today is not to target Natural England specifically—it does a huge amount of good work, which I see every day. It is just one of numerous agencies that impact on all of us who try to earn a living in the countryside. My purpose is to draw attention to the fact that most if not all quangos, often through no fault of their own, are unaccountable, hugely bureaucratic, frequently conflicted and a cost to the taxpayer. Does my noble friend plan to look at those questions?

My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lord Greaves for initiating this debate this afternoon, for his constant championing of the peatlands in our country and because it allows me the chance to reminisce on a rather wonderful weekend I spent over the summer up in Exmoor on the blanket bogs, looking at the Exmoor Mires project, which is being run by South West Water—one of a number of pioneering projects by water companies that have come to understand the importance of peat bogs for their long-term business sustainability. Peat obviously dissolves in water, which then needs to be cleaned, so the companies are looking to restore the peatlands, with ensuing benefits not only for their business but the local community, wildlife and biodiversity more broadly.

My noble friend Lord Greaves outlined the challenges facing peatlands, so I want to pick up on only two issues in the time allotted to me. The first is to say a little more about what I believe is a strong need for a national plan for the restoration of England’s peatland. Some noble Lords may be aware that the Scottish Government have recently conducted a consultation on a national peatlands plan to protect and restore peatlands. The plan fully recognises the important contribution that restoring peatland makes to carbon capture and storage, clean water, flood alleviation—critically—improved biodiversity, tourism and outdoor recreation. If it is good enough for Scotland to have a clear plan with a set of long-term objectives for peatland restoration, I, too, ask the Minister what progress we are making in developing a national plan for the restoration of England’s peatland and when it will be published.

More fundamentally, I want to touch on the need for secure funding to ensure well-managed upland peatlands through a combination of market-related funding routes. I mentioned at the beginning how South West Water and other water companies are increasingly aware of the value to their businesses of investing to reverse the damage to peatlands. A further new model for the corporate sector to support the challenge of restoring and maintaining peatlands was championed by the Ecosystems Market Task Force back in May 2013. Since then, as my noble friend Lord Greaves mentioned, work has begun on a peatland code to help to provide the standards and verification of the carbon storage and other benefits arising from peatland restoration projects. I am delighted that Defra has been funding the pilot phase of the UK peatland code. I say to my noble friend Lord Cavendish of Furness that it is very encouraging that it is using some of that funding to develop metrics to measure some of the greenhouse gas emission reduction benefits of restoration which, as he rightly said, are at the moment still at a very early stage. We cannot proceed until we have those metrics in place, but it is welcome news that Defra is contributing that funding.

As I understand it, that project is designed to provide a credible and verifiable basis for business sponsorship of peatland restoration in the UK, operating in a similar way to the Woodland Carbon Code, assuring that restoration delivers tangible greenhouse gas emissions, alongside other environmental benefits.

Although I understand that the code is in a pilot phase at the moment, working with those businesses that are very much interested in developing their own corporate social responsibility projects, I ask what the Minister sees as the longer term potential for the plan and the code. I also ask the Minister whether the Government believe that, longer term, that peatland restoration could be included in the greenhouse gas accounting guidelines, which would be a more sustainable long term way of building in further market funding to develop peatland restoration? Growing markets in this area would not only provide funding for peatland restoration, but stimulate competitive rural businesses and provide new opportunities for knowledge providers, for technical and market-support services, which can have very important export potential. It is very much in my mind that, having recently looked at the Defra website, just how geared the department is to export potential. It is important that we do not forget that peatland restoration, and finding new markets for supporting peatland restoration, could in the long term have export potential for us and our rural businesses.

For too long, the benefits of peatland in its natural state have been frankly undervalued. Consequently, as both my noble friends carefully articulated, many are in a damaged and deteriorated state. I hope that we are now entering an era where the value of peatlands is recognised for the ecosystem services that they provide, and that those benefits for society, community and businesses are reflected more broadly in public policy, and achieve more sustained leadership by the Government on this important issue.

My Lords, I join my noble friends in thanking my noble friend Lord Greaves for raising this important debate. I declare two interests. One is that I am a patron of the IUCN’s Commission of Inquiry on Peatlands. The other is that I am the chairman of Scotland’s Moorland Forum.

Given the title of this debate, and the proportion of the United Kingdom's peatlands that are north of the border, it would be appropriate if I said something about the Moorland Forum and its relevance to policy-making in Scotland. The Moorland Forum has developed into a unique partnership consisting of 30 or more member organisations, all of whom have an interest in the uplands and moorlands of Scotland. These member organisations are drawn from across the Government, the public sector, the private sector, the NGO community and the science and research sector. With every relevant perspective involved, the Moorland Forum is able actively to engage on all interests and all issues, with a breadth of focus which I think my noble friend Lord Cavendish would welcome; is able to actively seek consensus; and, importantly, actively to promote improvements in policy, as well as practice and management.

The Moorland Forum’s value to policy-making is proven in practice and we are regularly consulted by the Scottish Government and their various agencies for advice and commentary on policy options and policy delivery. Five years ago, I and others were concerned that peatlands in the United Kingdom were on the edge of the policy agenda, both in Westminster and Edinburgh. I therefore start by commending the United Kingdom and the Scottish Governments that that is no longer the case. Both have shown leadership and commitment to safeguarding our peatlands.

I initially focus on developments in Scotland. I welcome, as did my noble friend Lord Greaves, the new Scottish planning policy, announced by the Scottish Government this summer, with its special provisions for peatland protection. Like my noble friend Baroness Parminter, I also warmly welcome the National Peatland Plan that is being developed and overseen by Scottish Natural Heritage in consultation with all interested parties. The National Peatland Plan, which will be launched in March, will include a strategic vision for Scotland’s peatlands, an analysis of their current state, and opportunities for achieving better collaboration in order to deliver healthier peatlands.

For the first time, in Scotland we will have a clear set of long-term objectives for peatland restoration, and I commend the Scottish Government and Scottish Natural Heritage for this overarching initiative, and for their ambition. The National Peatland Plan would be even more valuable to both Scotland and the United Kingdom if it was linked to similar initiatives elsewhere in the United Kingdom. I also welcome the Scottish Government’s commitment to provide £15 million for peatland restoration. Five million pounds of funding is already in place through the Peatland Action project, and restoration work on the ground is under way on approximately 120 projects. I would be interested to hear from the Minister whether he has plans for measures and initiatives similar to those that are taking place in Scotland.

As have other speakers, I want now to touch on a UK-wide point—the importance of the development of the peatland code. As we have heard, of the many benefits that will flow from having an agreed peatland code, perhaps one of the most significant is its potential to provide the confidence that would unlock corporate funding for peatland restoration. If corporate and private sector funding could be secured, as has been so successfully the case for forestry and woodland planting through the UK Woodland Carbon Code, it would enable the restoration and improved management of tens of thousands of additional hectares of peatland over and above those that can be afforded through government and EU-funded schemes. I would be interested to hear from my noble friend what steps are being taken by the Government to encourage private businesses to fund peatlands through the peatland code.

I should also ask my noble friend what steps the United Kingdom and Scottish Governments are taking to support and co-ordinate their efforts with the IUCN UK Peatland Programme, as it is that programme which is overseeing the all-important development of the peatland code. The IUCN UK Peatland Programme deserves considerable credit for attracting and maintaining a solid partnership of relevant interests. However, if it faces a challenge, it is the same challenge that I believe Governments are facing, and that is the mixed success to date in reaching out beyond the usual suspects of the academic and NGO communities to inform, influence and motivate the mainstream private owners and private land managers of our peatlands.

Private owners and managers will be key if we are to secure and save our peatlands, but so far they have had little substantial engagement with the debate. To this end, the Moorland Forum is promoting the establishment of demonstration sites as one way in which private owners and private managers can become better engaged. The forum also feels that there are fears among land managers that peatland restoration techniques could trigger problems relating to livestock health, heather management, increased costs and foregone income. We are of the view that policymakers and others must understand and address those concerns if the efforts of land managers are to be fully harnessed.

In closing, therefore, I ask for my noble friend’s thoughts on demonstration sites for restoration purposes and other initiatives to engage private landowners and land managers. I also ask about the extent to which efforts are being made to understand and address the concerns felt by land managers.

My Lords, along with other noble Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Greaves for instigating this debate. I was particularly interested in hearing about the North York Moors and the thin moors and fat moors. We always learn something in every debate we attend in your Lordships’ House.

My noble friends have drawn attention to the various ways in which the management of the peatland has benefited the environment, from its effect on the ecology and wildlife to possible carbon capture and, last but by no means least, the effect of these lands on water management.

I will specifically mention horticulture, which was touched upon by my noble friend Lord Greaves. I want to look at the relationship between peatlands and horticulture in the United Kingdom and the resultant pressure on these lands from the extraction of peat. As far as I am aware, this extraction, amounting to in the region of 3 million cubic metres, is largely from lowland peat sources, of which, I gather, all but 6% remain from extraction which started in the 1960s. I acknowledge that in the whole scale of things the area involved is not that large. In total, I understand it to be in the region of 960 hectares.

In response to concerns raised by the industry, the Minister’s department set up the Sustainable Growing Media Task Force, which delivered a comprehensive road map to reduce and phase out the use of horticultural peat. The major commitment in Her Majesty’s Government’s response was the phasing out of all peat use in domestic gardens by 2020, and commercially by 2030. Can the Minister tell the Committee whether targets have been met and if this commitment is still achievable? There was also a planned review in the second half of 2015. Is this still going to happen? I also understand that a committee was to be set up to meet on an annual basis. Can my noble friend confirm that this has happened and, if so, have the reports been published?

Having looked at what is on offer to the public, progress has definitely been made on labelling products. No longer can I find bags of compost labelled “low peat”, which can, in fact, contain up to 60% peat. However, having visited a garden centre yesterday, I found 26 different types of compost containing peat at varying amounts, from 70% down to 40%. I asked a member of staff whether any peat-free material was available, and was told there was not; there is obviously still much to be done. There still does not appear to be much evidence of education of the gardening public into the use of peat-free materials, but these must be available for the general public to purchase—not only to those committed individuals who work hard to find them. Over the years, I have used many hundreds of bags of green waste compost, with excellent results; so it is possible to be peat free.

I know that there are documents stating that the issue of peat extraction has been exaggerated by environmentalists, and that the use of lowland peat is acceptable. However, when we have a finite resource, we want to think very carefully about any use that could lead to the reduction of such a natural asset.

My Lords, I join others in thanking and congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, on securing and introducing this debate. I declare my interest as a farmer in Cheshire in receipt of EU funding, but the farm has no peat.

The noble Lord has highlighted the importance and significance of peatlands in the UK, covering about 9.5% of the land area, and from which around 70% of all drinking water is derived, and surface water from upland catchments is generally peat dominated. In the Peak District, my area of northern England, there are 55 reservoirs providing water to major conurbations to the east and west. Peatlands are significant natural carbon stores, and in England hold an estimated 140 million tonnes of carbon, worth billions of pounds. Furthermore, nearly 40% of the upland peat areas in England are designated as sites of special scientific interest.

Peatlands’ importance is highlighted by Professor Joseph Holden of the University of Leeds, who called peatlands the “Amazon of the UK”. Yet, as the noble Earl, Lord Courtown, said regarding the horticultural aspects of peat, our peatlands have been degraded to such an extent that, in the words of the Adaptation Sub-Committee of the Committee on Climate Change, only around 4% of England’s deep peat is in a sufficiently good condition to still be actively forming peat.

The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, spoke on the effectiveness of restoration, even though the timescales can be significantly long. All speakers have highlighted the benefits to society of restoration, which clearly outweigh the costs. Achim Steiner, the executive director of the UN Environment Programme, has been quoted as saying:

“The restoration of peatlands is a low hanging fruit, and among the most cost-effective options for mitigating climate change”.

Against this yardstick, the Government have made very little progress. It will be two years next February since the Government published their response to the report of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and the UK Commission of Inquiry on Peatlands. Peatland habitats continue to degrade and to reduce water quality regulation services.

Since the recent change in Secretary of State, flooding has needed to be restored as a key priority of Defra, yet iconic species continue to decline and the rate of release of CO2 stored in England’s upland peat is increasing. The current scale of restoration, although worthwhile and important, has to be improved upon by a strategic step change resulting from clear improvements that the Government need to make.

The Adaptation Sub-Committee has highlighted that two-thirds of upland peat is still without a management plan. While much good work has been undertaken by several NGOs and funds have been leveraged up with contributions from water utilities, the Government have failed to achieve widespread buy-in from private landowners. While some £27 million has been paid to farmers and landowners to take up moorland restoration under the higher level scheme since 2007, will the Minister outline what new measures under the greening proposals the Government will be focusing on? Even now, large areas designated as SSSI continue to burn peat and heather. Surely there needs to be better enforcement of existing protocols. Perhaps this could be improved upon by the wide range of NGOs that the noble Lord, Lord Cavendish, spoke of today.

In an earlier debate, my noble friend Lord Knight highlighted the issue of water management in the uplands and asked the Minister what costs could be avoided if the water storage and purification provided by peatlands were to be restored. I hope that the Minister will be able now to give us a clearer answer. This would underline the target and set clear goals through the England biodiversity strategy of restoring 15% of degraded ecosystems by 2020 for climate change mitigation. The water companies could benchmark their activities against this figure, and provide data and be informative in the debate on reducing greenhouse gases under the UK’s targets for emissions reduction. Here I welcome the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter. Will the Minister update the Committee on the percentage of deep peat that is currently in a degraded condition, and is that figure improving?

How will the newly announced environmental stewardship schemes be used to restore peatlands, address the continuing burning, especially by shoots on private estates, reduce the amount of inappropriate grazing, and encourage the blocking of “grips” and gullies to reduce water run-off? Does the Minister agree that the restoration of peatland ecosystems should now be a more important priority in his department? From this side of the Committee, Labour will ensure that investment by water companies in peatland increases in line with their resilience duty under the newly passed Water Act 2014. Will the Ofwat determinations show any increase in investment in upland restoration?

Recent debates have also highlighted that effective restoration is a key factor in future flood mitigation planning. What progress has been made in developing a national plan for restoration, and when is it likely to be published? What measures is the noble Lord’s department bringing forward to extend the uptake of management plans, especially through improving incentives to landowners?

Labour will follow the example of the successful use of payments for ecosystem services and regulation to improve flood management, such as in the Pumlumon Project in Montgomeryshire. This highlights that co-ordination has to be encouraged across a wider area. The noble Earl, Lord Lindsay, spoke of similar experiences provided by the Moorland Forum in Scotland.

The noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, and the noble Earl, Lord Lindsay, highlighted the important focus provided by the Peatland Carbon Code. The noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, spoke of the need to utilise these benefits in carbon accounting. Labour will provide the development of a Peatland Carbon Code to facilitate further private investment in restoration and build on the existing incentives for environmental stewardship schemes and catchment-scale management plans. We see advantages in the long-term aim to have a system in place whereby landowners and managers can offer up for sponsorship the carbon and other benefits of peatland restoration to businesses that are interested in helping to deliver action against climate change and other environmental benefits.

A very important development to capture long-term improvements could come through implementing conservation covenants to future public funding that will be attached to land. While it seems that this introduction may be captured only through new primary legislation—and we all know how difficult it can be to secure that—could the Minister inform the House what plans his department may have considered to capture in large measure the benefits of attaching such conditions of positive action to management behaviour through other measures that the Government could take? That and other measures need to be put in place with utmost urgency.

My Lords, I am very grateful to my noble friend Lord Greaves for giving me this opportunity to discuss the extremely important topic of peatlands, particularly since Friday marked the start of the International Year of Soils. As we have heard, peatlands are an essential resource and deliver much for the climate, environment and society. I have recently had a number of meetings on peatlands, and it is clear that there is strong support for action on peat from a wide range of organisations. This interest has led to a number of examples of landowners, conservationists, scientists, local communities and businesses being brought together, working together to deliver local solutions to peatland degradation.

Over the past few years, we have had significant successes in the protection of peat soil. There have been reductions in horticultural use, with the total volume of peat used in horticulture having decreased by almost 30% since 2011. I am pleased to see that the Defra family is nearly peat free, and that the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew continues to lead the way in using new alternatives and working with its supply chain to deliver high-quality plants without peat. There have been significant reductions in the amount of peat cut in the UK and, in many locations, peat extraction and milling operations have been brought to an end. One such location is Bolton Fell Moss, where Natural England has now commenced an ambitious programme to restore bog vegetation to the 400-hectare site. This site will complete our network of special areas of conservation for this habitat type, which is an important step forward.

The Committee for Climate Change suggested that we should improve,

“incentives for land-owners to invest in restoration”,

and we are doing just that. Defra has committed over £3 million to peat-related research between 2010 and 2015, improving our evidence base on issues including restoration, lowland peats, peatland-related greenhouse gas emissions and alternatives to horticultural peat. This will be used to inform future policy and to aid landowner guidance. However, of course, there is more we must do to strengthen the policy framework to enable further peatland conservation.

In 2013, through environmental stewardship covering around 98,000 hectares, we committed more than £30 million to management options for the maintenance and restoration of moorland habitats. A further £4 million was committed in capital grants for grip blocking. Support will continue to be provided under the new countryside stewardship scheme, a forward-looking measure seeking to maximise opportunities to deliver biodiversity, water quality and flooding benefits together.

Natural England is developing an operational plan for the strategic restoration of blanket bog, covering special areas of conservation and much of the uplands. The plan flows from work prompted by the uplands evidence review and recognises the need to ensure that this habitat is actively moved towards favourable conservation status.

The protection of our peatlands for future generations is not a challenge that the Government can meet on their own. We need to work with others, encouraging local communities and landowners to deliver the best land use and management for their peaty soils. There are examples of how such partnerships are already delivering results on the ground, such as the Dark Peak nature improvement area, and we should learn from and build on them.

We need to be innovative and explore new economic opportunities as new technologies and approaches become available. For example, some companies are already growing sphagnum moss as a wetland crop. There is ongoing research to explore the economic feasibility of that and other ways of using areas of lowland peat in a manner that both enhances habitats and protects farming livelihoods.

Three billion tonnes of carbon are locked up in UK peat. That makes peat the single biggest terrestrial carbon store in the country—even bigger than forests. By including wetlands in the UK greenhouse gas emissions inventory, peatland restoration will contribute to UK emissions targets. That will provide another incentive to invest in peatland restoration.

We are doing more work to put tangible figures on the benefits that peat delivers, and that will help us to make the business case for saving peat. The UK pilot peatland code is exploring how we can encourage funding from businesses to restore damaged peat bogs. If successful, it will provide standards and robust science to give businesses confidence that their financial contribution will make a measurable and verifiable difference to UK peatlands. That will help to mobilise private sector finance: investing in natural capital because it makes sense for the bottom line but delivering benefits for wider society. The pilot phase is scheduled to finish in July 2015, but early signs are promising. Water companies have been particularly responsive, due to the known improvement of water quality with healthy peat.

My noble friends Lord Greaves, Lady Parminter and Lord Lindsay, and the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, asked a number of related questions about national peatland planning and how we compare to Scotland. The Natural Environment White Paper set out the Government’s ambition for the environment, including a commitment to sustainable management of all soils by 2030. Natural England is currently developing an operational strategy for upland peat to help to identify where progress has been made and where more work is needed. My officials and I work closely with our counterparts in the devolved Administrations, and I will consider whether we need to review the joint ministerial statement which commits our four Governments to work together on peatlands, including on the peatland code.

On funding, on which my noble friends Lady Parminter and Lord Greaves, and the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, commented, I can confirm that support for moorland and peatland habitat management will indeed continue to be provided under the new countryside stewardship scheme. The new scheme will be more targeted, aiming to identify the options which should be prioritised in agreements with farmers and other land managers to deliver the right action in the right place.

My noble friends Lord Greaves and Lord Lindsay asked about the future of the peatland code. We will continue to support the code’s initiatives to encourage private businesses. Our objectives for the remainder of the pilot phase will be to seek out opportunities to promote the code and attract indications of interest and firm offers from potential private sector sponsors.

We recently held an event with the IUCN for a number of business contacts, run by the Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment, to seek feedback on the code’s operation and to raise awareness of it in the business community—indeed, to improve the code’s offer to businesses. We are in discussion with the IUCN, the UK peatland programme, the devolved Administrations and others on the possibility of future projects across the UK, building on what the peatland programme has achieved over the past four years.

My noble friend Lord Greaves and the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, referred to the burning of moors. Natural England is in the process of reviewing its guidance on burning and blanket bog restoration as part of a broader refreshment of its guidance, working closely with all interested parties and reflecting work undertaken by the Best Practice Burning Group.

My noble friend Lord Lindsay spoke about the role of private owners. The partnerships we already have in the UK are a novel mechanism for delivering results, but we recognise the need to engage a wider audience. Successful engagement depends on a strong evidence base with improved interpretation and dissemination, hence the commitment of over £3 million to peat-related research between 2010 and 2015. All involved will need to use this evidence to engage with landowners and local communities and make restoration decisions around which services are most important for them.

My noble friend Lady Parminter spoke of the inclusion of wetlands in greenhouse gas emission inventories. Including peatland carbon fluxes in the GHG emission inventories will reinforce the value of restoration and contribute to UK emissions targets. Three billion tonnes of carbon are locked up in UK peat, making it the single largest terrestrial carbon store in the UK. As of 2011, damaged UK peatlands are releasing about 3.7 million tonnes of carbon dioxide each year, which is equal to the average emissions of about 660,000 UK houses. Restoration would stop this and eventually lead to slow carbon sequestration once the peatland was back to actively forming condition in many years’ time.

The difficulties in including GHG emission reductions from peatland restoration were due to a lack of an approved international methodology for calculating emission removals from peatland restoration. The methodology now exists, but it still requires significant further work to make it operational in this country. The Department of Energy and Climate Change is leading on this work. The peatland code will provide guidance on quantifying climate and other benefits. To reinforce the value of the sponsoring of restoration, it may also be possible to count these benefits in corporate carbon accounts in future.

My noble friend also asked about Ecosystems Markets Task Force recommendations. The recommendation for carbon reduction through nature resulted in the pilot peatland code, which of course we continue to support. Other recommendations such as using nature to enhance resilience and soft flood defences also have the potential to be addressed by peatlands, but the evidence is limited and needs further work.

My noble friend Lord Cavendish raised a number of issues. Much of what he said needs to be heard, and I propose to send a copy of Hansard for this debate to the chairman of Natural England. My noble friend asked in particular about progress on the bonfire of the quangos. There are now around a third fewer quangos than there were in 2010. We have abolished at least 185 and merged more than 165 into fewer than 70. Over £2 billion has been saved cumulatively since 2010 through reforming and abolishing public bodies, and we are on track to reach the forecast £2.6 billion saving ahead of schedule.

My noble friend Lord Courtown spoke about the use of peat in horticulture. UK sales of peat for horticultural use fell from 2.8 million to 2.2 million tonnes between 2011 and 2012, and the total volume of peat use in horticulture has decreased by almost 30%. The Sustainable Growing Media Task Force report published in 2013 sets out where our resources will be focused over the next few years to assist in the transition to sustainable growing media and reduced peat use.

The noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, asked what estimate the Government have made of the costs that could be avoided if the water storage and purification services provided by upland peat were restored. There is an estimated overall benefit of £2 billion over 30 years from restoring 200,000 hectares of uplands, due to carbon sequestration, biodiversity and other ecosystem services such as water storage and purification.

Although the scale of the challenge both financially and on the ground is daunting, the size of the prize is great. We have had some successes but I recognise that there is more to do. By building on the wide support for this important ecosystem and the good practice that is demonstrated in so many places across the United Kingdom, I have great hopes that it is a challenge that we will be able to meet.