House of Lords
Wednesday 7 July 2021
The House met in a hybrid proceeding.
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Ely.
Oaths and Affirmations
Lord Sandhurst took the oath, and signed an undertaking to abide by the Code of Conduct.
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, the Hybrid Sitting of the House will now begin. Some Members are here in the Chamber, while others are participating remotely, but all Members will be treated equally. I ask all Members to respect social distancing and wear face coverings while in the Chamber except when speaking. If the capacity of the Chamber is exceeded, I will immediately adjourn the House.
Oral Questions will now commence. Please can those asking supplementary questions keep them no longer than 30 seconds and confined to two points. I ask that Ministers’ answers are also brief.
Police: Body-worn Videos
My Lords, the release of material from body-worn videos is a matter for police forces. To assist the police in taking decisions on the release of such material, the National Police Chiefs’ Council issued advice to forces in November last year. The Government support the police taking a proactive approach to considering the release of body-worn video to increase transparency, build public confidence and correct misleading information that circulates online.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for that response. She said that the Government want police forces to be “proactive”, but the reality is that it is the work of a moment for a very partial video of a particular incident to be circulated widely on social media, yet it takes a very long time for police to release their version of events on the basis of body-worn video. That undermines confidence in the police and allows on occasions false rumours to circulate. How proactive does the Minister expect police forces to be, and does she agree that such material should be made available within 24 hours rather than in the rather long term, as happens at the moment?
I totally agree with the noble Lord that space between online circulation of video and the police reactively putting the video online creates a vacuum for speculation and can undermine the criminal justice process, so I think speed is of the essence. For that reason, I am very grateful to the noble Lord for asking the Question.
My Lords, on a separate but related issue, in her HMIC report, Wendy Williams recommended that all forces should record the entirety of all stop and search encounters by September of this year and that external scrutiny panels should have access to that footage. As the use of stop and search has increased, public confidence in the process is more important than ever. Can my noble friend the Minister confirm whether police forces across the country intend to implement these recommendations?
I thank my noble friend for that question. As always, Wendy Williams’ report has come up with some very insightful recommendations. My noble friend will know that the use of body-worn video during stop and search is an operational decision for forces. The Home Office supports it as a tool for increasing transparency and accountability. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary reinforced that in her speech to the Police Federation conference early last month when she said that the Home Office would be
“looking carefully at strengthening the system of local community scrutiny and the value of body-worn video, because transparency”,
as the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Haringey, said, “is vital.”
My Lords, following on from the question of my noble friend Lord Harris, why is it difficult for the police to get their evidence to court, and why is it a slow process? Is there a technical reason for the slowness in releasing material from body-worn camera data? Can the Minister update the House on this?
Again, that is a pertinent point. Clearly, every case is different. Police getting evidence to court may well be undermined by material that has been released online beforehand, which may undermine the criminal justice system. A number of factors have to be considered when police are getting evidence to court, but I go back to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Haringey: speed is clearly of the essence not only in seeking out justice but in improving public confidence and scrutiny of these issues.
My Lords, does my noble friend the Minister agree that early release of material from body-worn videos would play a major role in preventing certain sections of the media and, indeed, politicians of a particular mindset, from jumping in too soon and criticising police action where they have acted appropriately? I cite the Clapham Common vigil as a first-class example.
My noble friend is right that selective release of video can paint a very different picture from what actually happened. This point has been made again and again. It is absolutely right that these things be released quickly and brought forward in a way that does not undermine the criminal justice system that ensues.
My Lords, if there is any possibility of misconduct proceedings or a prosecution, whether of the police officer or of those interacting with the officer, witness evidence, perhaps from a different angle or from before the camera starts to record, may be important. Witnesses may be influenced by the body-worn video footage as well as online footage, rather than by what they saw. What safeguards are needed to ensure that both body-worn video and online video do not interfere with the course of justice?
I think the noble Lord points to the fact that the police need to make decisions about what happened before the video was started, after the video was started and what might be put online. These are all factors that might undermine a criminal justice process, and I very much agree with his points.
Everyone accepts the need for police accountability, but surely there is a need to redress the balance as more and more cases occur of police officers being vilified on social media following selective clips of their interaction with the public. However, given that the Minister has just said that this is a matter for police forces, and that the Government accept it is a real problem, how are they going to get this changed for the better?
Body-worn video is an incredibly useful tool for the police, not only to bring criminals to justice, ultimately, but to protect the police against accusations regarding how they treat potential criminals. That latter factor is very important. Clearly, we make policy decisions and the police implement them. They are operationally independent of us and it is for them to issue those decisions. Of course, the National Police Chiefs Council’s advice on the whole framework of their use is very important.
My Lords, given the success of body-worn cameras in helping to de-escalate matters and providing evidence where a crime has been committed, does the Minister think that the time has come for all police officers to wear body-worn cameras?
My noble friend makes a good point, but we have to be careful here. The use of body-worn video has to be lawful, necessary and proportionate, and I think that is why the call for its use in stop and search has been made. Its use generally has to be incident specific. I take the point that my noble friend makes, but it is probably not useful or advisable in all circumstances.
According to a recent report, some videos showed that police officers were poor at communicating and lacked patience and de-escalation skills. Is it possible that the pressure on the police from 11 years of swingeing Tory cuts to their budgets and numbers is responsible for that sort of pressure? Their numbers are still not back to pre-Conservative Government levels of 11 years ago.
My Lords, the United Kingdom will recognise a Palestinian state at a time when it best serves the objective of peace, as we have stated before. We of course continue to encourage progress towards a negotiated settlement between the parties, and my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary reinforced that position during his visit to both Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories from 25 to 26 May.
My Lords, if for this Government recognition of Palestine requires a peaceful solution, do they now accept that every rocket fired from Gaza into Israel and every additional illegal settlement on the West Bank undermines the government policy of a two-state solution? Are the Government content to allow their own policy to wither on the vine and hence provide an obstacle to the recognition of Palestine, or are they now willing to step up to their historical and moral obligations, not only to the Israelis but to the Palestinians?
My Lords, I assure the noble Lord that we remain very much committed to a two-state solution: a secure and safe Israel and a safe and secure and viable Palestinian state. I am sure the noble Lord acknowledges that bilateral recognition will not end occupation, but we remain very much committed to engagement. That is why my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary in his most recent visit after the current conflict—[Inaudible.]
With little prospect of negotiations resuming, will the Minister accept that the continued settlement building programme amounts to an incremental and de facto annexation of the West Bank? The international community needs to promote the rights of all Palestinians, including the Christian community. Does the Minister agree that a strong endorsement of Palestinian aspirations by the Government would demonstrate to the Palestinian public the possibility of international political process and show that Her Majesty’s Government are committed to active peacemaking rather than merely to conflict management?
My Lords, I agree that it is important that we restate and re-emphasise the importance of the two-state solution. On the issue of the OPTs, we remain committed to ensuring that we lead towards a process which leads to an independent and viable Palestinian state. I also endorse the right reverend Prelate’s point about the different communities within the Holy Land; of course, the Arab Christian community is an important voice in the peace process.
Does the Minister agree that our Government cannot consider recognising a territory while it is controlled by proscribed terrorists whose only stated purpose is to wipe their neighbour Israel off the face of the earth, no matter what the cost to their own people?
My noble friend refers of course to the situation in Gaza and the role of Hamas. We do not engage with Hamas, and I agree with my noble friend that for anyone to come to the table it is important that they recognise the other party’s right to exist. Hamas does not, and if it wants to be a party to peace, it needs to ensure that that recognition is extended.
My Lords, the UK certainly should recognise Palestine as a state, but as important is the need to introduce economic incentives to induce Israel to end its illegal building of settlements on Palestinian land. Are the Government giving consideration to such economic incentives with our western allies and, if not, will the Minister raise this issue with his colleagues?
My Lords, on the issue of economic incentives, we believe that it is important that we progress our economic relationship with both Israel and the Palestinian Territories. We do not hesitate to express our disagreement with Israel whenever necessary. However, on the specific issue of sanctions against the State of Israel, which the noble Baroness may be alluding to, we stand very firmly opposed to such boycotts or sanctions.
I refer your Lordships to my interests as recorded in the register. Recognition of the state of Palestine is an internationally significant concern. I would like to ask the Minister today about an urgent concern. What representations have Her Majesty’s Government made to the Government of Israel about the house evictions and demolitions in Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan, which appear designed to change the demography of the holy city?
My Lords, I agree with the noble Baroness and we have been very clear on our position on the evictions in Sheikh Jarrah. It is a threat to the communities currently in Sheikh Jarrah and we urge the Government of Israel to cease such actions permanently. Indeed, these points were very much raised and discussed during my right honourable friend’s visit to Israel and the OPTs.
Is the noble Lord aware that this morning, Israeli forces demolished more structures in the Jordan Valley? Does he agree that that the time really has come to move beyond that old phrase that he has used once again and to recognise Palestine, and that this must be for a viable, sovereign and independent state and not a splintered, semi-sovereign version, as, for example, in the Trump plan?
My Lords, on the Trump plan, as I have said before in your Lordships’ House, that was a first step. However, I totally recognise the picture that the noble Baroness paints and we agree as a Government that we must have a viable, functioning Palestinian state. On the important issue of the demolitions, we have made our position absolutely clear to the Israeli authorities. They should not be taking place. The settlements in the OPTs are illegal and they, and indeed the evictions, go against international humanitarian law.
I refer the House to my interest as president of Conservative Friends of Israel, as set out in the register. It seems that some noble Lords are failing to experience and comprehend the winds of change in the region: the Abraham Accords, and a NATO drill this week which included Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia and the UAE, alongside Israel. Does the Minister agree that the most helpful contribution towards peace and prosperity would be for noble Lords to use their influence with the Palestinians to urge them to sit around the table with the Israelis and create that peace and prosperity?
My Lords, I agree with my noble friend; I think we all welcome the important progress made with the Abraham Accords, and we pay tribute to all those who have come forward. However, it is also important, as my noble friend rightly articulates, that there can be no solution to the challenges and the conflicts in the region until we see meaningful progress on the peace talks. For that to occur, Israel and the Palestinian Authority need to sit down and agree a way forward and progress. We all desire peace in the Holy Land, and the talks between those two sides are essential to make that happen.
My Lords, the Opposition share the Government’s commitment to the two-state solution, and with the new Administrations in the US and Israel, there are opportunities. Can the Minister tell us what steps the Government are taking to help address the drivers of insecurity and injustice in the region, especially if they will not accept the recognition of Palestine?
My Lords, we continue to work with key partners, including the US, which is of course very important for progress. We continue to engage with both sides, as I have articulated, but, equally, we are supporting efforts such as the work being done with UNRWA in supporting education and skills in the Palestinian Territories. It is important that we continue in that respect to provide hope for the future and the basis of a future independent and viable Palestinian state.
Does the Minister agree with the opinion of our two most distinguished international lawyers, the late James Crawford and Professor Malcolm Shaw, in whose opinion Palestine is not a state under international law because it does not begin to conform to the criteria set out in the Montevideo convention? It does not have the right requirements to be a functioning lawful state.
The Government’s position is very clear. We believe that the best and the only way to ensure peace in the region is to have two states side by side, and a Palestinian state must be viable. We continue to invest our efforts in making that issue a reality but, ultimately, it needs both sides to sit down and begin the negotiations so that we can see those two states living side by side in peace.
Private Sector: Environment and COP 26
My Lords, we are calling on companies to commit to cut emissions via the UN’s Race To Zero campaign, to join in submitting near-term plans plus, by 2050, a net-zero goal for independent verification. The UK will also be the first G20 country to require mandatory TCFD-aligned discourses, and we have secured similar commitments from the G7. These initiatives show, among other things, how global businesses are going green and leading the way to a low-carbon future.
The private sector was very useful when it came to the AstraZeneca vaccine, and the Government were incredibly thoughtful and rushed forward to support that company; it was a good example. However, the four objectives are a bit aspirational at the moment, so we need to push forward the way in which the Government can get the private sector on their side. May I suggest that they look again at some examples such as contracts for difference, which was about giving guarantees to start-ups and new businesses in the private sector in order to push forward? In that way, we can have the same response in the private sector for the environment as we got with AstraZeneca.
My Lords, the best multinational companies have actually been ahead of the Government in relation to the sustainable development goals. Therefore, I wonder whether the Build Back Better World initiative announced at the G7 summit recently by the Prime Minister will actively engage multinational companies in delivering the sustainable development goals, and will the UK have a key role in taking forward this initiative after leading the G7 in Cornwall last month?
The noble Lord makes a very good point, and indeed we will. Already, 40 of the UK’s leading companies have joined the net-zero challenge and, as he will be aware, as part of the 10-point plan, the Government have invested over £12 billion to stimulate a green industrial revolution in the UK supporting up to 250,000 jobs.
The industrial strategy challenge fund has 10 challenges, and one of these, as the noble Lord will be aware, is the transforming construction fund, with £170 million of public funding and £250 million of private funding, providing safer, healthier and more affordable buildings that use dramatically less energy.
Building on the role of enlightened international businesses and with the exciting international leadership offered by COP 26, will my noble friend ensure that the magnificent Siemens wind turbine blade factory and Green Port Hull have the opportunity to showcase the pivotal role of the private sector in enabling all operations to move to a net-zero future? I declare my interest as chancellor of the university and sheriff of the city.
My noble friend makes a very good point. She will have seen the announcement that we made only this morning on additional investment in wind turbine infrastructure in the Humber and the Tees. We will of course showcase the excellent efforts of these companies.
My Lords, given the enthusiasm that the Minister has expressed for the work being done and the fact that many companies are making great progress in this area, do the Government support the Better Business Act campaign business leaders who are calling for the amendment of Section 172 of the Companies Act to remove shareholder privacy provisions so that companies are legally obliged to operate in a manner that benefits all stakeholders. Do the Government have plans to review the UK’s corporate governance code to ensure that it is in line with our net-zero-by-2050 target?
The noble Baroness makes a good point. We keep all these matters under constant review. We are constantly looking at the corporate governance code and we are reforming audit and corporate governance at the moment. We will be announcing some plans when the consultation has closed.
In June, the Government announced that Microsoft would join SSE, Scottish Power, NatWest Group, National Grid, Sky, Sainsbury’s, Hitachi, Reckitt and GSK as principal partners for COP 26. Can the Minister explain the Government’s criteria for appointing the principal partners? Does this mean that they consider these companies to have clear plans for achieving net zero which are being implemented with a company-determined contribution?
My Lords, can the Minister get all the companies that run public electric car chargers together in one room and force them to simplify and standardise their access and payment technologies? I ask because if anyone wants to drive an EV to Glasgow for the COP 26, they will need a phone full of apps, a handful of cards and nerves of steel in case the charger that they urgently need is either occupied or broken.
I think that the House has some sympathy with the points made by the noble Baroness. She will be delighted to hear that the Competition and Markets Authority is carrying out a market study into electric vehicle charging in the UK, considering two broad themes: how to develop a competitive sector and attract private investment, and how to ensure that people using EV charge points have confidence that they can get the best out of the service. I am sure that the noble Baroness will want to contribute to that study.
My Lords, I pay tribute to the work of the late Sir Roger Gifford, an exceptional leader in the City and on the green finance taskforce. A key output of the latter was the Green Finance Education Charter, a critical step for embedding vital skills for accurately assessing climate-related risks and opportunities in business, finance, and professional services. As set out in the Green Finance Strategy, the charter forms an important part of the Government’s path to COP 26. Can the Minister recommit to the programme of work today that is set out in that, and will he ensure that it delivers on its full potential ahead of COP 26?
My Lords, the increased attention given to climate change in boardrooms is largely being driven by investor sentiment. Last year, over 100 new environmental, social and governance funds were launched in Europe alone. ESG funds happen to be performing exceptionally well, demonstrating that ethical investing is profitable investing. Can my noble friend send a clear message to ESG investors today that the Government recognise their efforts, that they are welcome and that they will be supported?
I agree with the points made by my noble friend. The Government’s ambition is for the UK to be the best place in the world for green and sustainable investment. ESG funds are a crucial part of this. The Chancellor used his Mansion House speech on 1 July to announce a set of ambitious new policies to drive forward this important agenda.
My Lords, I refer to my interests as set out in the register. Can the Minister tell the House what steps the Government are taking to deliver decarbonisation of the existing housing stock and how they are supporting the delivery of the pipeline of skills required to undertake this work?
The Government are making substantial progress in this area. The noble Baroness will be aware that we will be publishing our heat building strategy shortly, which will help to set out this path. We are already doing a lot through a number of targeted investments, through the local authority delivery fund and the social housing decarbonisation fund, to help those on the lowest incomes to decarbonise their houses and properties.
My noble friend is very keen on innovation. I am delighted to tell him that, as part of BEIS’s £505 million energy innovation portfolio and our £10 million Industrial Energy Efficiency Accelerator programme, we have provided grant funding for technology developers—industrial sites to install, test and prove innovative equipment that could help to reduce energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. We have also boosted access for SMEs to energy efficiency innovation competition and provided £6 million to fund the development of innovative market solutions that can provide businesses with tailored energy efficiency advice.
My Lords, the Government hold regular meetings with the road haulage industry regarding driver shortages and the impact on supply chains. On 16 June, I hosted an industry round table, alongside the Employment Minister. We are supporting HGV driver training through apprenticeships and training for jobseekers, and encouraging drivers who need to renew their driver’s certificate of professional competence to return to the sector.
I welcome the government action. Brexit and Covid combined have, in part, led to the crisis that we face, as well as the closure of test centres during the Covid pandemic last year, preventing training of new drivers. The industry is stepping up to the plate by agreeing to pay drivers more. Will the Government look very carefully at encouraging women drivers to take up lorry driving, and at adding HGV drivers to the UK skills shortage list, as well as trying to provide even more training, test centres and the reissuing of licences?
If my noble friend does not mind, I shall focus on the first of those questions. First, I welcome any more pay for professional drivers, because they do an outstanding job. I recognise what my noble friend says about diversity. It is a very white, male sector. There are huge opportunities for the sector to diversify and, when it comes up with plans to do so—for example, Logistics UK’s Year of Logistics, which I hope we will get under way soon—I will be very happy to support them.
My Lords, perhaps I may pick up on the second part of the question of the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, and ask about adding lorry drivers to the post-Brexit skilled occupation list. I also ask for a period of not just six months but 18 months, which is what I understand the industry wants, in order to be able to attract, recruit and train new British drivers.
The industry needs to do an awful lot more to recruit, train and retain its staff, and perhaps I will be able to get into that a little later, but on foreign labour, the UK labour market has changed dramatically due to the pandemic. Many UK workers face an uncertain future. There will be employment opportunities within the professional driving sector, and I hope that they will apply for them.
My Lords, lorry drivers have been the hidden heroes of this pandemic and they deserve our full support. Does my noble friend the Minister agree that such jobs require good skills, training and investment, and are equally important to driving our economy forward as any university degree?
I agree that they have been some of the heroes during the pandemic, and ensure that I frequently tell them so. I think they have done a fantastic job, but it is time for the industry to step up just a little more. On 1 August last year, we suspended the HGV levy. This has saved the industry hundreds of millions of pounds. For each truck, it costs about £900 a year, so if you are a haulier with 3,000 trucks, you save £2.5 million. That could train 800 new drivers. I ask the industry to recruit those people and train them.
Finding effective solutions means first identifying the cause. Driver and other staff shortage problems could lead to higher food prices. I get the impression from the Minister’s answers that the Government do not accept any responsibility for the present situation, but may I seek clarification on that? Do the Government think that the staff shortage problems are due to the end of free movement and the way they are now implementing border controls, or due to the effect of repeated Covid lockdowns, or do the Government think they have no responsibility and that the staff shortages are due to low pay and poor terms and conditions of employment, inadequate manpower planning or a failure by the industry to invest in proper training programmes to meet future manpower needs?
All of the above; those are the issues we are facing. I have been Roads Minister now for two years, and I had this conversation with the haulage sector two years ago. It was very clear then that foreign labour would not be available to it. It has known that this was coming down the track. The TSC issued a report in 2016, pointing out exactly what the sector needed to do to address the shortage it had then, and yet still not enough has been done. I would accept that the Government stand ready to help. We have listened to the industry and work alongside the it. For example, on HGV testing, I have doubled the number of tests every week from the pre-Covid level. We are doing everything we can, and we need the industry to work in partnership with us.
To ensure that goods kept flowing into the United Kingdom after the end of the transition period, the Government recognised that there was a shortage in the capacity in our ports, so they deferred checks for hauliers. Why are they not deferring the Immigration Rules changes for hauliers, to ensure that they are able to bring goods into this country properly?
Hauliers are able to bring goods into this country properly. The issue is that there is a driver shortage in the UK market. There is also a shortage in the EU market, actually, and in many economies. I can announce to your Lordships’ House today that I have just temporarily extended drivers’ hours. I accept that that is definitely not a long-term solution: we must ensure that drivers’ safety is not compromised, and operators must notify the DfT.
The announcement my noble friend just made will be very welcome to the industry. Speaking to people in the industry, they say that they are facing the biggest crisis that they can recall in driver recruitment. Will the Government consider temporarily lifting the CPC regulations and the need for them for domestic drivers, now we are no longer in the European Union?
I thank my noble friend for his question. I have looked very carefully at driver CPC. It is my opinion that we need to put the “professional” back into professional driving. Driver CPC is a really good way to ensure ongoing training for the profession. It is one day a year, which I think is about the right amount of training. It ensures that they are up to date and maintain their skills and knowledge of the roads. The Government have funding available to support those who have a C+E licence who need to get their driver CPC, so there is a way for people to upgrade their qualification.
My Lords, as president of the CBI, I know that employers are facing the perfect storm of staff shortages as the economy reopens. First, does the Minister agree that the Government should immediately update the immigration shortage occupation list, as well as helping workers to gain skills? Secondly, does the Minister agree that, with cases projected to rise to up to 100,000 a day, instead of waiting until 16 August, from 19 July, instead of people having to isolate after coming into contact with a Covid-positive individual, we should have a test and release system, including using lateral flow tests, which will allow people to carry on with work?
The Minister appears to be blaming the industry and the pandemic but, given that she referred to discussions in 2016 and 2018, do the Government not have some responsibility in this respect? This crisis was eminently predictable, given the age profile of drivers and the likely reaction of east European drivers to Brexit. Do the Government need more powers and responsibilities to establish an emergency programme of training for qualified HGV drivers and to implement it in concert with the industry, unions and FE sector now?
I have said that this is a partnership between the industry and the Government. We will do what we can and we need industry to step up to the plate. I reiterate that the HGV levy has been lifted until mid-2022. That is a huge saving for the sector. It has the money that it could now invest in skills, and I very much encourage it to do so.
The railways are very hungry for traffic. The Minister has a list that I gave her of simple modifications that could be made and there are resources available. Will she use the idle resources on our railways to better advantage to move freight?
The noble Lord will know that I am a great fan of rail freight and where it is appropriate to shift freight to rail we certainly should do so. However, one thing that we should be setting up with the industry is a clear and transparent charter that sets out good practice, decent minimum standards for our professional drivers and a commitment to initial and ongoing training. It is time to put the “professional” back into professional drivers and I would be happy to support the industry in working towards such a charter for hauliers and their customers.
My Lords, it is not just lorry drivers. I detect skill shortages in every part of my day-to-day personal and business life—shortages of roofers, data scientists, maintenance engineers, digital marketeers, gardeners, and many more. Do the Government have an analytical grip on the functioning of the UK’s labour market? Do we have appropriate educational skills and immigration policies to enable our economy to reap its full potential?
Any government Minister could probably spend about an hour talking about all our responses to the pandemic, the changes to our labour market and what will be needed in different parts of the sector. One of the big things that the Government are focused on is apprenticeships. In the haulage sector in particular, we did exactly as it asked. We increased the C+E apprenticeship from £6,000 to £7,000 a year. We now need the industry to step up and take that £7,000; there is a £3,000 incentive if that is done before 30 September. Let us get more people into jobs.
Committee (6th Day)
Relevant documents: 3rd Report from the Delegated Powers Committee and 4th Report from the Constitution Committee
My Lords, the Hybrid Sitting of the House will now resume. I ask all Members to respect social distancing.
I shall call Members to speak in the order listed. During the debate on each group, I invite Members, including Members in the Chamber, to email the clerk if they wish to speak after the Minister. I shall call Members to speak in order of request. The groupings are binding. Participants who might wish to press an amendment other than the lead amendment in the group to a Division must give notice in debate or by emailing the clerk. Leave should be given to withdraw amendments. When putting the Question, I shall collect voices in the Chamber only. If a Member taking part remotely wants their voice accounted for, if the Question is put, they must make this clear when speaking on the group.
Clause 78: Drainage and sewerage management plans
Debate on Amendment 162 resumed.
My Lords, I am pleased to be able to continue the debate that was adjourned on Monday. In proposing my Amendment 175A, which is to do with blue-green flood-risk management, I follow some excellent speeches on Monday evening, including ones from the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, on nature-based solutions, and the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, on grey water. Alongside blue-green, these solutions are all about the need for an integrated, holistic system of preserving the water supply and dealing with wastewater and storm-water.
It is obvious to say this: rain is valuable and belongs to nobody, but its supply is limited and therefore it needs to be used sparingly. It is sometimes used too much and sometimes used too little. There is too much of it and too little. In the home, as the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, said—and I certainly support his amendment—separating grey water is a great idea. I have also heard that there is more to do because, apparently, some washing machine manufacturers refuse to guarantee machines if rainwater is used. Obviously, you would not use grey water, but it seems to me that rainwater could be used. Why is it not used? It is another source of water, rather than using processed fresh drinking water.
Putting rain into sewers, which then causes overflowing, adds massively to the carbon footprint with pumping and treatment. I spent some time in the last few years wondering why it was necessary for the Thames Tideway Tunnel to be built—not because I did not want the River Thames cleaned up, but because the evidence shows that the water in the Thames meets all the regulations now and, if it were to be started today, the tunnel would be found to not be needed. This is a £5 billion project and what nobody seems to remember or think is that pumping the water from very deep shafts, as they will be when they get to the end, and treating the water, which is mostly either flood-water or river water, creates an enormous carbon footprint. If blue-green had been started and was working by then, this could have all been avoided. Also, of course, it would have created quite a few jobs locally, less skilled than those needed for the tunnelling and all the other work that goes into the Thames Tideway Tunnel. We must always recognise that big contractors love these big jobs—a bit like HS2—and there is often benefit in having smaller work done by possibly less skilled and local workers.
However, that is a slight diversion and I will explain to the Committee a little more about blue-green. It is the idea of keeping as much rainwater as possible out of the sewers. It is quite simple really. There are several ways of doing it. The first one, and the easiest one for many people to understand, is to make sure that the rainwater drains from the roofs of properties and does not go into the sewerage system. It should go into soakaways. Soakaways are suitable in many areas but in other areas maybe they are not.
You can say the same about the run-off from roads, car parks and other hard surfaces. It does not really matter whether they are municipally owned, government-owned or privately owned. It is quite possible—it has been done in a number of cities in the United States—to convert some of these what you might call waterproof surfaces into more absorbent ones and/or build soakaways underneath parks to reduce the peak flows into sewers, so that some of the peak flow goes into what I am calling soakaways. Of course, you carry on by separating the outcomes from these soakaways from the sewage going to sewerage works. The outcome from the soakaways goes into the watercourses and rivers.
This is much easier to do with new builds but one bit of work done in connection with the Thames Tideway Tunnel alternative was to look at the two foul sewers going round, I think¸ London’s Sloane Street, both of which are mixed rainwater and sewage. It would not have been that difficult to convert one into one and one into the other rather than having both having a mix. Retrofitting is also something to be looked at; it would certainly reduce the water rates in existing properties. For new builds, it is obvious. I hope Ministers will look at that with some interest.
One of the other problems which blue-green obviously has, and some of the other solutions may have as well, is the need for so many different bodies to facilitate them—local authorities, obviously, water companies, river authorities, highways authorities, building control, commercial companies, as well as residents. One also needs to look at a way of incentivising people to want to do this. For example, residents might see a reduction in their water or sewerage charges if they accept not putting their rainwater into the sewers. All these things need looking at.
To conclude proposing my amendment and supporting the other two I mentioned, together, we have given the Minister a good package of measures to reduce floods, sewage overflows and carbon footprints, all of which are achievable at not too high a cost, by different means and in different circumstances. In responding to this group, I hope the Minister says that he will take away my amendment and the other two, and come back with one combined proposal to sort out all these issues to the benefit of the environment, water quality, costs and the environmental footprint.
I am delighted to follow the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley. I will speak to Amendments 192, 193 and 194 in my name and say a few words about the amendments in the name of the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington. I am delighted to support Amendment 175 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, which I have co-signed, being an enthusiastic supporter of grey water. Amendment 194A, in the name of my noble friend Lord Caithness, has much to commend it. I think a combination of these amendments will achieve what the Government are trying to do.
I say at the outset that one of the reasons I ask in Amendment 192 for the right to connect to housing developments is that, at the moment, it is not generally recognised that water companies are not statutory consultees on major new developments of 10, 30 or especially more—200 or 300—houses at a time. If the Government are not minded to make them statutory consultees, I hope my noble friend will look at involving local authorities more actively in the drainage and wastewater management plans. I understand that my honourable friend in the other place, Minister Pow, confirmed at the Dispatch Box that all risk management authorities will be required to participate in the drainage and wastewater management plans. I hope my noble friend takes this opportunity to confirm that; otherwise, I might have to bring forward an amendment on it.
I would argue that my Amendments 192, 193 and 194 are supplementary or the other side of the coin to those of the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington. I would go further, actually; the problem with the noble Duke’s amendments is that the major issue with infrastructure and engineering at the moment is that there is no obvious alternative to storm overflows. Huge investment and disruption would be required, even if no practical issues remained, to provide a solution in the timeframe that everybody would like to see. Closing storm overflows without such alternatives would mean a far greater likelihood of properties and businesses flooding during periods of heavy rainfall. I just recount the visits I have made to, among other parts of the country, my own area of North Yorkshire and Cumbria: it is only when you visit people in the midst of a flood that you see how it affects their health, welfare and well-being. Having sewage in your home through a storm overflow is absolutely disgusting.
The cost estimate for replacing storm overflows is £100 billion and it would probably be much more. I welcome the work being done by the storm overflows taskforce, but could my noble friend put a date on when he thinks there would be any prospect at all of storm overflows being replaced and say what he would like to do in the meantime? Any infrastructure-based solution to replace them would be a massive undertaking in disruption and expense, as I have already set out. We have already spoken, on other parts of the Bill, of the ways that many of us contribute, through wet wipes, cotton buds and other products that trigger blockages.
I am wedded to ending the automatic right to connect, as I have set out in Amendment 192. The Water Industry Act provisions on drainage and surface water are based on Victorian approaches to sewage as a public health, rather than an environmental, risk. This Bill is an opportunity to update that part of the legislation—and not before time. With this amendment, alongside other proposed amendments on overflows, I am calling for a government commitment to review the drainage provisions of the Water Industry Act. With my noble friend Lord Caithness’s amendment on the need to review the Water Industry Act provisions, following these discussions, we could work in great harmony to achieve this together.
I move on to sustainable drainage systems and natural flood defences. Either through the amendments I have tabled here or others I intend to bring forward on Report, I would like to see the Environment Bill amend Section 106 of the Water Industry Act to remove the automatic right to connect and impose the application of a drainage hierarchy, together with connection to a combined sewer identified as only the very last resort—which I think my noble friend set out in a Written Answer to me. I would rather not see them connected at all, but I would accept that as the very last resort, as long as they exist. That approach would ensure that surface water is kept separate from foul water and embed a natural-by-default approach to surface water drainage.
I would also like to go further and update planning guidance to make SUDS, sustainable drainage—a great passion of mine—the preferred option for managing surface water in all new developments, rather than just major developments of 10 homes or more, as at present. Accepting the recommendations made to Defra that non-statutory technical standards for SUDS should be mandatory, I would like to introduce a new right to discharge surface water to watercourses and empower sewage undertakings to discharge rainwater down pipes and into soakaways.
The single item that would really move things forward is ending the automatic right to connect. Water companies are powerless to prevent these spillages at the moment, because there is nowhere else for sewage overflows to go when there is immense rainfall, as we have identified. Surface water flooding has been recognised only since 2007. We are binding the hands of water companies behind their backs, and this is the time to end that automatic right. These are three little amendments: Amendment 192 ends the right to connect to housing developments automatically if the water companies cannot say that the infrastructure exists such that there is somewhere for the effluent and sewage to go; Amendment 193 asks for sustainable drainage systems and natural flood defences; Amendment 194 asks that water companies become statutory consultees on housing developments.
I end by recalling why we are here with this Bill. It is, in part, a response to the Pitt review of 2007. There are three key recommendations of that review that have not yet been implemented, whereas we have proceeded to make it easier for developers to build on flood plains and to roll out more houses, which the Government seem to think are priorities.
Recommendation 10 of the Pitt review was:
“The automatic right to connect surface water drainage of new developments to the sewerage system should be removed.”
Recommendation 20 was:
“The Government should resolve the issue of which organisations should be responsible for the ownership and maintenance of sustainable drainage systems.”
That goes to the point of the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, on retrofitting. I am wedded to SUDS, but the issue of who is responsible for maintaining them is key to making sure they do not contribute to future spills. Recommendation 21 was:
“Defra should work with Ofwat and the water industry to explore how appropriate risk-based standards for public sewerage systems can be achieved.”
This is our last opportunity to make these recommendations real and end the dreadful experience of householders waking up to sewage because, in the current circumstances, there is nowhere else for the wastewater to go.
My Lords, I support many of the amendments in this group, and my Amendment 194A is on exactly the same theme.
I liked what the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, said on Monday and what the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, said on Monday about grey water. He is absolutely right, of course: there is no reason why this could not be included in every new building. Indeed, my noble kinsman and his noble friend, the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, and I were involved in a project at the visitor centre at the Castle of Mey 15 years ago, and we did exactly this. It is perfectly feasible, has worked extremely well and is very beneficial for the environment.
All these amendments deal with a common theme: resilience to climate change. The Climate Change Committee has pointed out how behind the Government are on meeting the problems of resilience. The resilience needs to be improved, not only because we are building more and more roads, houses, commercial buildings and railways but because the weather is changing. The rain is getting heavier and often more localised. I refer again to the floods in the West Country 10 days ago, when whole roads were ripped up by the force of water coming down the hill. Most of that water should have been dealt with in a different way.
My amendment seeks to make surface water management more adequate. I am extremely grateful to my noble friend on the Front Bench for the amendment he has put forward but, like many others, I do not think it goes far enough. It is a good start, but on Report we need to strengthen it.
We have been quite critical of how our water has been dealt with, but one ought to just pause and thank our Victorian ancestors for building in the way they did. The fact that we can still use most of their system and get away with it in a reasonable fashion is a huge tribute to our ancestors. I hope that in 100 years, future generations will say that this generation was as good as the generation I am talking about, that of our great-great-grandfathers.
My amendment is to take away surface water, whether from new buildings or roads, from the sewage system. There is absolutely no need for it to go into the sewage system. As my noble friend Lady McIntosh said—I thank her for supporting my amendment—there is an automatic right to connect to a sewage system. The water companies are not statutorily consulted but told that a development is taking place and somehow have to meet it. If their system cannot meet it, that is where we have the floods, pollution and destruction of the environment.
My amendment is really very simple. It combines with various others to allow the Government to take a slightly different path. You cannot deal with the whole question of water unless you look at surface water. My amendment is to allow the Government to
“amend the drainage provisions of the Water Industry Act 1991 … to ensure they remain fit for purpose”.
At the moment they are not fit for purpose. There are other, better ways of dealing with it. Considering how much new development is taking place and about to take place, and how much more will take place when we get the—as far as I am concerned—dreaded planning Bill next year, now is the time to nail this problem before it is too late.
My Lords, just as in the previous group, in this group there are some really forward-thinking amendments that can go a long way to ending our devastating impact on rivers and the wider environment. Some are so good that I have amendment envy and wish I had thought of them—but obviously two Greens cannot be everywhere, although we do our best.
We all seem to agree here that we currently use water in an extremely illogical way. So much clean, drinkable water is flushed down the loo when there is a really obvious alternative: to not use it. The separation and capture of grey water should be routine, and the Government should make it a requirement in building regs, because the benefits are so blindingly clear.
I operate a grey water system at home, which means flushing the loo with my washing-up water. It is very sophisticated. I walk with the bowl from one room to the other, and it works extremely well. The water out of our sinks is likely contaminated with eco-friendly soap, perhaps dirt from our hands, bits of food and things like that, but it is fine for washing our toilets, watering our gardens, even washing our cars—if you have one—and doing a whole host of other things. This relatively simple system will of course hugely cut down on our water usage and the stresses placed on the sewage system, because we automatically cut down our wastewater by almost half.
When we combine this separation and reuse of grey water with the separation of sewage from drainage, we have a much more sustainable water system. I hope that not very long into the future we will look back on the idea of using clean water to flush our toilets and then mixing it with rainwater, before spending huge amounts of money getting the sewage back out, as almost as illogical and disgusting as throwing our toilet contents out of the windows into the open streets, as used to happen a couple of hundred years ago. In truth, we have actually just made it a bit more complicated and put the sewers underground, but in essence it is the same: we are throwing our sewage into our streets.
This should be a priority for the Government, both at home and around the world. The same solutions that will clean up our sewage system in the UK will help clean, safe water systems elsewhere in the world. We have a responsibility to make sure that other countries have safe water supplies. This does all sorts of things, including reducing the risk of disease for millions of people in other countries. Of course, it also significantly reduces our disastrous impact on the earth’s rivers, lakes and seas.
I keep raising the issue of COP 26 but, quite honestly, we have to have something to take there that we are actually proud of. The rest of the world will be watching. It will not be like the G7; it will be a completely different situation in which other countries will judge us on what we are doing here, and I just hope we can measure up.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Randall of Uxbridge, has withdrawn, so I call the noble Lord, Lord Lucas.
My Lords, I very much support the idea that the automatic right of connection should end. We really need an arrangement that puts pressure on developers to make their developments as friendly to the water system as possible, and an automatic right of connection obviously does not achieve that—so that should be a very fruitful direction to go in.
Has my noble friend looked at the Hampshire County Council nitrates credit scheme? This is a scheme it is putting together so that new housing developments in Hampshire, which would otherwise add to the nitrate burden in rivers and therefore to nitrate pollution in the estuary, can offset that additional pollution by purchasing farmland, which is currently a substantial source of nitrates, and taking that out of production. This is an interesting idea, but I very much hope my noble friend will look at integrating such schemes into the overall direction of the Bill.
First, I do not think it is a good idea that developers should have a simple way around their obligations. They ought to be doing things internal to the development to reduce pollution and the stress on the water system. To allow them to buy their way out of it does not seem desirable. On the other side of things, if we are to take land out of production for these purposes, that absolutely ought to be integrated with the other schemes happening in the Bill—forestry, rewilding, biodiversity gain and so on—not just something that happens randomly on the side. I very much hope that between now and Report my noble friend will be able to take an interest in what Hampshire is up to.
The second issue is looking at what might happen around us in geography such as Eastbourne’s. I have known for a long time that there are schemes to take the output of our sewage plants on the coast, pipe that back inland to make an artificial marsh and then use the outflow of that marsh as part of the water supply, in an area that is currently pretty short of water for new housing. That seems to be something we should support but, given that that is a summer activity, because that is when we are short of water for human use, it also provides a convenient pipeline to use in the other direction in winter: we could use it to take water from a river upstream and pipe it straight down to the sewage outflow on the coast, thereby reducing flooding risk. I very much hope the Minister will be able to tell me that we are looking at such schemes, and to connect me with the officials who are considering them.
We need—in this legislation and otherwise—to do things to get water straight in terms of supply, what we do with wastewater and, in particular, avoiding the levels of river pollution we have seen over recent years. I am delighted that the Government are moving in this direction but I am convinced, as are many others in this debate, that they need to do more.
My Lords, wastewater infrastructure in England is a bit of a mess, as many noble Lords have said. I remember that when I came down from Scotland to live in England 40 years ago, I was amazed because in Scotland surface water and foul water were strictly separated. Discovering with horror that the casual intermingling of surface water drainage and sewerage systems was almost the rote in England—a curious mix of some legal stuff and some illegal arrangements—just staggered me.
We have not made much progress in those 40 years. There has been insufficient investment in drainage and sewerage infrastructure, and Ofwat does not always take the consequent environmental problems seriously enough in its price determinations. I welcome the requirement in the Bill for sewerage undertakers to prepare and, hopefully, implement drainage and sewage management plans, but I support Amendment 162A, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington. It would give these plans an environmental objective, which, hopefully, would encourage Ofwat to agree more investment for environmental purposes.
Amendment 164 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, would end the automatic right to connect, and it has been supported by a number of noble Lords. Water companies need to be able to say no to connecting developments where sewerage systems are already overloaded. The amendment would also kick-start discussions well in advance to ensure that adequate sewage treatment could be provided in appropriate time, at the point where developments can be flexible, and prevent future environmental damage. Amendment 192, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, would have a similar effect, although in the more restricted ambit of major new housing developments.
I am reminded of a dreadful face-off that had to take place between the Environment Agency and the developers of Corby when I was the agency’s chief executive. My noble friend Lord Rooker, who I am deeply grateful is not in his place, was Minister at the time and very keen on the redevelopment of Corby in the interest of jobs. Frankly, he beat me up severely to try to persuade the Environment Agency to provide the necessary licences for that development. Corby was going to increase in size massively but was perched on the top of a tiny, failing Victorian sewerage system that simply would not have coped. The face-off went on for months but eventually resulted in funds being found to improve the sewerage system. The development went ahead, but I must admit that I only ever enter Corby incognito since they appear to have quite long memories in those parts.
I have a particular question for the Minister. On the implementation of drainage and sewage management plans, what assurances can he give that the successive water price rounds, as determined by Ofwat, will provide the right level of funding for drainage and sewage management plans over a reasonably short space of time? Price rounds come round only periodically, and stretching that over several cycles would mean that we were still waiting a very long time for the improvement to our sewerage and drainage systems that needs to be delivered.
My Lords, this is an important group of amendments dealing with the improvement of drainage and sewerage systems, and it raises similar issues to the previous group that we debated on Monday evening. I have added my name to Amendments 162 and 163, tabled by the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, and also signed by the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann.
At Second Reading we heard from various noble Lords across the Chamber about the devastating effect that the discharge of untreated sewage is having on our rivers, waterways and coastal waters. Amendments 162 and 163 seek to ensure that sewage treatment plants are improved and that there is separation of surface water drainage systems and sewerage systems, an issue that the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, has just raised.
Water companies must ensure that they are operating within the law, and their priority should be to ensure that no foul water is discharged into rivers and waterways. That must take precedence over shareholder dividends. Apologies to any Members here today who hold shares in the water companies, but cleaning up the state of our waterways has to move higher up the agenda. The noble Duke has also referred to a deferral of dividends.
Water companies have management plans, and it is time that the safe and effective treatment of sewage had equal status with drinking-water quality. The rest of the world, especially the USA, thinks of our country as a green and pleasant land with flowing gentle rivers and streams, when the reality is very different, with raw sewage and waste floating in our rivers and clogging up our streams.
Ofwat has a role to play here, alongside the Treasury and the Secretary of State, in imposing a legal duty on the water companies to clean up their act. The noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, has spoken about the new drainage and sewage management plans. He encourages sewerage authorities to look positively to nature-based solutions instead of using SUDS. Nature-based solutions must be designed before development begins. The noble Lord also gave graphic details of rubber particles and road oils, which often run off our roads and end up in our rivers. Sewage treatment works are not capable of dealing with these pollutants, so yet another toxic substance enters our waterways.
My noble friend Lord Teverson has spoken of the need for all new buildings to be fitted with greywater systems. This is a far better use of water and reduces the actual demand for freshwater. I too remember the BREEAM standards for all new buildings, promoted by Jonathon Porritt when we were both on the South West of England Regional Development Agency many years ago.
Water is a finite resource and we should reuse it where possible. The housing shortage is acute but so is the need to increase the quality of our rivers and waterways. Conserving and reusing water is all part of ensuring that the country meets its targets on all fronts. The noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, has spoken eloquently about blue-green flood risk management, the collection of rainwater and preventing it from entering the sewerage system.
We all realise that the water authorities are under pressure, but it is time the capacity issue of clean water and sewage disposal was tackled in a cohesive and overarching way. It cannot be acceptable for raw sewage to be discharged into rivers, often where children will swim and play in the summer holidays. If there is insufficient capacity at treatment plants then it is time for infrastructure investment. The Government want to build more much-needed housing. If investment is made in water treatment and sewage disposal then there should be no block on housing development.
The noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, has also spoken about the capacity of water treatment plants and the connection of new housing estates. The noble Baroness is correct to identify that there should be a legal obligation to respond for statutory consultees on major new housing developments. They cannot later then say that they do not have the capacity to cope. They must flag this at the start of the process and work with local authorities to ensure that no housing development takes place where the result will be raw sewage discharged into waterways.
The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, has supported ending the automatic right of connection to the sewerage system, and developers should take more responsibility for their actions. The noble Earl, Lord Caithness, has spoken about the need for resilience in our water management. The noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, has spoken about the using rainwater instead of fresh water.
I look forward to the Minister’s response to this group of amendments, the subject matter of which has been raised several times during our deliberations on this Environment Bill. It is time that we resolved it.
My Lords, noble Lords have made some important contributions in this debate. I would like to start by thanking the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, for his clear and helpful introduction on Monday evening to his Amendments 162 and 163. As we heard from the noble Duke, these two amendments would embed within drainage and sewerage management plans the requirement to continually improve the sewerage system and reduce the harm caused by wastewater management.
The noble Duke also talked about the importance of improving systems annually, while recognising that the upgrades needed to our drainage and sewerage systems constitute a serious level of investment. As the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville, has just said, both the Treasury and Ofwat will have an important role to pay, but as the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, rightly pointed out, this will be a green investment, with an immediate benefit for the environment and for all wildlife. My noble friend Lady Young of Old Scone mentioned the lack of investment over many years; I thought her example of the difference she noticed between England and Scotland when she moved here was really quite striking.
Amendments 162A and 163A in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, consider the importance of the new drainage and sewerage management plans to deliver environmental benefits. The noble Lord referred to the dramatic rise in planned housing provision—other noble Lords have mentioned this—and to how important it is that drainage and sewerage plans actually work. His amendment is designed to work not only for customers but for the environment. As he said in his introduction, nature-based solutions should be a compulsory part of the planning system.
Amendment 164, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, would end the automatic right to connect, enabling water companies to decline new connections to the sewerage system where this would cause environmental harm. His introduction, and the wider debate, have shown support for resolving this situation.
In the previous group, on Monday, we debated the Government’s new Amendment 165, on storm overflows. As we heard, this followed the huge support for the proposals contained within Philip Dunne’s Sewage (Inland Waters) Bill in the other place. This is welcome, yet, as my noble friend Lady Jones of Whitchurch laid out, government Amendment 165 falls far short of the ambition of the Private Member’s Bill, which is why the amendments we are debating in this group are necessary and why we support them.
We strongly support putting drainage and wastewater management plans on to a statutory footing. However, within the Bill, we have two particular concerns. First, the Bill confusingly refers to
“Drainage and sewerage management plans”,
despite Defra and the industry jointly working on “drainage and wastewater management plans” for many years, and companies already publishing plans with that name. We do not consider this to be a minor point, because the terms “sewerage” and “wastewater” are not interchangeable; “sewerage” has a narrower meaning that excludes many sources of contamination that enters rivers. If drainage plans are to be successful, all areas of contamination must be included.
Also, the Bill places obligations on water companies only for something that they are already doing. This does not reflect the scale of the challenge from climate change, or that drainage is universally recognised to be a shared responsibility, with other organisations also responsible for managing surface water. As written, the plans will exclude significant bodies involved in drainage and eliminate much of the potential benefits that customers, society and the environment could otherwise gain. While water companies will lead the production of DWMPs, and are already committing significant resources in carrying out this role, it is a fundamental feature of drainage and wastewater planning that water companies cannot do this in isolation, because drainage is shared with other risk management authorities, as defined in the Flood and Water Management Act 2010.
There are, for example, large numbers of drainage assets that are not under the ownership of water companies, the management of which needs to be integrated into DWMPs. This has been recognised by the National Infrastructure Commission in its recommendation that
“water companies and local authorities should work together to publish joint plans to manage surface water flood risk by 2022.”
Therefore, we need to see within the Environment Bill that all other flood risk management authorities will have a duty to co-operate in the production of DWMPs. There should also be the ability to require other flood risk management authorities to provide any information needed for their production. It would be helpful if regional flood and coastal committees were statutory consultees for DWMPs.
I turn to Amendments 175 and 175A in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley. The use of grey water systems, blue-green flood risk management systems and other nature-based solutions would keep excess surface water out of sewers. The noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, talked about why we need to consider rainwater more when we look at our water usage, but also the involvement of catchment partnerships would ensure that we have local input to storm overflow reduction plans. I ask the Minister whether this is being looked at.
The noble Lord, Lord Teverson, talked about the opportunity to reduce water consumption and the need to improve the future homes standard, which is clearly very important. Many noble Lords have mentioned this, and the Government really need to take note.
Proposed new clauses in Amendments 192, 193 and 194 on water and development, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, are helpful in drawing attention to the impacts of housing development upon the water environment and in highlighting the role that nature-based solutions can play in tackling water pollution and flooding issues. The role that local authorities have to play was particularly mentioned by the noble Baroness, and she talked also about the need for alternatives to storm overflows.
The related proposed new clause in Amendment 194A, in the name of the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, on amending drainage provisions, would require the Secretary of State to amend the drainage provisions of the Water Industry Act 1991, as the noble Lord explained in his introduction. He quite rightly talked about the importance of resilience to climate change and the increasing threat of flooding. We have an amendment on flooding, which will be debated later today. The noble Lord’s amendment would also embed a greater range of purposes in the drainage provisions and better enable the water industry to contribute to the achievement of a range of objectives that the Government have laid out in their 25-year environment plan.
This has been a very interesting debate and I hope the Minister has listened carefully to the very constructive approach from noble Lords on how the drainage and sewerage systems can be improved. As the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, reminded the Committee, COP 26 will be soon upon us and so the world’s eyes are looking at what we are doing for our environment. Improving our rivers and water systems is one way we could show real leadership as a country. I await the Minister’s response with interest.
I thank all noble Lords for their thoughtful and helpful contributions on these important issues.
The drainage and sewerage management plans introduced by Clause 78 will deliver improvements for both customers and the environment. They will be produced at least every five years and cover a 25-year planning horizon, enabling sewerage undertakers to develop and maintain a complete picture of their networks, including their capacity and the future demands on them. This is essential for undertakers to understand risks to their networks, their customers and the environment, and to develop mitigations to address them.
Regarding Amendments 162 and 163 in the name of the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, Amendment 164 from the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, and Amendment 192 from the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, the Government wholeheartedly agree that water companies must improve their drainage and sewerage systems and report on discharges. It is for this reason that Clause 78(3) sets out the specific matters that drainage and sewerage management plans must address. Plans must provide an assessment of the sewerage undertaker’s drainage and sewerage system capacity, including “current and future demands”, as well as its resilience. The sewerage undertaker must set out in the plan how it will maintain an effective system of sewerage and drainage and when any necessary actions with regard to this will be taken.
Paragraph 681 of the Bill’s Explanatory Notes makes it explicitly clear that
“environmental risks will include storm overflows and their impact on water quality.”
The relevant Ministers may also make directions specifying additional matters that must be addressed by the plan. I want to be clear that the Government will not hesitate to use this power of direction if any sewerage undertaker’s plans fall short. The Government are also clear that sewerage undertakers must be transparent. Clause 78(5) requires sewerage undertakers to review their plans annually and
“send a statement of the conclusions of its review to the Minister.”
In addition, the new government amendments to the Bill, which we discussed on Monday, will further commit English sewerage undertakers to report annually on storm overflow activity.
Finally, the plans will facilitate collaboration between sewerage undertakers, local authorities and developers to understand proposed new housing developments and possible future pressures that may be placed on an undertaker’s system. Drainage and wastewater management plans will be taken into account for the first price review and every subsequent review. My understanding is that work on the next review begins pretty much immediately after the first review is finished. I say that in response to the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, who I think raised that issue.
I move to Amendments 162A, 163A, 175A, 193 and 194A from the noble Lords, Lord Cameron of Dillington and Lord Berkeley, the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, and my noble friend Lord Caithness. The Government are clear that we expect plans to deliver for both customers and the environment. I am pleased to inform noble Lords that the UK Government, the Welsh Government, Ofwat, the Environment Agency and Natural Resources Wales will shortly be issuing joint guidance to undertakers making it clear that we expect them to consider green infrastructure and nature-based and low-carbon solutions when mitigating risks.
As I said on Monday, our view is very much that, where a nature-based solution exists, it must be the default. In these days of tightened budgets and reduced access to resources, it is incumbent upon government to make sure that when we purchase a solution, it delivers in the broadest possible way and, almost every time, that is a nature-based solution. I hope that that reassures the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, who made a very passionate case for nature-based solutions. Clause 78 must therefore be as broad as possible to enable all this to continue as plans are placed on a statutory footing. Again, I reassure noble Lords that the Government will not hesitate to make directions to undertakers specifying additional matters that must be addressed by the plans if they are inadequate.
I emphasise that it is current government policy that nature-based solutions should be considered first, as I said earlier. The Government promote the use of blue-green infrastructure, such as sustainable drainage systems, grey water recycling and natural flood management. Indeed, the National Planning Policy Framework already ensures that blue-green infrastructure is provided in all new developments unless there is clear evidence that this would not be appropriate, and it should be given priority in new developments in flood risk areas.
Last year, the Government also published the Flood and Coastal Erosion Risk Management: Policy Statement, which sets out our long-term ambition to create a nation more resilient to these increasingly unpredictable risks. The statement sets out our commitment to
“double the number of government funded”
flood management projects, which includes natural flood management. Alongside this, the Government’s Storm Overflows Taskforce, set up to eliminate harm from storm overflows, is considering a number of drainage issues including blue-green infrastructure, and will be reporting in the summer.
I take this opportunity to add a response to a comment that was made by the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, on this issue right at the end of the debate on Monday. He suggested that I had dismissed the possibility of eliminating harm from storm overflows on the basis that it would be too expensive. That really is not at all what I said. I pointed out the estimated cost, which is anything from
“£200 billion to £500 billion”.—[Official Report, 5/7/21; col. 1137.]
We do not know exactly how much it is going to cost. It is therefore surely right that a Minister standing at the Dispatch Box should not casually accept an amendment that would lead to that scale of investment over an unknown period. However, we are committed to tackling this area and are doing the work to inform the appropriate policy steps. Like all noble Lords who have spoken on this issue, we do not regard it as acceptable that sewage is poured into our waterways and water systems.
The Government’s environmental land management schemes also have reduction of flood risk as one of the key outcomes eligible for public money. The Government have committed to delivering an integrated approach to managing water, and the actions I have outlined will support water quality, flood risk management and climate resilience goals to protect communities and the environment. They will also contribute towards the Government’s commitment to the UN’s global sustainable development goals.
Regarding Amendment 194 tabled by my noble friend Lady McIntosh of Pickering, water and sewerage undertakers and internal drainage boards maintain strong relationships and engagement with local authorities in relation to planning. This helps identify significant future developments long before formal planning consent is sought for them and enables early discussion.
Clause 78 provides for regulations as to
“the persons to be consulted”
on drainage and sewerage management plans. The meaning of “persons” is very broad and will enable the Government to set out in regulations all existing statutory consultees as well as a range of other stakeholders to be consulted. As water companies will co-operate with developers and local authorities in the preparation of their drainage and sewerage management plans, this will help mitigate the impacts of automatic connection by planning better for future housing developments. I say that in response to my noble friend Lady McIntosh, who rightly raised that issue.
Also, for my noble friend’s benefit, regarding the assurance provided by my honourable friend in the other place, Rebecca Pow, I can reconfirm and reissue that assurance here in front of this Committee. Under the Flood and Water Management Act 2010, water and sewerage companies and a number of other bodies are statutory flood-risk management authorities and therefore must co-operate with each other. To avoid any possible doubt, we are committed to preparing an amending statutory instrument to ensure that it is crystal clear.
I will respond very briefly to the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman. We refer to drainage and sewerage management plans in the Bill because that is the wording used in the Water Industry Act, which this Bill amends. I am assured that it means the same thing in real terms and there is no discrepancy.
Regarding Amendment 175 from the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, I am pleased to say that my right honourable friend the Environment Secretary last week published a Written Ministerial Statement on reducing water demand. This announced actions the Government will take in response to the 2019 consultation on measures to reduce personal water consumption. In response to the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, this includes plans in 2022 to
“develop a roadmap towards greater water efficiency in new developments and retrofits”,
including through building regulations and using new technologies to meet these standards. I am happy to confirm that we will be considering the use of grey water recycling further as part of this work.
The lead department in relation to planning is of course not Defra but MHCLG, and I am in regular discussions with that department, as is my noble friend Lady Bloomfield. I have been asked by the Secretary of State for MHCLG to help identify things that need to be included in building regulations that will further add to protections of the environment, not just in relation to water but to a whole range of biodiversity and nature-related issues. That is an invitation that I and Rebecca Pow will greedily accept.
We will also ensure that any relevant underlying legislation can, where appropriate, accommodate any potential future expansion of rainwater harvesting as well as other water reuse and storage options. I hope that the details I have set out about how the measures in this Bill and future actions will interlock with and support other areas of government policy on water management have been helpful. Sustainable management of water delivers multiple benefits to society and the environment. I thank noble Lords for their contributions and hope that I have shown that the Government have listened. I respectfully ask that the amendment be withdrawn.
My Lords, I have received a request to speak after the Minister from the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann.
My Lords, I apologise for not being able to participate in the earlier discussion. I thank my noble friend for his clear response and for the meeting that he held. Will he clarify the Government’s thinking? Clause 78 requires a plan and an annual review, but who takes responsibility for the urgent action needed to control not just storm overflows but other discharges that are polluting our rivers? What will plans entailing long-term action mean for the Government’s expectation of how this will work? I know that my noble friend passionately agrees that we must deal with this issue. Will he commit to having further discussions with all interested noble Lords?
I thank my noble friend, as I will call him, the Duke of Wellington for all the work he has done to address the issue of who should take responsibility for the urgent action and financing needed to improve this situation and to invest the necessary resources to avoid or reduce polluting our rivers year by year. This could be done together with Ofwat, possibly by passing the costs of sewage waste on to household and commercial water bills. At the moment, it seems that people do not really focus on the costs of the waste they generate: it is waste, it is gone and therefore it does not feature, as it would if there were a perceived or actual cost. Perhaps the Minister would agree to meet to discuss this possibility.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for her useful intervention. She is right: the cost of pollution rarely features on the balance sheet. Her suggestion that, in order to move forward, we need to find a way of internalising those costs is spot on. It is also the main thesis of the Dasgupta review. She asked who will be responsible: ultimately, the water companies will need to improve their act in order to prevent pollution of our waterways, but it is for the Government to set the framework and the rules. It is not the Government who will deliver the solution on the ground: that will be for the water companies and they will be required to do so. She also asked if I would be willing to meet. Yes, of course, I would be happy to meet her, my noble friend the Duke of Wellington and anyone else who has a particular interest in this issue. I am very keen to get this right.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for assuring us that he is talking to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government about greywater and other related issues. I ask him to work really hard on this, because the longer it goes on, the more homes—hundreds of thousands—will be built that are not up to the standards that probably everybody in this House wants, including the Minister. Can he give us some idea of when we will get the new standards up and running, be it on greywater, flooding, heat conservation, net zero, or keeping houses cool in the future when temperatures rise? This is urgent, and housebuilders need to get on with it.
I am not sure that I can give the noble Lord a date, because that is not in the hands of Defra and certainly not in in mine. I can absolutely offer him an assurance, however. There are an enormous number of things that need to be done to building regulations in order to maximise the chance for nature to flourish, to tackle water waste, and to slow down the flow of surface water to prevent flooding. The list goes on and on. I am certainly not an expert: I have ideas of my own, but I am talking to a number of people outside government who really are experts. I am harvesting the best possible ideas and suggestions for building regulations. I cannot guarantee that I will win every argument, but I extend that invitation to Members of this House. If people have ideas about things that should be included—particularly for new-builds, but also retrofit—I will gratefully receive them because I am in the market for ideas.
My Lords, I thank everyone who has taken part in this debate, which was interrupted, unfortunately, on Monday evening. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, I was very struck by the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Young, about the difference between Scotland and England in the treatment of wastewater. I must admit that I had not known that. I hope that the Minister and his officials will take note of that discrepancy and consider it an additional indicator of how much we still have to do in England to improve our systems.
I am obviously disappointed that the Government are not yet prepared to place an immediate legal obligation on the water companies to begin to improve, and continue to improve, their treatment plants. I am pleased that the Minister has indicated that he is prepared to meet further. It would be helpful if we could find amendments that are more acceptable to the Government, because I sense a strong cross-party consensus in the House that we have to do more than the Bill currently proposes. I particularly hope that the Government will consider doing more along the lines of the amendments of my noble friend Lord Cameron, on nature-based solutions, and the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, on greywater systems.
There were many good parts to this debate, but the best part was the clear recognition throughout the House that we must do more to clean up our rivers. The Minister has mentioned again this afternoon the disturbingly high estimated cost of upgrading the systems: between £200 billion and £500 billion. Obviously, that is an alarming figure. Is he prepared to write to me explaining how that figure was arrived at? Clearly, the country as a whole would have great difficulty financing that. Nevertheless, we must deal with the problem. It has been a helpful debate, along with the debate we had on Monday evening about storm overflows, but in the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
Amendment 162 withdrawn.
Amendments 162A to 164 not moved.
Clause 78 agreed.
165: After Clause 78, insert the following new Clause—
In Part 4 of the Water Industry Act 1991 (sewerage services), after Chapter 3 insert—“CHAPTER 4STORM OVERFLOWS141A Storm overflow discharge reduction plan(1) The Secretary of State must prepare a plan for the purposes of—(a) reducing discharges from the storm overflows of sewerage undertakers whose area is wholly or mainly in England, and(b) reducing the adverse impacts of those discharges.(2) The reference in subsection (1)(a) to reducing discharges of sewage includes—(a) reducing the frequency and duration of the discharges, and(b) reducing the volume of the discharges.(3) The reference in subsection (1)(b) to reducing adverse impacts includes—(a) reducing adverse impacts on the environment, and(b) reducing adverse impacts on public health. (4) The plan may in particular include proposals for—(a) reducing the need for anything to be discharged by the storm overflows;(b) treating sewage that is discharged by the storm overflows;(c) monitoring the quality of watercourses, bodies of water or water in underground strata into which the storm overflows discharge;(d) obtaining information about the operation of the storm overflows.(5) When preparing the plan the Secretary of State must consult—(a) the Environment Agency,(b) the Authority,(c) the Council,(d) Natural England,(e) sewerage undertakers whose area is wholly or mainly in England, or persons representing them, and(f) such other persons as the Secretary of State considers appropriate.(6) The Secretary of State must publish the plan before 1 September 2022.(7) The Secretary of State may at any time revise the plan, having consulted the persons referred to in subsection (5), and must publish any revised version.(8) The plan, and any revised version of it, must be laid before Parliament once it is published.141B Progress reports on storm overflow discharge reduction plan(1) The Secretary of State must publish reports (“progress reports”) relating to the plan under section 141A.(2) A progress report is to contain the Secretary of State’s assessment of—(a) the progress made, during the period to which the report relates, in implementing the proposals in the plan (or any revised version of it), and(b) the effect of that progress on the matters referred to in section 141A(1)(a) and (b).(3) The first progress report must relate to the period of three years beginning with the day on which the plan under section 141A is first published.(4) Subsequent progress reports must relate to successive periods of five years after the period referred to in subsection (3).(5) A progress report must be published within 12 weeks following the last day of the period to which it relates.(6) A progress report must be laid before Parliament once it is published.141C Annual reports on discharges from storm overflows(1) A sewerage undertaker whose area is wholly or mainly in England must publish annual reports in relation to the undertaker’s storm overflows (“storm overflow reports”).(2) A storm overflow report must specify, for each of the sewerage undertaker’s storm overflows—(a) the location of the storm overflow;(b) the watercourse, body of water or underground strata into which the storm overflow discharges;(c) the frequency and duration of discharges from the storm overflow in the period to which the report relates;(d) where the information is available, the volume of each discharge in that period; (e) information on any investigations that have taken place or improvement works that have been undertaken in relation to the storm overflow during that period.(3) Storm overflow reports are to relate to successive calendar years, starting with 2021.(4) A storm overflow report must be published by a sewerage undertaker before 1 April in the year after the calendar year to which it relates.(5) A storm overflow report must—(a) be in a form which allows the public readily to understand the information contained in the report, and(b) be published in a way which makes the report readily accessible to the public.(6) The duties of a sewerage undertaker under this section are enforceable under section 18 by—(a) the Secretary of State, or(b) the Authority, with the consent of or in accordance with a general authorisation given by the Secretary of State.141D Environment Agency reports(1) The Environment Agency must publish annual reports in relation to the operation of storm overflows of sewerage undertakers whose area is wholly or mainly in England.(2) A report under this section must specify—(a) the location of the storm overflows;(b) the watercourse, body of water or underground strata into which the storm overflows discharge;(c) the frequency and duration of discharges from the storm overflows in the period to which the report relates;(d) where the information is available, the volume of each discharge in that period.(3) Reports under this section are to relate to successive calendar years, starting with 2021.(4) A storm overflow report must be published by the Environment Agency —(a) before 1 April in the year after the calendar year to which it relates, and(b) in such manner as the Environment Agency thinks fit.141E Interpretation of Chapter 4(1) In this Chapter, references to a storm overflow of a sewerage undertaker are to any structure or apparatus—(a) which is comprised in the sewerage system of the sewerage undertaker, and(b) which, when the capacity of other parts of the system downstream or of storage tanks at sewage disposal works is exceeded, relieves them by discharging their excess contents into inland waters, underground strata or the sea.(2) References in this Chapter to discharges from a storm overflow do not include discharges occurring as a result of—(a) electrical power failure at sewage disposal works,(b) mechanical breakdown at sewage disposal works,(c) rising main failure, or(d) blockage of any part of the sewerage system downstream of the storm overflow.(3) Section 17BA(7) (meaning of sewerage system of a sewerage undertaker) applies for the purposes of subsection (1).”” Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment makes provision for a plan to reduce discharges from storm overflows, for progress reports on the plan and for reports on storm overflows by sewerage undertakers and the Environment Agency.
Amendments 166 to 174 (to Amendment 165) not moved.
Amendment 165 agreed.
Amendments 175 to 175A not moved.
Clauses 79 and 80 agreed.
Schedule 13 agreed.
Clause 81 agreed.
We now come to the group beginning with Amendment 176. Anyone wishing to press this or anything else in this group to a Division must make that clear in the debate.
Clause 82: Water abstraction: no compensation for certain licence modifications
176: Clause 82, page 79, line 37, leave out “No”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment seeks to remove the proposals for increased powers to vary or revoke abstraction rights without offering compensation to licence holders.
My Lords, I declare my interests as a farmer, as set out in the register. As a farmer, I think it would be more appropriate, in many ways, to discuss ways of stopping the rain than water abstraction licences. However, the climate is a law unto itself, and, unlike the Bill, it defies amendment.
I move Amendment 176 and will speak to Amendments 177 to 187, in my name, including Amendment 178, which is also in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Colgrain. They follow considerable discussion with and the support of individual farmers, as well as the National Farmers’ Union, of which I am a member. I record my thanks to the Minister and his colleagues at Defra for meeting me and the noble Lord, Lord Colgrain, listening carefully and responding to some of the issues.
There is no question over the full support of farmers for measures to protect and enhance water quality. The problem comes with the current lack of detail in the clause to revoke or change water abstraction licences—and, secondly, with the disappearance of compensation. Under current legislation, the Environment Agency has the power to revoke or change licences where environmental damage is being caused and to agree compensation. The new power widens the power of revocation or change to meet environmental objectives and removes the requirement to pay compensation.
If these clauses, as currently drafted, are implemented, they are likely to have severe consequences for agriculture and horticulture, particularly in areas where water abstraction has been the norm for many years. We are talking about some of the most productive land in the country, covering livestock, arable, fruit and vegetable and horticultural farming. We are talking about some of the most efficient farms in the land and some of the most technologically advanced farming in England. We are talking about farms with some of the highest investment costs in specialist buildings and machinery—and about some of the most expensive land in the country. Surely this is the type of agriculture that we should be encouraging, because expertise, technology, productivity and returns attract, and will continue to attract, investment and well-qualified and ambitious people. The threat to abstraction licences and the loss of compensation risks undermining all of this and might cause more agricultural production to locate overseas—to countries that have greater water issues than our own and fewer regulations to mitigate abstraction. Is this really what we want?
As far as Amendment 176 is concerned, this is not therefore a question of seeking to change the Environment Agency’s powers to vary abstraction licences. These can and do change when, for example, new environmental evidence emerges, indicating that abstraction is unsustainable. However, it is also a well-established principle that, when licence changes are made, the abstractor can be compensated for the loss of both the asset and the income resulting from that loss.
Farmer abstractors are vulnerable to licence changes because, usually, they lack the capacity to adapt to them in a timely manner. Water companies can engage with the Environment Agency in advance of proposed changes to agree a structured transition to, for example, an alternative water source. The asset management planning process secures the necessary funding for the water company to invest in the alternative intervention, having obtained customers’ agreement on their willingness to pay for it.
The process for farmers is very different. At present, they do not have the benefit of prior engagement with the Environment Agency, so the effect of the licence change on their business is immediate and often without warning. Access to alternative water supplies for individual farms tends to be limited, and it is unrealistic for them to expect that costs incurred in securing new supplies can be passed on to customers.
To my knowledge and that of the NFU, there have been few historical cases of farmers making claims for compensation arising from licence changes. However, this right to compensation helps to ensure that the Environment Agency uses reliable and transparent evidence in discharging its regulatory duties, and it therefore acts as a deterrent against excessive action and implementation.
Although abstractors will retain their right to appeal decisions taken to change licences, the loss of the right to compensation represents the loss of a significant protection against a blunt regulatory process. Farmers appreciate the proposal of a grace period up to 2028, which will give a sensible length of time in which to adapt—but the suggestion in other amendments in this group that the cut-off should be 2023 would be unreasonable and damaging to these businesses. If building a reservoir would be the appropriate mitigation, it can take up to two years to get planning permission, and then there is the time taken to build it. Of course, that leaves aside the time taken to appeal.
Amendments 177 and 179 raise the evidential bar, with a view to ensuring some balance between environmental and economic needs. Currently, a farmer could lose access to water not because of a proven direct impact from his or her actions but because of a possible future risk to the environment when all abstractions in the area, including large public supply licences, are taken together. This is unfair and unjustified.
With regard to Amendments 180 to 183 and Amendments 185 to 187, the Environment Agency already enjoys powers to revoke abstraction licences where they remain unused for four consecutive years. The need for additional powers contained in this clause is doubtful, and fair implementation is a problem. The Environment Agency is already engaged in an ongoing national programme to address unused and underused licences, encouraging abstractors to reduce their headroom on a voluntary basis. This is supported by the National Farmers’ Union.
However, for many farmers, an unused or underused licence is not an unneeded licensed volume. There are many good business and agronomic reasons why allocated water remains unused. In addition, the abstractor already has an ongoing regulatory responsibility to justify licensed use. Licensed water volumes equate to those estimated for use in dry years, but volumes of water actually used are dictated by seasonal variations—primarily summer use—weather-related variation, crop rotation, business adaptation and expansion, attitude to risk and so on. As drafted, the Bill proposes that these powers should be available to the Environment Agency where an abstraction licence is consistently underused for a period of seven years. For long-term business planning and investment, this period should ideally be extended to, say, 21 years.
For good agronomic reasons, many water-intensive crops are grown as part of a seven-year rotation, so the irrigated crop is grown once every seven years. Farmers fear that if their one-year-in-seven requirement to use the abstraction licence falls in a wet year, the regulations as drafted will place them at risk of losing access to water. By allowing the licence to continue for three complete crop rotations, the farmer can ensure that he is not disadvantaged by a fluctuating need for water and can invest accordingly. I emphasise that with specialist machinery often costing many hundreds of thousands of pounds and buildings often refrigerated, which can cost several million pounds and is needed for this type of farming, certainty is essential for investment.
Historic cases of claims for compensation following varying or revocation of an abstraction licence are relatively rare. The concern is therefore about the principle of compensation and the protection it affords abstractors by helping to ensure that the Environment Agency uses its substantial powers of variation and revocation only as a last resort. The monetary amount of compensation is not that relevant in itself, but abstraction rights attached to a farm business constitute an asset value to the farm as well as offering security for crop contracts that the farmer enters into. A water right is therefore used commercially to underpin the farm operation within the supply chain, whether or not the water is actually used.
Current provisions permit claims for compensation following licence change based on one or more of the following four types of loss. The first is mitigation measures: the cost of adapting the business to minimise the impact of the changed or revoked licence. Costs must be reasonable and proportionate. Second is loss of profit: if it is not possible to minimise or overcome the effect of the licence change, the abstractor may claim for any proven loss of business related to the reduction in water compared to that available under the terms of the abstraction licence before the change. Third is the loss of land value: this may be an additional element of the claim if the abstractor owns land and can prove a reduction in property value beyond the loss of profits stated above. Finally comes asset value loss: residual value considering the age and condition of any asset which is made redundant as a direct result of the licence change must be claimed.
It is hard to judge how much compensation a grower might seek following the removal of headroom for a licence—in fact, I am not aware of this situation ever arising. It is logical, however, to assume that if a farmer lost headroom, he would respond by reducing his future cropping area proportionately to maintain his exposure to drought risk. He could lose contracts if his supermarket supplier concludes that there is an unacceptably high risk of crop failure and consequent failure to deliver the contract.
At face value, these clauses alarm and unsettle those farmers and growers who will be affected. Assurance of proportionality is essential, together with close engagement between all parties and clear guidance.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, particularly as I agree with a lot of what he had to say, although, as he will see a minute, I come to some slightly different conclusions. Where I agree with him is that this is a tricky problem, and I speak as a farmer who grows and irrigates potatoes—or at least my son now does. I am aware that you can hardly sell unirrigated potatoes nowadays. It is all about skin finish: in the old days, you could, because mostly, of course, we peel the skin off our potatoes before we eat them, so the skin should really not matter. It should be the taste of the flesh underneath that is important but, apparently, or so we are told by the supermarkets, skin finish is king, and for that I am afraid that you need irrigation.
The second thing that makes this a tricky problem, as the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, referred to, is the huge capital involved in most of the crops needing irrigating. Returning again to the humble potato, you need stone separators, potato planters, ridgers, harvesters, grading lines and cold stores, not to mention the underground and overground pipes, as well as the pumps and irrigation equipment itself. All this could easily come to well over a million pounds, which huge sum most farmers will have had to borrow from the bank. The threat of all that borrowing going to waste or not returning the required interest is indeed frightening, although if your abstraction licence dates back to the 1960s or 1970s, as some of them do, and your capital is all paid off, it is slightly less frightening.
A third factor that makes this a tricky area is that whereas a water company has a network of pipes and many different sources of water, and so can juggle its extraction plans to cater for where the water might be in abundance, the farmer can get his or her water only from or adjacent to their own land. They cannot abstract water from a different catchment or a different aquifer from the one they farm on.
Why, might the Committee ask, am I wanting to shorten the leeway allowed to farmers from 2028 to 2023? The answer is that I am not; what I am saying is that no compensation for amending an abstraction licence should be allowable after January 2023. However, the Environment Agency should be able to extend the enforcement of the necessary licence modification for several years if it believes time is required by the individual business—for the building of a reservoir, for instance. This should be done on a case-by-case basis, and in that way most modifications can probably happen sooner rather than later. However, and this is my key point, the days when you can be compensated for not causing environmental degradation have, in my view, long since gone: you cannot be compensated for not causing environmental degradation.
At the risk of straying into the realms of the bleeding obvious, I should state that, as has been made clear again and again in our discussions on this water chapter, some of our rivers are in a pretty poor state: sewage overspills, road run-off, agricultural run-off and generally just having too many people or too much livestock per square kilometre all contribute to ever more damaging stuff—to use a highly scientific technical term—entering our rivers. Unless we can ensure sufficient water in the river to dilute that stuff, then trout, grayling, carp and perch, dragonflies, mayflies, shrimps and dippers could all disappear, along with irises, water violets and multi-fruited river moss, to name but a few lifeforms that are important inhabitants of our rivers. This dilution is important, and it must have been obvious to all farmers for years that anyone causing environmental damage by overabstraction was going to have to change what they did and how they did it; but, in some cases, very little has happened, and too many farmers have taken no action at all. There are still people extracting from rivers in the middle of summer.
It is possible for a farmer to build one, two or even three small on-farm reservoirs to ensure that they abstract only during the winter months. It is possible for farmers to share reservoirs. It is possible for licence sharing to exist between abstractors in a single catchment. It is possible to use precision irrigation systems which save huge amounts of water. There are a variety of possible solutions and it is to be hoped that all abstractors will be able to find some form of compromise on rivers and waterways where the environment is threatened. I gather from data produced by Defra last year that this amounts to some 18% of our rivers and waterways and over a quarter of our groundwaters. We cannot just go on allowing abstractors to continue to cause environmental degradation.
My proposal is that the Environment Agency should start talking now to farmers on an individual basis with a view to modifying licences which are deemed to be damaging rivers, especially where there are habitats of particular biodiversity importance. This obviously includes SSSIs, referred to in my Amendment 179A, which largely speaks for itself and I would have thought was indisputable.
The farmers will know that no compensation is ever going to be payable and it is up to them and Environment Agency to work out a reasonable solution as soon as possible and not wait for 2028. Where they cannot agree on a solution, I believe there should be an appeal process up to the Secretary of State, or a panel appointed by the Secretary of State. In their recent fact sheet, Defra tells us that there already is an appeal process, but perhaps it needs to be made clearer in this legislation. It is to be hoped that most cases will be resolved long before January 2028, but I think that that long stop should probably remain after which offending licences will be revoked or modified anyway. It is important that the Environment Agency provides the business certainty of a 12-year period for any new contract with farmers. One cannot go to the expense of building a new reservoir only to find that the rules are changed again.
If I can be so presumptuous as to suggest to the Government, I think that these abstraction clauses need to be slightly rewritten—first, to confirm that no actual compensation is payable after January 2023; secondly, to state that by then, or soon after, the Environment Agency and individual abstractors should have agreed a plan of action where necessary on how to modify any damaging abstraction licences before January 2028; thirdly, to set out a formal appeal system when the Environment Agency and the abstractor are unable to agree a way forward; and fourthly, to clarify that any new agreement would remain in place for a minimum of 12 years. That would make these clauses as fair to both sides as is possible.
Finally, I have great sympathy for the farmers involved. All businesses would love to have a framework of certainty and constancy in which to make sometimes risky and long-lasting financial decisions, but this situation has been on the horizon for years, if not decades. I repeat again: some of our rivers are in a very precarious state and the time when you can expect compensation for not causing environmental degradation has, in my view, long since gone.
My Lords, it is always a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, in this House. He speaks with great knowledge and conviction. It is equally a pleasure to listen to the words of the noble Lord, Lord Carrington. I cannot think of another occasion when I have spoken in this House, following two clearly eminent and very experienced farmers. As a civil engineer, I have to just look at the mechanics of it. Nevertheless, it is easier to be supportive of Amendments 176A, 180A and 187ZA, rather than the perhaps more holocaustic view of “what will happen if” that we have heard in earlier remarks.
These amendments, which we support, would provide for the power that is set out in the amendments to be available earlier than given in the Bill. Given the damage that is already occurring—as has been so eloquently put by the noble Lord, Lord Cameron—the impacts of over-abstraction can be long lasting and profound. I speak from the point of view of someone who, while not farming, lives close to the farming community in Hampshire. Noble Lords will have heard me speak earlier of the issues concerning the catchment area of the rivers that we live with. Fish and wildlife can be lost from channels that experience low flows, and take many years to recover. We are already experiencing, in Hampshire, salmon failing to meet conservation limits. So it is not a guess that things will be bad—they are already bad.
Sustainable abstraction will the support the Government’s 25-year environment plan commitments and species recovery targets. Many farmers already farm under sustainable licences, and we must use the techniques and innovations adopted by those farmers to support best practice. For example, as the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, has mentioned, with forward planning and investment, on-farm reservoirs are one of the options that can be used.
Amendment 187B would apply to abstraction of water from a river or aquifer that is used by businesses for commercial reasons and related in some sense to agriculture. I am thinking here of businesses such as those that process and distribute cress—watercress and so forth—or fish farms. Water is abstracted, used and then returned to the river by the licence holder. The cost of monitoring inflows and outflows, we believe, should be met by the licence holder as a regular means of, if not controlling what the users are doing, at least being aware of what they are doing.
This has been a very serious issue in our locality. Hampshire is famous for its watercress, but it is reliant, very much so, on pure water. When there is a situation where a successful international commercial company uses your local area as its base for international processing and distribution of their salads, because it has the benefit of a licence to use the water from the chalk stream to clean and remove chemicals and pesticides and so forth on their product, which is then distributed all over Europe, if they are then found to be abusing the licence, and end up by polluting the river, you have a serious problem. I think the Government need to have the means at their disposal to control that. In the particular case I mentioned, it was controlled because individuals mounted a private prosecution to demonstrate the abuse was carrying on, and this exposed it and eventually stopped it.
The terms of the licence will be determined at a level recognising the activities on a particular river or chalk stream, matching or improving on the water quality, and ensuring, by using settlement ponds or recirculation systems, that there are no additional chemicals, nutrients or sediments in the outgoing water compared to the incoming water.
My Lords, I declare my interest as stated in the register, and as owner of a short stretch of the River Rib in Hertfordshire, a chalk stream with various numbers of brown trout, stocked rainbow trout and too many pike and alien crayfish. I also have two operating boreholes, supplying four different households with water and, over the weekend of our music festival, supplementing the water supply for 17,000 festival goers. Happily, our water table is strong, and the River Rib never dries up, unlike some other Hertfordshire chalk streams. The volume of water that we extract is now below the minimum amount that would trigger the requirement for a licence, but those whose volumes require them to have licences should receive compensation for unilateral and untimely cancellation or revocation of those licences. They provide farmers and market gardeners with the certainty they need to continue to produce food, and to invest in their businesses for the future.
I support Amendment 178, so well proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, and seconded by my noble friend Lord Colgrain. Would the Minister recognise that it is just not right, in the year when farmers start to lose a substantial part of their direct grants, that they should also face an additional increased risk of revocation or change to their licences? The risk is increased because clause (82)(1) of the Bill widens the possible grounds for revocation to include supporting environmental principles. It is therefore no longer necessary to claim that abstraction is causing environmental damage. I also worry about the arbitrary removal of excess headroom. The amount of rainfall varies considerably year on year and, whereas in years of ample rainfall a licence holder may use substantially less than his limit, he may well need to use his headroom excess in subsequent dry years.
I agree with the amendments put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, rather more than I do with those put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, although I sympathise with his Amendment 179A, which he introduced persuasively. Otherwise, I think he is over-optimistic in seeking to bring forward the effective date from 2028 to 2023. I could support acceleration of the date, but only if the evidential bar were raised, as Amendment 179 seeks to do.
My Lords, I rise metaphorically to support Amendment 187B in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey. I think there is agreement across the House that we must legislate in this Bill to clean up our rivers. There will be many ways in which we can achieve this; we have already debated cisterns and discharges.
As it is necessary and important to monitor air quality, so it is with water quality. Duties to monitor water quality will be placed by the Bill on the water companies. To place a similar obligation on any party licensed to abstract and then discharge water seems both proportionate and appropriate. This point was argued forcefully by the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey. I therefore hope that the Government will accept the spirit of his amendment and place it in whatever clause will make it most effective. It is an important amendment and the Government would be well advised to accept it.
My Lords, I refer to my interests in the register. I rise to support my noble friend Lord Carrington and to add my name to his Amendment 178. I also echo his words of thanks to the Minister for the time that he and members of his department gave us during our virtual meeting to discuss this amendment and for his subsequent letter.
While my noble friend focused his concerns on abstraction rights for arable and horticultural farmers and businesses, my concern is for licences that relate to spring chambers that are gravity fed from underwater strata. These are most often used to provide water to domestic dwellings and livestock troughs and many of these licences have been granted since the 1960s and before. Consequently, they have attached to them over 60 years’ worth of infrastructure investment, whether pipelines or reservoirs, and have become an integral property right and business asset, as my noble friend has already rightly said.
In the overview paragraph of his letter to us, the Minister says that a licence can be varied or revoked to protect from serious damage to the water environment. How this would apply to gravity-fed licences is not clear, since, after all, water appears from a spring and finds its own way to a watercourse. Where is the potential damage in that? In the paragraph dedicated specifically to gravity-fed licences, the Minister’s letter says that abstraction from springs of under 20 cubic metres a day does not need a licence at all, since at that volume they are exempt, but that over that the Environment Agency will balance the needs of abstractors and work with them to find alternative solutions if a revocation or variation is required. Frankly, I do not understand what that means, unless it refers to utilising mains pipelines, which defeats the original objective.
I am mindful of the words of the noble Earl, Lord Lindsay, in opening this debate that the Bill must satisfy the five Cs. If there is to be no compensation for the revocation or variation of these licences, the Bill will have failed in its defence of this category, in a manner where no environmental benefit is to be gained anyway.
During our virtual meeting, I understood the Minister’s officials to say that they did not think that gravity-fed licences would be included in revocation or variances. It is, after all, faintly ridiculous to think, King Canute-like, that water would be prevented from discharging itself from geographical fault lines. I look forward to confirmation from the Minister either that there is indeed scope for them to be excluded, or that there is scope for compensation for this category to be paid.
I call the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick. She is not with us. I call the noble Earl, Lord Devon.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to support the amendments so ably proposed by my noble friend Lord Carrington. I understand from speaking with the Environment Agency locally that these provisions on the removal of water abstraction rights are directed for the most part at large water companies that have for many decades enjoyed the right to extract vast quantities of water from major waterways that they have never used and will likely never need to use. For example, I understand that South West Water enjoys the right to extract over 50% of the water in the River Exe, but it would never use it; if it did, it would cause huge environmental degradation to the sensitive and diverse lower reaches of the river.
If that was all the provisions achieved, they would have my wholehearted support, but they have a much broader impact. Once again, as we have heard, that impact will fall most harshly on the farming community, which will be under such considerable stress in the coming years.
Here, I note once more my farming interests. I also note and pray in aid a number of specific water abstraction rights that our farm in Devon has long enjoyed. Since I took over the farm, I have paid considerable sums each year to preserve those abstraction rights, but I have yet to use them, on the understanding that if those licences were not renewed, they would be lost for ever, impacting considerably the value of the land they serve and permanently restricting the form of agriculture that can be undertaken.
Your Lordships may query why a farmer would pay such sums for water abstraction licences that are not used. That is a reasonable question. The abstraction rights were established in the last century and regularly used then when the farm grew potatoes and other vegetable crops in considerable quantities. Cropping changes since have meant that the rotation now focuses on cereals, for which no irrigation is required, but the ability to extract water has been important, never more so than now.
As we have heard in various recent debates, we need to grow more of our own fruit and vegetables in the UK in the coming years to avoid exporting the environmental impact of a healthier national diet to other countries with lower standards. If we remove abstraction licences, we are in danger of limiting considerably the ability to diversify our nation’s farming, just at the time when we need to be doing the opposite, particularly as global warming is making changes to cropping a necessity. Also, are we not in danger of encouraging farmers now to make use of extraction licences that they do not currently need, solely to preserve them for the future, thereby merely adding to our water consumption?
Finally, it is not clear how these provisions sit fairly alongside basic property rights. Article 17 of the European Charter of Fundamental Rights states:
“Everyone has the right to own, use, dispose of and bequeath his or her lawfully acquired possessions. No one may be deprived of his or her possessions, except in the public interest and in the cases and under the conditions provided for by law, subject to fair compensation being paid”.
Given the Environment Agency already enjoys the power to revoke or change abstraction licences where they are shown to be causing environmental damage, thereby securing the public interest, how are the provisions of Clause 82 consistent with the basic right not to be deprived of possessions without fair compensation?
I am delighted to follow the noble Earl. I would like to lend my support in particular to Amendment 176 and others in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Carrington. I commend his preparation and the detail he has given us this afternoon on this group of amendments and on what he seeks to achieve.
I am nothing other than a farmer’s friend, a fisherman’s friend and a friendly eco-warrior—I speak as a lay person in this regard. But I recall that, when chairing the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee in the other place, for five years, there were two opportunities for our then Government—the coalition Government of my own party, the Conservative Party, supported so ably by the Liberal Democrats, when we had Ministers in each department from both parties—to consider abstraction policy. The first was in the context of the water management Act, which was adopted in 2010, and the second was in the Water Act 2014. Despite enormous efforts from the cross-party members of that committee, we were told that that was not the right time to come forward with an abstraction policy. The Government wished to take time, quite rightly, to consider a proper, well thought-out abstraction strategy and policy.
I look at the Bill and Explanatory Notes before us and I do not think we are quite there yet. That is why these well thought-out amendments from the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, serve a useful purpose in that regard. We have to accept that none of us wants to damage the watercourses, large or small, in any way, shape or form, and that we want to protect our aquifers and water, and particularly the fish and other habitats that are served by our watercourses. But we also have to accept that there are many competing uses of water.
From what I have seen and experienced, the farmers seem to be left as the last thought-about in that list. The mover and supporters of the amendment have explained that it is often the water companies and then industrialists who are considered. For example, it could be a brewery or a manufacturer; on a number of occasions I have visited Wilkin’s jam manufacturer—I admit to having a sweet tooth, and it is always a joy to visit. Many companies such as that are users of water and responsibly control its use. I urge my noble friend Lady Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist to look carefully at ways in which farmers can have adequate provision of water supply.
The grace period should remain until 2028, for all the reasons that those speaking in support of the amendments have given. As the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, requested, there should be a licence plan, a formal appeal system and clarification of a new agreement—in fact, I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, who suggested it. I entirely agree with what he signed up to, but moving that proposal forward to 2023 would be extremely ill advised.
I shudder for the future of farmers and their use of water at certain times of the year. I am concerned because, when one considers North Yorkshire, as one of the most rural counties in the country, there are times when there could be a flood in one part of the county and severe stress in its north-east. We must be mindful of the fact that there may be a need to abstract water in the summer months. I urge my noble friend the Minister in her response to express a note of caution, and I hope that the Government will take this opportunity to come forward with a proper, well thought-out abstraction policy within the context of the Bill.
My Lords, the pressure on our wetlands, rivers and aquifers is huge and growing. Demands for water from domestic and business customers, and from agriculture, are increasing. Climate change is reducing the supply and reliability of rainfall, as well as increasing our demand on water resources. I cannot believe that it is 20 years since I started campaigning for the withdrawal of damaging abstraction licences; it is a sad state of affairs that the argument has not yet been completely won.
I cannot support Amendment 176 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Carrington. Water is a resource that we all must share. Historic abstraction rights are just that—historic happenstance—and can be inequitable in their impact on the environment and other water users. Overabstraction of water from low-flow rivers can have long-lasting damage; it can cause fish and other wildlife to be lost for ever, particularly in chalk streams. None of that will help with the Government’s biodiversity target if overabstraction continues. It can also result in salt water contamination of water resources, including groundwater, which is difficult to remediate.
In the Water Act 2003, we made some progress with the right to compensation for holders of licences that were causing serious damage being withdrawn, but that was a small provision, and rarely used. The Water Act 2014 removed the requirement to pay compensation for water company abstraction licence changes, which was another step forward.
Many farmers already farm under sustainable abstraction licences and have developed innovative solutions for reducing the amount of irrigation water needed, and developed more on-farm reservoirs, as outlined knowledgably by the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington. We need to pay farmers under ELMS for developing innovative solutions in adapting to a changing climate. Amendments 176A, 180A and 187ZA, tabled by the noble Lord and outlined so eloquently by him, are highly reasonable, practical and fair, and would enable an acceleration of the deadline by which abstraction should cease. His amendments are based on a lifetime of practical agricultural experience and gain much stature from that. There can be no argument at all about removing compensation for variations to licences to remove excess headroom, where historic licences with unused headroom are hampering the more flexible allocation of water.
I also support Amendment 179A—again, one of the splendid amendments of the noble Lord, Lord Carrington of Dillington—which would correct the narrow definition of ecological health and enable changes to be made in licences that are preventing the effective conservation management of sites of special scientific interest and where abstraction is causing damaging low flows in chalk streams and the main salmon rivers.
My Lords, I am delighted to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone. I always remember with great gratitude when she came to my constituency to help with a particular problem, and went to infinite trouble so to do. She speaks with knowledge and authority.
I have never heard a debate in your Lordships’ House that has been opened with two more impressive speakers, who illustrated the expertise we have here. A powerful case was made by the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, and I was almost totally persuaded by it—until I heard the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington. They both made powerful points, but what has emerged from the debate for me, as a pure lay man in these discussions, is that the prime purpose and overriding concern of an environment Bill—as underlined by the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, who has an extremely sensible amendment in his name—must be the health of the environment, and you cannot have a healthy environment unless you have healthy rivers. The noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, made a perceptive point when he underlined his support for the Chidgey amendment.
Where do we go from all this? Of course there has to be fairness at the end of the day, and an appeal procedure that can be respected by all concerned. I very much hope that, in the discussions that take place between now and Report—we say that again and again on this Bill—there can be an agreement on an appeal process whereby people do not feel that they have been harshly dealt with and, when following practices that they have followed over the years, they are not abruptly penalised. That is the direction in which we must go because—I come back to the prime point—the health of our rivers is fundamental to a healthy environment, and nothing must be done that further damages them. We referred in earlier stages of the Bill to the crucial importance of clean waterways—the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, has his own Private Member’s Bill in that regard—and we are a long way from achieving the cleanliness that is, I hope, the desire of us all.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken in this debate, and I have listened carefully to the informed and thoughtful contributions from all sides. They have well represented the two sides of the dilemma. On the one hand, we recognise that water abstraction plays a vital role in the economy, generating power, driving industry and helping our farmers to grow food. On the other hand, we recognise that unsustainable abstraction can do serious environmental damage, particularly by changing the natural flow of water, with lower water flows and reduced water levels, and ultimately contaminating water resources, thereby affecting fish and wildlife and in some cases contaminating by allowing salt-water intrusion.
I think that we all accept that an abstraction licence should not give an automatic right to extract water whatever the environmental consequences. As my noble friend Lady Young of Old Scone said, water is a shared resource. The actions of one individual or business can have devastating effects on another farm or community downstream, so we have to manage it on a collective basis. In this regard, I welcome the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, which would require a licensee to measure water quality in an aquifer and share that information publicly. That is all part of that collective management of a very scarce resource.
We also have to recognise that climate change has already varied the supply of water since many licences were granted, and all the Government’s indices point to looming water shortages. We accept the point made by several noble Lords that the rights experienced by a water company are of a very different scale and impact from those experienced by farmers. It is on this latter group that we are focusing today.
The Government place great emphasis in their proposals on the Environment Agency managing the changes to licences through local consultation. In his letter to us of 10 June, the Minister said that
“we expect the Environment Agency to work closely with the affected licence holders before using these measures.”
But when I visited Norfolk with the NFU a couple of years ago, this was far from the case. Their licences, which underpinned a thriving horticultural sector producing fruit and vegetables for the UK market, were under imminent threat and, despite numerous requests, there was no dialogue with the Environment Agency—indeed, at one point, I even got the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner, involved to persuade for some consultation to take place. As we discussed in the earlier debate, the Environment Agency is struggling to meet all its statutory obligations because of the funding crisis. I hope that the Minister has received sufficient assurance that the Environment Agency has the resources to manage the renegotiation of all the licences so that we can have more sustainable licences in the future.
Ultimately, we agree that we have no choice but to withdraw a licence if the evidence shows that the environment is being damaged. We agree with the premise of Clause 82 that there should be a negotiated settlement, with a reasonable compliance period for changes to be introduced rather than an automatic right to compensation. We also agree with the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, that the new agreements should be for a minimum of 12 years. As he made clear, we should take a catchment-based approach and look to introduce the best techniques available for water efficiency in parallel with the negotiations.
We agree with the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, that an operative date of January 2028 is far too long a time. I was alarmed to hear the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, talk of deadlines as far ahead as 21 years. The current timescale does not appear to grasp fully the severity and immediacy of the problems facing our waterways. We need to move all farmers on to sustainable abstraction licences as soon as possible. We cannot wait until 2028 to start revoking licences.
If compensation remains payable until 2028, there is a danger that budgetary constraints will limit the scope of the Environment Agency to act to protect the environment in the interim. There is also the danger of perverse outcomes whereby people start to behave in their short-term interest just to protect their rights and potential access to compensation. As we have heard, the Government are already beginning to address this issue through the 2017 abstraction action plan, so there is even more reason for bringing the date forward from 2028, since presumably action on many of these areas is already in hand.
This has been a difficult debate, and I understand the arguments on both sides but, ultimately, we think that a date of 2028 is too long away and we therefore support the amendments in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, and look forward to the Minister’s response.
I thank all noble Lords for another interesting discussion on this Bill. As the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, has just observed, the Government are endeavouring to perform a careful balancing act by delivering on their manifesto commitments to improve the environment through addressing the consequences of unsustainable abstraction and modernising the licence system while minimising the impact on farmers.
To put things into context—I was grateful for the balanced comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone—I say that we expect that, out of the 13,000 permanent abstraction licences, there may be up to 1,200 that are unsustainable and to which these measures may apply. However, the Environment Agency expects that the number of licences will reduce in any case before the need for the measures to be applied following local site investigations and discussions with licence holders.
I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, for his Amendments 176 and 177 to 179, and understand his concerns about the effect of the proposals on licence holders. My noble friend the Minister and I were grateful to be able to meet the noble Lord alongside my noble friend Lord Colgrain the week before last to discuss this issue further.
As we have heard from other noble Lords, unsustainable abstraction can have very negative impacts on the aquatic environment, including causing low flows. Low flows can lead to reduced levels of dissolved oxygen, harming fish and insects. It can also lead to increased temperatures and impede the migration of fish species, which may not be able to reach spawning grounds. I say in response to the concern expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, about salmon stocks—an interest of mine, of course—that Defra, the Environment Agency and partner organisations have committed to the salmon five point approach to restore the abundance, diversity and resilience of salmon stocks, ensure that river flows are adequate for the habitats they support and increase spawning success by improving water quality.
Of course, low flows have a knock-on effect on other parts of riverine ecosystems, including specialist species which rely on the aquatic environment. Low flows can also lead to dire consequences for internationally important chalk streams, 75% to 80% of which are found in the UK.
However, we also know that abstraction is vital for food production, as farmers provide drinking water for livestock or abstract water to irrigate their crops. I hope that my noble friend Lady McIntosh of Pickering is reassured that I put that firmly on the record.
As we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, with respect to his potatoes, skin finish is vital, and the Government recognise the importance of maintaining the high quality of British produce. We must therefore balance the needs of agricultural and other abstraction licence holders with public water supply demands and the need to protect the environment. That is why the Environment Agency is using a catchment-based approach and trialling innovative approaches in priority catchments with a range of local stakeholders, including water companies, the National Farmers’ Union, local abstractor groups, environmental groups and navigation interests to solve issues of access to water and unsustainable abstraction.
As we have discussed in our conversations to date, the Government want the Environment Agency to continue to work closely with abstractors to explore all voluntary solutions to unsustainable abstraction. I do not agree that this is a blunt regulatory process; rather, it is the last resort in a collaborative process.
On removing compensation rights, which a number of noble Lords mentioned, we want to protect licence holders’ ability to abstract where it is fair and right to do so. Unless a licence risks damaging the environment or is underused, we believe that licence holders should be eligible for fair compensation for any loss if licences are revoked or varied.
Farmers hold more abstraction licences than any other sector and so a higher number of farmers may be affected than other sectors. However, the Government expect the Environment Agency to work closely with affected licence holders to find alternative solutions which balance the needs of the environment and the needs of farmers. We expect these powers to be used by the Environment Agency only after all other options have been exhausted.
The Environment Agency, as the statutory environmental regulator, has the relevant expertise to determine which licences may be affected by the changing of the threshold from “serious damage” to “damage”. The Environment Agency grants licences and proposes their revocation or variation based on monitoring of abstraction and the water environment from which the water is being taken.
To reassure my noble friend Lord Cormack and the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, who appealed for an appeals process, as currently, an abstraction licence holder will be able to appeal to the Secretary of State in respect of a proposed revocation or variation of their licence, as well as to put forward any additional evidence from other experts, if they wish to do so. Therefore, the Secretary of State is already required to consider relevant expert evidence when using this power as it is an intrinsic part of the existing process. Furthermore, I reassure noble Lords that the Environment Agency has already started conversations with a number of farmers, which I hope will reassure the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, and the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, who asked about the ability of the Environment Agency to undertake all these powers.
We should expect that these measures will be used only after other solutions have been exhausted. Partly for this reason, they will not be available until 2028. In the meantime, we expect the Environment Agency to work closely with affected licence holders on a case-by-case basis, to provide data and evidence for why a licence needs to be varied or revoked, to consider the type of abstraction when making decisions, and to take a risk-based approach and consider what the abstraction is being used for.
On the noble Lord’s Amendments 180 to 187, I hope he can see that the Government have designed these provisions to make more water available to other abstractors and to reduce the risk to the environment. These measures will be focused on permanent licence holders who consistently abstract much less water than they are licensed to take, but the Government are well aware that not all licence headroom indicates a lack of need. It is appropriate to safeguard licence headroom in some cases—for example, to manage higher demands during dry weather as well as the planned future growth of a business. The 12-year period specified in the Bill allows for weather variations and crop rotations and fits with the current abstraction licensing strategy timeframe.
On Amendments 176A, 180A and 187ZA from the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, I hope that the arguments I have given have convinced him that introducing these measures from 2028 strikes the right balance between protecting the environment and recognising their impact on abstractors.
As I think the contrast between the amendments in this group illustrates, the Government have worked hard to reach a fair compromise on this issue. As well as allowing time to find voluntary solutions, the 2028 date will give time for licence holders to adjust. We understand that this is particularly important for business certainty and continuity. Furthermore, it will allow time for the catchment-based approach to water resources to produce solutions. In the abstraction plan, published in 2017, the Government committed to update abstraction licensing strategies for all catchments by 2027, and a 2028 date aligns with this.
Regarding Amendment 179A, also tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, the Government simplified Clause 82 following feedback received during our consultation in 2019 that our original proposals were far too complex. Licences can be varied or revoked without the Environment Agency being liable to pay compensation where the Secretary of State considers the licence change necessary, having regard to the relevant environmental objectives under the water framework directive or to protect the water environment from damage. As such, I am pleased to confirm for the noble Lord that the clause can already apply to licences that may affect all sites designated under existing legislation, including sites of special scientific interest and Ramsar sites.
The Environment Agency also already considers the impact on flow when assessing the environmental impact of an abstraction licence, including when it is considering whether to revoke or vary a licence. The Environment Agency will continue to do so when these new powers are available on or after 1 January 2028.
Restoring England’s internationally important chalk streams is a government priority, and the powers in this clause will apply to chalk streams. It will give the Government powers to address unsustainable abstraction in chalk catchments without liability to pay compensation if the abstraction is causing damage to the chalk stream environment.
My noble friend Lord Colgrain asked me about gravity-fed licences. The clause as drafted covers all permanent abstraction licences which are abstractions of over 20 cubic metres per day. Most gravity-fed abstractions are for less than 20 cubic metres per day and, as such, do not require a licence. However, if a gravity-fed licence takes over 20 cubic metres per day it will require an abstraction licence, which falls within the scope of this clause. Because of that, gravity-fed abstractions were not covered separately in the consultation or in the Government’s response as different types of permanent abstraction licence were not differentiated. The relevant factor here is the impact that the abstraction has on the environment.
I reassure the noble Earl, Lord Devon, that water companies are already subject to the removal of abstraction rights without compensation, so there is no need for them to be covered by this clause.
Finally, on Amendment 187B in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, the Environment Agency already has the power to grant abstraction licences containing such provisions as it considers appropriate under Section 38(2)(a) of the Water Resources Act 1991. This could include water quality monitoring upstream and downstream of an abstraction point if there was any uncertainty about the effect the abstraction might have on water quality.
As regards the cost of such monitoring, the abstractor would pay for water quality monitoring if it were to be, or were to become, a condition of their licence. In practice, there is rarely any need to place water quality conditions on abstraction licences, as licences normally include conditions to protect river flows and, in turn, water quality. I hope that this provides reassurance to both the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, and the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, who expressed similar concerns.
The Environment Agency can impose similar conditions to protect water quality on discharge permits issued under the Environmental Permitting (England and Wales) Regulations 2016 for returning water to the environment.
In summary, this debate and the range of opinions it has showcased have shown that abstraction reform is a complex issue. There are good points on all sides. However, I hope noble Lords can see how hard the Government have worked to strike a reasonable and sensible balance to protect our precious water environment while ensuring that we manage the impact on abstractors and farmers. I sincerely hope I have managed to reassure noble Lords and ask them not to press their amendments.
I thank everybody who has participated in this debate. There have been some very informative contributions from all noble Lords. I may not agree with all of them, and I must say, with respect to the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, that maybe we should limit our conversations in future to the growing of potatoes in Devon, which he does very well, and the growing of potatoes in Lincolnshire, which I reckon we do quite well.
Leaving that aside, the most important thing that has come out of this debate is the uncertainty about some of the rules and regulations and the data that is used. It is this lack of certainty over the data behind licensing decisions, together with the use of the precautionary approach behind many of those decisions, that is causing great concern to farmers. I repeat my request, as I stated earlier, that proportionality should govern all this.
My other point is that the definition of damage is extremely vague, for understandable reasons. How and why should growers rely on the say-so of the Environment Agency, particularly in the light of the experience of the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch? You can understand where the concern comes in.
In the meeting with the Minister and the noble Baroness, Lady Bloomfield, a helpful promise came out. I shall read from the letter, which states: “We will set out in guidance what we expect the Environment Agency to seek to find collaborative, non-licensed change, such as habitat restoration and mutually agreeable voluntary solutions wherever possible. Responsibility for demonstrating that a licence is damaging or risks damaging the environment will lie with the Environment Agency.”
My conclusion is that the word “damaging” needs, if possible, to be defined very carefully and the guidelines given by the Ministry to the Environment Agency need to be circulated well in advance. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Bloomfield, for her support for farming and, in particular, the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering. Some were perhaps less concerned about the importance of productive farming in this country than they. I also refer to the excellent speech of the noble Earl, Lord Devon, who mentioned the importance of property rights and the issue of compensation. That is a major issue, and I cannot underline enough how much money has been spent by some farms to put all this equipment in place. Although certainty is difficult, it is required for them.
In the circumstances, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 176 withdrawn.
Amendments 176A to 187ZA not moved.
Clause 82 agreed.
Amendment 187B not moved.
Before we move on, perhaps we need a pause to allow people to escape from the Chamber.
They have escaped. We now come to the group beginning with Amendment 188. Anyone wishing to press this amendment or anything else in the group to a Division must make that clear during the debate.
Clause 83: Water quality: powers of Secretary of State
188: Clause 83, page 81, line 17, at end insert—
“having regard to the constraints of the periodic price review to which water companies are bound.”
My Lords, I am delighted to move and speak to Amendment 188 in my name and to speak briefly on the other amendments in this group. I revert to what my noble friend said in summing up two groups ago. He said: “It is for water companies to improve their act and, indeed, under the Act, they are required to do so.” I put in an early bid, because I am starting to feel left out. I am one of the few who has not actually met the Minister, so I should like to meet him to discuss this point, together with the others who have already expressed interest.
I shall briefly sum up what the water companies are being asked to do. I am grateful to the Minister for referring to Clause 78(3)(a) to (g) and all the measures set out therein, which are not insubstantial. I also refer to my earlier remarks, which I shall not repeat, about the fact that we are grappling with Victorian infrastructure, combined with intense climatic changes, leading to sewage overflows. Not inconsiderable new expense is required to replace that infrastructure, so that is a new expense.
In my Amendment 188, I ask my noble friend to say at the outset that the Government will have regard to the constraints of the periodic price review to which water companies are bound. Essentially, non-regulated companies and regulated companies alike, such as water companies, which are regulated, are able to raise funds in the financial markets from either debt or equity investors. Non-regulated companies might typically do so to invest in additional capacity or new products or services so that they can increase future revenue from higher sales or higher prices, from providing a higher value service to customers and, from this increased revenue fund, the additional investment on a sustainable basis. However, regulated companies such as water companies, may be providing services largely on a monopoly basis, as here. Water companies are, rightly, being required to reduce water consumption—that is, sales of their core product—rather than increase it and cannot increase prices beyond the limited set at price reviews. This means that ensuring that price reviews focus sufficiently on the investment needed to meet long-term challenges is crucial.
I am asking for an acceptance that many of the obligations which water companies are required to meet are outwith their control. I referred earlier to the fact that they are not, as yet, statutory consultees. I welcome my noble friend’s reference to them being consulted on the new drainage and water management plans. I think we will all watch like hawks to see that that is the case.
I remind the Committee that houses built on floodplains after 2009 are not covered by Flood Re for insurance purposes if they flood. People frequently overlook that. Also, connections should be made only if the infrastructure is securely in place to carry the raw sewage safely away and not cause it to flow into combined sewers, which will lead to spillage, such as we discussed in previous amendments.
My question to my noble friend is precisely how much water companies can raise as part of the periodic review to cover that essential expenditure. He is absolutely right to say that the water companies are just about to embark on the next stage price review, so this is very timely.
My noble friend referred to the Explanatory Notes. Did the Government consult on the content of the Explanatory Notes and Clause 78 as regards the expenditure the water companies are being asked to make? Also, if we are unable to raise the money through the price review, or there is a limit on what we can raise, how can the Government encourage more private partners into flood prevention schemes under ELMS? I commend the partnership schemes that the Government have encouraged, but there is that little niggle.
On Amendments 188A, 188B and 188C, and Amendments 189 and 189A on water efficiency, there were three substantial reports in the 1990s. The Cave report on competition has largely been considered in relation to the competition aspects of retail and household delivery. I referred earlier to the Pitt review, all but a few recommendations of which have been actioned. Then there was the Walker review, under Anna Walker, on water efficiency, which has largely been overlooked. Much of that can be achieved by building regulations or, as we see in the amendments before us, labelling as well as building regulations.
I make a plea to the Government about how important it is to encourage the use of labelling. Without an accompanying label, with changed building regulations and minimum appliance standards, it is simply not possible to get household consumption down to the levels we need, which is the Government’s target. Introducing a labelling scheme alone will save 13 litres per person per day, but by accompanying it with minimum standards, that increases the saving to 27 litres per person per day. The difference between those numbers equates to about 1,000 megalitres per day by the second half of this century. That is roughly equivalent to a third of the current leakage losses. On their own, without any labelling initiative, changes to building regulations reduce consumption by a further 14 litres per household per day by 2065, equivalent to another third of current leakage losses.
I welcome those amendments and hope the Government will focus as much on water labelling and water regulation as on giving the water companies the ability to raise money they need through the price review.
My Lords, I apologise in advance since I shall probably speak for too long on this group, but many of the amendments are either in my name or of interest to me.
My Amendments 188A, 188B and 188C really speak for themselves. To some extent they are probing amendments. The question of water quality, how such quality is defined in relation to current and future possible pollutants and how these substances should be dealt with is clearly important to businesses and individuals across the country whose lives are in many ways touched by our rivers and waterways. As my explanatory note says, there is significant public interest in water quality, so we feel that the Secretary of State should set up a technical advisory group with the purpose of providing independent—I stress that word—advice to Ministers on the measurement and improvement of water quality standards. It is only in this way that the public will have confidence that the regulations, introduced by the Secretary of State and properly discussed by Parliament under the affirmative procedure, will be fair and equitable to all parties, including, most importantly, to the rivers themselves.
I turn to Amendment 189 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, and others. I particularly support subsection (4) of the proposed new clause, the bit on compulsory smart metering; I was going to table my own amendment on that subject but they beat me to it. The 2009 Walker review, referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, gave a clear message that metering is the fairest way of charging for water, and that after meters were installed the majority of households found that both their water charges and their consumption of water fell.
I believe there is no other commodity for which we do not pay according to use. That seems strange to me, particularly as we know that the commodity can be in very short supply. I am told that we are the only country in Europe that does not charge for water by volume. Metering also has the benefit of making people realise that water is not a free good of which there is an endless supply.
In 2014, during the passage of what is now the Water Act, Southern Water, the leader in this field at that time, reckoned that 100% metering would result in a 12% saving in water. As I said then, that is a gigantic amount of water to remove from the system day in, day out. I also said, thinking of people who might be detrimentally affected, that
“if there was a universal tariff for every litre of water used, some poor households with large families”
might suffer from such a change.
“However, with transitional tariffs, social tariffs and even block tariffs and the like, and with the meter in the house and not at the end of the garden, it is perfectly possible for everyone to benefit from 100% metering. There is absolutely no doubt that the environment would win hands down”.—[Official Report, 27/1/14; col. 1028.]
That is what I said then. Now, however, with smart metering, not only have the costs come down but the benefits to the environment are considerably greater. For instance, last year Thames Water announced that its smart metering programme in London has helped it to locate and repair 200 leaks across its network every week, leading to a reduction in overall leakage of 15% in one year—the biggest reduction in a century, I believe. Anglian Water has also said that in its trials it appeared that smart meters could reduce consumption by an average of 18%, considerably higher than the 12% being put forward by Southern Water seven years ago.
Meanwhile Arqiva, which has probably been lobbying us all—and one should always take private lobbying with a pinch of salt—said that its analysis shows that fitting just 1 million smart water meters in the UK each year for the next 15 years could result in saving at least 1 billion litres of water—one thousand million litres— per day by the mid-2030s. That is the most enormous amount of water and it would be the most enormous boost to the environment that we could possibly give.
Bearing in mind the conversations that we have had in this chapter about the excess demands on our sewage treatment works and the problems of storm overflows, we should think about the reduction of household outflows into sewage treatment works that universal metering would have. If the use of water goes down, that will inevitably be reflected in the amount of water sent down the drains. Maybe that figure of billions of pounds that the Minister was talking about to sort out CSO issues could be dramatically reduced if less water arrived at our sewage treatment works in the first place.
So, what has to be done? The first thing to do is to remove the link between metering and the water-stressed area classification; that is vital. Secondly, we should ensure that the 2024 price review investment planning process is used to enable water companies to accelerate the rollout of smart water meters. Thirdly, picking up on Philip Dunne’s Private Member’s Bill, I believe the Government should regulate, and I quote from his Bill,
“requiring by 2025 all domestic properties to have a metered water supply when being leased, rented or sold”.
I would add the word “smart” before the word “metered” because of the evidence that I have already quoted from the Thames and Anglian water authorities.
Lastly, the Government should mandate the rollout of smart water meters to every household and business by 2035 at the latest. These are all firm government measures that would not only benefit the consumer but give back to the environment—and, for that matter, other abstractors, bearing in mind the last group of amendments—literally billions of litres of water.
I will not say much about Amendment 189A in my name because in many ways its length and detail speak for itself. The Bill has a lot of new strategies and plans in its water chapter: water resources management plans, drought plans, drainage and sewerage management plans, and now of course storm overflow discharge reduction plans. However, this is the Environment Bill, which we hope over the next few days will give us a vibrant, sustainable and well-managed environment in terms of our air, soils, seas, countryside, woods and other habitats. Although we have discussed the management of our water over our recent groupings and how it affects water companies, farmers, anglers, canoeists and other users over the short term—and by the short term I mean anything under 10 years—we do not seem to have an overall long-term strategy for creating a high-class water environment that will ensure that our aquatic biodiversity flourishes.
In the context of the myriad human uses of our waterways, how do we ensure that we have enough water for the flora and fauna that should rightly belong to our aquatic world, including the 500,000 hectares of wetland habitat promised in the 25-year environment plan? From the smallest of bugs through amphibians, fish, mammals, birds and our rich aquatic flora, we need an all-encompassing water strategy for England and its nature, as my amendment proposes.
My Lords, I support all the amendments in this group. I have added my name to several of those tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Cameron. I shall speak to my Amendment 189, which is about reducing household water usage, and I am grateful for the support for it from the noble Baronesses, Lady Boycott and Lady Young of Old Scone, and the noble Lord, Lord Wigley.
It is predicted that by 2050 there will be an increase of 7 million people in the UK and our water level supplies will be down by 15%. Indeed, a recent report from the climate change adaptation sub-committee said that tackling water metering is one of the issues that we need to address urgently, that it would deliver some of the best cost-benefit ratios and that the sooner we started tackling it, the better. We need to do it so that there is enough water for people and for our rivers; I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, and the noble Viscount, Lord Trenchard, are no longer in their place, because clearly our chalk streams also need all the water they can get. It is right for tackling our climate change emissions because heating water in homes accounts for 4% of total greenhouse gas emissions. Equally, farmers, whom we heard from so eloquently in last debate, need the water to maintain successful farming and other business. We need the Government to act.
I was therefore pleased to see the announcement in the Secretary of State’s Written Statement in the House of Commons last week that the Government intend to introduce mandatory labelling on the water efficiency of household appliances. That is a positive step and I congratulate the Government on making it but, as the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, so eloquently said, we will not make the cuts we need in amounts of household water—down from around 142 litres to 110 litres per person per day, which the Government say they want—unless we have labelling and minimum standards, combined with changes to building regulations. It was notable in the comments of the Secretary of State last week that he did not definitively commit to minimum standards or changing building regulations. There was a vague date and “We might look at it in the future”. We cannot get the figures we need without those.
Frankly, I am coming to the conclusion that the Government will not go anywhere near changing houses, because of the influence of various property developers. The noble Lord, Lord Teverson, who is not in his place, made a point in the debates last week about the influence of Taylor Wimpey on this Government and on housing developments. It is a scandal that we are not building houses that are carbon efficient and water efficient now. We are leaving the tab to be picked up by the environment, in the future, and the Government should be ashamed of that.
I partially congratulate the Government on taking up part of my amendment on labelling appliances but they have made no commitments on compulsory water metering. I raised this back in 2014 with an amendment to the then Water Bill. That is the issue that the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, spoke so passionately about. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, that when you are a junior partner in a coalition, you do not always get what you want, whether about water abstraction or metering.
Since then, people who are more significant than me have added their voices to the cause for compulsory water metering. In addition to the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, the Climate Change Committee is now saying we must introduce compulsory metering. The majority of respondents to the 2019 Defra consultation on reducing household waste supported compulsory water metering, and even the National Infrastructure Commission, which is not well known for supporting measures in this area, is in favour. I will not repeat the figures that were so well articulated by the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, but will say that, at the moment, only half of UK houses are on compulsory water metering. We need to reduce usage hugely, and the only way to do it is through compulsory metering.
I ask the Minister if he can give the Committee any idea how the Government intend to meet their target of 110 litres per person per day, if they do not accept all the recommendations of my Amendment 189.
My Lords, I have added my name to Amendments 188A, 188B and 188C in this group, which are also in the names of the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, and the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter. I also add my support to Amendment 188 in the name of my noble friend Lady McIntosh of Pickering. These amendments have already been extremely well explained, but I will add a couple of points.
The noble Lord, Lord Cameron, suggested that metering is the fairest way of charging. I completely agree on that. It is important to note the improvement in water usage that has occurred when metering has been installed. Therefore, controlling the supply and use of water is a major step forward in trying to ensure that our water supply is sustainable.
I add to that an observation relevant to previous groups on which I did not have an opportunity to speak: actually, water is not the only commodity not charged for use. We still do not charge for the use of wastewater and sewerage services. It is not just the supply of water, important though it is, but the quality of all our waterways and water infrastructure that can be so impacted by what people do and the waste products they unthinkingly flush down our toilets. These incur significant costs of which it seems nobody is aware, in almost all cases. If we could find a way of charging for those services—perhaps on a per-person basis or, commercially, on the number of people using buildings—we may think twice before putting things down our waste system. Less water down the drains, but also less waste down the drains, are two vital elements of this.
I congratulate the Government on announcing that they will support labelling on the water usage of appliances. I also, once again, congratulate my noble friend and my honourable friend in the other place, who are clearly committed to doing their utmost to getting this landmark Bill right and making a real difference to the future of our environment and the planet.
My Lords, I put my name to Amendment 189 of the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, on domestic water efficiency. I understand that the Government are committed to water efficiency standards and labelling, as signalled in their recent ministerial Statement on reducing water demand. The Government’s helpful brief on the water issues in the Bill says that they are currently considering the most suitable and effective mechanism for water efficiency labelling. This amendment does the job for them. I hope the Minister accepts it and makes swift progress to tackle the demand side of the supply-demand balance.
For too long, the water products industry has dug in, dragged its heels and resisted labelling. I remember being involved in endless discussions on water efficiency and labelling products 15 years ago. We are drinking in the last-chance saloon—if that is not a pun in the context of water.
As I said earlier on the Bill, our average water consumption has barely changed over the last 15 years. The Government have a target of at least 125 litres and preferably 110 litres per person per day. The national average is currently 142 litres, so we have a way to go. Reducing water use, both cold and hot, reduces greenhouse gas emissions created by water processing and heating, so there is a double benefit. Voluntary schemes have not worked. Research and evidence from schemes already in place have shown that mandatory water efficiency standards and labelling water-using products could reduce household consumption by as much as 20%. It is a no-brainer and has been for 15 years or longer. Pushback from the manufacturers needs to be put in its box and there needs to be better join-up between Defra and BEIS. I ask the Minister to just do it.
Smart water metering is in that category too, having been shown to deliver significant water savings of around 17%. Meters can help water companies to detect and fix leaks, and customers to understand and manage their water use and reduce their carbon impact. At the current rate of water meter rollout, we will reach only 83% of homes by 2045, which is not exactly speedy; we need 1 million smart meters a year. Reducing water demand means avoiding environmental damage and the high cost to consumers from major water infrastructure, such as reservoirs. You know it makes sense, Minister; accept this amendment and just go for it.
My Lords, I can be very brief because I have great sympathy with most of the amendments before us. The amendment that the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, spoke to briefly but eloquently should commend itself to my noble friend. I hope he will be able to give some encouraging comments on that. Water metering is clearly essential and must be brought into effect as soon as possible. In the context of this Bill, I think the Parminter amendment has a great deal to commend it.
I am pleased to support the very simple but very important amendment from the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter. In 2009, the Environment Agency said that all houses in London and the south-east should be fitted with water meters by 2015 and that the rest of the country should have a water meter by 2020. Well, here we are in 2021.
I shall not repeat all the excellent stats that people have given. We are indeed the only European country without this facility. My sister was here from Denmark, and remarked again how astonishing it was. It is, of course, the fairest way for people to pay for water, and it is culturally important, because then we realise that water is a valuable commodity—indeed, so valuable right now that I read last week, to my horror, that in northern California the water shortages are so severe that farmers in the north are selling water to farmers in the south for their avocados, almonds and oranges. It is actually more economical to farm water, which would almost be funny if it were not so extreme.
I have a couple of final points. The Climate Change Committee is incorporating in its carbon budgets the assumption that domestic water use will decrease. For example, the introduction of low-flow showerheads could lead to 5% less heat demand and thus lower electricity demand. It is very good news that our appliances will be better labelled in future.
It is also a really important amendment, as we as a nation must adapt to using less. Hose-pipe bans are very common all over the south-east in the British summer but, unless we try to have limitations on how household appliances are used and how often, which would be impossible to enforce, we need some way of using less water. As the noble Baroness, Lady Young, said, let us make no further ado and bring this in right now.
My Lords, I very much support the purposes behind this group of amendments, and I support many of the amendments. The quality and management of water is one of our most important strategic priorities, as has been reinforced numerous times in debate this week. I appreciate the reassurance given by the Minister that he agrees with this.
I will first comment on Amendment 189 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter. I live in Northumberland, and we are extremely fortunate that we rarely have a shortage of water. Kielder Water is just up the road from where we live, but even in the north-east there are occasions during prolonged periods of dry weather when reservoirs can fall to quite scary levels. The truth is that we are very profligate with this precious resource called water.
Other members of this Committee will have been to Africa, as I have, and visited other parts of the world in which water deficiency is a massive issue and every drop of rainwater is conserved, as was referred to earlier in the debate on the need to capture grey water. I shall not comment on that, but it is important that we take pressure off our water supplies wherever we possibly can, domestically as well as in businesses.
Some 50% of our households and many businesses have absolutely no idea how much water they are using, so it is essential that we adopt the measures outlined in this amendment to improve water efficiency, and in particular that we introduce the compulsory installation of smart meters. The noble Lord, Lord Cameron, articulated convincingly why we need to do this, supported by comments from the noble Baronesses, Lady Parminter, Lady Young of Old Scone and Lady Boycott, so I will not repeat the arguments except to say that, if you cannot measure it, you cannot manage it. As has been stated, until households and businesses know how much water they are using, they are unlikely to reduce usage and improve the efficient utilisation of it.
The amendments in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington—Amendment 188A suggesting the establishment of a technical advisory group and Amendment 189A, which requires the Government to prepare a water strategy—are very interesting and well worth consideration. In my view, a water strategy, as proposed, should be extended to address the quality of water and the management of water.
I was one of those who took part in the Water Bill in 2014, but this is a different issue and is not addressed in the Water Act. It is a huge issue of the highest priority. Without a co-ordinated water strategy that involves all the key bodies, demolishes silos and requires both departments and agencies to engage in meeting agreed targets on water quality, conservation and usage, we are unlikely to address the serious challenges that we face. Is it too ambitious to expect the office for environmental protection to work with the Environment Agency, Natural England, the drainage boards, the water companies and Ofwat, together with Defra—particularly in its application and targeting of the ELM scheme—and other departments to rise to this challenge? A water strategy should be seriously considered, and I wish I had thought of this in more detail before these amendments were tabled. I ask the Minister to give this serious consideration.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, for tabling this amendment and to all noble Lords who have spoken. I add to the noble Baroness’s plea for a meeting with the Minister. Everybody except us seems to having Ministers, so she is not alone. Perhaps at some point the Minister can respond to some of our asks as well.
I return to the issue at hand. We are concerned that, as it stands, Clause 83 gives the Government extended powers to amend the regulations implementing the EU water framework directive. This directive was hard fought for and is an iconic part of our continuing EU water quality standards, so the Minister will understand why we are suspicious of this proposed change. Of course, we understand that the composition of chemical pollutants might change over time, and there is an urgent need to manage the impact of these pollutants. The Environment Agency’s own data show that not a single lake or river in England that has recently been tested has achieved a good chemical status. This has an inevitable negative impact on wildlife as well as being a threat to public health, particularly as a result of the new trend towards wild swimming.
We have to be assured that any change will be absolutely based on the best technical and scientific standards and not used to dilute our current high standards of regulation. This is why we support the amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, which would create a broad-based statutory advisory group to advise on these changes. It is also why we support his amendments to seek advice from the new OEP and to require the regulations to be approved by the affirmative procedure. In this way, we can be assured that the standards and targets can be altered only in line with the best scientific advice and following appropriate stakeholder consultation. It would lay to rest our concerns that the Government seem to have a very different interpretation of non-regression of environmental standards from what we understood during the course of the withdrawal Act.
We also very much thank the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, for tabling Amendment 189. We have had a very good debate on this, and she has set out a compelling argument as to why it is necessary. All the evidence shows that we are running out of water and wasting water at alarming rates. The Environment Agency has warned that within 25 years England’s water supply will simply not meet demand. We have to start dealing with it as the scarce and valuable resource it really is, so it is important that we incentivise manufacturers to make water-efficient appliances, in the same way that they are incentivised to make energy-efficient appliances.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, said, it is a scandal that new houses are not being built with energy and water efficiency as an automatic obligation. I hope the Minister can reassure us that this is his intention in the very near future; perhaps the discussions he is having with the Ministry of Housing can speed that up.
As we discussed in earlier debates, standard labelling of appliances to inform consumer choice is also key. We agree with the noble Baronesses, Lady Parminter and Lady McIntosh, and others that this should be accompanied by minimum appliance standards.
I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, that behavioural change is also necessary and that we have to learn to adapt to using less water. This would be helped by measures to accelerate the introduction of smart water meters, and we agree that a deadline of January 2023 for regulations to be laid is both achievable and necessary. We agree that thereafter every household should have a smart meter installed by 2025. The noble Lord, Lord Cameron, made an excellent argument for the water savings that could be made by this measure and, as the noble Lord, Lord Curry, said, if you cannot measure it, you cannot manage it.
Finally, we welcome the proposal from the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, for a water strategy for England, which would bring together all the Government’s policies and initiatives into a coherent whole. We need an integrated plan for the long term, particularly to maximise value from the inevitable expenditure. This would ensure that measures to introduce water efficiency and lower usage work hand in hand with our biodiversity ambitions, particularly across our inland waters and wetlands. It would ultimately upgrade our outdated sewerage system once and for all.
We very much welcome these amendments and hope the Minister will feel able to give them his wholehearted support.
Before I turn to individual amendments, I want to assure noble Lords of our commitment to improving water quality. Our rivers and lakes are an essential and valuable part of our countryside and urban landscapes, and the power we are taking in Clause 83 is to enable us to continue to monitor their health, so that we can better improve it.
I will begin with Amendment 189A from the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, so that I can assure noble Lords of the Government’s strategic approach to this issue before elaborating on the specifics. The Government fully agree with the intent; that is why we are already taking a strategic approach to the management of the water environment, in particular through river basin management plans. Additionally, through the Environment Bill, we are introducing the requirement to create a new, legally binding target for water quality. This will drive forward action needed to improve the water environment.
River basin management plans establish the goals we set for our water bodies and set out the steps required to meet them, guiding investment and action. The plans are updated on a six-yearly cycle, following extensive consultation. The Environment Agency will consult this year on the draft river basin management plans covering the period until 2027, and I encourage all interested parties to engage with that process. The 2015 plans confirmed £3 billion of investment over the period to 2021. In England this has led to more than 11,000 kilometres of surface water being enhanced and a further 2,349 kilometres being protected.
We are also working at a strategic level with the Environment Agency, Ofwat and water companies to ensure that the water companies’ investment through their next periodic review delivers the best possible outcomes for the environment. Requiring an additional strategy would therefore be unnecessary.
I thank the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, for Amendment 188 on priority substances and the price review. I will be very happy to speak afterwards to arrange a meeting with her. On that point, I was a bit surprised by the comments from the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, about meetings. I have just checked with my office, and we have had numerous meetings to discuss the Bill. We have had at least three, including with the Secretary of State. I have had five with groups of opposition Peers. The noble Baroness herself told me last night that we have a meeting planned for the 19th, so she clearly knows about it, and I offered another meeting in addition to that when we spoke. I hope she will reflect on her comments because they are a little misleading for the House.
On the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, I would like to explain why it is critical that we have the power in Clause 83 of the Bill. The current priority substances list was frozen in our law at the end of the transition period under the European Union (Withdrawal) Act. Without appropriate regulatory change powers, the UK Government and devolved Administrations would be left operating an out-of-date list of substances and standards potentially harmful to the water environment. Section 8 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act, which enables the UK to transfer EU Commission powers to UK Ministers by regulation, does not apply in this case so we need primary legislation to obtain the powers to update the priority substance list.
Updates to the list of priority substances, which must be tested for in the water environment, will take into account the latest scientific and technical evidence. It would not be appropriate to constrain our ability to make updates and react rapidly to emerging substances which pose a threat to the aquatic environment. Under the EU system, the list was updated by introducing a new EU directive. Data needed to be collected across the EU and, as in the case of all new directives, member states were given long grace periods to transpose updates, resulting in a lengthy process.
We can act on emerging substances much more quickly outside the EU if we do not unnecessarily prolong the process of making updates, which tying the process to the cycle of the price review would entail. Furthermore, as the noble Baroness suggests in her amendment, I reassure her that the price review already takes into account water company obligations, including those in relation to the water environment. The price review has flexibility to allow for changes in circumstances.
The Government have regularly updated key stakeholders, including the water industry, on the progress of this measure and any proposed changes to the priority substances list will be subject to statutory consultation requirements. In response to her question about consultation, we consulted on the policy of Clause 78 through the January 2019 consultation on improving our management of water in the environment but we did not specifically consult on the Explanatory Notes, which I understand is normal practice.
The noble Baroness asked about the price review and planning for water quality monitoring. Ofwat’s price review process is clearly key for water company business planning. Water companies’ current non-statutory drainage and wastewater management plans will help inform their business plans and required funding for 2025-30 to deliver them. Companies will complete their plans by spring 2023 to feed into the PR24 process. Ofwat has a mechanism that allows for consideration of additional funding requests made by companies during the price review period, but there are strict rules governing this. We are confident that companies are undertaking comprehensive assessments of their plans to set out their priorities in price review 2024, including priorities around sewerage assets to mitigate any impacts on water quality.
I turn to Amendments 188A, 188B and 188C from the noble Lord, Lord Cameron. I reassure the noble Lord that the power in Clause 83(1) will allow for only relatively narrow changes to be made to water quality standards for certain chemicals in existing legislation. For example, in 2013 the priority substances list was updated via a new EU directive. We were required to transpose into our regulations 12 new substances, and a new requirement for the EA to make provision for these substances in river basin management plans. This update also instigated biota testing for some toxic bioaccumulative substances.
This new power in the Environment Bill is critical in enabling the same kind of narrow technical changes. Changes will be informed by the latest scientific advice from the UK technical advisory group, a working group of experts convened by the EA and drawn from the environmental agencies for England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. It consults appropriate stakeholders when carrying out its work and its recommendations are published.
We designed the clause to include a statutory requirement for the Secretary of State to consult the EA before exercising this power. As the noble Lord’s amendment proposes, the Secretary of State must also consult any persons or bodies likely to be affected by the regulations. This may include water companies and environmental groups as well as, no doubt, many others. This is exactly what the Government intend to do. The OEP will not have a role in setting technical standards for water. That is not its area of expertise. The Environment Agency has deep expertise and long experience in this area, and is therefore best placed to continue this role.
Clause 29, however, does allow the OEP to provide advice to Ministers on any aspect of environmental law, so it will be able to hold Ministers to account on any changes. As such, we do not believe that it is necessary to specify the OEP as a consultee.
Regarding Amendment 188C, the noble Lord’s suggestion of a standard affirmative resolution procedure is disproportionate and unsuitable in this instance. This power can be used only to make narrow changes, subject to the extensive consultation that I have already set out, to certain water quality standards involving highly technical discussions. Indeed, the report by the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee did not feel the need to highlight this delegated power as one which needed stronger parliamentary oversight than the Bill currently provides for.
Finally, regarding Amendment 189 tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, reducing household water demand is clearly a priority, as it is for the Government. This is why the Government published a Written Ministerial Statement last week on reducing water demand, announcing numerous measures that they will take forward in response to the 2019 consultation. In answer to the question asked by my noble friend Lady McIntosh, this includes plans to introduce a mandatory water efficiency label to inform consumers and encourage the purchase of more water-efficient products. We will encourage local authorities to adopt the building standard of 110 litres per person per day in all new builds where there is a clear local need, such as in water-stressed areas. We will also develop a road map towards greater water efficiency in new developments and retrofits, to be published in 2022. These measures can be taken forward without the need for new primary legislation.
To reiterate a point I made in an earlier debate about building regulations, which was picked up by the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, we are having discussions with MHCLG, and my colleagues in Defra and I are pushing for the highest possible standards. There is a huge number of opportunities and we do not want to lose them. She is right about lobbying. As anyone who has been in government knows, lobbying happens. We all get lobbied in government. It is the job of government to discriminate between positive and less-helpful lobbying. However, when the zero-carbon homes policy was cancelled during the coalition Government, there was a lot of pushback by some of the bigger developers who found it unhelpful. They had adjusted their business models, considered what needed to happen, enjoyed the certainty and felt that it was driving innovation, so I think it was a mistake by the coalition Government. It is not always the case that bigger businesses push back on these kinds of regulations.
The Government are not currently making changes to existing rules around when people can be charged for their water use through water meters, but water companies in seriously water-stressed areas may implement wider water metering programmes where it is shown by their water resources management plans that there is customer support and it is cost-effective to do so.
The Government take the health of rivers, waterways and our wider aquatic environment very seriously indeed. A key plank of our 25-year environment plan includes improving the ecological status of our aquatic environment and ensuring that water is both clean and plentiful. I am pleased to have had the opportunity to debate these issues today. I thank noble Lords for their amendments. I have tried to provide a thorough explanation of our approach and respectfully ask them not to press their amendments.
I have received one request to speak after the Minister, from the noble Lord, Lord Randall of Uxbridge. Lord Randall? Uxbridge is offline. I call the mover of the amendment, Baroness McIntosh of Pickering.
I thank all noble Lords who have contributed to the debate, especially those who spoke in support of Amendment 188.
I pay tribute to my noble friend the Minister. It must be pleasing for him to see his work on the quality of life come to life. I commend a slightly shorter report that we did on bricks and water, which goes to the point of building regulations and minimum standards. I am pleased that he is committed not only to labelling but to the work being done with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government on minimum standards. As the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, said, that is extremely important. I share the concern of the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, that Clause 83 allows a potential weakening of the EU water framework directive. I hope this will not be the case and that, if anything, we might impose higher standards, which we would wish to meet.
The noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, raised a point of concern. Successive Governments have looked at the compulsory metering of water. All parties, not just water companies but Governments, Oppositions and local authorities, must raise awareness. There is a certain reticence among those on fixed and low incomes because, rightly or wrongly, they believe that their costs through the water bills will go up. I urge my noble friend the Minister and his opposite number in the housing department to look very carefully at how we can do that.
On a point of factual correction, the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, said that we are the only country in Europe which does not charge on value for water. I think Denmark charges through the council tax for its water consumption and that is then passed back to the water companies. That is a lead-in to saying that I wish both teams playing tonight well but, as a half-Dane, obviously I will be wishing Denmark on very vigorously. I hope that my noble friend will listen carefully to those of us who have made our representations so strongly in this group but, at the moment, I beg leave to withdraw Amendment 188.
Before the amendment is withdrawn, apparently the noble Lord, Lord Randall, has reappeared. Lord Randall? No? He should talk to his MP.
Amendment 188 withdrawn.
Amendments 188A to 188C not moved.
Clause 83 agreed.
Amendment 188D not moved.
Clauses 84 to 87 agreed.
Amendments 189 and 189A not moved.
Clause 88: Valuation of other land in drainage district: England
Amendment 190 not moved.
Clauses 88 and 89 agreed.
Clause 90: Valuation of agricultural land in drainage district: England and Wales
Amendment 191 not moved.
Clauses 90 and 91 agreed.
Amendments 192 to 194A not moved.
We now come to the group consisting of Amendment 194AA. Anyone wishing to press this amendment to a Division must make that clear in debate.
194AA: After Clause 91, insert the following new Clause—
“Flood risk report
(1) Within 6 months of the day on which this Act is passed, the Secretary of State must lay before both Houses of Parliament a report on flood risk.(2) The report under subsection (1) must contain—(a) an assessment of the number of—(i) people, and (ii) householdscurrently at risk of flood,(b) analysis of the expected impact of measures contained in this Act (including but not limited to those relating to planning) on flood risk, and(c) proposals for further policy or legislation to mitigate or reverse flood risk.(3) In preparing the report under subsection (1), the Secretary of State must seek advice from—(a) the Committee on Climate Change,(b) the Environment Agency, and(c) any other persons the Secretary of State considers appropriate.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment would require the Secretary of State to publish a report on flood risk, with a particular focus on whether (and to what extent) measures in this Act will help to mitigate or reverse it.
My Lords, Amendment 194AA is in my name and those of my noble friend Lady Jones of Whitchurch and the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville. This amendment would require the Secretary of State to publish a report on flood risk, to help realise the potential of the nature restoration intended to be delivered by the Bill and to reduce flooding risk. Disappointingly, “flood” appears in the Bill only once, on page 188, in Schedule 10, relating to enforcement powers. It is a huge omission that an environment Bill is not seriously addressing flood risk, leaving many communities woefully unprepared to tackle flooding.
The new office for environmental protection, created by the Bill, is responsible for scrutinising government policies to safeguard the environment, but it has no powers to improve measures to tackle flooding. In the Agriculture Act, the environmental land management schemes include provisions to tackle flood risk, but this is not an issue just for farmers and landowners to manage. For example, planning and development can have a serious impact on increasing flood risk, as can how we manage our reservoirs. Currently, water companies have to manage reservoirs and take drought into account—we know that drought reports have to be prepared—but not flooding or flood reports.
The UK has a legacy of development within areas at risk of flooding from river water, surface water and groundwater. Continued development of rural and low-lying areas has led to about 6 million properties being at risk of flooding. In addition, a Defra report has predicted that this number is set to increase and identified flooding as the greatest risk posed to the UK by climate change—so why is flood risk not a central part of this section of the Bill?
The Minister may well refer to the Government’s National Planning Policy Framework, which requires local authorities to demonstrate that the issue of flood risk has been considered as part of the planning process, through the flood risk management hierarchy. Alongside the NPPF, the planning practice guidance on “Flood risk and coastal change” sets “sequential” and “exception” tests and thresholds to protect property from flooding, which all local planning authorities are expected to follow. Where these tests or thresholds are not met, new development should not be allowed. But none of these recommendations means that developments or redevelopments in flood risk areas will not be approved. The planning process is there only to ensure that flooding is taken into account in development proposals.
In your Lordships’ House, in response to a Written Question in February 2016, the then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Trafford, said:
“Development can not be ruled out in high flood risk areas”.
I know of too many cases where a developer has been able to build in flood risk areas, despite serious local concerns, offering mitigations to ensure that the development would not flood. However, flood waters have to go somewhere, and the outcome is too often the flooding of properties that have never experienced this before.
I am particularly concerned that the Government’s new planning proposals will only increase the numbers of homes being built in areas of flood risk—a number of noble Lords mentioned this concern in earlier debates. We could end up with new houses and other developments being built in the wrong places, and, once built, they will present a long-term and continuing flood-management problem. Government must make sure that planning policy keeps up with climate change and that, despite the housing shortage, planning must take increasing flood risk into account in deciding where new homes should be built.
A key problem in effectively managing flood risk is the lack of an integrated approach to catchment management and the number of regulatory bodies: the Environment Agency is cash-strapped, the water companies are regulated by Ofwat—with a focus on keeping bills down—and farmers are regulated by Defra and incentivised through the CAP and now ELMS. The Environment Bill is an opportunity to pull together all the different strings of the water sector to have an integrated catchment approach to tackling flood risk.
Floods happen; they always will. The question is how to limit their impact. When serious flooding occurs, as it did in 2015 in the community where I live, and in many others around the country, everyone works flat out to do whatever they can during the crisis. Government praises everyone involved and promises the moon—but terms like “unprecedented” and “climate emergency” do not alter the fact that the current approach to tackling flooding and future flood risk is clearly not fit for purpose.
Understandably, the main focus when extreme flooding happens is its impact on human lives and livelihoods, but it is also an environmental disaster. Floods increase surface run-off, exacerbating erosion and introducing more soil, organic matter and pollutants into watercourses. Studies have shown that plant biomass and the abundance of both vertebrates, such as fish, and invertebrates can be dramatically reduced by extreme floods. Noxious hydrogen sulphide fumes and lead poisoning are among the threats from floodwater contamination. Many animals are at risk of being poisoned by floodwater redistributing pesticides and toxic chemicals from industrial sites. Hibernating bumblebees, ground beetles and caterpillars are at risk of dying at greatly elevated rates because the floods and heavy rainfall are drowning them and interfering with their hibernation. Hedgehogs are already undergoing a national decline, and floods just put extra pressure on them: unless they get to areas of high ground, they drown.
We need an integrated approach to flood management that works with the environment to manage land and water in ways that benefit both people and our ecosystems. Why are the Government not using the Environment Bill as the opportunity to deliver this? I beg to move.
I am delighted to speak to and support Amendment 194AA, on a “Flood risk report”. Too often, where there have been major floods, as there were many times in the 2000s and since, people tend to forget and Governments fail to take major action once the flood waters have receded, so I echo what the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, said in moving her amendment.
I make a plea to my noble friend the Minister, particularly on the issuing and updating of planning guidance. I mentioned earlier the fact that, at the moment, developers are building on flood plains and not making the buildings secure, flood-proof and resilient to floods. It is only when the householder makes a claim that they find out that it will not be met, in part or in full—particularly if they bought without a mortgage, in which case they probably have no idea that they are not covered by insurance.
On many occasions, in both the other place and here, we have tried to make it a requirement for developers to have regard to building sustainable drainage systems—SUDS—to take surface water away from sewers and combined sewer outflows. This amendment is an opportunity to ask my noble friend if the Government have moved on this and whether they plan to update and amend planning guidance to make SUDS the preferred option for managing surface water in all new developments.
I make the simple suggestion of empowering sewage undertakers to discharge rainwater downpipes, with nothing nasty in them, into local soakaways, as opposed to the current legislation, which requires a new public sewer to be provided to take the flows away, immediately mixing them with sewage—this seems a wanton wastage of resources and infrastructure. I hope that my noble friend will look favourably upon this.
Such a flood risk report as this amendment would allow for would give the opportunity for my noble friend and his department to review the partnership approach. As he mentioned earlier, the environmental land management schemes—ELMS—will allow flood prevention schemes to take place, and so allow the Government to do an audit in that regard. That is another reason I hope that, if not in this amendment, the Government will look favourably on some way of monitoring flood risk going forward.
My Lords, it is a delight to follow the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, whose comment about building on flood plains reminds me of the simplest, clearest explanation of why this should not happen: a flood plain is not beside the river; it is part of the river. I greatly appreciated her focus on sustainable urban drainage schemes.
I commend the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, for tabling Amendment 194AA, and I commend the noble Baronesses, Lady Jones and Lady Bakewell, for supporting it. Indeed, I would have done so myself, had I not simply missed it. We are talking about joined-up government here, with two critical issues that have a huge impact on people, businesses and the natural world coming together: the environment and flooding. We know that the Government talk about joined-up government thinking and nature-based solutions, but it is a great pity that, up until this point, we have not seen this added into the Bill.
In this context, last month the Committee on Climate Change released its new five-yearly independent assessment of climate risk, which showed that, of 61 risks and opportunities, more action is needed now on 34 of them—one of which is relates to flooding. We need not just talk from the Government, but action. The National Flood and Coastal Erosion Risk Management Strategy for England, published last year, shows that 5.2 million homes and businesses are at risk. With the reality of our climate emergency, rainfall is expected to increase by 6% by the 2050s and from 8% to 13% by the 2080s from a 1981-2000 baseline.
We absolutely have to address these great risks and long-term issues now. It is worth noting that there are excellent things happening, but they are pilots or on a local scale, not on the landscape or nationwide scale across England that we need to see. I note that Stroud, in particular, has been a real leader in this area. The rural sustainable drainage project, which was initiated by community groups after areas of Stroud were flooded in 2007 and 2012, covers 250 square kilometres of the catchment of the River Frome and its tributaries. It was from that project, through the excellent work of the former Green county councillor Sarah Lunnon, that I learned a great deal about leaky dams and the really wonderful environmental and flood impacts that they can have.
At the other end of the country, the Committee on Climate Change highlights the Stockdalewath natural flood protection management group, which again followed flooding affecting the Roe Beck and the River Ive catchments near Carlisle. It shows joined-up thinking around measures that are good for the environment and agricultural productivity, and which reduce flood risks. Again, we are talking about leaky damns, as well as hedgerow restoration and the fencing-off of watercourses.
Another very different project, also highlighted by the CCC is in Medmerry, West Sussex. There are new flood banks on a coastal area which protect the community but also create 300 hectares of wildlife habitat, which is of principal importance under the UK Biodiversity Action Plan—there are mudflats, reed beds, saline lagoons and grassland. This is really crucial for meeting European directive targets.
Finally, while I am talking about positive things—I like to focus on the positives, at least some of the time—I cannot conclude without mentioning the growing understanding of the positive impacts of beavers. There was an excellent study a year ago by a team of scientists, led by Professor Richard Brazier from the University of Exeter, which was specifically on the beavers that mysteriously arrived on the River Otter. The beavers had huge positive benefits for eco-tourism and ecosystem services, including flood alleviation. The beavers are slowing the flow of floodwater, reducing peak flows during flood events. What we are doing here—and must do much more—is to allow nature to fix what we have broken. That is why this is so crucial in the Environment Bill; the law must be framed explicitly to allow this to happen.
My Lords I have put my name to this amendment in the names of the noble Baronesses, Lady Jones of Whitchurch and Lady Hayman of Ullock. The noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, has comprehensively introduced this amendment. I have added my name as someone who was once leader of a council, which had and still has large areas of flooding on a regular basis. In some cases, the same land and businesses were flooded year after year.
I will not rehearse the details of the flooding during the winter of 2014, but I mention that, after action was taken by the Government and Environment Agency, major works took place in an attempt to prevent flooding of such a serious nature in future. This is welcome, but is of little comfort to those who lost everything from flooding in the first place.
Flooding from rising water is devastating. It can be immediate, with a town or village and properties being submerged in a matter of minutes from catastrophic water flow from continuous rainfall and run-off from higher ground. It can also be slow and insidious, as in the case where rainfall has swollen the local rivers, and householders and the Environment Agency watch the rising water with trepidation, knowing that at some stage the banks will be breached, the muddy waters will engulf their homes, the sewers will overflow and drinking water will be contaminated. We have all seen the television coverage of such incidents, but we may not have experienced the smell, nor had to wade through the slime covering the floor of our lounge or kitchen.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, asked why flooding does not have greater prominence in the Bill and I share her concerns. The noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, spoke of the hazards of developments on flood plains which, if built since 2009, are not covered by insurance. The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, also raised the dangers of building on flood plains. It is time that developers in this process provide their own insurance to those living in homes that they have built on flood plains. The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, also gave some excellent examples of flood protection measures, including beavers—some have been introduced into Cornwall.
The amendment is extensive. Flood risk reports are important. The areas liable to flood are well documented and it is now possible to assess the number of people and households at risk from flooding and to take action to mitigate the risk, thereby reversing the possibility of flooding. The Committee on Climate Change, the Environment Agency, local drainage boards and others on the ground in an area should be consulted to share their first-hand knowledge with the Secretary of State in preparing flood risk reports.
The Government must take action, as this matter is very serious, and so bring some reassurance to flood risk areas that they are not forgotten and that measures are being taken to help protect them. Catchment plans are a vital tool in flood prevention measures, which are needed to protect people.
I fully support this amendment and look forward to a favourable response from the Minister on this critical issue.
My Lords, flooding incidents have an utterly devastating impact on communities. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, for raising this important issue in her Amendment 194AA and I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, for her thoughtful introduction.
The Government are committed to ensuring that our country is resilient and prepared for the challenges that a changing climate brings, including flooding and coastal erosion. The Government are taking a holistic and wide-ranging approach to flood risk, including through, for example, the England tree strategy, which will have a direct impact on flood prevention if trees are planted in the right place or if land is allowed to naturally regenerate in a way that slows the flow of surface water and increases the ability of land to absorb water. Likewise, our peat action plan will be crucial in reducing flood risk and showing that communities downstream of restored peatland are better protected and that, again, the land’s ability to hold water is improved.
I know that the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, will agree that nature-based solutions can play a vital role in meeting flood resilience objectives in addition to so many other objectives in the Government’s 25-year environment plan at the same time. I want to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, for the examples she gave. I very much share her enthusiasm about the introduction of beavers, which has had the most extraordinary impact already.
The combination of green, blue and traditional grey infrastructure, which we discussed in detail earlier, will minimise the number of households at risk of flooding. The Bill takes important steps to help achieve this. It amends the Land Drainage Act 1991 to make it easier to make new internal drainage boards, which play a key role in managing water levels, reducing flood risks, supporting local growth, and protecting critical infrastructure in urban and rural areas.
Furthermore, by placing a statutory duty on sewerage companies to produce drainage and sewerage management plans, we are addressing long-term drainage planning and capacity, which helps to address sewer and surface water flooding. Section 13(1) of the Flood and Water Management Act 2010 already requires risk management authorities, including sewerage companies, to co-operate with other risk management authorities such as the Environment Agency and lead local flood authorities. But we will also make secondary legislation to ensure that the preparation of a drainage and sewerage management plan is captured as a flood risk management function to ensure that the new plans form part of a holistic response to flood risk.
I should be clear that the Bill has not been designed with the sole intention of addressing new flood risk legislation. The Flood and Water Management Act 2010, for instance, sets out the legislative requirements for flood risk management. It includes a duty on the Environment Agency to produce a report in relation to flood and coastal erosion risk management under Section 18. The Environment Agency report on flood and coastal erosion risk management is published every year and includes information on flood risk and progress to tackle that risk.
The Government are also taking ambitious non-legislative action to address flood risk. I mentioned the tree plan and the peat plan earlier, but we are also investing a record £5.2 billion to build 2,000 new flood defences over the next six years. This will better protect 336,000 properties from flooding and coastal erosion. In addition, the Government are investing a further £170 million to accelerate the building of 22 flood schemes across the country.
Alongside this, a further £200 million is being invested in the flood and coastal resilience innovation programme, which is helping over 25 local areas to take forward wider innovative actions that improve their resilience to flooding and coastal erosion. Pioneering projects, led by local authorities and delivered over the next six years, include apps which alert residents to flooding, permeable road surfaces to improve drainage and schemes to protect vital sand dune beaches.
Last July, the Government also published a policy statement setting out the Government’s long-term ambition to create a nation more resilient to future flood and coastal risk. This aims to reduce the risk of harm to people, the environment and the economy, and aims to ensure that our country is better protected and better prepared to reduce the likelihood and impacts of flooding and coastal erosion. It was informed by advice from the National Infrastructure Commission and the Committee on Climate Change.
The Government also have a statutory duty to respond to the Committee on Climate Change’s annual progress reports. The most recent report by the committee, published on 24 June, acknowledges that the government’s policy statement provides
“the required policy basis for increasing the level of ambition in tackling flood risk.”
The policy statement includes five policies and over 40 supporting actions which will accelerate progress to better protect and prepare the country against flooding and coastal erosion. Alongside the record investment I mentioned earlier, we are strengthening the reporting of progress towards the Government’s goals by spring 2022 so that it is clearer and more accessible.
The Government are also developing a national set of indicators to monitor trends over time to better understand the impact of policies. Indicators and reporting will include the local picture, providing the information needed to further drive progress at a local level and recognising the different challenges faced in different areas.
I hope this has reassured the noble Baroness and other noble Lords who have spoken passionately about this issue that the Government share their concerns, and that we are already taking significant steps to deliver on our plan for greater resilience to flooding. I respectfully ask that she withdraw her amendment.
I thank the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, for her kind words and support and for the concerns she raised about new development, which I worry greatly about. She also mentioned insurance, as did the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville. I know this does not come under the Minister’s brief, but it is worth saying that Flood Re, which is designed to cover properties that flood, does not cover new homes built after 2019. It does not cover multiple occupancy of more than 10 homes. It does not cover businesses, which is particularly a problem in areas such as Cumbria, where I live, for small bed and breakfasts. The reason that it does not cover new homes built after 2019—I know this following a meeting with the chief executive of Flood Re—is because it was considered that planning rules meant that no home built after 2019 could flood, because the rules would stop homes being built in areas that would flood. That is absolute nonsense; homes built after 2019 flood. This really needs to be looked into. I know it is not in the Minister’s portfolio, but I would be grateful if he could raise it with his colleagues in the appropriate department.
The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, talked about the impact on both people and the natural world. That is a really important balance we need to get here. We really need joined-up thinking in government because there are a huge number of homes at risk. My concern, and my reason for tabling this amendment, is not just the damage to the natural environment, but the increasing concerns about new homes being built and more people being put at risk of flooding in their homes.
I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville, for her very supportive speech. She said that flooding is absolutely devastating. When you live in a community that floods regularly, you know that there is not just the immediate impact of the flood but a long-term knock-on effect on people’s mental health and businesses. Cockermouth, which is near where I live, flooded appallingly twice in six years and the town has still not got over that. If we have another flood like that, it will start to undermine the local community in a way that is hard to imagine if you have not witnessed it.
The noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville, also talked about the importance of bringing local knowledge into flood risk reports. Again, that is hugely important. Local communities understand their neighbourhood; local farmers understand their land, and should be part of any developments. She also talked about how catchment plans are vital to protect people; I agree with her very much on that.
I appreciated the Minister’s very thorough list of what the Government are doing, planning to do or are developing policy on around flooding, whether tree-planting strategies, restoring peat or looking at the new drainage and sewerage management plans we have been discussing in some detail today. But there are some practical things we could do. For example, why do water companies have to look at drought plans but not flood plans? Water companies should be much more central in how this is managed.
The thing I find most frustrating, and one of the reasons I wanted to emphasise the fact that this should be covered by the Bill, is demonstrated by what the Minister said: there are bits here, there and everywhere, but there is no coherent strategy on how we genuinely tackle flood risk in this country and what has to be done long term for the future because of the threat of climate change.
Mitigating flood risk needs to be right at the top of the Government’s agenda as part of their climate change strategy. Not having it as central within a Bill as important as this risks it being set aside when looking at planning objectives. That is what concerns me really deeply. I urge the Minister to look at how that can be taken forward but, in the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
Amendment 194AA withdrawn.
Clause 92: Biodiversity gain as condition of planning permission
Amendments 194AB and 194AC not moved.
Clause 92 agreed.
We now come to the group beginning with Amendment 194B. Anyone wishing to press this or anything else in this group to a Division must make that clear in debate.
194B: After Clause 92, insert the following new Clause—
“Biodiversity gain in nationally significant infrastructure projects
Schedule (Biodiversity gain in nationally significant infrastructure projects) makes provision about biodiversity gain in relation to development consent for nationally significant infrastructure projects.”Member’s explanatory statement
This new Clause introduces Lord Goldsmith’s proposed new Schedule relating to biodiversity gain.
In moving government Amendment 194B, I will speak to all government amendments consequential to it. I am pleased to be introducing today a new biodiversity net gain requirement for nationally significant infrastructure projects. This complements the existing provisions in the Environment Bill for biodiversity net gain for all other development and fulfils the Government’s recent commitment in response to the Dasgupta review. This will ensure that new nationally significant infrastructure projects, such as new roads, railways or airports, will contribute to our vision of a nature-positive future.
These government amendments will also enable the Government to extend net gain to major projects in the marine environment in the future, once a suitable approach has been developed, so that developments at sea will be required to increase marine biodiversity as well. I hope that this is welcomed by the noble Lords, Lord Teverson, Lord Randall and Lord Blencathra, in particular, who have spoken with great passion on the protection of the marine environment. The detail of the requirement will be brought forward through policy statements following consultation, and we will waste no time in implementing this measure. We will publish a consultation later this year, which will include proposals for an appropriate transition period and a range of other important details.
In addition, I am pleased to say that the new version of the biodiversity metric for development under the Town and Country Planning Act was launched earlier today by Natural England. It is accompanied by a draft small sites metric, which is designed to provide process simplifications for small sites aiming to achieve biodiversity net gain. We will be looking at the responses to this draft small sites metric and wider engagement later this year, and will consider further opportunities to simplify net gain for small developments.
I know the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, is due to speak to this group, and that the net gain clauses were the subject of one of the recommendations of the report on the Bill from the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee. I am therefore pleased to take this opportunity to inform him that the Government will be accepting all the recommendations of his Committee. I will write to the Committee today, and of course I will deposit a copy in the Library, and I will table a couple of government amendments on Report.
To return to the subject at hand, I look forward to hearing contributions from noble Lords about biodiversity net gain more broadly as part of this debate. I thank all noble Lords—there are too many to name—who spoke at Second Reading in support of extending biodiversity net gain to nationally significant infrastructure projects. I hope they will take some comfort in knowing that they have played a part in moving the Government and that the Government have listened to them. I beg to move.
Amendment 194C (to Amendment 194B)
194C: After Clause 92, on the last line, after “significant” insert “and other major”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment, alongside others to amendment 201A, extends the application of Biodiversity Net Gain to major infrastructure beyond the nationally significant infrastructure regime, to include projects consented through hybrid Bills and any future consent mechanisms.
My Lords, in moving Amendment 194C I shall speak also to Amendments 201AZA, 201AZB, 201AZC and 201AZD, in the name of my noble friend Lady Jones of Whitchurch, and Amendment 196, in the names of my noble friend Lady Jones of Whitchurch, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Parminter and Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, and the noble Lord, Lord Teverson. I also express my support for Amendment 198A, in the name of my noble friend Lady Young of Old Scone.
Clause 92 allows developers to purchase credits from the Secretary of State to satisfy biodiversity obligations imposed as a condition of planning permission. Revenues raised through the purchases are then used to create and improve nature sites. Our Amendment 194C would amend government Amendment 194B, introduced by the Minister, and is designed to enable a discussion around extending the application of biodiversity net gain to major infrastructure, beyond the nationally significant infrastructure regime, thereby including projects consented through hybrid Bills and any future consent mechanisms.
Currently, environmental considerations are too often considered a constraint in the planning system. A fundamental shift is required to enable the planning system to play a fuller part in nature’s recovery, protecting our finest wildlife sites and connecting them into a coherent network. We welcome the planning reforms proposed in Part 6, including the imposition of biodiversity gain as a condition of planning permission and the creation of local nature recovery strategies. Developers, planners and land managers will be mandated to leave biodiversity in a better state than before, and now government Amendment 194B and new Schedule 14A include biodiversity net gain for nationally significant infrastructure projects—NSIPs, as they are known.
Despite the explicit commitment in the 25-year environment plan that net gain would cover both housing and infrastructure, the Government’s amendment does not cover other major infrastructure projects granted outside NSIPs. This would include HS2 and major housing developments. I know the Government have given us assurances about HS2, but this kind of development will not be covered in legislation as it stands, and simple assurances are not good enough, either for this project or for those in the future.
The August 2020 planning White Paper proposed using development consent orders, DCOs, to give permission to large housing developments. It has also been suggested that such housing-focused DCOs could sit outside the NSIP regime, which could mean they are excluded from biodiversity net gain. Our Amendment 194C would extend the proposed legislation, so that the biodiversity net gain principle applies to all major infrastructure projects.
Amendments 201AZC and 201AZD would carry this widened scope through into new Schedule 14A. Amendments 201AZA and 201AZB would ensure that biodiversity net gain applied to non-NSIP major infrastructure projects, to keep to key commitments; namely, the compulsory use of a biodiversity metric and the maintenance of biodiversity gains in perpetuity. It is vital that funds raised from the biodiversity credits system are used to deliver meaningful biodiversity net gain in a timely way, and that these are maintained in perpetuity. The time-limited nature of biodiversity net gain as proposed in the Bill is a significant flaw. Concerns have been raised that developers may be more likely to turn to biodiversity credits rather than local biodiversity gain for a project. This would result in local communities losing out. Developers need to fund habitats over the long term and maintain them, otherwise they simply will not thrive.
Under Schedule 14, habitats delivered through biodiversity net gain could be ploughed up or degraded after 30 years. This would destroy any ecological gains and carbon storage benefits. This goes against the grain of ecological best practice, which emphasises the need to let nature recover for the long term. Habitat restoration projects now often have end dates a century or more away. A requirement to maintain a habitat for only 30 years undermines the intention of compensation for habitat destruction. The lifetime of developments covered by net gain is likely to be much longer than 30 years, and land use changes are likely to be more permanent, so the compensatory habitat should be permanent too.
In the Public Bill Committee, last November, the Minister in the other place, Rebecca Pow, acknowledged the importance of maintaining biodiversity gains for the long term to provide
“long-lasting benefit to wildlife and communities”.—[Official Report, Commons, Environment Bill Committee, 17/11/20; col. 511.]
However, she did not support a requirement for habitats to be maintained in perpetuity, claiming that a requirement to maintain them for longer than 30 years could reduce the amount of land available to host such habitats, due to some land ownership being time limited and to landowners being reluctant to maintain sites in perpetuity. This argument does not seem particularly convincing and, to me, makes the whole approach look completely half-hearted. If land can be found and agreements reached to maintain buildings on it in perpetuity, as is the case with most development, so too can land be found and agreements reached to maintain biodiversity net gain habitats in perpetuity. If we do not do so, ultimately we could end up with overall losses.
This view has also recently been endorsed by the Environmental Audit Committee. In its Biodiversity in the UK: Bloom or Bust? report published on 30 June, the committee recommended that gains be maintained for more than 30 years, stating:
“Nature recovery does not happen overnight and must be maintained and built upon for generations. The proposed 30 year minimum to maintain biodiversity net gains will achieve little in terms of delivering long-lasting nature recovery.”
Our Amendments 196, 201AZA and 201AZB address this concern and would ensure that habitats created under net gain would be secured in perpetuity. I ask the Minister to take our concerns about this seriously.
My Lords, I declare my interests as on the register. It was an absolute pleasure to hear my noble friend introduce this vital new clause, which is quite superb. It is also amazing to hear that he has accepted every recommendation of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, which I am privileged to chair. I think, in all my time in the House, I have never known a Minister or a department accept every single recommendation. I have already said to another very big, powerful government department that if it wants to see how to do delegated powers properly, it should look at the Defra Delegated Powers Memorandum and see the way in which it has drafted a very large Bill, in eight parts, covering an awful lot of delegated powers, and done so with proper parliamentary scrutiny. I commend that to every other department.
Officially, I shall speak to Amendments 200 and 201 on biodiversity net gain—or nature net gain, as I would love to have it called—and to support my noble friend the Minister and his wonderful, large new clause. As someone who passionately believes in recovering our nature, I consider this to be one of the most important clauses in the Bill. When we add up the clauses on biodiversity targets, local nature recovery strategies, species conservation targets and now 10% minimum net gain, this is the greatest step forward this country has ever taken to bend the curve of nature loss and begin full-scale nature recovery. The only principal differences between my noble friend’s amendments and mine are that mine attempt to apply biodiversity net gain to the first two legs of HS2 and the Minister’s amendments are much longer with a lot of detail—that always makes me slightly suspicious, of course. However, my noble friend has pulled off an absolute blinder in getting other departments to agree to extend net gain to all national strategic infrastructure projects.
A few months ago, I and others made the case in this Chamber that 10% net gain be extended to HS— the Birmingham to Crewe leg—but that was resisted by the DfT. To be fair, the excellent Transport Minister in the other place, Andrew Stephenson MP, has been pressing HS2 to go further than “no net loss”—the current policy—and it seems to be moving in that direction. I want the Government to make sure that HS2 follows up on the welcome aspiration of a commitment to BNG.
I hope that will not be a watered-down version of net gain—it should be open, transparent and open to scrutiny. Net gain should be net gain, whether its supported by legislation or not. While we in this Committee may be urging my noble friend to go faster or do more, we must acknowledge that he and Defra have persuaded the Treasury, BEIS and DfT to accept 10% biodiversity net gain for all national strategic infrastructure projects. Quite frankly, that is an astonishing achievement and I did not expect to see it. It is important that NSIPs can and should deliver BNG to at least the same standards as those expected for other developments.
I welcome the reference to NSIPs having access to the statutory biodiversity credits scheme in the case of market failure. Natural England is currently developing this credits scheme. I like how BNG is to be embedded within national policy statements through biodiversity net gain statements and that there are mechanisms to be put in place for those sectors where the NSIPs have yet to be updated or where there is no national policy statements. I consider that this will allow for sufficient flexibility to allow biodiversity net gain to be tailored to any sector requirements if and where needed.
I am delighted to see it also extended to marine. That issue is contained in my amendments and I thought that I would have to argue the case for it. All I need to do instead is say, “Well done, Minister.”
That is enough praise—now for a few little queries. As I said at the beginning, I am always suspicious when we get a massive new clause to deal with what is really a simple matter of amending the schedule. First, I note that the amendment allows for developments to be excluded from this requirement by the Secretary of State. I cannot see grounds for granting such an exclusion and would not wish to see it enacted. However, I suspect that it is perhaps one of those safeguards Defra had to offer in order to get the other departments to sign up to BNG in the first place. I hope that it is merely a comfort blanket for the Treasury.
I hope that the requirement for NSIP net gain will be the same as for TCPA schemes. I would like to be reassured on this. Also, there is no commitment to a minimum period in which the biodiversity net gain must be secured on or off-site in the legislation. TCPA schemes are required to legally secure biodiversity net gain for a minimum of 30 years. I would expect NSIP schemes to secure outcomes for at least the same period, if not longer. Will my noble friend assure me that this omission is simply because the Government expect these schemes to last for evermore and thus a 30-year requirement is not necessary? I cannot imagine that in 30 years’ time any Government would consent to NSIP net gain schemes being ploughed up. Of course, the better guarantee of schemes lasting more than 30 years is conservation covenants—an excellent innovation in the Bill that we will come to in due course.
I note that there is reference to the use of alternative metrics other than the one developed by Natural England, metric 3.0, for use by TCPA developments. I can see no reason why NSIPs should not use the same metric. Any alternative metrics developed would mean that one NSIP’s 10% BNG would not necessarily be comparable with another’s. The current version of this metric is in use by major infrastructure delivery bodies such as Network Rail, Highways England, National Grid, et cetera. Of course, as my noble friend has said, no metric currently exists for marine developments; these will require a specific approach to be agreed on, and then some statutory instruments made in due course. It is a complicated area; it is better we get it right than rush it.
Finally, I note that there is no requirement for land delivering NSIPs’ biodiversity net gain to be registered on the national net-gain register developed for TCPA schemes. As I understand it, the statement by the developers must set out the gain to be achieved and how it is to be recorded. If they do not use the same register as the TCPA then, even if they are publicly available elsewhere, that is an unnecessary hassle. I would expect to see all terrestrial and intertidal NSIPs using the national net-gain register. There is nothing about the design of that register that would preclude its usage by such NSIP schemes. Furthermore, as quasi-government-funded projects, I cannot see an argument why there should be any reason why an NSIP should not see its net gain registered in a public and transparent manner in the same way that we expect private developments to be. NSIPs and TCPA schemes will both be engaging in the same net-gain market and it is critical that each is held to the same high standards that having net gains registered on the national register will provide for.
The only exception I can see to the above is an argument possibly requiring a different mechanism for marine NSIPs. At present, the register has been designed for terrestrial and intertidal schemes, and it does not cover sub-tidal. However, as soon as there is greater clarity about the nature of marine net-gain schemes I think that Defra and Natural England can discuss how the register could be adapted, and what resources would be needed to allow it to accommodate marine net gain.
With these technical queries—and they are technical queries. not criticisms—I am delighted to support this excellent new clause. I reiterate that it is an incredible achievement for my noble friend and Defra to get BNG for national infrastructure projects, and get every other department, including the Treasury, to sign up to it. I will be happy to accept my noble friend’s amendment.
My Lords, in following the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, it is a particular pleasure to commend his Amendment 201, also backed by the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, although my perspective on it is a little different. This is potentially one of the most important amendments that has been tabled. If we are to see biodiversity net gain actually survive and thrive, we should look at the last paragraph of the lines that would be left out by Amendment 201:
“Paragraph 13 does not apply in relation to … development of such other description as the Secretary of State may by regulations specify.”
That is a get-out clause for the Government. The noble Lord, Lord Blencathra—perhaps being very charitable and coming from a slightly different political perspective —said, “This is perhaps just a comfort blanket for the Treasury.” I think it is a get-out-of-jail-free card that simply cannot be allowed to remain in the Bill. That is absolutely crucial.
This is a very long list of amendments, and amendments to amendments, so the easiest way of approaching it might be to run through them chronologically. I am happy to commend all the amendments in this group, including the government amendments. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, that the Minister can be proud of the additions that are here. This is a very clear sign that campaigning works: we know that a great many NGOs, campaign groups, individuals and Members of your Lordships’ House have been working very hard to ensure that biodiversity net gain covers our nationally significant infrastructure projects. There is real progress in government Amendment 194B. However, the number of amendments shows how much that still needs to be strengthened.
Running through some of the most significant of those, and those to which I have added my name or tabled myself, I begin with Amendment 196 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, also signed by the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, and myself. Obviously,
“maintained for at least 30 years”
is grossly inadequately in the kind of circumstances that we are talking about. As noble Lords have already said, the destruction is going to effectively be permanent. If we are seeing replacement structures and natural conditions put in, they have to continue indefinitely. Thirty years, in terms of nature, is merely a blink of an eye.
Amendments 198 and 199, both of which appear in my name—also kindly backed by the noble Lord, Lord Teverson—seek to ensure that what is done in securing biodiversity gain continues. Amendment 198 refers to
“proof that sufficient funds have been allocated to implement the plan in full, including contingencies.”
As the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, was referring to HS2, I was thinking about some horrific case studies associated with that from a couple of years ago. We saw trees—little saplings that were planted as part of HS2 offsetting plans in a very dry, hot year—left to die because it was cheaper to do that and replant them than to water them. That really is a demonstration of the way in which externalised costs and the need to ensure that biodiversity is allowed to establish and thrive have to be built into the Bill. Ensuring that the money is there is not going to guarantee that totally, but at least it is a start.
Amendment 199 strengthens the argument on sufficient funds. Of course, we know that many developers of all kinds of projects go broke. They undergo restructuring; they mysteriously disappear into offshore entities that are impossible to trace, and ownership is impossible to trace. We need to ensure that the funding for any biodiversity net gain is fully provided.
Amendment 201AB on monitoring is particularly important, and I commend those who identified the issue. It requires that an independent body be established to check the reality of biodiversity gain. Reading this, I was thinking about the practical reality of the huge issue we have with building standards, and the fact that we know that most of the buildings constructed in the UK now do not even meet our inadequate standards to which they are supposed to be built when they are actually put to the test. That is very often under a self-certification scheme. It is absolutely crucial that we have genuinely independent verification of this gain being made.
I wrote “Yes, yes, yes” on my papers for Amendment 201D in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake. It provides that if payments are being made for habitat enhancement, rather than going to central government they should go to local authorities. Again, we can think of an example in terms of current planning regulations: what used to be the old Section 106 is now the community infrastructure levy. We know that there is a huge problem where funds might be allocated a very considerable distance from where damage is being done. Decisions for this should not be made centrally in Westminster. They should be made locally, meeting local priorities, so that is a hugely important amendment.
This is real progress: it is a real sign that campaigning works and that work in your Lordships’ House does make a difference, but we still clearly have a lot of work to do in this area. The Government are going to get a very clear message,, looking at the size and length of this list of amendments that noble Lords are very passionate about making this part of the Bill the best that it can be.
My Lords, making biodiversity net gain a mandatory requirement for most development is a good thing, though it will need several safeguards. Extending the net gain provision to nationally significant infrastructure is welcome, and I congratulate the Minister on that amendment. However, I believe that we need Amendment 194C in the name of my noble friend Lady Jones of Whitchurch, to also include major infrastructure projects consented in other ways, including hybrid Bills, Transport and Works Act orders and whatever the new consenting mechanisms are that the Government invent in the new planning Bill. It is a pity that we have not yet seen the proposals arising from the consultation on planning. Can the Minister give us an indication of when we will see the Government’s proposals for planning? It would be extremely disappointing if major projects such as HS2 and East West Rail were not required to deliver biodiversity net gain.
I know that, latterly, HS2 has opted voluntarily to deliver biodiversity net gain on some of its later sections, if you can call being frog-marched into this by the NGOs, local protest groups and the Government a voluntary agreement. These big government-sponsored, taxpayer-supported and highly controversial projects should be like Pharaoh’s wife and be obligated to deliver the highest standards of biodiversity net gain. Of course, HS2 can never deliver biodiversity net gain as long as it is damaging ancient woodland, which is an irreplaceable habitat and therefore represents an irreplaceable biodiversity loss.
The Minister kindly wrote to noble Lords last week about HS2 in response to issues raised by the noble Lord, Lord Framlingham. His letter, alas, fuelled my concerns about the potential misuse of the term “biodiversity net gain.” He indicated that HS2 phase 2b—Crewe to Manchester—would deliver biodiversity net gain, but he then went on to say that, because ancient woodland could not be replaced, it would simply be out of the scope of the net gain objective for HS2. Therefore, HS2 will be able to boast publicly of being a net gain project, while still being the single biggest cause of damage to our declining and irreplaceable ancient woodland. This is, frankly, misleading if not mendacious. Defra, we understand, is planning a consultation, expected to start this summer, on the development of regulations and guidance on irreplaceable habitats. Can the Minister assure the House that the regulations and guidance will not allow projects that are, in reality, not delivering net gain to portray themselves as net gain projects?
Biodiversity net gain needs other safeguards. Amendment 198A in my name would make sure that existing and possibly long-standing nature sites and habitats were not simply regarded as tradeable for newly created sites elsewhere—as the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, said, possibly quite far elsewhere—under the net gain provisions. My amendment would ensure that the mitigation hierarchy had been followed. I am sure that noble Lords read the mitigation hierarchy every night before they go to bed, but I shall explain.
The mitigation hierarchy is part of the National Planning Policy Framework and outlines a set of principles that local planning authorities should work through in determining whether to approve a planning application impacting on biodiversity. It is a sort of stepwise, catechism approach. First, developers would be asked to seek to avoid impacts on biodiversity and, if that was not possible, to minimise them and then take onsite measures to rehabilitate or restore biodiversity, before finally resorting to offsetting residual, unavoidable impacts offsite. Can the Minister assure the Committee that the mitigation hierarchy will remain a requirement of the planning system and that there will be sufficient safeguards to ensure that offsite net gain is a last, not a first, resort under the net gain and planning provisions? It is on both the net gain and the changes in the planning system that the Minister needs to assure us.
A further strengthening of the net gain provisions is required. This is pointed out by my noble friend Lady Jones of Whitchurch, supported by the noble Baronesses, Lady Parminter and Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, and the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, in Amendments 196 and 201AZB. They would require habitats created under net gain to be maintained in perpetuity rather than only for 30 years. Previous speakers have debated this. The reality is that some created habitats will only just get going in 30 years; they certainly will not have reached the richness, complexity and resilience of long-standing habitats. The Government’s carbon scheme requires woodland sites created for carbon storage to persist for 100 years, so if it is possible to get that sort of longevity for a site despite changes of hands and ownership and the length of the policy, why can we not do it for biodiversity net gain?
We must not get into the crazy position that arose in south Wales with the extension of the M5 over the sensitive wetland sites in the Gwent Levels. Compensation habitat was created but, when the M4 relief road proposals came forward 20 years later, they planned to go straight through the compensation habitat. Mercifully, the Welsh Government reacted magnificently and rejected the plans. We do not want serial decimation of net gain habitat. Can the Minister assure the Committee that habitat created in the interests of net gain will not be allowed to disappear after 30 years? Will he accept the amendment in the name of my noble friend Lady Jones of Whitchurch?
My Lords, I have four amendments in this group. Amendment 201AA is about setting standards for the quality and content of information about biodiversity gain. This is an area where there are currently considerable problems. You are supposed to be able to get an expert to judge, for instance, the quality of a grassland. If you ask four different experts, you will probably get four different answers. There are no standards. There are no benchmarks.
Since we are moving to a situation of knowing what quality we are starting with and what quality we wish to end up with, we have to do this in a way that is measurable and verifiable. Therefore, I am keen that the Government should set objective and usable standards and have them in public so that people can refer to them and argue with them at the time when planning permission is being discussed and so that, 20 years down the road, we can judge whether what has been agreed is being maintained and do so consistently without having to wish for the luck of having chosen the right expert. In this context, I am keen that the state of a particular environment should be judged in the right season. It is obviously impossible in January to know what the quality of a particular bit of chalk grassland is; it has to be judged at a time of year when the plants and insects are in evidence.
Amendment 201AB is about how biodiversity gain should be audited. If we are to require something to be kept going for 30 years, somebody has to keep an eye on it. If we want that to happen, we have to provide the funds up front so that it can. I am not at all clear how the Government envisage an obligation to maintain a site being checked up on in practice.
Amendment 201AC comes back to a subject discussed previously by the noble Baronesses, Lady Young of Old Scone and Lady Bennett of Manor Castle: how we secure that these obligations are enforceable in practice. To my mind, the obligations have to stick to the land. It has to be something that is enforceable against whoever owns the land at that particular time, whether that be a freeholder or a leaseholder, so that there is always somebody with sufficient interest that they will notice that they have to do something, be aware of the consequences of a notice to improve and take action. I cannot see anything in the current arrangement that will make sure that biodiversity gain sites, particularly those that are part of the land being developed—that is, small local sites, which are not part of major biodiversity gain trading sites but little local things tucked away that will be hard to notice—are kept going. We need something that will do that. I hope that somewhere in the Bill is a requirement that biodiversity gain on those sorts of local sites should be congruent with the local nature recovery strategy. I have missed that; I have not tabled an amendment about it, but I would love to have the Minister confirm to me that that will be the case.
I very much support what has been said about making biodiversity gain exist in perpetuity. I do not think of it as unchangeable but, if something happens that damages that gain, the system should swing into action again and the person doing the damage should be required to provide additional gain elsewhere or on the same site in much the same way as if they were doing an original development. I cannot see the point in things ending in 30 years. It is pointless. It is not what we are talking about; we are talking about changing things for ever, so let us say that.
I know that my noble friend the Minister has been sent a copy of a paper by my honourable friend Bim Afolami; I hope that he will find the opportunity, now or in correspondence, to comment on it. Mr Afolami is concerned that the Government’s plans for introducing biodiversity gain are much too slow and that opportunity should be given to those authorities that want to move faster to get going straightaway. Not everyone will be in a position to do that, but some of us will be ready. I do not see the point in holding back for two years just because not everything is ready. If the Government let those of us who are ready move early, a lot will be learned from our experience that can then be built into the procedure that opens up for everybody after the initial two years.
In particular, to pick up on an amendment which we will not see, because it went down too late, from my noble friend Lord Ridley and myself, I think there is a lot to be said for enabling—authorising—the automated creation of biodiversity gain statements and suggestions for small developers. If we do not do something to really help small developers, they will be hit by very large costs relative to the size of the development in getting a biodiversity gain statement together. We need to make it easier for them, but if we are making it easy for them, we need quality, and I think the suggestions in my right honourable friend’s letter address that. I hope the Minister will be able to reassure us that small sites will not end up being low quality or we will not end up deterring small builders by imposing on them obligations which are not proportionate to the size of their development.
Other than that, as noble Lords will have guessed, I very much support what my noble friend Lord Blencathra said about openness. The way in which this is going to happen without a lot of corruption is if we enable local people to know what should be happening, what standards are expected, and to do something about it if they are not met.
The noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, is not here, so I call the next speaker, the noble Earl, Lord Devon.
My Lords, it is a regret that we have to group so many important amendments together due to the shortness of time and the Government’s self-imposed deadline of November for the passage of this Bill. This group of amendments raises a lot of very interesting issues, particularly the Government’s well-received extension of biodiversity net gain to nationally significant infrastructure projects, of which I too am greatly supportive.
I am equally sympathetic to the suggestion from the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, to extend biodiversity net gain requirements to other major infrastructure projects. I note, however, that the detail of how the Government’s extension of biodiversity net gain is to be delivered remains to be worked out. It does not appear that we will know details of that for some time, so we are legislating once again in something of a vacuum.
I raised this issue of uncertainty at Second Reading and was not afforded a clear response. It would be helpful if the Minister were able to explain in his response the impact he expects his amendment to have on land use within England. How much land will be required to offset biodiversity loss by nationally significant infrastructure projects, for example, in the 10 years from 2025? It will also be interesting to know how much land the Secretary of State will require to deliver the biodiversity credits to be made available under Clause 94, particularly subsection (6)(b).
The reason why this is relevant is that we have an ever-increasing demand on land use from rewilding and wildlife corridors to trees, species abundance, nature recovery and conservation strategies—the three tiers of environmental land management—as well as surging demand for housing and renewable energy, including biomass, all of which sit alongside the basic and ever-increasing needs to feed the nation on healthy and nutritious food without further degrading our environment. I am concerned that we are layering worthy environmental ambition upon ambition with the view to parading some world-leading ecological credentials to COP 26, but without giving enough thought to how we practically will deliver these targets with the very limited amount of land within our beloved island.
As to specifics, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, in welcoming the application of biodiversity net gain to the marine environment. This is of particular interest to the south-west of England, which offers such prospects for large-scale offshore ecosystem services, including wind, tide and wave energy, together with considerable natural capital assets within our inshore waters, foreshores and estuaries.
I would resist the efforts of the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, to introduce a perpetuity requirement to biodiversity gains. Perpetuity is a very long time and, given the pressure on land use, of which I have already spoken, we will do ourselves no favours to be tying up particular areas of land with well-intentioned obligations born at the beginning of the 21st century, when we transparently still know so little about what we need to achieve and the means by which we will get there. The only thing we can be confident about now is how little we know of the wondrous workings of nature. We should not commit ourselves to perpetual land use policies now. Rather, we will, as the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, noted, need the flexibility of properly drafted conservation covenants, one hopes executed by deed, to which we will return in the coming days.
Finally, as always, the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, proposes a series of helpful and clarificatory amendments to Clause 93. I hope that the Minister will consider adopting them on Report. Measurable standards are going to be key to the success of biodiversity net gain.