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Terrestrial and Freshwater Protected Sites

Volume 807: debated on Monday 2 November 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to A Green Future: Our 25 Year Plan to Improve the Environment, published on 11 January 2018, what plans they have to bring forward the 2042 target date for the restoration of 75 per cent of terrestrial and freshwater protected sites to a favourable condition.

My Lords, in declaring my interest as chair of the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Local Nature Partnership, I ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

My Lords, the Environment Bill requires us to set at least one target in each of the four priority areas, including biodiversity. We will bring these targets forward by 31 October 2022. Our recent policy paper, Environment Bill—Environmental Targets, outlines our initial thinking on objectives for targets, which we will develop over the coming months, including on the condition of protected sites. Before committing to specific targets, we will gather further evidence, including by carrying out a public consultation.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Answer, and I recognise his great work on environmental concerns. But does he not agree with me that it is almost inexplicable that the appetite in an environment plan is so little as to have only three-quarters of sites of scientific interest ready and up to standard within 22 years? Is that not utterly lamentable, given the current biodiversity crisis, not just globally but in this country?

The noble Lord asks whether we will bring the target forward. The Environment Bill framework requires us to set targets by October 2022 for a minimum of 15 years, so a target set in 2022 would run until at least 2037. One of the targets we propose is on the condition of protected sites. Any targets, when agreed, would be set out in law through an SI by October. A goal of 75% is ambitious. Some cases, such as peat bog restoration, can take many years of hard conservation work before sites even come close to reaching a favourable condition.

My Lords, the Government recently said that nature-based solutions will be central to the negotiations at COP 26. What progress can the Minister report? What emphasis will there be on a global response in which other nations also restore soils and grasslands to act as carbon sinks?

Our nature strategy, which transcends the climate COP and has direct implications on the biodiversity COP being hosted in Kunming shortly before, is three things. The first is that we want more finance for nature. We are taking a lead in this country, having doubled our international climate finance to £11.6 billion. We have committed to spending a big proportion of that new money on nature-based solutions. We want other countries to do similarly and to mobilise private finance. A second area is targets. The Aichi targets are impressive, but they are ignored by pretty much every country. We want to include a means to hold individual countries to account on those targets. Thirdly, we want to tackle the drivers of environmental destruction, such as dodgy land-use subsidies that incentivise environmental destruction and by cleaning up our supply chains. The UK is showing real leadership in both those areas.

My Lords, could the Minister confirm whether the Government have co-ordinated their efforts with the devolved Administrations on the strong protection of our land and freshwater environment?

Many issues relating to biodiversity and nature are devolved. However, my department, Defra, is in routine negotiations and discussions with the DAs. In certain areas, we work particularly closely together. For instance, we have a target to plant 30,000 hectares of land a year by 2025. A great deal of that burden will be taken up by our friends in Scotland, so we are liaising closely on that and all issues relating to biodiversity and nature.

My Lords, the environmental performance report of 2 October shows that more action and investment is needed by several water companies, which are failing to protect. The Environment Agency has requested that all water companies develop, publish and implement specific plans to reduce the incidence of pollution by the end of this year. Will the Government request that additional monitoring or modelling is put in place if they find any data gaps?

Where water companies do not meet our expectations, we will toughen our regulation and push them to improve their performance. This will include the Environment Agency conducting in-depth audits and reviews of water company management systems and new technologies, such as continuous flow monitoring and event duration monitoring. The results of the Environment Agency’s audits and review will help it and us to target enforcement action appropriately.

My Lords, water pollution is a key cause of the decline in conditions of protected sites. All English rivers are currently failing to meet quality tests for pollution. Given that 40% of water pollution comes from agricultural run-offs, what specifically are the Government doing to get farmers to use fewer chemical inputs?

The principal tool we will use in the coming years is the transfer from the common agricultural policy subsidy system to the environmental land management system. Whereas farmers and landowners have, for decades, been incentivised to convert their land to make it farmable—in many respects grubbing out ecosystems and undermining nature—the new system will make those payments completely conditional on good environmental stewardship. It is probably the biggest bonus that nature and our environment more broadly will have experienced in the last century. Although that is not the only funding mechanism or tool at our disposal, it is undoubtedly the most powerful.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that it is all very well talking about new targets, but we cannot meet our existing targets? Surely enforcement of our existing targets is the thing that matters. As has already been mentioned, the water companies and some bad farmers are not meeting standards and are not being fined. Clearly, the Environment Agency is not up to the standard required to issue fines. Does he further agree that fines on big companies, such as water companies, are a waste of time, as the ultimate payer is us—the user? The directors should get fined.

I certainly agree that the department, the Government and the Environment Agency should be using every tool at their disposal to ensure that the water companies behave responsibly and with environmental care. My colleague in Defra, Rebecca Pow, has established a new working group with the water companies to better understand, in the quickest possible timeframe, what more government can do and what the water companies should do to improve the quality of our water. I just make the point that bringing sites, whether water or land, into favourable conditions is a big challenge and takes time. Many sites were in poor condition when they were designated as protected sites. Some, such as peat bogs, can take decades to be restored to a favourable condition. The same is true for our river systems, which have had years of interference.

My Lords, I apologise to the noble Lord for returning once again to the question of polluted Welsh water running into English rivers. The farming rules for water in England have no counterpart in Wales. In his Written Answer to my Question on 27 October, the noble Lord said that his department had not been in touch with Wales and he cited devolution as the reason. I put it to him, respectfully, that we should cut through bureaucracy in the cause of common sense.

The noble Lord makes an extremely good point. I am afraid I am not in a position to update him on the letter I provided most recently. However, I will take his message back to the department with a view to making progress and, as he said, cutting through the red tape and bureaucracy.

My Lords, what hope do we have of being able to deliver what is an unacceptably distant and unambitious target, when we do not yet have a comprehensive baseline of natural capital assets against which we can measure progress? When can we expect to see those baselines, so that we know that progress is happening?

A number of pieces of work will help us to better understand the economics of biodiversity. One, as the noble Baroness knows, is the Dasgupta review, which we commissioned some time ago and is due to be produced very soon. She is right that we also need a more comprehensive audit or inventory of our natural capital in order to understand best how to introduce policies tailored to improving biodiversity. That work is ongoing. It is an enormous undertaking, and my department has been in discussions with the Treasury about working together to ensure that we are able and resourced to fill the gaps.

My Lords, by any measure, biodiversity in this country is now falling, at least in part because protected nature areas tend to be in small pockets that lack the necessary food webs and resilience for proper biodiversity. Can the Minister assure us that the zoning proposals in the planning White Paper will not make this situation worse?

I can give that assurance. Our planning reforms are intended to speed up decisions that can and should be sped up. We are determined to maintain and improve on the high standards we have set for our environment. We recognise that our biodiversity has been in sharp decline for decades; this transcends any one Government. We have put the levers and funding in place to begin the painful but necessary process of reversing those trends.