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Natural Habitats: Infrastructure Projects

Volume 811: debated on Monday 26 April 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to review the legislation that implemented the European Union Habitats Directive in regard to the protection of natural habitats during the construction of major infrastructure projects.

My Lords, protecting and improving the environment while delivering vital infrastructure is a top government priority. This includes the development of a more strategic approach to the protection of habitats and species, allowing for more dynamic and pragmatic planning while benefiting biodiversity. The Environment Bill will provide a statutory basis for species conservation and protected site strategies to encourage the design and delivery of broadly based solutions, in partnership with planning authorities, local communities and others.

My Lords, I declare my interests as shown in the register. This Question is not intended to provoke a binary debate between construction versus wildlife but it is an opportunity to consider the delay, risk and cost imposed on nationally significant infrastructure projects by what has become an intricate, bureaucratic and box-ticking regime. Now that we are free of the EU, will my noble friend at least consider using the forthcoming Bill to amend the definition of what counts as an IROPI—an imperative reason of overriding public interest—in the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017 to include critical national infrastructure?

My Lords, the regulations do not currently define which projects count as IROPI. However, nationally significant infrastructure projects will most likely always meet the public interest test, providing the project meets the environmental safeguards that no feasible alternatives exist for delivering it without impacting upon a protected site and that the necessary compensatory measures from any damage to habitats or wildlife have been taken. If my noble friend has any particular example he is concerned about, I would be very happy to meet him to discuss it, including the scope for clarifying whatever guidance we have on this.

My Lords, may I take this opportunity to express my regret at the death of my noble friend Lady O’Cathain, who, with her years of experience, would have contributed so perceptively to this complex matter? In general, I support the thrust of my noble friend Lord Moylan’s Question. Now that we have left the EU, can we interpret the provisions of the directive in a less batty fashion, and more in accordance with common sense?

My Lords, the Government are looking for opportunities to break down the binary choice that my noble friend Lord Moylan hinted at in his question, and we are finding a number of ways in which we can provide a simplification, while maintaining standards. Bat licensing is a good example; Natural England is developing a new streamlined bat licensing process which involves accrediting and assessing an ecologist’s competence in undertaking survey work. By using that system, developers will benefit from a more streamlined licensing process for their project, and licence applications no longer require up-front assessment. We believe that this will save developers £2.6 million per year, £13 million and 40,000 business days over five years, and on wider rollout, an estimated 90% of bat licence applications could be assessed in this way. There are many other examples of that kind of approach working.

My Lords, what enforcement powers will the office for environmental protection have against government departments which are judged to have breached our laws when it is established via the Environment Bill? Is the Minister confident that these powers will ensure parity with the environmental protection we enjoyed while we were a member of the EU?

My Lords, we will set legally binding targets through the Environment Bill and an environmental improvement plan, which will be reviewed every five years. The Government will have to report on progress towards achieving those targets every year. The OEP will hold the Government to account on progress and every year can recommend how we can make better progress, to which the Government must respond. The OEP will have the ability, if necessary, to take the Government to court, although of course we hope that that will be unnecessary. In many respects, the scrutiny that this Government and future Governments can expect to receive will exceed greatly the scrutiny that existed before we left the European Union.

My Lords, habitat loss comes in many forms, and often because of human activity, as in the loss of ancient woodland due to the construction of HS2. However, it can also occur because of climate change, as in the large landslide on the Jurassic Coast between Seatown and Eype in Dorset. Does the Minister acknowledge that this may require the intervention of infrastructure to provide protection for the remaining coastline?

There will be moments when such interventions are of course justified, and there will be others when nature-based solutions might be better applied to the kind of problems that the noble Baroness has cited. We know, for example, that flood prevention can be achieved much more effectively and cheaply in some circumstances by planting trees rather than building concrete defences, and the same is true of a range of other problems that the Government are required to address.

I know that my noble friend the Minister will be aware of the bats and newts conservation Bill 2008, which was my Private Member’s Bill in the Commons on exactly this issue. I am ridiculously pleased when I see bats, or, indeed, newts, and I certainly like newts as much as Ken Livingstone does—I am currently having two newt ponds built on my farm in Leicestershire, helped by the Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust. Great crested newts are not uncommon in this country; indeed, they are pretty common. They may not be common in Spain or Greece, but that is another matter. We should not be spending millions on an industry of ecologists who will admit that newts, for instance, can travel hundreds of yards each night. Will my noble friend listen to the pleas from this side and review the absurd EU habitats directive, bringing some common sense to bear on this issue?

My Lords, I too share my noble friend’s fascination with newts, but perhaps not quite to the extent that Ken Livingstone does. I mentioned in an answer to a previous question that we are streamlining the process, and that is true across the board, in relation to both bats and great crested newts. District level licensing, for instance, has reduced the average time to issue a licence to 23 days compared to 101 days previously. The estimated national annual time saving is around 2,500 weeks. Schemes are now available in over 150 local authorities, and in March, the thousandth pond was created in Natural England-led schemes. Early monitoring data tells us that 34% of new ponds being colonised are colonised in the first year, which is double the normal rate, so we have achieved better environmental outcomes—better newt outcomes—while at the same time streamlining and speeding up the process of development.

My Lords, one clear lesson of the success of the UK’s vaccine development is surely that the removal of overly bureaucratic and risk-averse regulations frees up creativity and speeds up innovation. In that context, and in light of the Government’s commendable priority of levelling up and building back better, will the Minister look at how we can cut the expensive, cumbersome red tape created by the habitats directive for infrastructure and construction projects? Will he look at more efficient and flexible means of conservation, without creating barriers to human development, job creation and productive industrial growth, which are more important than newts in my opinion?

I do not think, and the Government, likewise, do not believe, that there is a binary choice between biodiversity and human development; our challenge is to reconcile the two, as we must. In the last 20 to 30 years we have seen dramatic biodiversity collapse in this country of all types of species, from insects to predators. This Government have announced their high ambitions for the environment, including protecting 30% of our land and seas. However, where we have an opportunity to simplify and improve the rules protecting wildlife and habitats, as the noble Baroness suggests, then yes of course we should explore that, and indeed we are.

My Lords, I was a member of the Select Committee on HS2—Euston to West Midlands; natural habitats are a very big issue with the project. Will the Minister make sure that HS2 is completely open about its activities, to reassure people living near the line’s route? In particular, will it publish unredacted results of all tests carried out near and under the mid-Chilterns aquifer?

My Lords, I cannot unilaterally commit HS2 to doing so, but it should. I will convey that message back to colleagues in Government. HS2 is a nature-positive programme, which has been overlooked too much by some of its opponents. The amount of land being planted with trees, for instance, greatly exceeds the amount of land that will be damaged by the process, and HS2 would do well to tell its story more effectively than it has been doing.

My Lords, even though we have left the European Union, can the Minister confirm that we will still be bound by the Council of Europe’s Berne convention, which was the base of the EU habitats, but that the Government will take a more sensible and pragmatic approach under that convention?

My Lords, the Government are completely committed to ensuring that our environmental protections are not only maintained, but enhanced. We have said so at every opportunity. EU exit gives us the opportunity to improve our existing domestic and legacy EU laws to support those high environmental ambitions and, where appropriate, we should keep all those regulations under review, which we do.