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Biodiversity Duty: Public Authorities

Volume 799: debated on Monday 22 July 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans, if any, they have to strengthen the public authorities’ biodiversity duty.

My Lords, we must ensure that biodiversity is at the heart of improving the environment. The forthcoming environment Bill provides an opportunity to do more for biodiversity. We will introduce mandatory net gain and a new statutory body to hold government and other public authorities to account. We want the biodiversity duty to underpin these, and we are actively considering how we will work with public authorities to enhance the natural environment.

I thank the Secretary of State for his speech last week, though I note that he said “I want to” rather than “We will” introduce a biodiversity duty. If other government departments scupper the inclusion of a stronger biodiversity duty in the environment Bill, how will the Government respond to the biodiversity crisis that we face, so powerfully outlined in recent UN reports?

My Lords, this has to be not only across government but across the whole of civic society and public authorities if we are to enhance the environment. I have plenty of examples of where other government departments are working very constructively and successfully, whether it is the MoD, the MoJ, HMRC, DWP, the Environment Agency, the Forestry Commission, Natural England or county councils; all of them are working very strongly on biodiversity. We have clearly got to do more, but I reassure the noble Baroness that this has to be across government because that is the only way we will actually enhance the environment.

My Lords, I was a member of the House of Lords Select Committee on the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006. In our report, we supported strengthening the biodiversity duty. We also recommended that it was combined with a reporting duty. Will the Minister say what plans the Government have for improving the transparency of the way in which the duty is carried out?

My Lords, the noble Countess is right that, as the Government implement, with others, our 25-year environment plan, we will build on existing reporting mechanisms to drive further improvement. Some of the priorities set out, including the condition of our protected sites and the creation and restoration of wildlife-rich habitats, are already under a reporting duty, but we will work on how we can take forward an enhanced reporting mechanism.

My Lords, the UK is now among the most nature-depleted nations in the world, so it was good to hear the Secretary of State say last week that he wants to strengthen the duty of public authorities not just to conserve but to enhance nature. Will the Minister pass on the message that that will be a hollow commitment if it is not backed by the resources and energy that local authorities will need to carry out those duties effectively? What are the Government doing to work on a cross-departmental basis to deliver that?

My Lords, the environment Bill—obviously, this is a second Session piece of legislation—is designed to plot a course precisely to restore and enhance nature and the environment and to do many other things but particularly to introduce a pioneering new system of green governance. It is clearly essential that we enhance nature. That is why species such as the chough and the bittern are recovering and there are a number of reintroductions, such as the short-haired bumble bee. We are working on a number of species, but we need to improve habitats across the board.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that ash tree dieback has caused great devastation to self-planting trees? Many of them are on property owned by local authorities. Will my noble friend confirm that it will be a biodiversity duty of local authorities to remove such trees, and has his department made an estimate of the cost of such removal?

My Lords, my noble friend is right to highlight the biodiversity costs of losing ash trees. It is why, with research, we have found the most tolerant strains. We will be planting a large plantation of the most tolerant strains next year so that we can ensure that ash retains its important part in our ecosystems. We have also produced a toolkit and we are working with local authorities as, clearly, not only is health and safety involved but we want to ensure that the most tolerant trees are conserved. A lot of work is being done on that. For instance, I commend Devon County Council for its policy that, for every tree that is felled, three are being planted. That is a message for everyone.

My Lords, one disastrous tactic being used that really damages biodiversity is the concept of biodiversity offsetting. What happens is that we lose ancient, well-established areas that are biodiversity rich and create new areas that are not. “One tree out, three in” sounds great, but if that one tree is 100 years old and the three are only 10 years old, that is not so great. Will the Government commit to not using the tactic of biodiversity offsetting?

It is very important to retain veteran trees wherever we can because they are vital to our ecosystems. Obviously, if they are dangerous because they are beside roads or whatever, we have to be practical, but we want to plant a lot of new trees and we also want to have protections for our veteran trees and our wonderful landscape. Enhancing the environment is not only the intent of the environment Bill but the direction of travel for all of us.

My Lords, the Select Committee to which the noble Countess referred a moment ago heard evidence that fewer than one-third of planning authorities have access to a trained ecologist. I suspect that that is part of the reason why previous questioners’ issues are coming forward. Has the Minister done any work since that report was published to ascertain how we are going to get the right quality of ecological advice if we are to deliver the outcomes which he would like to see?

My Lords, that is why we are working not only with Natural England but with local authorities. In terms of the biodiversity net gain proposals, the developer and the local planning officer clearly need to work together to ensure that the local planning officer knows precisely what is meant by “net gain”. This is work in progress.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that one problem is that the big developers can outgun the planners, and the planners are not always of very good quality? For example, in the beautiful medieval town of Framlingham in Suffolk, which I know rather well, there are two big developments. One is excellent and is by Hopkins Homes; the other is by Persimmon and is an absolute disgrace—it should never have been allowed and the developer has got away with everything.

My Lords, I passed through that great town only on Friday, so I identify with what my noble friend says on the matter. That is precisely why we are going to mandate biodiversity net gain. We need to work with all developers—domestic and commercial—to ensure that there are habitats for wildlife enhancement and that we leave those habitats in a better state than they were pre-development.