Committee (7th Day)
Relevant documents: 3rd Report from the Delegated Powers Committee, 4th Report from the Constitution Committee
I will 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 will call Members to speak in order of request. The groupings are binding. A participant who might wish to press an amendment other than the lead amendment in a 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 will 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 97: Local nature recovery strategies for England
226: Clause 97, page 99, line 3, after “England” insert “and its territorial waters”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment ensures that an area’s adjacent territorial waters are included in a Nature Recovery strategy
My Lords, as some of my amendments are associated with nature recovery network strategies, I once again declare my interest as chair of the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Local Nature Partnership.
I know the Minister has assured us that the marine environment is included in the Bill. It hardly has a high profile, yet our national waters, including the EEZ, have an area of 885,000 square kilometres, whereas the terrestrial landmass of the United Kingdom is a mere 242,000 square kilometres, so that marine environment is three and a half times larger. My contention is that it is just as important and should receive at least the same amount of interest. Last year we had the Fisheries Act, and the Government made it very clear that that was not a piece of environmental legislation. It dealt with fisheries management plans, but those were not environmental management plans. Indeed, we gave credit that the Fisheries Act had a number of objectives relating to the environment and climate change, but that was not the mission of that piece of legislation—yet nature recovery in our marine area is just as important as in our terrestrial environment.
I was interested to see that one of the Government’s targets is to have good environmental status for our marine environment. In 2019—two years ago—they published an appraisal of progress made on having good environmental status for our marine environment, looking out beyond our territorial waters to our economic zone as well. I am afraid to say that of the 15 areas the government report focuses on, in six we managed not to meet targets at all; in five we made partial progress on those targets; and in four we actually achieved them.
I will take the Committee through some of the areas where good environmental status targets were not achieved: commercial fish, non-commercial fish, benthic habitats, invasive species, marine litter and breeding birds. None of those was achieved. There was some improvement in pelagic habitats, the food web, underwater noise, cetaceans—primarily dolphins, as we know them—and seals. As far as I can see, things such as seagrass, which is hugely important not just for the marine habitat but for carbon capture, were not covered at all in that report.
We have a real crisis and challenge out there in the oceans that surround our island and islands, so that is why I have tabled these amendments. The first one is to ensure that local nature recovery networks include not just the land area but the adjacent territorial waters—that is, out to 12 nautical miles—of those areas. They have to be included in those plans. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, said on another marine amendment some days ago, it is not just the fact that they are two different environments; they are connected—literally—so it is important for that reason too that nature recovery networks include marine, littoral and territorial areas.
But it would clearly be unreasonable to ask, say, Sussex or maybe even more so Cornwall to look at its whole EEZ stretching way out into the Atlantic, yet EEZs also require important help in terms of nature recovery out to the 200 nautical mile limit. So, to be practical, I have tabled separate amendments to propose that the Secretary of State should be responsible for creating, producing and revising nature recovery networks for those offshore EEZ areas. Indeed, it would make a lot of sense if they tied up with marine management organisations and marine planning areas, but, again, those plans are not primarily environmental ones. They are mapping and usage ones. They are not primarily environmental plans, but they should come together to do that.
In the other amendment I put down—Amendment 246—I tackle highly protected marine areas. I have to give good credit to the Minister and the Government in this area, because, since I laid down that amendment, at the early stages after Second Reading, the Government have opened a programme and asked for bids for pilots for highly protected marine areas. So there is progress on this already, and, to some degree, this amendment is now redundant—but I would be very keen to hear from the Minister the progress on that and how he sees the timescale in terms of rolling out beyond pilots.
At the moment, we have some 372 marine protected areas around our shores. They cover some 38% of our total waters. That sounds impressive, but the regimes for those marine protected areas are extremely weak in many cases and certainly do not protect the seabed and all the habitats. These highly protected marine areas absolutely have to be done in consultation with the fishing industry and other commercial interests, but it is so important they are rolled out quickly, effectively and as soon as possible. That is why these amendments are important.
In Cornwall, as I have said before, we were lucky enough to have one of the pilots for the nature recovery networks. When we started work on that, Defra may not have been “against” it—that is perhaps too strong a word—but it did not see marine as being included in that pilot strategy. We went ahead and included it anyway, because you cannot talk about the environment of the far south-west peninsula without including marine; it is just impossible. The Minister could hopefully make my amendments redundant—not the EEZ ones, but these amendments—by confirming that it is now government policy that nature recovery networks, when it is appropriate and there is an adjacent ocean or territorial waters, should be included within those nature recovery network strategies. That is my clear message and question. I beg to move.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, with all his expertise. The Government bring legislation to this House so that we can help them improve it—so the expertise in your Lordships’ House can be of benefit to the Government and of course the nation. So I really think that, if the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, were not a Lord already, he would deserve some future honour for all his hard work in contributing to our work here and to the Government. He has highlighted another example of how this Bill has passed a suite of legislative measures without reference to water—to territorial waters, to the sea.
We looked at agriculture and fisheries: they do not tie together in any coherent way, and I do not understand how we can keep on passing legislation that does not tie up. Without these amendments, we are at risk of seeing our seas and fisheries as being separate from the rest of our environment and all our ecological activities. This sort of silo thinking would undermine the realities of the inseparable ecosystems and natural systems. I would be particularly concerned and upset if an upland authority had a nature recovery strategy that failed to take into account what was happening to its downstream neighbours and, ultimately, to the seas where the watercourses will end up. An Environment Bill that allows for that eventuality is fundamentally inadequate and incoherent, with no basic understanding of the environment.
I am sure the Minister will take time over the Summer Recess to ensure that this Bill fits with the Agriculture Act and the Fisheries Act. I am sure that is going to be a priority, so these two important ecosystems can be integrated into the mechanics of this Environment Bill. The alternative is that, inevitably, in a few years’ time, the Government of the day will have to bring in new legislation to try to patch up these incoherencies, with perhaps a decade of lost opportunity to heal the environment in that time. It is much better that we work together now to get it right.
My Lords, I just want to make a couple of quick points in support of the noble Lord, Lord Teverson. It is always a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, and I completely agree with her.
According to Greenpeace, supertrawlers spent 5,590 hours fishing in UK protected waters. I had a meeting, by chance, with Minister Prentis from the other place about four weeks ago. She was on her way to Brixham, and she said that about 80% of our fishing fleet’s catches were as a result of bottom trawling. Bottom trawling is effectively like bulldozing your house every time you have lost your car keys. It is an absolute travesty for the seabed, and I do not see any reference at the moment to curbing and taming this industry. As the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, said, these are simultaneous ecosystems that come together, and what happens with fish farming, especially in the north of England, is putting incredible quantities of pollutants into our waters for the sake of cheap fish. It is sold to the consumer on the grounds of being healthy, but the salmon that are reared in this way are unhealthy, unhappy and covered in sea lice.
Finally, in terms of policies not adding up, will the Government agree to stop giving out new oil and gas leases with the North Sea in mind? How is that going to fit with our marine protection commitments at COP? I hope the Minister will answer those three questions.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, for, as ever, giving us an excellent explanation of why he has tabled these amendments and for raising these very important issues. I also thank the Minister for confirming in the earlier debate that net gain will be extended to major projects in the marine environment in the future, once a suitable approach has been developed. This is certainly a step forward.
The noble Lord, Lord Teverson, rightly made the point that our coastal territorial waters are in urgent need of protection and recovery, and, if we do not use this Bill to make that happen, what other opportunities will we have? The latest Committee on Climate Change adaptation report has highlighted concerns about the quality of our terrestrial waters. It says:
“There is clear evidence that warming seas, reduced oxygen, ocean acidification and sea-level rise are already affecting UK coasts and seas … with effects seen in seabed-dwelling species, as well as plankton, fish, birds and mammals.”
It also reports that there has been a decline in the overall condition of protected coastal sites.
So, on the one hand, we need to tackle the hazardous pollution, including plastic waste, that has led to the failure to meet the environmental targets to which the noble Lord referred. On the other hand, there is an opportunity to harness the power of nature in our coastal waters to sequestrate carbon through the growth of seagrasses and seaweed, such as at the innovative kelp farm being developed in Shoreham. But a strategy is needed to provide a framework for the change, which is why preparing and publishing a nature recovery strategy for the UK exclusive economic zone seems such a good idea. It is also why linking our coastal waters into local nature recovery strategies will ensure that those initiatives do not end at the shoreline.
The noble Lord, Lord Teverson, rightly referred back to our consideration of the then Fisheries Bill and our frustration that sustainable fishing was not allowed to be at the heart of the Bill, despite all our efforts. As a result, it seems that fishing quotas are very much business as usual, and overfishing—above the recommended scientific limits—remains rife. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, that this continues to be unacceptable and needs to be addressed by the Government. A nature recovery strategy would allow the opportunity to revisit that strategy, taking different criteria into account.
I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, that we need a joined-up strategy between the Agriculture and Fisheries Acts and the Environment Bill. We have said that all along; every time a Bill comes along, we ask, “How come these pieces of legislation do not speak to each other?” She is right to raise again today our need for a joined-up approach.
Finally, I am pleased that the noble Lord has given us the opportunity to implement the recommendations of the Benyon Review into Highly Protected Marine Areas. The limits of the current standard marine protected areas are all too obvious, as damaging human activities are still allowed to destroy the marine habitat. Therefore, we very much welcome the definition of highly protected marine areas as those that allow the recovery of marine ecosystems while prohibiting “extractive, destructive and depositional” human activities. We welcome the amendment that sets out that the proposals for the initial locations should be published within six months of the Bill passing. The noble Lord said that he felt that the Government had caught up with his amendment; he might be on to something, but I feel that there are great advantages to having this spelled out in the Bill just to make sure that that progress is followed through. These are indeed key amendments, which could help to transform the quality of our marine environment. I hope that the Minister agrees and will feel able to turn these into government amendments, which I am sure would receive widespread support.
My Lords, I begin by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, for his powerful advocacy for the marine environment throughout these proceedings and, indeed, last year throughout the proceedings on the Fisheries Act, in which he knows I had some involvement.
I will focus first on Amendments 226, 227 and 229. I sympathise with the intention behind this group of amendments, but the Government do not agree that this is the right approach. Local nature recovery strategies build on the important role that local authorities play as local leaders and decision-makers within their areas, as the noble Lord will know from his time spent on the Cornwall pilot. Clearly, actions taken on land can affect the marine environment and vice versa, and we should not create false barriers to nature’s recovery.
As such, our intention is that local nature recovery strategies should integrate with existing spatial plans of marine areas. This is in order to understand the area’s current uses and its potential in adjacent marine areas. It is something that we have explored through recent pilots, which, as I said, the noble Lord has kindly supported. However, local authorities are not best placed to produce marine strategies, as these areas are largely beyond their remit and authority. I believe that requiring this would lead to significant complications and potentially unhelpful duplication with existing processes. It would include duplication with the Marine Management Organisation, which is England’s main marine regulator and manages the licensing of marine activities, recreation and fisheries beyond six nautical miles. The inshore fisheries and conservation authorities also manage fishing out to six nautical miles and any marine nature restoration strategies should include their input.
Amendment 233 would require the Defra Secretary of State to create a nature recovery strategy for the United Kingdom exclusive economic zone for England. The Government already have a strong framework in place to ensure ocean recovery through the UK marine strategy. Its goal is to ensure that all UK seas are of good environmental status, exactly as the noble Lord’s amendment would require.
In March this year, we published the updated UK Marine Strategy Part Two, setting out the monitoring programmes that we will use to assess progress towards our updated good environmental status targets. This will be followed by the update to our programme of measures, which will set out a comprehensive list of measures to help to achieve good environmental status. As the UK already has a strategy for ocean recovery, this well-intentioned amendment is not needed.
The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, generously welcomed the Benyon Review into Highly Protected Marine Areas. The Government published their response to the review on World Oceans Day 2021 and accept the majority of its recommendations. In answer to the question from the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, about when we will designate HPMAs, that will be done in 2022. We do not agree that HPMAs should be only within existing marine protected areas, which was recommendation 13 of the report, and we will consider designating HPMAs outside the current MPA network to ensure that we can maximise nature recovery. Existing governance structures of ALBs were beyond the scope of the Government’s response to this review.
I note that the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, also asked about joined-up thinking, which I know has concerned a number of noble Lords throughout the passage of this Bill, the Agriculture Act and the Fisheries Act. A number of measures in all three Acts will have benefits for the marine environment. The Fisheries Act will benefit the environment, as will the Agriculture Act. They have all been put together at a policy level and have been thought about comprehensively.
Amendments 246, 247 and 251 aim to create highly protected marine areas. The Government have committed to designate HPMAs by the end of 2022, using the definition of the noble Lord, Lord Benyon, as set out in his review, which was carried out before he joined the Government Front Bench. The Government will work with their arm’s-length bodies and stakeholders to identify a list of potential pilot sites for highly protected marine areas. On 5 July, we published the ecological criteria that we will use to identify highly protected marine areas and we will create a list of potential sites this year. We plan to designate pilot sites in 2022 as marine conservation zones, with higher levels of protection than existing zones, using powers under the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009.
I note that the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, had a number of concerns about controlling harmful marine activities. Introduced under the Marine and Coastal Access Act, marine licensing is a process by which those seeking to undertake certain activities are required to apply for a licence. The requirement for a licence extends across much of our territorial seas, including the foreshore, and covers a diverse range of activities, from depositing a marker on the seabed through to large-scale developments. Authorisation or enforcement decisions must be taken in accordance with the appropriate marine plans.
In answer to the noble Baroness’s other question about drilling for oil and gas and refusal of future licences, I refer her to the Ten Point Plan and to the energy White Paper, which address her questions on oil and gas exploration. The Government have had to tread a careful dividing line and balance between keeping energy costs as low as we can while fulfilling our commitments to the net-zero target.
I assure the noble Lord that the requirements of the amendments are already covered, as the Government have committed to identifying potential sites this year and pilot sites designated as marine conservation zones in England will be covered by the protected site strategy clause. I thank the noble Lord for raising this important issue, which I know is close to his heart, and I hope that he is reassured by the Government’s commitments in this area. I ask him to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, I understand that the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, would like to ask a question of the Minister before he decides how to dispose of his amendment.
My Lords, I will sum up in just a moment but I have a question for the Minister. I am very disappointed by her reply. It seems to fly in the face of what nature recovery networks are all about. However, I will come on to that later.
The Minister said that local authorities are not competent to deal with these issues—for example, the six-mile limit. However, she mentioned in particular IFCAs, which are the inshore fisheries and conservation authorities. They are nominated partly by the Marine Management Organisation—I agree with that—but appointments to them are also hugely influenced by local authorities. Local authorities are already hugely engaged in the first six-mile limits; they already have duties in that area. When it comes to the Marine Management Organisation and its licensing, which is within that same area as well, it has to talk to a number of statutory organisations before it can make decisions—for example, Natural England and the Environment Agency—and it has a concordat with local authorities to discuss those developments with them as well. Local authorities are already hugely involved in that area. Why not make it so that there is some structure to that within at least the six-mile limit, so that those decisions become coherent and make more sense—they are also probably more quickly made by the Marine Management Organisation and IFCAs—and so that the whole system becomes better and more efficient, and works for the environment as well? That is my question to the Minister.
I take the noble Lord’s point, but the three coastal pilot areas that we considered—Cornwall, Cumbria and Northumberland—all took very different approaches to voluntarily including adjacent marine areas in their pilots. There will be a sense of duplication in what the noble Lord is suggesting, because the spatial assessments of a marine area, capturing current uses and signalling future potential, are led by marine management organisations. To go further than that, I would like to take this back, consider it and perhaps write to the noble Lord if I can add any more flesh on those bones.
I beg the noble Lord’s pardon; forgive me, I had not spotted the notice—I also have a request from the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, to ask a question of the Minister.
My Lords, I wanted to return to the question of sustainable fishing, which was mentioned by, among others, the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch. On 22 February, I asked a Question for Written Answer on what the Government’s strategy is for reducing quotas is fish stocks fall below their maximum sustainable yield. The Answer, which was rather long-winded, ended up saying:
“Where appropriate, they will set out actions to improve data collection and ways to establish sustainable harvest rates.”
My question for the Minister today is: is now the appropriate time and, if so, what action will the Government be taking to ensure that fish stocks are harvested at or below MSY?
I call the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, and apologise again to him.
No, I apologise for speaking at the wrong time. I thank the noble Baronesses, Lady Boycott, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb and Lady Jones of Whitchurch, for their support on this amendment. I am seriously disappointed because, if nature recovery networks are right for the land, they are also right for our oceans. For land areas, all sorts of different authorities, whether it is Natural England, the Environment Agency, local authorities, national parks, or even the police, deal with all these areas of environmental enforcement and environmental policy. The nature recovery networks—and this is the reason I support them so strongly—bring those together within a context with a plan and structure, meaning that natural growth in biodiversity and the quantum of nature can start to happen.
Yet it is just all too complicated, apparently, for our marine environment. I do not get that, and I think it is unfortunate. I welcome the Minister’s progress on highly protected marine areas; I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, that one can never be certain until something is in the Bill, but I suspect that this particular thing may not get into the Bill, so I welcome the Minister’s comments in that area.
I am hugely disappointed about the marine environment. I know all the MMO inshore and offshore marine plans, but they are not primarily focused on environment; that is not their purpose. They include elements of it, but it is not why they are about. I was on the board of the MMO when they were written and created—they still have not all been approved yet—and I highly welcome them. They are important, but they are not what this is about. In the meantime, however, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
Amendment 226 withdrawn.
Amendments 227 and 227A not moved.
Clause 97 agreed.
Clause 98: Preparation of local nature recovery strategies
Amendments 228 to 229A not moved.
Clause 98 agreed.
Clause 99: Content of local nature recovery strategies
Amendments 230 and 231 not moved.
Clause 99 agreed.
Amendment 231A not moved.
Clause 100: Information to be provided by the Secretary of State
Amendment 232 not moved.
Clause 100 agreed.
Amendment 233 not moved.
Clause 101 agreed.
My Lords, we now come to the group beginning with Amendment 234. Anyone wishing to press this or anything else in this group to a Division must make that clear in debate.
Clause 102: Species conservation strategies
234: Clause 102, page 101, line 34, leave out “may” and insert “must”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment requires Natural England to prepare and publish species conservation strategies.
My Lords, I speak in particular to Amendments 234 and 241 in my name. The Government have shown a commitment to tackling the issue of the poor quality of our rivers and freshwater environment. Issues around pollution and declining freshwater biodiversity have been a constant refrain in the media for some time. Freshwater species have declined by 88% since 1970—a greater decline than seen for species in forests or oceans—and one-third of freshwater fish species faces extinction. England is the home of 85% of the world’s chalk streams; we have a global responsibility to protect these ecosystems.
Species conservation strategies can potentially play an important role in conservation, although there is a call to avoid them becoming a default setting for managing the impact of development on nature. The purpose of “must” instead of “may” in this amendment is to strengthen the clause and to underpin the requirement for a conservation strategy for improving the conservation of species. This is not intended to mean all species, but those whose conservation is probably most at risk; for example, salmon and sea trout, where it is thought that there is not as yet a clear conservation plan in place. There is a range of plans, such as the Environment Agency’s salmon five-point plan, but these have not led to any meaningful action in terms of the broad threats in our rivers and coastal waters.
Amendment 241 aims to create a new designation of protection for chalk streams. This analysis has been prepared with the assistance of experts from the Angling Trust and the Catchment Based Approach—CaBA—a restoration group under the chairmanship of Charles Rangeley-Wilson. It is preparing a report to government on the need for restoration and greater protection of chalk streams in England: the chalk stream restoration strategy. This group, made up of representatives from water companies, conservation NGOs and statutory agencies, including Natural England and the Environment Agency, will publish the chalk stream restoration strategy in September. The report will make a series of recommendations, looking at the three elements that make up action to restore our chalk streams to a near-natural state: action to reduce and mitigate the impact of overabstraction, to reduce pollution and improve water quality, and to restore the habitats and ecological functioning of chalk streams. The report is currently out for public consultation.
The first recommendation of the report is supported by all the companies and agencies involved in the report’s production and from stakeholders’ responses. This recommendation is for
“an overarching protection and priority status for chalk streams and their catchments to give them a distinct identity and to drive investment in water-resources infrastructure, water treatment and catchment-scale restoration”.
Currently, few chalk streams have protected site status. We have drivers, such as priority habitats status and the water framework directive but, thus far, these have failed to deliver enough improvements for chalk streams, principally because they lack statutory drivers for investment. Stakeholders are united in the view that there is a clear need for a status mechanism via designation, which can add impetus and drive investment across multiple policy levers. These include water company price review processes; ELMS local nature recovery and landscape recovery; local nature recovery strategies; biodiversity net gain; and protection through the planning process. A new designation should deliver an integrated approach to the protection of the chalk stream channel, its floodplain, surrounding catchment and aquifer, leading to nature and biodiversity recovery at the landscape level.
This amendment would require Natural England, along with Defra and the EA, to explore the appropriate mechanism for introducing a new category of protections, which may include the adaptation of application of an existing mechanism to protect chalk streams. In doing so it would consider including a statutory biodiversity target for chalk stream catchments in the Bill that would elevate the status of all chalk streams and provide long-term certainty about government ambition and commitment to protection and restoration. It would also consider a new form of designation or statutory protection for all chalk streams through a Green Paper on habitats regulation, and a stronger policy steer for chalk streams, for example through the ministerial guidance on river basin management plans and the strategic priorities statement to Ofwat.
Such a status for chalk streams would drive the investment and resources that have been severely lacking—not only for chalk streams, but, as the first report of 2020-21 from the Environment Audit Committee in the other place, Biodiversity in the UK: Boom or Bust, made clear, for the protection and advancement of biodiversity more broadly.
These are not exclusively chalk stream measures. Many other types of river and stream are also in great need of investment. An integrated approach to restoring all types of habitat and associated species through restoration of natural ecosystem function—particularly natural catchment function—will help to deliver multiple biodiversity benefits, alongside a wealth of natural capital associated with restored aquifer recharge, tackling pollution at source and natural flood management, to quote Natural England in 2018.
Nevertheless, the draft report argues that the global rarity of English chalk streams provides a potent justification for singling out this river type, among others. There are other justifications. One is the fact that chalk streams are under particular stress because they flow through a highly developed landscape. They have been particularly stressed by historic management and have distinct biodiversity, cultural and heritage value. For hydrological reasons, they are less capable of self-repair than higher-energy rivers.
There is also a common misconception that chalk streams exist only in the wealthier home counties of Hampshire and Berkshire. In fact, chalk streams are distributed from west Dorset to north-east Yorkshire, and many flow through less affluent parts of our landscape, and through numerous towns and cities, as well as the rural idylls most frequently depicted.
For example, the Eastleigh Angling Society has more than 850 members. Eastleigh, a constituency that I had the privilege to represent, owes its origins to railway development and manufacture, together with other heavy industry outlets. Yet the River Itchen flows through it. There are also several urban chalk streams, including the Wandle and Cray in Greater London. So I ask the Government to support these proposals for the designation of chalk streams. I beg to move.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, and his eloquent advocacy for chalk streams. I will speak primarily to Amendment 235, in my name and those of the noble Lord, Lord Randall of Uxbridge, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Parminter and Lady Jones of Whitchurch. The aim of our amendment is to ensure that the primary purpose of species conservation strategies is to support the recovery of nature rather than to facilitate development.
At first sight, Clause 102 looks very good. It requires Natural England to publish a strategy for improving the conservation status of any species. It must do this for a “strategy area”, which could be as large as the whole of England. The strategy has to spell out which habitat features are important for the species in question and how they may be improved. Natural England must also give an opinion on any consents or approvals that could adversely affect the conservation status of a species, as well as measures that could be taken to compensate for any adverse effects. Planning authorities must co-operate with Natural England in preparing and implementing any conservation strategy, and “have regard to” the strategy.
That looks good, but when you kick the tyres you find that the protections for nature are not quite as strong as they might have appeared at first sight. The clause would enable an approach that allows individual specimens and populations of a protected species to be harmed, in return for a contribution to their conservation on a wider scale, for example by creating new habitat.
The great crested newt has become a cautionary tale for this approach. District-level licensing schemes for the great crested newt are not comprehensive conservation strategies that address all the conservation needs of this species: they are mechanisms designed solely to address the interface between newts and development in areas to which the schemes are applied. Experience of district licensing has been mixed, with varying degrees of success in the different programmes around the country. Overall, the jury is still out on whether it is an effective conservation approach.
It is also far from clear that this kind of policy would work for many other species. For example, many species of bat are long-lived, have low reproductive rates and rely on a complex mixture of habitat features. Many are faithful to site-specific roosts and would not simply move down the road to a new roost in a habitat-compensation arrangement. I would therefore be interested to hear from the Minister which species he thinks would benefit most from a species conservation strategy, and why. It is possible for a good strategic approach to play an important role in conservation, but, for that to happen, the priorities need to change. The strategies must be led by the interests of nature, not commercial interests.
Amendment 235 seeks to strengthen the protection of nature and to ensure that the strategies are used primarily to benefit species in need of help, not developers in need of land. First, it includes reference to the mitigation hierarchy proposed in Amendment 168A by the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone. Secondly, it narrows and clarifies the objective of a species conservation strategy to ensure that it is about protecting nature and not about achieving an ill-defined balance between conservation and planning approval. Thirdly, it ensures that, unlike district licensing, species conservation strategies are about more than the crunch point between species and houses. It requires a strategy to define favourable conservation status for the relevant species, and the barriers and opportunities for ensuring that that species can thrive.
As with other parts of this Bill, there is a balance to be struck between the protection of nature and the commercial interests of developers. Amendment 235 aims to ensure that the balance is not weighted against nature. As Sir Partha Dasgupta said on Radio 4 this morning, in a slightly different context:
“In this small, densely populated island, we need to make a special effort to ensure that the interests of commerce don’t continue, as they have in the past, to override the interests of nature.”
I look forward to the Minister’s response on this amendment.
However, while I am standing up, I will refer briefly to Amendment 293A in this group, in the names of the noble Lord, Lord Browne of Ladyton, the noble Baronesses, Lady Parminter and Lady Jones of Whitchurch, and the noble Earl, Lord Shrewsbury. I am not quite sure why this amendment is in this group, but, according to my list, it is, and it is all about the prohibition of lead ammunition in the killing of wild birds and other wild beasts.
I first became aware of this issue about eight years ago, when I was asked to chair a research conference at Oxford University on the scientific evidence pertaining to the harms of lead shot, not just to wildlife but to humans. It is literally a no-brainer, in the sense that we now know with strong scientific evidence that the brains of our children can be damaged by consumption of lead shot through shot game. The scientific estimate is that somewhere between 4,000 and 48,000 children in this country are suffering a lower IQ as a result of consuming lead shot.
I support the intention behind the amendment because, despite clear advice from their expert advisory group, the Government adopted a voluntary approach, and we know from a paper published by Rhys Green and his colleagues at the University of Cambridge in February this year that no progress whatever has been made since nine hunting and shooting organisations said that they would aim to reduce the use of lead shot. Equally, retailers—I have spoken to two of our major food retailers about this over the past few years—are still selling game killed with lead shot. A very small warning says, “May contain lead shot”, rather than, “May reduce the IQ of your children”. I shall not speak any further on this, because I am sure others will speak at greater length, but I support that amendment.
My Lord, I am delighted to follow my friend, the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, because the 10 amendments I have in this group very much follow the line of thinking that he just enunciated. Before I speak to my amendments, I will comment on Amendment 293A in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Browne of Ladyton. I support what he is trying to do; it is time that the shooting interests got rid of lead shot in shotguns and we moved to a different form of ammunition. I know that my noble friend Lord Shrewsbury will wax more lyrical on that than I can, but I support what the noble Lord is trying to achieve.
I can break down my 10 amendments into different groups, but their purpose is to try to make this part of the Bill work better, in the same way as the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, is trying to do with his amendment. It is right that the Government are adopting strategies to protect nature. The noble Lord, Lord Krebs, mentioned district-level licensing of the great crested newt.
My Amendments 237 to 240 are designed to make certain that the measures are integrated into local nature reserve strategies and are fit for purpose. By that, I mean that we need to look to wider considerations than just surveying, zoning and compensating or mitigating measures against impacts from activities such as development. My amendments suggest that species conservation strategies need to encompass all factors, as identified by scientific evidence, not just habitat, and that management measures need to reflect that. I have gone on before about management being the forgotten part of the way to improve nature and biodiversity, but it will be hugely important in areas such as this.
There ought also to be a defined basis for favourable conservation status, so that progress can be judged against it and a timescale for the strategies’ application established. That seems logical. Without that, species cannot continue to receive special protection, despite success in improving their conservation status. As we all know, managing nature is difficult to get absolutely right. In some cases, a species may be a factor in the decline of another at-risk species, so if the conservation status target has been achieved, that could make its management in support of the conservation of a more threatened species more acceptable. There is undoubtedly a role for us humans in all this.
I turn to Amendment 242. The Explanatory Notes to Clause 102(4)(e) suggest how Natural England applies the mitigation hierarchy in relation to activities such as development. I am concerned by the clause’s wording of
“adverse impact … that may arise from a plan, project or other activity”,
because I think it could limit the use of management tools that, based on scientific evidence, are needed. My amendment would include more than just the development impacts and merely requiring Natural England’s opinion on a matter.
Amendment 244 is similar to my Amendment 236, which is an amendment to the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Krebs. As I said, I support his amendment, but I believe the Secretary of State should publish
“and make available for consultation”
his guidance. It is all very well the Secretary of State publishing guidance, but unless it is properly consulted on, it might not be as effective as it should. Both my amendments require consultation on the guidance. I do not mind whether it is reflected in the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, he supports me, or we support each other, as long as we get this clause changed.
Amendments 248 and 249 are to Clause 103. The point of Amendment 248 is that the conservation and management of protected sites need to be based on science rather than opinion. I hope that the Minister will agree with me on that. His fellow Minister, my noble friend Lord Benyon, certainly agrees on that, because, when he answered a Question on pesticides—I do not have the quote with me—he said that scientific evidence was essential to get it right. If scientific evidence is right for pesticides, it is also right in this instance. Amendment 249 seeks to include “landowners”. It is right that everybody with any legal interest is properly covered in this clause, and the omission of landlords does not help.
Amendment 252 to Clause 104 refers to new subsection (3B), which applies to all species licences issued under Section 16(3) of the previous Act. I feel that the existing wording of “no other satisfactory solution” is weak and without meaning. I suggest a different form of words, taken from the general licence, so I hope it will be acceptable to my noble friend. I also feel that
“detrimental to the survival of any population”
needs legal definition, so I propose the use of “status” instead of “survival”. “Population” can mean anything from an individual site colony to the total number of that species in the UK. Therefore, scale should come into any definition of “detrimental to the survival”, as reducing a population at local level may not have a bearing on the overall population due, for example, to infill from the current year’s young of that species.
I have not put down an amendment on my next point, but I raise a question for my noble friend, for clarity. Could he tell me—as it is not clear in the Explanatory Memorandum or when I read this part of the Bill—what are the Secretary of State’s powers? Does the Secretary of State retain the power that he needs? This has not happened in Wales, and there has been a major problem, because the Secretary of State has not been able to retake control, as has been seen here in England in 2019, for general licensing relating to Sections 16(1)(c) and 16(3)(c). I support the Secretary of State being able to take control and I hope that my noble friend will be able to confirm that this is in fact the case.
My Lords, I shall speak to Amendment 293A, in my name and that of my noble friend Lady Jones of Whitchurch, the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, and the noble Earl, Lord Shrewsbury, for whose support I am extremely grateful. It is a pleasure to follow the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, and I thank him and the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, for their support for the interloper amendment in this group, which I hope does not divert too much attention from their respective meritorious amendments.
Lead ammunition use creates multiple problems for which a straightforward solution exists, and that is to ban its use, and by so doing further catalyse the manufacture and sale of available non-toxic alternatives. In accepting that there are other ways to achieve the same objective, what is proposed by Amendment 293A is—by an amendment to Section 5 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981—to ban the use of toxic lead shot
“for the purposes of killing or taking any wild animal”
and requiring this regulation to come into force on 1 January 2023. In the circumstances, this is sufficient time for such a change.
There are no safe levels of lead, which is why regulation has ensured removal of lead from petrol, paint and drinking water. The last largely unregulated release of lead into the environment is from lead ammunition. Some 6,000 tonnes of lead shot and lead bullets are released annually into the UK environment, putting at risk the health of people, wildlife, and livestock, and causing persistent and cumulative environmental contamination. The body of evidence of risks from the toxic effects of lead ammunition is overwhelming and growing, as referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Krebs. Perhaps 10,000 children from the UK hunting community alone are estimated to be at risk of impacts on their IQ and other deficits due to frequent household consumption of lead-shot game meat. Lead poisoning from ammunition ingestion kills an estimated 75,000 water birds per year, plus hundreds of thousands of gamebirds and numerous birds of prey. Domestic livestock is put at risk when feeding on ground which has been shot over through direct ingestion of shot or when feeding on harvested silage from such ground.
Regulation of this sort would benefit the health of people, the intellectual development of children, the health of wild and domestic animals and food safety in restaurants and retail outlets. UK policy is lagging significantly behind the practices and organisational policies of many ammunition users. The vast majority of the shooting community is now behind this change too. I am sure that the noble Earl, Lord Shrewsbury, who has a lifetime of expertise in this regard, will pick up on this point. The National Game Dealers Association has committed to sourcing all game, including gamebirds, duck, venison, and wild boar, from lead-free supply chains from 1 July 2022. Supermarkets and game dealers are suspending sales of lead-shot game meat and our own food outlets here in the Palace of Westminster will not sell you food containing this poison. To continue to allow the circumstances which potentially may occasion the sale of poisoned game from other outlets is no longer justifiable. Yet up and down the country, the health of children is being put at risk wherever lead-shot game meat is consumed by them. In recognition of this and the hundreds of thousands of wildlife lead poisoning deaths each year, health professionals, conservation and shooting organisations and wild game retailers are calling for change.
Non-toxic ammunition is widely available. It is effective and comparably priced. In the 1990s, both Denmark and the Netherlands banned the use of all lead shot, with no impact on the number of hunters, proving that a change to using sustainable non-lead ammunition is possible without impact on the sport. The UK Government have been dealing with the issue and legislation around the problem of lead poisoning from lead shot since 1991. The detail of the multiple costly stakeholder groups, compliance studies, risk assessments and reviews set up by Defra and the Food Standards Agency are well known to the Minister. In 1999, partial regulation focused on protecting wetland birds. However, studies have found the current law to be ineffective at reducing lead poisoning in water birds due to a high level of noncompliance.
Now is the time for policy change. It is now 30 years since the first UK working group on lead shot in wetlands, and one year after the nine main UK shooting organisations—recognising the risks from lead ammunition, the imminent impacts of regulation on lead ammunition in the EU, and the likely impacts on UK markets for game meat—called for change on lead shot.
An identical amendment was debated in Committee in the other place on 26 November 2020. Rebecca Pow, in responding to my honourable friend Fleur Anderson, who moved the amendment, supported the intent of the amendment, and appeared to agree with all the arguments for the ban. Indeed, I expect that the Minister knows and agrees with all the arguments too. He is a well-known advocate of this policy, and probably has deployed all of them himself at one stage. In the debate in the other place, Rebecca Pow, while conceding all the arguments, did not accept the amendment because it did not extend to single-use plastics, of all things. She said that all aspects of the sport needed to be considered and that, as it did not “cover clay pigeon shooting”, it was therefore deficient. She alleged difficulties of detection or enforcement action and, as its extent concerned devolved matters, required legislative consent motions from devolved Administrations—all reasons not to accept the amendment.
These are all alleged impediments that can be overcome, if the Government are willing to engage with the amendment. Set against the continuing known risk to children’s health, none of them can be allowed to be fatal to this amendment, particularly since banning toxic lead gunshot is now the Government’s stated position too. On 23 March, the Government agreed to move further towards a ban, and, in Rebecca Pow’s name, Defra published a press release. In it, she is reported as having said:
“Evidence shows lead ammunition harms the environment, wildlife and people”.
But then she went on inexplicably to announce the commissioning over a two-year period of yet a further review of the evidence and a consultation. During that time, lead ammunition will continue to harm wildlife, the environment, and people.
The effectiveness of an amendment of this nature, as a similar ban has proved in Denmark and the Netherlands, is that it will, at a certain date, remove the demand for lead shot. Only regulation will provide a guaranteed market for ammunition manufacturers; ensure the provision of game, free of lead ammunition, for the retail market; enable cost-effective enforcement; and, importantly, protect wildlife and human health. Action on this issue was recommended in 1983 in the report of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution on lead in the environment. As Fleur Anderson in the other place said, action is clearly
“long overdue. Now, at last, is the time to act.” —[Official Report, Commons, Environment Bill Committee, 26/11/20; col. 704.]
My simple question to the Minister is, if not now, when?
My Lords, I am delighted to follow the noble Lord as a fellow advocate. I endorse the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, in moving his Amendment 234, on the need to ensure balance in chalk streams, and their protection. We should recognise how popular the sport of angling is and what a wide ecosystem the chalk streams serve.
I particularly support Amendments 235, 236, 242 and 244 and congratulate my noble friend Lord Caithness on his work in this regard; I lend my support to him and my noble friend Lord Shrewsbury in this regard. I entirely agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, said about Clause 102. I will concentrate on subsection (5), which says:
“Natural England may, from time to time, amend a species conservation strategy.”
I enjoyed the noble Lord’s cautionary tale on newts and I will share with him a cautionary tale that caused a lot of grief in north Yorkshire at the time. This was a case of bats in the belfry of St Hilda’s church in Ellerburn, in the constituency of Thirsk, Malton and Filey, which I had the honour to represent for the last five years that I served in the other place.
I entirely endorse what the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, said about achieving balance; part of that balance has to be the rights of humans—in this case, to worship in a place of worship in the normal way. The level of protection that was afforded for years by Natural England defied all logic. I know that this caused a lot of grief within the Church of England and I pay tribute to the work done not just by local parishioners but the Church of England nationally. I do not think that St Hilda’s church at Ellerburn was alone in this regard. The parishioners and worshippers had to evacuate the church, which was effectively closed for human use. There was a huge cost to clean up the church—noble Lords can imagine the damage that was caused by bats flying around in the numbers that there were. As far as I understand it, eventually an accommodation was reached with Natural England.
My greatest concern is that these species should be kept under review. Badger baiting, for example, was finally outlawed in 1968—I forget the actual date—when badgers became a protected species. But these things should always be kept under review. Grey squirrels are now running out of control in many parts of the country and it is almost too late to go back and protect the red squirrel in its natural habitat. So I am very taken by Amendment 236, with its simple request that the proposals be made available for consultation. I would argue that this should be informed consultation for a substantial period of time—at least 12 weeks—so that all parties can be reached.
I hope that we can reach a balance not just between nature and human use but between rural life and urban dwellers. I am not an expert like the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, but one could probably argue that bats now are fairly commonplace in many parts of the country, where they have extensive natural habitats and do not have to occupy dwellings such as churches or, in many cases, farmhouses. Giving them have a higher order of protection than humans who are trying to ply their trade or, in the case of Ellerburn church, to worship, is frankly beyond the realms of logic and common sense.
So I endorse the amendments put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, and, in particular, my noble friend Lord Caithness, and I hope that, by reviewing the level of protection and the health of an individual species, common sense and logic will prevail.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering. There is a huge amount of good in this group and I will be somewhat selective in what I cover. I begin with Amendment 241, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, and thank him—on behalf of many people in the UK, I am sure—for his championing of chalk streams. The noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, referred to how these are held in great regard by anglers, but we should not forget the great regard in which they are held right across the country.
I note that, just last month, the River Cam became the first UK river to have its rights declared, in a special ceremony organised by the local group Friends of the Cam. At that ceremony, a version of the Universal Declaration of River Rights, drawn from indigenous principles and river victories around the world, was read out. A lawyer at that event noted that, while of course legally this had no effect, it showed the strength of feeling and the desire to protect the River Cam and its tributaries. I note also that the River Frome in Somerset recently had a by-law drawn up to offer it some protection. It is now for your Lordships’ House to encourage the Government to show a similar level of concern to that we are seeing in affected communities.
Amendment 234, also in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, is a classic “must” replacing “may” amendment. We are talking here of course about species conservation strategies. As other speakers have done, I will focus briefly and in particular on Amendment 235, which has cross-party and non-party support; had there been space, the Green Party would certainly also have attached our name to it. We have already heard in considerable detail how important this is, but it really is worth reflecting that the experience of species conservation strategies thus far has been that there is a real risk of focusing on facilitating development rather than protecting species and, crucially, the ecosystems that are fundamental to the continued existence and importance of those species. The great crested newt has already been referred to, but that is just one case where we have failed to see alternative, less damaging solutions considered, including on-site avoidance or mitigation of impacts. What these amendments, particularly Amendment 235, would do is ensure that the mitigation hierarchy is always followed in species conservation strategies. This is absolutely crucial. I also particularly note my support for Amendment 248, in the name of the noble Earl, Lord Caithness; the stress on evidence is pretty hard to argue with.
Finally, I will take a little bit of time on Amendment 293A, in the names of the noble Lord, Lord Browne of Ladyton, the noble Baronesses, Lady Parminter and Lady Jones of Whitchurch, and the noble Earl, Lord Shrewsbury. The noble Lord, Lord Browne, referred to this as an “interloper amendment”, but I think rather that it is a simple, clear, effective, deliverable amendment to the Bill, and it is hard to see why the Government should not accept it. We have already heard a little about how damaging lead ammunition is, and it is worth going back to the history. Nearly six years ago, Defra got the completed report of the Lead Ammunition Group, which recommended that lead ammunition be phased out. That group was set up at the suggestion of the RSPB and the WWT. The evidence is that, when lead shot goes out into the environment, birds—particularly those who feed on grain over fields—collect and eat it, then predator and scavenger species such as crows and raptors can eat those carcasses, accumulate the lead and die. We know how much pressure many of our raptors continue to be under from illegal persecution, and it is crucial that we protect them from this unnecessary threat.
In putting a sense of scale on this, I am indebted to Tom Cameron, a lecturer in aquatic community ecology at the University of Essex. He has calculated that, if a commercial shooting estate offered a single day of hunting pheasants with an expected bag of 200 birds, a 1:3 kill ratio might be expected. Using a standard game load of 32 grams of No. 5 lead shot, with each cartridge containing around 248 pellets, that would be 25 kilograms of lead shot from just one day of fairly typical shooting. As the academic says, you could argue for doing a full calculation across the country, but
“it’s clear that it’s a lot”
of lead being put out into the environment—and wholly unnecessarily.
I also note a new study published in the British Ecological Society journal People and Nature, which showed, as referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Browne, that significant numbers of shooters are comfortable with moving away from lead shot. I also compliment the noble Lord on discovering that noble Lords in this House are protected from the risk of ingesting that lead; however, many children in our society still are not.
The noble Lord, Lord Krebs, referred to a study conducted last year in lockdown that showed that the voluntary phase-out, which was supposed to begin in February 2020, was not working. It is worth noting a detail from that study on pheasants bought from game dealers, butchers and supermarkets around the UK. Of 180 birds examined by the scientists, 179—all but one—had been shot with lead. A year into this voluntary five-year phase-out, it clearly is not happening. This amendment is simple, clear, extremely deliverable and—to come back to the word “evidence”— extraordinarily well-evidenced. I very much hope that we see the Government taking action.
My Lords, I rise to offer a few words regarding the amendments of the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, particularly Amendments 236 and 248, which seek more specificity around the objectives and methods of consultation for species conservation and protected site strategies. As I have repeatedly noted—maybe I sound a bit like a stuck record—the well-intentioned setting of environmental strategies and goals is in danger of belabouring beleaguered farmers and land managers with yet more confusing, conflicting and expensive mandates that will limit their ability to operate productively, if at all.
As the NFU has long stated, it is not possible to go green if you are in the red. However worthy the objectives of species and site protection laid out, they will never be met if we drive farmers and rural businesses out of business. I trust Defra will keep this in mind as it develops policy under these provisions, and I hope the Minister provides substantial assurance that a balance will be met between nature and rural business.
Separately, I will address Amendment 293A in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Browne, and others regarding the necessary prohibition of toxic lead shot. It comes as no surprise to your Lordships that Earls of Devon have hosted and supported shoots for many centuries, including of both wildfowl and reared game birds, in which both lead shot and, more recently, non-lead alternatives were used. Contrary to the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, I understand that the industry is taking positive voluntary steps to move away from lead shot, as well as single-use plastics, and on a five-year timeline that allows for the development of suitable alternatives that can equal the effectiveness of lead. I do not, therefore, see that it is necessary to legislate for such a change, particularly in such a short timescale.
The principal danger of setting an unduly short timescale is that the industry is left with inadequate alternative loads, which will only increase the likelihood of injury and suffering to quarry. The essential development of alternatives will take time, and the industry, on which many thousands of rural jobs depend, particularly in deprived areas of north Devon, should be permitted to take the time necessary to make these essential changes.
Finally, I note the considerable concern about children eating lead. If we can get children and families eating game—pheasants and partridges—it will be a blessed thing. If we can remove lead from the game before they do so, it will be even better.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Earl, Lord Devon, and to hear his expertise. I offer my support for Amendment 235, so ably addressed by the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, and others. I have sat with the noble Lord for a number of years, recently in our environment and energy committees, and his grasp of environmental issues and experience influenced many of our conclusions, so it is a pleasure to follow up by supporting this amendment.
The Bill would be improved if the objectives on which the conservation strategy should focus were in the second paragraph of this clause. I, like many noble Lords, would like to see the Government bring forward their own list of objectives at the next stage of the Bill, as most of us would not like to see the Secretary of State hand Natural England a completely blank sheet, as if it were the inheritors of the desired Henry VIII powers.
The Bill goes on to list the activities that Natural England will be required to fulfil in setting out its species conservation strategy. These would be clearer and more focused if the objectives were listed. Of course, any list may turn out not to be perfect and again, this spills over into what power there will be to make amendments and who will exercise it. This question is similar to that in a later group of amendments we will deal with, in which we will consider the powers a Secretary of State should have to amend regulations in the light of experience.
The amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, is an example of the expertise he holds in this area. The House benefited from hearing from him.
My noble friend Lord Caithness has many amendments in this group, and I support him in his efforts to bring greater clarity to these clauses. His Amendment 252 relates to the clause dealing with wildlife conservation licences. When we were dealing with environmental targets, the Minister introduced an amendment that allows him to make regulations to manage species abundance. As I am sure he is well aware—other noble Lords have spoken of this—he may set the targets but, as is increasingly accepted, much of this can be achieved only by other species management. Making sure that the legislation is fully appropriate is increasingly important. In this area, management becomes a question of having feet on the ground.
Only a few days ago on the “Farming Today” programme, there was a report on an RSPB reserve—in Wiltshire, I think—which made sure that all its habitat was suitable for encouraging many endangered small birds. However, this did not happen until it began to deal with what were termed “generous predators”—I find this a rather descriptive phrase—such as foxes, all kinds of corvids and stoats. My noble friend Lord Caithness’s amendment makes sure that the issue of licences is approached in a practical way. Experience in this field will be what counts, so I will listen with interest to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I will add a few words in support of Amendment 235 in the name of my noble friend Lord Krebs and others. Of the various amendments in the name of the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, I single out Amendment 242, which seeks to give an express power to Natural England to amend, update or withdraw a species conservation strategy.
The point to which my noble friend Lord Krebs’s amendment is directed is that a species conservation strategy—the “recovery of nature”, as he put it—needs careful planning if it is to achieve its objective. Natural England, which will be responsible for producing these strategies, is well equipped to do this. It already has expertise in dealing with protected species and sites for their conservation and protection, but the strategies will have to be shared with and explained to local planning authorities. Their full co-operation is essential to the success of this strategy.
There can be no doubt that this process will be assisted by a clear understanding of the objective, and the careful, step-by-step approach that the amendment describes. Of particular interest is the reference to informing the definition of the favourable conservation status of relevant species of fauna or flora. This is not just about mitigation of loss. It is about planning for the future, which every conservation strategy should seek to achieve. That requires a clear understanding of the level that conservation must achieve so that each species within the habitat may be secure against loss of that species in the future. That means that it needs protection against its possible competitors or predators and, indeed, against possible harm by commercial interests. Establishing this understanding and the research that will underpin it as one of the objectives will add real value to the success of this new strategy. That is why I am very much in support of this amendment.
As for the amendment in the name of the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, about the power to amend, update or withdraw being given to Natural England, its value really speaks for itself. It may be said by the Minister that it is unnecessary, but there is no mention of any power to amend, update or withdraw in the recently published factsheet. An assurance by the Minister that Natural England will have this power anyway, and an explanation of where it is to be found, would be very welcome. Unless the Minister can do that, I hope that he will accept this very sensible amendment, to add clarity to the Bill.
My Lords, I am delighted to be speaking in this short debate. I added my name to Amendment 235, so well introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, but I have very little to add to what has been said.
The poor old great crested newt, which keeps getting mentioned, has had a bit of a bad press. I think it is because of its name, people saying that some of our laws and regulations make it difficult for developers and that “you only have to find a great crested newt and that will stop it”, but even if it is not a flagship iconic species, it is just as valuable. I mentioned the great crested newts of Uxbridge in my maiden speech in the other place in 1997. We have them in several very small pond reserves belonging to either the London Wildlife Trust or the Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust.
I say to my noble friend Lady McIntosh of Pickering, speaking as a member of the Bat Conservation Trust, that bats have a highly protected status. They are easily interfered with. There is an active “bats in churches” study group, because bats can cause disruption within churches, causing dismay to congregations, but they are far from common and increasing. Only the other night I was delighted to use my bat detector to discover some pipistrelles, the commonest species, flying around the garden. We must be careful.
However, I support the idea that we want to be flexible in some of these areas. There are species that may start off needing complete protection but do very well, and their position then endangers other species. My noble friend Lord Caithness put it very well when he talked about managing these things. It is a mistake to think that we can just let nature take care of itself. The majority of our landscapes and habitats are manmade. We interfere and if we are not careful, what we do can cause even more problems.
I had forgotten about Amendment 293A. As the noble Lord, Lord Browne of Ladyton, said when introducing it, it is perhaps not in context with some of the others. I do not agree with the noble Earl, Lord Devon, that we need more time. We have had as much time as possible. The toxicity and the need to stop it has been raised for years. I have been active on this for many years and my impression is that the game shooting organisations know that this is coming and will be prepared for it. I have spoken to cartridge makers and so on. They have alternatives. A lot of the ideas about the alternatives not being as good have been proved incorrect. To score some points back with my noble friend Lady McIntosh of Pickering, the Danes have got it right. It does not interfere with the sport. It is a toxic thing that should be removed.
If my noble friend the Minister wants some help on this, perhaps he can speak to the Treasury. If it could put an incredible surcharge on lead shot, perhaps we could force it out of the market, but the best way is to start by saying that it should not be used for killing wild animals and birds. The toxicity of clay shoots is terrible because it is in the same area. In various places they have had to close while they detoxify the area. It is appalling and incredible that in the 21st century we still allow this toxic chemical to enter the food chain of not only wildlife but humans.
I say to the noble Earl, Lord Devon, that I welcome the use of game in diet. It is a great thing, but we should not be doing it while there is lead in there.
My Lords, I will speak to Amendment 293A tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Browne of Ladyton, whom I congratulate on bringing this matter forward. I have added my name to the amendment. I declare an interest as a former chairman of the Firearms Consultative Committee at the Home Office. I am a liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Gunmakers, a former chairman and former president of the British Shooting Sports Council, a former president of the Gun Trade Association and a member of BASC and the GWCT. I hope your Lordships will deduce that I know a little about shooting and lead shot.
As we have heard, lead is acknowledged as a poison. It is banned in paints, petrol, fishing weights, water and a raft of other products. Recently, nine major quarry shooting associations—as I said, I am a member of BASC—came together in a statement, saying that their intention is for the shooting sports to cease the use of lead shot, or toxic shot, within five years. Waitrose, the supermarket chain, has told me that it will sell only game shot with non-toxic shot from next year. The National Game Dealers Association, which sells the vast majority of game-bird meat and game meat in general intends to do the same by July 2022. The vast majority of my game-shooting friends and acquaintances, and the majority of those to whom I speak in the game-shooting world, are already planning to move to non-toxic shot in the coming season, including myself.
The technology of steel shot, biodegradable wads and recyclable cartridge cases is being rapidly moved forward by cartridge manufacturers such as Eley Hawk. Indeed, I am personally actively making the switch as quickly as I can. The move away from lead shot is gaining momentum all the way through America, Europe and other countries.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, said, the Lead Ammunition Group recently conducted a major inquiry into lead in shooting. I have to say that it was not done just by the bird-watching enthusiasts, as she said; it was actually done by the shooting world as well. It was led by a gentleman called John Swift, who happened to be the chairman of BASC at the time, so I think that it ought to have a little credit for that.
We have been around this lead racetrack, so to speak, ad infinitum. I repeat that lead is a poison—we all know that. It should not be permitted to enter the food chain, full stop. I agree with noble Lord, Lord Krebs, entirely: Her Majesty’s Government need to place all in the game-shooting industry in a position where they know with what timescale they must comply. This would give assurance to them and mean that they can make the changes necessary. Many of them will have to retool equipment—as I say, lead shot is on its way out—and manufacturers such as Eley Hawk are having to change their ways, and are doing so very successfully.
However, this does not happen overnight. Many guns—London Best guns, for instance—that were built a long time ago to shoot lead shot cannot shoot steel shot, so that has to be looked into as well. This is quite a complicated subject—not an easy “We’ll do it today” job. If the Government were to make up their mind and push the shooting industry into this a little harder, with a date that we know we comply with, that would be a very good thing, and I would strongly support it.
The market for game and game meat is of course substantial. The game dealers and the supermarkets are changing their ways. Waitrose tells me that, by the time it goes toxic-shot-free next year, it may well be able to sell more than a million more game birds— that is just one supermarket chain. That is good for the shooting industry. We need to be able to find decent new markets where we can sell this excellent low-calorie meat.
I am very aware that this amendment probably requires further work, so I ask my noble friend the Minister—we had a brief conversation outside the Chamber before this debate started—if he would very kindly meet with the noble Lord, Lord Browne, and me as soon as possible to discuss this further before Report.
The noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, has withdrawn, so I call the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter.
My Lords, the discussion on this grouping has been quite lengthy. I echo the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, and the noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose, in thanking my noble friend Lord Chidgey for his excellent championing of chalk streams in this and earlier groupings. I very much hope that the Government will respond positively to the suggestion of this new designation for chalk streams. I will not speak for long because most points have already been covered.
I added my name to Amendment 235 of the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, on species conservation strategies, and I very much support his comments. We need to ensure that they support nature recovery and not faster development. It is right that, as the comments that have been made by noble Lords around the Committee showed, there is unanimous support for this amendment. That is indicative of the level of concern that we have about what the Government might be proposing in terms of future planning reforms coming down the track. If we can get this clear in the Environment Bill, that could give us some level of assurance. For those reasons, we on this Bench also support the 10 amendments of the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, who is looking to make these species conservation strategies work better. They are a good tool, but they need to work better, so we support all those amendments.
Amendment 293A in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Browne of Ladyton, on lead shot has drawn the support of the majority of the Committee, although not that of the noble Earl, Lord Devon, I note. Those noble Lords who know my background are aware that I hold absolutely no brief for supporting the game industry, but it is a sign when people on both sides of the Committee—those who support the industry and those who have had concerns about a number of country sports in the past—can come together to support this amendment, which I do wholeheartedly.
I take issue with the noble Earl, Lord Devon: there are plenty of alternatives, which the noble Earl, Lord Shrewsbury, and the noble Lord, Lord Randall of Uxbridge, mentioned. I commend the evidence not only from Denmark but also from the Netherlands, which banned lead shot over 30 years ago. To my certain knowledge, this has not reduced the number of hunters in the Netherlands. The European Union is now looking to ban lead shot, and the industry is in step with that. It is to the credit of the responsible end of the shooting fraternity that it supports this amendment.
We cannot say that the industry has not had time to act. I have been in this House for 10 years and remember asking my first question when the Oxford symposium report of noble Lord, Lord Krebs, was published, and the Government were at that time being rather laggardly in putting a response together. The industry has known that this is coming—there are alternatives and it is time for it to act. I say to the industry—I am sure that that it will not want to hear this from someone like me—that if it wants the support of rural communities for rural sports, it needs to be responsible. Alternatives that work are out there. There are alternatives that will save the health and mental ability of our children.
In a week when Henry Dimbleby will produce his food strategy, to which the Government will have to respond, which is all about producing healthy, sustainable and affordable food, it would be absolute madness for the Government not to act now. As the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, so rightly put it, this is a no-brainer. We need to do it to protect the health of our children and ensure the health and well-being of domestic animals and those in the environment. I implore the Government to listen to what has been said by the majority of people around this Committee and the consensus on both sides of the debate—and to accept this amendment.
We have had a really interesting debate—it has covered quite a lot of areas. I offer our strong support for Amendment 241 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey.
I am enjoying our Committee debates, particularly last week’s. Many concerns have been raised about the condition of our chalk streams. We know that they have particularly pure, clear and constant water from the underground chalk aquifers, and they flow across gravel beds, which makes them absolutely perfect sources of clean water and ideal for lots of wild creatures to breed and thrive in. However, we also know that too many have been overused and undervalued, drained almost dry in places and polluted in others. Research shows that a third of the water that we take from our rivers is wasted. The Angling Trust has said:
“The fate of England’s chalk streams is the litmus test in terms of how this country treats its environment.”
So we thank the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, for tabling this amendment for better protections for our chalk streams, which are so badly needed. Again, I offer our strong support.
We also strongly support Amendment 235, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, which would ensure that the primary purpose of species conservation strategies is to support the recovery of nature, rather than to facilitate faster development. As the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, said, the debate today has shown huge support for his amendment. A strategic approach to species conservation is essential to preserving biodiversity and enabling nature’s recovery. This should include protecting, restoring and creating habitat over a wider area to meet the needs of individual species. Strategic approaches to species conservation are clearly essential. The noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, talked about her experience of bats, for example. It is vital that we enable this recovery of nature. Between 2013 and 2018, 46% of conservation priority species in England declined. We know that many of these species would benefit from a strategic plan resulting in all relevant public bodies taking appropriate actions to save and restore them. The noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose, asked for clear objectives to be set out, and this is clearly important.
The proposal for species conservation strategies must also be understood in the context of the net-gain offsetting that we already discussed in Committee last week. Our fear is that there could be unintended consequences. The noble Lord, Lord Krebs, outlined his concerns that, sadly, the overall result could be to allow the destruction of habitats and protected species in return for new habitat creation elsewhere. A developer could be licensed to proceed with activities that destroy habitats and species in return for contributing to habitats that support the wider population of that species. We share the noble Lord’s concern that this could allow a developer to proceed without protecting every specimen of a protected species and without always undertaking the appropriate site-specific survey work. We do not want to speed up development and reduce costs, which would ultimately do the opposite of what the Bill is trying to achieve.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, mentioned the importance of planning authorities having a clear understanding of what is required, and this will be needed if these proposals are to be implemented well. We need to contribute to the conservation of certain species but, if that is managed badly or applied inappropriately, we could end up with it being nothing more than a shortcut to getting around some of the protected species obligations. Can the Minister confirm that, where species conservation strategies are used in cases of development planning, species’ needs will dictate the outcome, with the overriding presumption and priority being for on-site or local, rather than off-site, mitigations? Will he also confirm that biodiversity net gains will be additional to meeting the legal and policy requirements within the species conservation strategies?
We are looking for some serious reassurance from the Minister that the species conservation strategies will not lead to perverse outcomes. We need to ensure that they are delivering gains for nature rather than gains for developers. Can he also confirm that site-specific impact assessments at the time of planning or of other consent applications will still be carried out to ensure that all impacts are identified and addressed? We need assurance that each strategy will be framed around the conservation objectives of the sites concerned, as well as any other conservation considerations.
I will now move on to the amendments tabled by the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, who made some very important points in his introduction. I am sure that noble Lords will support his important aim; all we want to do is to make this part of the Bill work better, and his amendments ably try to do that. We need to look to wider concerns that encompass all factors, not just habitats. The noble Earl made an important point when he talked about management being a forgotten activity that will help deliver success to our conservation strategies, and the noble Lord, Lord Randall of Uxbridge, supported him in that. The noble Earl, Lord Devon, also asked for assurances from the Minister about support for farmers and rural businesses. Again, this is an important area that must not be forgotten.
Turning to Amendment 293A, in the name of my noble friend Lord Browne of Ladyton, I thank him for his very detailed introduction. I also thank the noble Earl, Lord Shrewsbury, for sharing his extensive knowledge and experience of this matter. As the EU proceeds towards a ban on all lead ammunition, UK policy is lagging significantly behind the practices and organisational policies of many ammunition users. As my noble friend Lord Browne said so eloquently, there are no safe levels of lead—it affects all major body systems of animals, including humans. As the noble Earl, Lord Shrewsbury, said, regulation has ensured removal of lead from petrol, paint and drinking water. The last largely unregulated release of lead into our environment is from lead ammunition. We have heard that non-toxic ammunition is widely available, and guidance on its use is provided on the website of the British Association for Shooting and Conservation—BASC.
We have also heard in this debate that the UK shooting community is preparing for change, which is coming, but voluntary efforts to move away from lead shot have always failed. We need leadership from government, with legislation, if this change is going to happen. As the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, said, this amendment is deliverable. Finally, I ask the Minister: what progress is his department making in bringing this legislation forward and ending this practice?
I will start with Amendment 234, tabled by the noble Lord, Chidgey, and Amendment 235, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, but first I will offer some words on the overall objectives of species conservation strategies. The strategies will be developed by Natural England for species that are under threat and would benefit from a more strategic and focused approach to improve their conservation status. They will identify priorities for the species and bring together relevant public authorities, ENGOs and any other interested parties to identify the bespoke solutions needed to tackle the threat each species faces.
I understand the intention of the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, to ensure that the strategies contribute to nature’s recovery, but Clause 102 already guarantees this. In line with the intention behind the measure, subsection (1) specifically defines the purpose of a strategy as:
“for improving the conservation status of any species of fauna or flora.”
Subsection (4) elaborates on the elements that the strategy may contain, including creating and enhancing habitats with the explicit purpose
“of improving the conservation status of the species”.
The mitigation hierarchy is also set out in subsection (4), as we are clear that each species will require a bespoke approach to avoidance or mitigation of harm or the creation of compensatory habitat. It is important that Natural England is given a power in the Bill to create strategies where they are likely to have the biggest possible impact. Changing “may” to “must”, as suggested by Amendment 234, would therefore change that power into a duty to create strategies, and this would place an unreasonable obligation on Natural England to create a very large number of strategies, including for species which would see little or no benefit. We think that it makes more sense for Natural England to focus its resources where strategies can provide the most benefit for key species in decline.
Natural England is already working with relevant conservation groups to develop the first strategies; others are in the pipeline, including—to answer the noble Lord, Lord Krebs’s question—for the dormouse and water vole. I think he said that it is also the case that the district-level licensing approach is not considered to be something that would work for bats. That is our view as well, so we will not be using that approach.
On Amendment 241, I share the determination of the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, to protect our chalk streams, as many noble Lords do. Restoring our internationally recognised and important chalk streams is already a government priority. Species conservation strategies, however, are bespoke, targeted measures to help protect specific species at risk. Although they will by their nature and design help restore the habitats and ecosystems without which those species cannot flourish, they are not the best mechanism for achieving that specific aim. While activities to help a particular species may involve necessary actions to improve habitats such as chalk streams, the focus needs to remain on the species itself.
For example, I mentioned that Natural England is working with NGO partners to develop a strategy for water voles. Given that water voles are often found living along chalk streams, any plan for their conservation will invariably include measures to protect chalk stream habitat, but it would need to go further and wider to ensure that all other vole habitat was included in the strategy. I know that the noble Lord is a strong advocate for chalk streams. I assure him that the Government are already working with stakeholders to develop an action plan to restore and protect our valuable chalk streams.
It was said powerfully by the noble Lord as well as by others, including the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, that chalk streams in their natural condition are home to an extraordinary profusion of natural life. Botanically, they are the most biodiverse of all English rivers. They offer a colossal range of habitat niches for invertebrates, fish, birds and mammals. Brown trout and Atlantic salmon are indigenous to all English chalk streams and they provide fantastic habitat for the otter, water vole, water shrew and more besides. As we know, the water vole has suffered extreme decline, mostly as a consequence of the release of the American mink. Chalk streams where the mink is absent or where trapping regularly happens provide extraordinary habitat where the vole can reach high densities.
One of the draft recommendations of the chalk stream restoration group is that chalk streams be given an overarching protection and priority status. The strategy is being consulted on right now. We will look at the recommendations when the final strategy is published, including any recommendations on providing further protection for chalk streams.
I welcome the interest from my noble friend Lord Caithness in the operation of the strategies. On his Amendment 236, we are keen to avoid adding rigid requirements for formal consultation that might delay putting the strategies into effect. We recognise that we will not be able to deliver the best strategies without consulting the experts, a point that he made. Natural England is already working closely with NGO partners such as Wildlife and Countryside Link to draft the principles for the design and operation of the strategies, which will be published in due course. However, adding requirements for formal consultation would delay putting those strategies into effect and add unnecessary hurdles to getting them into operation, which is clearly our priority.
I say in response to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, that Section 14 of the Interpretation Act states that the power to make regulations implies the power to revoke, amend or re-enact them. In our view, that is analogous with the power for Natural England to prepare statutory strategies such as the species conservation strategies.
On my noble friend Lord Caithness’s other amendments, which I shall not list, the clause as drafted is intended to be flexible to allow strategies to be prepared for any species where it will help deliver better conservation outcomes. These proposals risk constraining that flexibility. Specifying elements which “must” be included in a strategy would be unnecessarily rigid, as some elements may not be appropriate; for example, not all species require “consents or approvals” related to granting planning permission, which is one of the elements set out in the clause. The power to amend a strategy includes the power to withdraw it, if needed. Requiring a formal review, including consultation, which could add weeks or months, could delay that process, hindering Natural England’s discretion to make improvements and its ability to make changes rapidly if needed.
My noble friend asked me whether the Secretary of State’s powers in relation to the general licence remain intact. The current system is being looked at; the commitment is that it will be updated if necessary. If there is an update beyond what I have just said, I will write to him with details after this debate.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, asked whether net gain is additional to the species conservation strategies or the protected site strategies. The answer is yes.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Browne of Ladyton, for his Amendment 293A. The Government fully support the principle of addressing the impacts of lead in ammunition. He is also right that I want action in this area and have spoken on this issue numerous times in the past. As he knows, the Government have asked the Health and Safety Executive to produce a UK REACH restriction dossier on the risks posed by lead in ammunition. We made that request in March this year. The noble Lord’s amendment would prohibit use of lead shot in shotguns for the purposes of killing or taking any wild bird or wild animal, but it does not address the use of lead ammunition in other situations, such as clay pigeon or target shooting, where lead poisoning will also occur. We want and need to tackle that too.
The Government have asked the Health and Safety Executive to consider a wider and more ambitious restriction than the amendment currently seeks. I appreciate the noble Lord’s intention in proposing the amendment. It is a key issue, and I warmly welcome this debate. As the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, said, it really is a no-brainer. As a number of noble Lords have commented, the voluntary methods that have been in play so far have not worked. Reductions in the use of lead have been unimpressive, and, as my noble friend Lord Randall said, alternatives exist. I say with no disrespect to him that my noble friend Lord Shrewsbury made the same argument, and his CV is surely second to none on this issue. I am extremely happy to agree to meet him at a time that suits him and will be in touch after the debate.
Throughout our debates this afternoon, we have heard passionate speeches from noble Lords about the importance of conservation. I hope I have assured them of the role of species conservation strategies as just another, very important tool at our disposal to address the issues affecting our most sensitive habitats and species in a way that is tailored to local needs and encourages innovative approaches. I ask the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, I have received one request to speak after the Minister, from the noble Lord, Lord Randall of Uxbridge.
My Lords, I heard what my noble friend the Minister said regarding the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Browne of Ladyton. Does he not agree that even if we banned the use of lead ammunition in killing wild birds and animals, although it would not address target and clay pigeon shooting, surely that would set the whole thing off? Would it not be a great first move to make?
I am very keen for us to make progress as quickly as we can. I understand frustrations with the REACH process. My understanding is that that process is best placed to deliver the change we need despite the time that it takes. If it is possible to move more quickly, given that we know that the science is pretty clear and that alternatives exist, I would certainly be open to pursuing those opportunities. If my noble friend would like to join me in my meeting with my noble friend Lord Shrewsbury, he would be very welcome.
I thank all noble Lords and noble Baronesses who have spoken in support of my amendment. The vigour of the debate was very encouraging for me and my fellow Hampshire men and women who are trying to do something to protect our environment and the habitats that we have lived with and cherished throughout our lives.
I also thank the Minister for his remarks. It is encouraging that the Government are taking this issue seriously and are already debating with the proprietors of the chalk stream restoration strategy report, which I understand will be submitted to government in September. That being the case, I look forward to going with colleagues and friends into discussions with government beyond then to see whether we can address these issues, which are so important to our native land. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 234 withdrawn.
Amendments 235 to 245 not moved.
Clause 102 agreed.
Clause 103: Protected site strategies
Amendments 246 to 251 not moved.
Clause 103 agreed.
We now come to Amendment 251A. Anyone wishing to press this amendment to a Division must make that clear in debate.
251A: After Clause 103, insert the following new Clause—
“Protection of National Parks
(1) In exercising their functions under—(a) this Act,(b) any subordinate legislation made under this Act, or(c) any legislation amended by this Act,a public authority must determine whether and how the carrying out of such functions would impact on National Parks.(2) If a public authority determines that their actions would have a material impact on National Parks, that authority must—(a) have regard to the purposes of National Parks specified in section 5(1) of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949, and(b) so far as practicable, act in a manner that is consistent with supporting those purposes.(3) Section 11A of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 (duty of certain bodies and persons to have regard to the purposes for which National Parks are designated) is amended as follows—(a) in subsection (2), after “land” insert “or the special qualities found”;(b) after subsection (2) insert—“(2A) All relevant authorities have a duty to co-operate in the production and implementation of any relevant National Park Management Plans.”;(c) after subsection (3) insert—“(3A) In subsection (2A) of this section “National Park Management Plans” means any relevant plan or plans published under section 66 of the Environment Act 1995 (National Park Management Plans).””Member’s explanatory statement
This new Clause would ensure that where the decisions of public authorities impact on national parks, relevant authorities must have regard to the purposes laid out in section 5(1) of the 1949 Act. In addition, the Clause amends inserted section 11A of that Act to strengthen provisions around protecting the special characteristics of national parks.
My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of the South Downs National Parks Authority. The 10 national parks in England are crucial for delivering our strategy for nature recovery and enhanced landscapes. They cover 10% of our land, while hosting a third of the nation’s international wildlife sites. They have a mission to create more habitats where wildlife can flourish and be enjoyed, while developing strong local partnerships with communities, farmers and businesses to make the parks a living and creative space.
They are all too aware of the significant responsibility they carry to boost diversity and deliver the commitment to protect 30% of our land by 2030. Indeed, my own authority has plans to go further than that. Meeting this challenge is currently hampered by the limitation of the powers authorities currently have under the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949. In a phrase that will be familiar to noble Lords in other contexts, this section requires all relevant authorities to “have regard to” national park purposes while carrying out functions that might affect a national park. Sadly, “have regard to” is open to many interpretations and as a result there have been many examples of public authorities effectively ignoring this duty and putting their own interests first.
There are many examples from around the 10 parks, but let me give you a couple from the South Downs national park to illustrate the point. Highways England came up with a proposed new route for the A27 around Arundel, which went through the middle of the national park. It was hugely unpopular. It had failed to have regard to the national park’s status or to co-operate with it in drawing up the proposals. In the end, it pulled out of a judicial review just before the hearing, and the South Downs national park was awarded costs, but a lot of time and money could have been saved if it had had a stronger duty to support and co-operate with the park in the first place.
On a slightly different level, the Forestry Commission has built car parks in our national park that have no connection to the park’s attempts to manage visitor numbers and traffic flows to ensure an overall good visitor experience.
The national parks are proud of the work they are doing to develop partnerships with local public bodies, including the production of national park management plans, but this intent has to be reciprocated and this is not always currently the case.
In the meantime, the Government rightly have high expectations of the national parks and the role they will play in nature recovery and transforming farming in protected landscapes, but the parks need the powers necessary to deliver this ambition. This is why I have tabled my amendment, which would strengthen the need for public bodies not only to “have regard to” the purposes of national parks under the 1949 Act but to act in a manner consistent with these purposes. It would build in the co-operation and consultation which already happens successfully with many public authorities and make it the norm for all.
Noble Lords will know that two years ago, the committee overseeing the Glover report on the national parks published its review; I was pleased to see that the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, was a member of that committee. Last month the Government published their response to the report, to which the Minister referred when we debated earlier amendments. One of the report’s recommendations is:
“The existing duty of regard is too weak. We believe public bodies should be required to help further their purposes and the aims and objectives of individual national landscapes Management Plans.”
Since then, much of the emphasis of the report, the debate around it and the Government’s response has been concerned with the structure and governance of national parks. For example, there was a proposal to increase the number of national parks and for them to be bought under the oversight of a national landscape service—an issue we can debate another time.
We are concerned that some of the wider recommendations of the Glover review will be overshadowed, when there is a clear case to strengthen the role of individual national parks in working in partnership with local communities to create the beautiful and diverse landscapes, based on local nature recovery strategies, that we all desire. To do this effectively, the powers need to be strengthened. In the forthcoming consultation on the Glover proposals, will we get a chance to comment on these broader issues? Will the Minister agree to meet to discuss how these objectives could best be captured in any legislation that follows that review? In the meantime, I beg to move the amendment.
My Lords, I am delighted to contribute to this brief debate on Amendment 251A and I welcome the opportunity to talk about the purposes of national parks. As in an earlier debate, it is important to read across to what other users of national parks are being asked to do in relation to the Agriculture Act. In considering protections for national parks, it is entirely appropriate to look those who have wider interests than just maintaining a high level of biodiversity and promoting the enjoyment of the ecosystem, very important though that is.
Here, I would like to mention in particular the interests of farmers, landowners, land managers and tourism providers. Regarding the Agriculture Act and the read-across to the Environment Bill and public money for public goods, how do we expect national parks, farmers, land managers and those plying the trade of tourism to actually be allowed to do the work we are asking them to do? It is extremely important to better integrate farming, land management and, indeed, rural development objectives and advice in this regard. Could my noble friend elaborate on how the public goods and productivity strands of the Agriculture Act, the Bill and future policy will operate to ensure that that happens harmoniously?
I pay tribute to all those involved in national parks—tourism and farming in particular have had a very difficult time. Obviously, I am most familiar with the North York Moors National Park, but I had some experience of the Lake District National Park when I was a candidate there a number of years ago. It is important that we celebrate all that farmers, land managers and those supporting tourism in the national parks do. I hope my noble friend will confirm that “having regard to” does relate to these other interests, and that they will not be compromised in any shape or form. Perhaps she can put a little more meat on the bones of what we are going to ask them to do in terms of public money for public goods, through ELMS, in the context of the Environment Bill and the Agriculture Act.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to again follow the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, and to speak in support of Amendment 251A in the names of the noble Baronesses, Lady Jones of Whitchurch and Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville. Indeed, I would have attached my name to it, had I not missed it.
The case has already been very clearly made that we need strengthened protections for national parks—“have regard to” is simply not strong enough in this legislation. I think it is worth going back to the purposes of national parks in the 1949 Act, which include
“conserving and enhancing the natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage of the areas specified”.
This goes back to a debate that we had some weeks ago about how cultural and natural heritage are linked, but the main point to make on Amendment 251A is about “conserving and enhancing” wildlife.
Just last week we saw a campaign launched to raise £100 million to renature 13,000 hectares of land on the South Downs. There was much pride about the fact that this would mean that 33% of the national park is managed for nature, which reports suggested exceeds a UN-backed target of 30% by 2030. Of course, that is a target for all of the countryside; one might reasonably expect that to be much higher in our national parks. Indeed, you would like to see that figure going somewhere towards 100%. Of course, that does not mean that you cannot have agricultural production associated with that; we are back to a very long-running debate about sparing versus sharing. But we must note that what we are doing now is not strong enough. We have to do much more, and we need the Environment Bill to do it.
To take just one example, the Yorkshire Dales National Park is a notorious black hole for raptors. When the national park did a consultation with the public about its management, the illegal persecution of raptors was one of the issues most raised. Just a few months ago, we saw a hideous video released by the RSPB investigations team of two buzzards being lured to their deaths in the area.
We also really need to think about whether there are not—and I am sure there are—more areas of the country that need to be protected, whether it is as a national park or in some other way, as the Glover review highlights. The South Pennines has been identified as a prime candidate for a different approach as the only upland region in England that does not currently have not a legal designation.
My Lords, the 15 national parks in the UK are indeed a natural treasure and one of the glories of our country, some of them have a worldwide reputation. To confine myself to the three in Wales, I know they may be a devolved matter, but the facts about them still indicate the huge significance of national parks generally. The Brecon Beacons, the Pembrokeshire coast and Snowdonia cover 20% of the land surface of Wales. They have a resident population of 80,000 people and account for over £0.5 billion of Wales’ gross added value—some 1.2% of the Welsh economy. They are internationally important examples of how working landscapes can be protected.
The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, has set out one of the two purposes of national parks as set out in Section 5(1) of the 1949 national parks Act. These two purposes clearly chime in beautifully with the Environment Bill now before us, and it is therefore very important that they should have a specific clause within the Bill. Although there are legal protections for them under the 1949 Act, we live at a time when there is a desperate need, for example, for more affordable housing. The Government have made this a priority, and some of the checks and balances that used to be in place, in the form of the ability to prevent a particular scheme going forward, are being eroded. We saw one public reaction to this recently in the Chesham and Amersham by-election.
The amendment before us would ensure that any local authority seeking planning permission in a national park would have to take fully into account the legal purpose of the park. The Minister may argue that there are enough protections already in the 1949 Act but, given that the national parks are such a crucial feature of our environment and that the pressure for new housing is now so intense, it is appropriate that there is a special clause in the Bill which keeps these protections firmly in the mind of all those drawing up applications in those areas. Of course, the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, has mentioned some of the pressures—for example, from motorways—but possible housing developments may perhaps be on the edge of a national park. No doubt it would be unthinkable for a local authority to try to put up a new housing estate in the middle of a national park, but there could be building, industrial or waste developments on the edge of a national park, which would have serious implications for its protected environment.
At a time of increasing pressure, the proposed new clause before us comes under the heading of “You can’t be too careful”, and I support it.
The noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, is not speaking on this group, so I call the noble Earl, Lord Lytton.
My Lords, I declare an interest as a property owner with tourism interests within the Exmoor National Park, going back very many years, and I have professionally had an involvement with several other UK national parks.
I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, for giving me advance warning when she tabled this amendment and for giving us an opportunity to have this debate. At an earlier point in our Committee, I had, through my own fault, a rather awkwardly grouped pair of amendments—Amendments 290 and 291—on an enlargement of national park purposes, which were not actually moved in that group. Although they have got a bit lost in the system, I am glad that I have some opportunity to make a few of the points here. In any event, I would rather raise them in the context of Amendment 251A.
I have enormous sympathy with this amendment. For many people, the immediate reaction might be to ask why any adjacent authority would not have regard to national park purposes. But, recalling my own experiences, I can appreciate that this might not be so. The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, referred to the A27 at Arundel. Of course, as a Sussex resident, I am quite familiar with the long-running saga of how to deal with the discontinuity on parts of the A27. But, as the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, mentioned, this is a two-way affair. National park authorities do not, after all, have full jurisdiction over all areas of local government authority and other aspects. It follows that they must at the very least, for their part, be able to co-operate with those bodies that exercise jurisdiction in the areas they do not control, including highways, police, infrastructure, building control, fire and rescue, services and communications, and those sorts of things.
In the past, I have attended meetings on site within national parks to discuss, in one case, the improvement of an admittedly dangerous farm track exiting on to an unrestricted A-class road. The meeting had been triggered by an incident at that location which could easily have been fatal for a motorcycle rider. But, as it turned out, this matter seemed to be of little concern in national park policy terms. The improvement required would have involved the removal of some length of hedgerow to improve sight lines. Of course, that could have been replicated on the back of the visibility splays, as opposed to immediately adjacent to the current road, but that was not acceptable to the national park authority, despite the obvious problems for farm movements and the safety of highway users. As far as I know, the dangerous exit remains some 20 years later. But I find it very difficult to understand that conservation issues should be unable to take account of public safety or the orderly exercise of farming activities. In another instance, a national park authority apparently permitted substantial works for the installation of a bulk LPG tank for commercial purposes but did not realise that, without an adequate lay-by in addition, the necessary tanker delivering fuel would totally block a narrow unclassified road serving a lot of properties and would do so for periods of up to half an hour at a time.
The issue of breadth of policy and analysis is not helped when narrow thinking occurs, and local government in all its forms, including national park authorities, is not proof against this. I could quote many other examples of the sort of thing I have already mentioned. I think that the potential flashpoints—if I can call them that—are likely to expand, as our most recent cohort of national parks have incorporated more urban areas within their boundaries.
The National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949, which created the national parks in the first place, was subsequently amended by Section 37 of the Countryside Act 1968. Annotated in a margin of that latter Act are the words:
“Protection for interests in countryside”.
Section 37 was further amended by the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006 and the Natural Resources Body for Wales (Functions) Order 2013. As I interpret the audit trail, it remains in force. It is therefore perhaps appropriate that I read out what I believe Section 37 now states:
“In the exercise of their functions under this Act, the Act of 1949 and the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 it shall be the duty of every Minister, and of Natural England, the NRBW … and local authorities to have due regard to the needs of agriculture and forestry and to the economic and social interests of rural areas.”
However, I can confirm that this bit about having “due regard” is sometimes not regarded at all, duly or otherwise. It may be that highway safety and convenience is not regarded as an “economic and social interest”, but unless the Minister or any other noble Lord can tell me that Section 37 does not apply at all, I suggest that there are already provisions in place governing the degree of economic reciprocities that local authorities, and national parks with them, all too often overlook. I noted what the noble Earl, Lord Devon, said in the previous group on the question of economic reality. I get that.
It is worth bearing in mind that, within national parks, a great deal of the landscape that is cherished and valued, and the ecological richness often associated with it, is fashioned by hundreds of years of land management, not least farming and animal husbandry. Does the Minister agree that reciprocity in the recognition of various local authority and other statutory functions, as between national park authorities and others having various statutory functions, continues to pertain? More particularly, where there are differences, how best might these be mediated and settled? Secondly, on the question of economic and social interest, does she agree that Section 37 of the Countryside Act 1968, as amended, still applies and should be respected? Following this last, what does she feel will be the long-term consequences of inadequately taking these factors into account?
My Lords, it is a pleasure to speak in support of Amendment 251A in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, to support the protection of our national parks.
National parks are havens for birds, animals, fish and humans seeking respite from the cares of daily life. They exist all over the world, from Chile up through North America and across Europe. We are exceptionally lucky to have a wide variety of national parks sprinkled across the whole country, from Cornwall to Wales and up to the Cairngorms in Scotland. Each has its own individuality and beauty, sometimes gentle but often rugged and wild. The noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, mentioned their role in tourism.
These national parks are currently protected by the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949, but this should not allow us to take them for granted. Amendment 251A inserts a new clause into the Bill to provide some protection for the parks when public authorities are making decisions which could affect neighbouring national parks. The duties under the 1949 Act are supported by guidance from Defra, but this guidance is out of date and was last updated in 2005—it is not available on the Natural England website and refers to the now extinct regional development agencies and government regional offices. The current duty provides a backstop when conflict arises between competing interests. However, national parks see this as a last resort.
The noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, laid out the reasons why the duty should be strengthened and gave excellent examples of lack of forethought on the part of public bodies. National parks have management plans; these should be promoted with public bodies, which should have due regard to them. The protected characteristics of national parks should be preserved and public bodies should have regard to both the characteristics and management plans, but this is very weak in terms of compliance and protection.
I fear I will go off on a tangent for a moment. During the passage of the ill-fated Housing and Planning Bill, there was discussion about affordable housing for those working in the parks and young people. This was in reference to Exmoor National Park, which the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, referred to. There were agricultural workers, farmhands, firefighters and other essential workers who worked in the park but could not afford to live there. The noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, referred to the pressure for housing but suggested that it should be on the edge of the parks. While protecting national parks, I urge them all to have provision for affordable homes included in their management plans to enable those working in them—those who would like to—to be able to live nearer to their place of work. Unnecessary travel adds to climate change and pollution. Living close to your place of work on a national park means you may be able to cycle or walk to work.
The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, supported the argument that the current protection measures are not strong enough, and I agree with her. This amendment gives reassurance and provides the mechanism for local authorities and other public bodies—such as the MoD, which operates on Dartmoor and on the borders of other national parks—to take account of how their actions may affect the park, access to it and those living or working in or visiting the park in future. It should be remembered that people live in the parks. National parks should not be wrapped in cotton wool as anachronistic relics. They should be assisted to be fit for purpose today but protected from harmful developments. I fully support this important amendment.
My Lords, I welcome Amendment 251A from the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, and the contributions of all those who spoke about the importance of our national parks, on which I think we are all agreed. From the meres and hills of the Lake District to the chalk of the South Downs—and a lot of Wales, I must add—they are some of our most valuable landscapes.
That is why the Government commissioned the independent Landscapes Review, which set out a compelling vision for more beautiful, more biodiverse and more accessible national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty. The panel’s report recommended strengthening the duty on public bodies to have regard to the purposes of the national parks and to support implementation of management plans. This would have a very similar effect to the proposed amendment from the noble Baroness.
In a Written Ministerial Statement of 24 June, the Government committed to address the review’s recommendations in full and consult on draft proposals later this year. Those draft proposals will address this recommendation. This has been an unprecedented year for the country, so work since the review was published has indeed been delayed, but the Government are working very closely with partners on their response to it. We have committed to address its recommendations in full and to consult on draft proposals later this year. I am of course very happy to meet the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, as part of the consultation, or we can discuss it earlier if that would be helpful.
The Government support the intention of the noble Baroness to ensure that our public bodies work together more effectively in our national parks. We all agree there has been a problem here. We are currently working closely with partners, including the national park authorities, to consider how best to achieve that aim through our response to the review. However, we cannot accept this amendment, as it is important to work with our partners and consult on any such changes before changing the law, particularly to understand potential implications for those public bodies likely to be affected. The Landscapes Review found strong evidence that public bodies are failing to have adequate regard to the statutory purposes of the national parks. It also found that the effectiveness of the management plans is limited by poor implementation by local partners, including public bodies. The Government take this finding seriously and are working with partners to consider carefully how to address it.
A number of noble Lords raised the question of infrastructure plans in the national parks. The 2010 National Parks Circular and the National Planning Policy Framework are very clear that national parks, the Broads and areas of outstanding natural beauty are not appropriate locations for major development. I will look into the specific cases that they raised and provide more detail on those if appropriate.
I also assure the Committee that, since the Glover review was published, the Government have been supporting important work in our protected landscapes through our nature for climate fund and green recovery challenge fund to restore nature, tackle climate change and connect communities with the natural environment. The Government have also recently announced their new farming in protected landscapes programme, which will provide additional investment to allow farmers and other land managers to work in partnership with our national park authorities to deliver bigger and better outcomes for the environment, communities and places.
My noble friend Lady McIntosh asked a number of questions, particularly on ELMS. This funding will help to drive forward delivery of the Landscapes Review on people, access, nature and job creation, responding to the public appetite from Covid-19 for better access to nature. Specifically, the fund should help to support delivery of the Landscapes Review recommendations on connecting more people to protected landscapes, delivering the new environmental land management schemes, increasing the diversity of visitors through tourism, creating landscapes which cater for health and well-being, expanding volunteers and rangers and providing better information and signs. Specifically, this funding will help farmers to shift towards delivering environmental benefits which, in the future, could be supported by environmental land management, particularly the components that support local nature and landscape recovery.
I thank the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, for his contribution. Sadly, I have not been able to receive divine intervention quite in time to respond to his specific questions, particularly about earlier legislation, but I will write to him and put a copy in the Library. I hope that I have now provided assurance to the noble Baroness that we share her aims for national parks: we just need a bit more time to work with public bodies, including national parks themselves, to get this right. I therefore hope she will agree to withdraw her amendment.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords for their contributions to this short debate. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, that we are blessed with very special national parks, each one unique in its own way. As we have heard from the contributions, everybody has their favourite and the particular one that they are a cheerleader for. We sometimes take the national parks for granted, but the experience over the last 18 months has ensured that they are back in the front line and are rightly seen as the national treasures that they really are. They have played an important part in people’s sanity, and mental health, over the last period.
I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, that the national parks have to be integrated into the work of the Agriculture Act—an issue that we addressed earlier when we talked about joined-up policies—and it is important that they play a rightful role in the rollout of ELMS. We welcome the Government’s proposals for farming in protected landscapes and the additional investment that will come from that, because the farming community in the national parks has to work in a way that is properly sympathetic to the landscape that we are hoping to develop there. There are special challenges, but also great benefits if we get this right.
The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, mentioned the South Downs ambition of 33% to protect our landscapes. I agree that we should be ambitious: every national park is unique and will have different constraints. South Downs has an awful lot of people living there and a lot of businesses already operating there. Obviously, we need to push to the limits of our capacity in order to make sure that nature recovery takes place in the widest possible area. We will obviously do that.
The noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, reminded us of the two duties of conservation and recreation in the parks. He rightly raised the issue of housing: again, this has this been touched on by several noble Lords. I can assure him that it is not a dead zone. There is sympathetic housing construction taking place in the national parks, but I agree absolutely with the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, that we need to deliver more affordable homes in that area and that really needs to be the challenge. The noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, was absolutely right that what we do not want are huge estates in the national parks, or even on the edge of the parks. That is because—as we know, because we have debated this several times—one of the issues is the challenge to the Knepp estate: it is not actually in a national park but it is very close to it and it is threatened with a huge housing estate on its borders, which would not be beneficial to anyone.
The noble Earl, Lord Lytton, had his own list of concerns about the national parks. In my experience, the national parks have not always worked in consultation with all of the public bodies around, and in particular with the farming communities. I would hate him to think that they just ride roughshod over the farming community: that has not been my experience. Of course, there are economic activities in the national parks. They are very much at the heart of everything that we do. Again, they are not dead zones just for nature: we want them to be living and thriving communities. The local businesses and people who live there are very much part of that, so we need to have thriving economic activity to keep those places alive and provide jobs for people. We have to be careful, however, about loading too much on to the national parks. There are other bodies that have a primary responsibility for economic activities, and we should not necessarily place a major new layer of responsibility on the shoulders of the national parks.
Finally, I welcome the Minister’s response and the news that those draft proposals will be later this year—I think she was explicit about that. We obviously look forward to seeing the detail of that. I would welcome the opportunity to talk to the Minister to understand a little bit more about what is intended with the consultation, so I will take her up on that offer. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 251A withdrawn.
Clause 104: Wildlife conservation: licences
Amendment 252 not moved.
Clause 104 agreed.
Amendments 253 and 254 not moved.
We now come to the group beginning with Amendment 255. Anyone wishing to press this or anything else in the group to a Division must make that clear in the debate.
Clause 105: Habitats Regulations: power to amend general duties
255: Clause 105, page 106, line 7, leave out “instead of” and insert “in addition to”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment would allow the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017 to be amended to further new objectives in addition to existing objectives, rather than in place of existing objectives.
My Lords, I will speak to Amendments 255 and 256 in my name, together with those of the noble Lord, Lord Randall of Uxbridge, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Parminter and Lady Jones of Whitchurch; Amendment 257AA in my name and that of the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle; and the proposition that Clause 106 do not stand part the Bill, in my name and those of the noble Lord, Lord Randall of Uxbridge, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Parminter and Lady Jones of Whitchurch.
Clauses 105 and 106 were added to the Bill by the Government two months ago without any consultation. These two clauses have important potential adverse effects that these amendments seek to rectify. First, they threaten to weaken the protection of our most valuable conservation habitats and species. Secondly, they confer considerable discretionary powers on the Secretary of State to change the rules governing environmental protection.
In order to fix ideas, I will first explain what these special sites and species are. They include more than 200 special areas of conservation protected under the habitats regulations, such as the north Northumberland coast, the North Yorkshire Moors and Ashdown Forest. They include wetland sites, such as the Humber Estuary, portions of the Essex Marshes, the Isles of Scilly and the Exe Estuary, that have been designated under the Ramsar Convention. Last but not least, they include the more than 80 English special protection areas classified under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and subsequent legislation, primarily for the protection of bird species. Between them, these three categories protect our greatest natural assets. They protect many rare species, such as the lady’s slipper orchid, the marsh fritillary, the bottlenose dolphin and the lesser horseshoe bat.
Currently, the regulations require public authorities, including the Secretary of State, to comply with the birds and habitats directives, which were the legal source of the habitats regulations. But Clause 105 gives the Secretary of State powers to swap this duty to comply with the birds and habitats directives with a requirement to comply with the new objectives set out in the Environment Bill; in other words, it changes the obligation to protect our most precious conservation sites and our most endangered species.
The Minister will no doubt say there is nothing to worry about and that the Government have no intention of weakening the protection of these sites and species. He may point to the fact that Clause 105 has safeguards built in, such as the requirement in subsection (7) that the Secretary of State must be
“satisfied that the regulations do not reduce the level of environmental protection provided by the Habitats Regulations.”
He may also say that Clause 105(9) requires the Secretary of State to
“consult such persons as the Secretary of State considers appropriate”,
although we should note that this is a rather vague commitment; we do not know who the “persons” are.
The Minister may also argue that the habitats regulations are overly bureaucratic and that Natural England, given the swingeing cuts to its budget to which I referred in an earlier debate, will not have the capacity to deal with both the habitats regulations and the new requirements introduced by the Bill. However—and this is the central point—there is a key distinction between the requirements of the Bill and those of the habitats regulations.
The targets in the Bill are all about improving our natural environment as a whole. In contrast, the habitats regulations and related regulations are all about protecting individual sites, populations and sometimes even individual specimens; in other words, the two forms of protection are complementary and are not alternatives. Amendments 255 and 256 would speak to this complementarity by ensuring that the current protections for particular sites and species remain in place by replacing “instead of” with “in addition to”. The amendments restrict the power of the Secretary of State to sweep away existing protections while still allowing the law to continue to evolve and cater for domestic conservation priorities.
Amendment 257AA would add an additional layer of protection by requiring the Secretary of State to make changes only if they were compatible with five international conventions. It would also replace the vague commitment to consult persons who are considered appropriate by the Secretary of State with a specific commitment to consult experts, including the statutory bodies: Natural England, the Joint Nature Conservation Committee and the office for environmental protection. It would also ensure that there is parliamentary scrutiny of any changes.
If the Secretary of State really means to follow Clause 105(7), these proposed amendments should simply underpin the intended outcome. If, however, the Government object to the amendments, one has a right to ask why. As a start, I ask the Minister a simple question: can he confirm that the statutory bodies I have mentioned would be consulted by the Secretary of State before any regulations were changed?
Finally, Clause 106 gives the Secretary of State power to amend Part 6 of the habitats regulations in almost any way. This part of the regulations deals with development projects. It includes rules to prevent harm to protected sites except for reasons of overriding public interest.
The habitats regulations do not stop development, but they do ensure that projects are properly assessed and that effective mitigation and compensation are in place. Projects such as the Thames Basin Heaths Partnership have shown how the habitats regulations ensure that development takes place in a way that is compatible with nature, helping to protect the remains of the UK’s vanishing heathlands while still allowing the building of many new homes. Successive reviews have found the regulations to be proportionate and effective, giving certainty to developers and environmental groups alike.
Time and again in the debates on the Bill we have referred to the conflict between conserving nature and allowing development. Time and again, we have heard that the Bill, in many ways, appears to tip the balance in favour of development and against nature. Some might even be driven to argue that the Bill is designed to protect nature provided that this does not interfere with other priorities, housebuilding in particular.
The Minister may argue, as with Clause 105, that safeguards are built in. Under Clause 106, the Secretary of State must be satisfied that protections provided by the habitats regulations are not reduced and must explain the reasoning to Parliament. But this is an entirely subjective test, left to the opinion of the Minister, rather than an effective legal safeguard. Clause 106 requires the Secretary of State only to have regard to the importance of conservation and biodiversity. It does not require the Secretary of State to consult with relevant experts, only with such persons as are considered appropriate.
At this stage, we have had no indication at all about how the powers would actually be used or what problems with the habitats regulations the Government may be seeking to address. Could the Minister give us some examples of these problems?
In my view, Clause 106 could be used to allow the Government to sacrifice our natural environment on the altar of development, sidestepping protections provided by the habitats regulations. If the Minister says, “Don’t worry, we will look after nature”, the best way to convince us of this would be to delete this clause from the Bill. I beg to move.
My Lords, I will speak to my Amendments 257A, 257B and 257C. I thank the noble Earl, Lord Devon, for adding his name to them. It is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, so that we can debate whether the Government can be trusted to guard environmental policy and how much. In seeking to move that Clause 106 not stand part, in spite of its emphasis on conservation and biodiversity, it appears the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, would not like the Secretary of State to have any room to manoeuvre on the proposals presently part of Part 6. I declare my interests as in the register but also particularly as a livestock farmer in a national park and a member of NFU Scotland.
The Government have already passed one amendment to the wording of the habitats regulations that we were operating while we were in the EU, but it was all done so rapidly that it is not altogether surprising that they have a clause in the Bill that would allow them to modify things once the rural environment has settled down. This group of amendments is all about how far they should be able to do so as the proposal unfolds.
Noble Lords will be well versed in the Government’s 25-year environment plan, which is intended to promote a fairer society and social justice, among other things. It was published in May 2019 and outlines their proposals but still lacks many of the mechanisms they hope to be able to use to achieve this, so it remains quite difficult to predict the outcomes.
The purpose of my Amendment 257C is to remedy the fact that in neither the 25-year plan nor this piece of legislation is there a direction to the Government to consider social and economic impacts and give them due regard.
The Government envisage a rural area where a sizeable amount of their planned carbon sequestration and renewable energy will be sourced. I thank the NFU in London for drafting these amendments, but the extent of the whole rural economy is not exclusively involved with farming. Our concern is that agriculture’s progress on a number of fronts, including meeting net zero by 2040, or legislative requirements such as those under the NVS rules, could be thwarted. As part of these commitments, investment in more modern buildings and infrastructure to reduce our environmental footprint will have a huge role to play.
I have been informed that in practical terms, however, planning permission for slurry stores, slurry store covers and buildings are being put on hold or stopped, adding cost and significant business uncertainty, unless these developments or activities are shown not to cause adverse effects on protected sites. In addition, the mitigation expected to be put in place to allow these developments to go ahead is also undermining the investment viability of some projects. Too frequently, the countryside appears to be a zone to be protected from growth and opportunity. But, by working together to make the most of the opportunities we have, by creating jobs, boosting green economic growth, increasing exports, and improving the well-being of the population, we can build a better Britain and level up the entire country, so that no one is disadvantaged by where they live or where their business is based. Farming and rural Britain can provide solutions to many of the challenges. Simply passing legislation is not going to achieve the environmental benefits that the Government seek.
Further, it is held that, as a result of the Dutch N case, Natural England believes that it cannot advise giving permission for a building or infrastructure that will contribute to emissions reductions in areas where background levels are already above or very close to the critical levels for a protected site, even when this is to replace existing infrastructure with a more modern building. This is a particular problem for the question of betterment that is in the second amendment. Despite the fact that emissions for the new build may be reduced, it is often difficult for businesses to gain the required permissions. Enabling every individual or business to make investments that are achievable within their control has the potential to deliver significant environmental benefits, while ensuring that the business remains viable.
They will still have to adapt to fulfil many new purposes. I have heard one analysis of the farming sector that listed some of these as seeking other income, the management of carbon, of renewable energy and of the environment, becoming more efficient, creative co-operation, bringing livestock back on to farms with depleted soils, eliminating the escape of nutrients both to the air and from the runoffs from yards, and at the same time managing the whole carbon footprint of the exercise. They will be faced with how to implement sustainable development, as their current infrastructure simply would not allow many of these enterprises, and new layers will be needed. Can the Minister confirm that a farmer’s existing permitted development rights will not be affected any more than at present by the measures in this Bill?
The 25-year environment plan may be the channel where many of these details must be managed, but the position would be immensely strengthened if Amendment 257A was on the face of the Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Krebs, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, have their names on Amendment 257AA in this group. At first sight, it appears to flag up a reminder to the Government of what the present rules are. They are largely composed of a number of international treaties in this field that we have been signed up to for many years. A great many of these are specifically sighted on defined sites, and that might offset the criticism of the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, about not having policies which define sites. Those mentioned by name are all international agreements, and our reputation would suffer badly if we were to break them. Would the Minister go along with our abrogating some of these treaties? I have no doubt that the Minister will tell the Committee whether he considers that repeating our commitments here is necessary.
My Lords, I speak in favour of all the amendments in this group—except for 257A, which appears to me to be a weakening of a Bill that is already far too weak, away from its purpose of protecting the environment. The noble Lord, Lord Krebs, has already powerfully and comprehensively introduced Amendments 255, 256 and the proposition that Clause 106 should not stand part of the Bill. All of these have full cross-party and non-party support. Indeed, I would have attached my name had there been space.
I will focus in particular on Amendment 257AA, to which I have attached my name, because, when I saw that the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, had tabled this, I thought that this was a very neat, comprehensive and protective amendment. We have to be conducting this particular section of the debate in the light of the release in the past couple of hours of the latest draft negotiations of the Convention on Biological Diversity, together with news that the conference is now set to be delayed again, until next year. That provides for, in the current draft—alongside the 2030 protection of land and seas and providing a third of climate mitigations through nature by 2030—new goals for the middle of the century, including reducing the current rates of extinction tenfold, enhancing the integrity of all ecosystems, valuing nature’s contribution to humanity, and providing the financial resources to achieve the vision. This is not, as the noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose, was just suggesting, something which applies only to specific sites. This very much applies across the whole of the country.
I note that the very useful Greener UK and Wildlife and Countryside Link briefing on all of these amendments noted that, as the noble Duke said, one would assume that the Secretary of State, in light of our international commitments, would exercise this power in a manner that is compatible with our international agreements, including the updated Convention on Biological Diversity. But we have seen again and again that we currently have a Government who do not necessarily see themselves bound by international obligations. Of course, any Government can bind only themselves; they cannot speak to what Governments might do in the future. That is why we need all of these kinds of protections on the face of the Bill.
We also have to look at all of these amendments—but perhaps Amendment 257AA in particular—in the light of the promises that we heard over the past few years that we would have non-regression after Brexit, meaning that we will not go backwards. We heard from the Government again and again that we are seeking only more and stronger protections. All these amendments—but particularly Amendment 257AA—would set on the face of the Bill a promise to stick to what we are indeed committed to now.
Of course, we probably expect to hear from the Minister that this is unnecessary, but I think we all know very well that it is necessary. If it is just some extra protection or insulation, it is hard to see why the Government should have objections to that basic protection, to ensure that we live up to all those international agreements that we have signed, which we expect to be updating through international negotiations in future.
My Lords, I sought to add my name to the amendments of the noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose, but I did so a little late so it does not appear in the current Marshalled List. However, I echo wholeheartedly the sentiments he so expertly expressed and the vital importance when setting these habitat regulations—and indeed all the various worthy strategies we have been debating in the Bill—of supporting sustainable rural development.
I mentioned previously in Committee the danger of the Bill unwittingly inflicting environmental tyranny upon our landscape. If we are not very careful, we will forget that the rural environment that we all know and love and seek to preserve is a place of work for many and was created and sustained by that very same rural enterprise that we are in danger of sweeping away. The only way that our rural landscape will survive and meet the environmental challenges of this era is if it remains a viable and sustainable workplace, supporting farming and a host of diverse rural enterprises.
I know that there is a great enthusiasm among your Lordships for rewilding and large-scale—landscape-scale—interventions in the countryside. However, the Knepp estate is simply not easily replicable, in the same way that not every abandoned mine can become an Eden Project. If we do not conserve small local rural enterprise and local business and employment, our countryside will become a suburban plaything of super-rich environmentalists, supported by a second-home-owning elite able to remote access their white-collar jobs from the comfort of their converted barn while enjoying the view. Local land management will be supported by well-meaning charitable handouts, but we will create a rural life in which there are no local jobs and no affordable homes necessary for a vibrant and diverse local community.
I will also address Amendments 255, 256 and 257AA in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Krebs. I had not intended to, but given that he gave a shout-out to the Exe estuary Ramsar site and that that sits within the Powderham estate, I thought that I ought to offer a comment, particularly with respect to Amendment 257AA and the need for consultation. I would hate for the protections on the River Exe estuary to be in any way weakened. It is a remarkable landscape and it has been created and established that way over many centuries. It is currently managed by the Exe Estuary Management Partnership, which is a remarkable amalgam of vested interests, from the RSPB to local parish councils, and from Exeter City Council to boat clubs, rowing clubs, sailing clubs and shellfishers. It works incredibly well. Can the Minister in his reply say whether the consultation requirements that are proposed would include consultation with local enterprises such as the Exe Estuary Management Partnership, which is so important to the proper management of these very sensitive ecosystems?
My Lords, I support Amendment 257AA in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle. As the noble Baroness said, this is a very neat amendment which wraps up an awful lot of things that the Government need to pay attention to.
Further on the thought expressed by the noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose, that we could trust the Government, I draw the attention of the House and Minister to a project which seems to fly in the face of all the aims of noble Lords in this House and indeed of all these amendments. That is the £3.5 billion theme park called the London Resort, which is on the Swanscombe peninsula on the Thames estuary. The concept for this site, which is spread across 535 acres in Kent, is of a union jack-designed dome, a Disneyesque castle lit up by fireworks, and a Paramount Pictures entryway. It will be the first European development of its kind. It is inspired by Hollywood blockbusters and will have swords, sorcery, dragons and legends. There will even be a jungle where the ancient ruins of a long-extinct Mesoamerican civilisation will sprout out of the ground—which seems ironic. This is in partnership with EDF Energy—always a good one for a bit of greenwash—plus the BBC, ITV, Hollywood and all the rest of it. That is all online. It is aiming to be an attraction claiming to have net-zero emissions—which I personally do not believe. However, it will be built on a recently named SSSI.
Despite letters from all the leading conservation charities and despite agreements from the developers to change some things, the ultimate goal has remained the same and was indeed signed off by Robert Jenrick in February this year. They will be digging up an area of great importance to biodiversity, wetlands, and, of course, given that this is in the estuary, migratory birds. This joint letter from wildlife charities, which I have in my hands, includes the Kent Wildlife Trust, the RSPB, Buglife and the CPRE in Kent. They said that the company ought to have sought to withdraw its application and restart the pre-application process after the site was protected. Natural England, which named the area an SSSI, said that 40% of the nationally important wildlife would be directly lost to this theme park, with additional impacts likely from construction and the operation. It also questioned the plans to compensate for the lack of habitat, the home to breeding birds, endangered plants and apparently more than 1,700 species of insects, by creating some sort of protected wildlife somewhere else.
The company is London Resort Company Holdings, or LRCH, and the boss of this project, Pierre-Yves Gerbeau, said that it was fundamental to be a leader in sustainability, and as a result he has provided eight miles of footpaths—I am not sure whether they are concrete or not. It seems the ultimate irony that we are planning to create an ancient civilisation, which has been lost due to the activities of man, in a place which is deemed to be an SSSI and which is just down the road from where we sit now. All the points that noble Lords are making about why we need protections written into the face of the Bill, and indeed the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, about the delay again to the meeting in Kunming, mean that the Bill has to be firmed up. I am sorry, but there are inconsistencies that happen with planning such as for this project; as your Lordships will know, I have gone on about the houses on the edge of the Knepp estate. You need people to come with you, and we need to be able to trust the Government. I urge the Minister to look at this project and I very much look forward to his answers.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, and I thank her for getting down to brass tacks with an example. However, I am concerned about this group of amendments, which seeks yet further to strengthen adherence to the legacy of the EU habitats directive and to regulations made under it. When I was lucky enough to be a Minister much involved in negotiating on EU legislation, I used to attend Cabinet committees where, without revealing any secrets, the iniquities and inflexibilities of the habitats directive was a regular theme. The red tape and requirements, for example, to comply with protections in every relevant catchment even where a species or flora or fauna were abundant elsewhere, helped to fuel Brexit sentiment and the feeling that we should be able to do things our own way.
This Bill is an example in spades of not taking back real control and indeed doing far more than the EU has done on the environment. That troubles me, because we do not know how it will work out in practice, and of course the regulation powers in Clause 105—and indeed elsewhere in the Bill—are very wide. However, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, on the need for proper consultation, and like him, I would appreciate some examples to enlighten us all before Report. I note that there is no impact assessment on these clauses; why is that?
I am highly doubtful about Clauses 105 and 106, since they leave us so close to the EU on habitats and, I fear, open to judicial review if we do things in a different way. Simpler, innovative ways of protecting our environmental jewels and changing things that the EU has decreed but do not work, has to be open to us. We want to get out of the straitjacket of Roman law and have a common-law, common-sense approach to protecting our exceptional habitats and indeed keeping countryside businesses vibrant, as the noble Earl, Lord Devon, has said.
I fear that these clauses limit our freedom too much. Moreover, nearly all the amendments in this group would make things worse and will therefore, I hope, be resisted by my noble friend the Minister. Whether you are a Brexiteer like him or not, we must all acknowledge that we have left the EU and must move forward independently.
My Lords, we are all very much in the debt of the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, for introducing this series of amendments and he is, of course, right to be concerned about habitats, the survival of species and all those things on which he touched.
I want, however, to focus the House’s attention on one specific matter. We debated some amendments the week before last, I think, on heritage and, underlying the debates that we have had day after day, has been a recognition that our landscape is manmade or man-moulded in its entirety. The villages, towns and cities in which we live are, of course, entirely manmade. I supported the heritage amendments, introduced very ably by the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, because of my concern about buildings in general that have historic interest, and churches in particular. Nowhere else in our country is the story of our country more graphically told than in our country and town churches and, in particular, in the monuments and other artefacts that they contain.
We must get the balance right—balance has occurred time and again in these debates—because there is a real danger from one particular and specific source to the monuments in our churches. I refer to the danger of bats. Somebody may chuckle, and “bats in belfries” always raises a laugh, but this is a serious subject. I have brought it to the House’s attention before; I even introduced a Private Member’s Bill three or four years ago. But if noble Lords came with me to the wonderful church of Tattershall in Lincolnshire—one of the finest perpendicular churches in the country—they would be amazed, or would have been a few years ago, by the glory and beauty of the brasses. They have had to be covered, and in some cases hidden, because of the corrosive effect of bat droppings and urine. This is a story that can be told in many parts of the country, indeed in some thousands of our 16,000 listed grade 1 or grade 2-style churches. Nobody who cares about our country and the beauty of those buildings should dismiss this. We have to get the balance right.
I am not being so stupid or frivolous as to suggest that we try to exterminate bats as we exterminate rats. I am not doing that at all, but I am saying that there must be a real attempt to address this problem—and there is a partnership at the moment, experimental and very slow, between Natural England and English Heritage. When I raised it last time in your Lordships’ House, I had dozens of letters from all over the country. One in particular sticks in my mind, which came from somebody who worshipped regularly at the church of Abbey Dore, one of the glories of the golden valley of Herefordshire—one of the loveliest parts of our country. This particular correspondent was kneeling to receive holy communion on a Sunday morning when a bat defecated into his and the vicar’s hands. The vicar, who was a lady, was understandably distressed and so was he.
We have to wonder what we can do about this because, apart from anything else, there is a health hazard. We know—it is proven—that bats carry diseases. It is even suggested, with fairly good evidence to support it, that the pandemic under which we are still suffering at the moment originated in bats in the wet markets of China. So this is not scaremongering; this is making a serious point in, I hope, a serious way. Many of our monuments are brasses, but many are marble, which is particularly badly affected by bat defecations and bat urinations. It is not a pleasant subject, but it has to be addressed. I am very worried, because so many of our churches have been closed for so long during the pandemic—just what extra damage has been done during this period?
Again, I do not speak as a scaremonger; I am a long-standing member of the Church Monuments Society, vice-president of the Ecclesiological Society and have been warden of three churches for a total of 36 years. Like my noble friend Earl Shrewsbury when it came to shooting, I know a little bit about the subject of which I am talking. It is something that, in an Environment Bill, should be brought to your Lordships’ attention. I ask my noble friend the Minister one particular favour: perhaps the greatest expert on this subject is Professor Jean Wilson, former president of the Church Monuments Society, and I would be very grateful if my noble friend would allow me to bring her to meet him so that she can give him graphic examples and discuss this.
There are ways and means of diverting bats from churches, such as building special bat roosts or emitting certain sounds that will drive them out. There are a whole range of things that can be done. Some are being done at the moment, but this is an urgent problem. An Environment Bill passing into law which did not recognise heritage or recognise some of the glories of built heritage would be an inferior Bill. I do not question for a moment my noble friend’s interest in these things and his concerns about them, but none of us can be experts on everything, and a meeting with Professor Wilson might be extremely helpful to him. Government must have the opportunity to balance things.
I have great sympathy with many of the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, who spoke, as he always does, with calm and quiet authority. However, from a very brief conversation that I had with him, when I told him that I would introduce this subject this afternoon, I got the impression that it was something that he had not necessarily given a great deal of thought to. I do not criticise him for that at all. He is one of the greatest experts that we have in your Lordships’ House, and we are exceptionally fortunate to have him—but this is something that I am glad to draw to his attention, and I hope that he will appreciate the fact that I am doing so. We ought to have a post-Covid survey of our churches, we ought to see how much this damage has increased, and we ought to make it a real object of Natural England and English Heritage to try to come together to address this, because much is at stake.
My Lords, it is always a pleasure to follow my noble friend Lord Cormack. I can immediately make him an offer: once full service is resumed, as I hope it will be soon, I will entertain him and Professor Wilson, and I could bring along someone from the Bat Conservation Trust to show that there is a middle way here. I do not know whether he was in his place during that last debate, when I explained my interest as a trustee of the Bat Conservation Trust. I recognise his genuine concerns, but at some stage we could probably have a good discussion over a cup of coffee and a sticky bun.
I added my name to Amendment 256 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, who said everything I need to say, really—I support his sentiments entirely. I also express my concerns about Clause 106 standing part. I do not see it, as my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe does, being in any way a Brexit-related matter, just one of making sure that we in this country can have the best conservation and protection for our natural environment and species. Whether that was afforded in the EU, I do not know. I have not always been the greatest fan of some of its regulations, not so much because of the regulations themselves but because of the way in which they were implemented. The Bill is a fantastic chance for us to get ahead of our European neighbours on this.
I also completely endorse the views and sentiments of the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, on the Swanscombe proposals. I brought up this matter in your Lordships’ House a while ago and we need to take it very seriously, because it is a prime example of something that maybe does not immediately look like the most appealing of natural environments but actually has the most marvellous biodiversity. Once it is gone, it is gone—and what for? A theme park. Is that really how we want to look after our nature?
My Lords, I am delighted to follow my noble friend, and I pay tribute to his work as a trustee of the Bat Conservation Trust. I press my noble friend the Minister to respond to the concerns I raised in the debate on the Amendment 234 group and ask for his confirmation that a greater balance will be achieved between the interests of bats and humans in the context of the closure of St Hilda’s Church at Ellerburn. It is extremely important that the parishioners of that and other churches know that their interests will not be subordinated to those of bats.
I associate myself with the amendments in the name of my noble friend the Duke of Montrose and the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, and his co-signees, which proposes that Clause 106 do not stand part. I associate myself with all the comments made by my noble friend the Duke of Montrose on his amendment. I need say nothing more than that I support and applaud the idea, set out in his amendments, of achieving sustainable development and a balance between different uses. In particular, I support the words of the noble Earl, Lord Devon, in support of farming and the rural economy, and I hope that this group of amendments will place on record our desire that a balance be achieved.
In addition to my question about bats in the belfry in the context of St Hilda’s Church at Ellerburn, I press my noble friend the Minister to confirm the reason for the urgency for Clause 106. I understand from the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, that it was added at quite short notice and without any consultation, which is always slightly worrying. Can the Minister confirm—my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe hit the nail on the head—that this is, to a certain extent, a consequence of the EU directive on habitats being retained in UK law? Paragraph 955 on page 118 of the Explanatory Notes, which my noble friend the Minister is always keen that we read—I am one step ahead of him in this regard—says:
“The national site network of European sites provides protection for habitats designated for a particular purpose and supports delivery of international and domestic biodiversity objectives.”
I imagine that one of the main thrusts of Clause 106 is to ensure that that list is kept under review—by granting the Government the power to keep it under review—now that we have left the European Union. I urge my noble friend the Minister to continue to obtain a balance between the uses and the different interests that will be exercised in this regard.
How will the habitats regulations be applied when it comes to the planning Bill, which is coming before the House in short order?
My Lords, we on these Benches support the amendments in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, to which I added my name. He is right to raise the concerns that a number of us have about the intentions of the Government in removing the protections on our most valuable ecological sites and habitats. He mentioned some species that are very important to him; for me it is about the bitterns and nightingales. The Government are proposing, as the noble Lord rightly said, to change the present situation, where there has to be overriding public interest to remove protections for particular sites, to one in which, basically, local authorities have to satisfy the needs of the Bill and meet overall targets for improving nature.
They are asking them to do all that on trust, and as the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, rightly said, the Government’s amendment says that the Secretary of State will decide whether there has been a reduction of those protections. There is no guarantee of consultation with independent experts. I hope the Minister will answer the direct question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, on that point: will the Government guarantee to consult the independent experts? Without that, we must query their intentions.
There is a slightly broader point about consultation, one which the noble Earl, Lord Devon, raised. The current system works very well when there is proper consultation among all interested stakeholders in a given area, including the businesses, environmentalists and local action groups. It might work well in the Exe estuary; it certainly works well with us in the Thames basin, with the heath development framework. My local authority is working on that with 11 other local authorities, and we have managed to operate within the existing framework of the habitats directive. Meanwhile in Surrey—a heavily developed area—we are building the homes that are needed while protecting our most special ecological sites. The current consultation system is working, so there is no way we should give that up for a system in which there is no guarantee of consultation in future.
Secondly, on the point that the Government are asking us to take all this on trust, the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, said that there is no impact assessment. Surprise, surprise: that is because there was no consultation and it was introduced at Report in the Commons. There is no impact assessment, but there have been multiple reviews of the legislation on the habitats directive and all of them said it should be improved, not revoked. That consultation has involved businesses as well as environmental NGOs and other stakeholders. It is a shame that the Government have not introduced the improvements asked for by those interested parties over the years, rather than going for the nuclear option of suddenly throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
Thirdly, I come to what worries me most about the Government asking us to take this on trust. We have had debates about why they will not include in the Bill the state of nature targets for species abundance, and they said it was because at the moment, they cannot work out the metrics: they do not have the metrics in place and must work out what those targets are. If they must work them out, why do they think it is okay to get rid of the existing system, when we do not have those robust metrics in place? We should not be removing something that is delivering protection for our most valuable ecological sites and allowing developments in hotspots such as Surrey, if we do not have the metrics to prove that we can move from a system that is working to another which may be what the Government want, but for which we do not have the metrics.
The Government are asking us to take too much on trust at this stage. It makes me think that this is really more cover for future changes in the proposed planning Bill, through which they will sweep away protections for particular sites to allow more development in these new zoned areas. I accept that we have left Europe and we need to move ahead. The noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, said that we need to move ahead independently. I do not care whether it is independently or not; I want us to move ahead so that we better protect our environment and, at the same time, build the affordable houses we need. The existing system is working and the Government need to provide some very good answers if they are to persuade the House that it should be swept away and replaced by something unproven and not clearly argued.
My Lords, we support Amendments 255, 256 and 257AA in the names of the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, and others, which allow the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017 to be amended to further new objectives in addition to, rather than in place of, existing ones. Government amendments to the Bill were, disappointingly, as the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, said in his introduction, brought in without consultation. They introduced new Clauses 105 and 106, providing powers for the Secretary of State to amend the habitats regulations. We agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, that taking things on trust is simply not good enough in legislation. This Government may say, “Yes, you can trust us”, but who knows what the future holds?
We have heard that Clause 105 allows Ministers, as, as the noble, Lord Krebs, said, to swap the duty on public authorities to satisfy the requirements of the nature directives with a duty to satisfy the requirements of the Bill’s targets and environmental improvement plans. However, the new objectives are simply not a substitute for those of the nature directives. They serve an entirely different purpose. as noble Lords have said. The Bill’s targets aim to ensure overall national improvement across the natural environment.
To satisfy the expected Environment Bill requirements, habitats and species in general need to be increasing. By contrast, the nature directive is all about protecting particular habitats and species and specific sites and populations. They form the first line of defence for some of our most precious habitats and species, and any powers to amend them must be designed and considered very carefully to avoid unintended consequences. Any protections must be maintained and built on, not undermined.
The Government have said they need this power because they want the legislation to adequately support their ambitions for nature and free up technical expertise in Natural England from the distraction of what they regard as highly prescriptive legal processes. But these processes include crucial safeguards in decisions concerning the protection of species and habitats. They are not the bureaucratic burden being painted by some, and they must not be stripped away in the name of simplification.
If the powers in the Bill are not appropriately prescribed, they could be used to deconstruct the regime of strict protection for the UK’s finest wildlife sites and could weaken the strong and vital safeguards for European protected species. The Government must therefore ensure that the powers provide for additional protections, in line with the overarching ambition of the Bill to improve the environment, without diluting the important technical protections for individual sites and species provided by the habitats regulations. Exactly how does the Minister envisage that happening? We know that this will be achieved only if the clauses are amended as proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Krebs. The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, talked about the Government’s promises on non-regression. Again, I ask the Minister: how is non-regression met by the clause?
We know that the habitats regulations ensure that development projects that cause significant damage to wildlife sites go ahead only for reasons of overriding public interest. As drafted, the new power could be used to change any aspect of the habitats regulations assessment rules which currently protect our rarest designated conservation sites from being harmed by new activities, both onshore and in marine environments. As we heard earlier, there has not been enough discussion of the protections needed for our precious marine environments. Unfortunately, all of this could easily undermine the most important protections. The noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, laid out her concerns clearly in this regard.
The Government have said that the power is needed to accommodate future changes to consenting regimes, which are likely to include the change to a zonal planning system, as proposed in the planning White Paper. This is really concerning, as it could allow large areas to be zoned for development, including protected sites, without the site-specific searches and safeguards currently in place.
During debates on the Bill, we have heard many concerns about inappropriate development. The noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, gave us a particularly vivid example of how this could all go wrong if we are not careful. The wide scope of the new power and the weak procedural safeguards in the Bill make Clause 106 a significant threat to maintaining critical environmental protections. The power would give future Ministers the ability to sidestep the vital safeguards for sites currently provided by the habitats regulations and on which the Government rely to meet their international obligations. The noble Lord, Lord Krebs, eloquently explained why Clause 106 is so very problematic. We agree, and we agree with him that it should be deleted from the Bill.
I will now speak briefly to the amendments in the name of the noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose. I thank him for his introduction, during which he explained some of the challenges faced by farmers and the rural economy in delivering the expected environmental benefits. The noble Earl, Lord Devon, spoke passionately, as he always does, about the importance of sustainability in our rural environments, but in a way that supports farming and local businesses. Those of us who live in in rural farming communities understand the importance of balance, and our rural communities must be supported as they go through so much change, as they are at the moment.
It has been a very interesting debate. The Minister really needs to listen to people’s concerns, particularly regarding Clause 106, and I look forward to his response.
I thank all Peers for their contributions to this debate, and I share the strong feeling in this House that we need to protect our precious species and habitats, and ensure that our laws and regulations enable us to do that. This Bill creates a new ambitious domestic framework for nature. We have brought forward a suite of legally binding targets, including two for biodiversity, put environmental improvement plans on a statutory footing and created a range of powerful new policy levers, including biodiversity net gain. The Government’s intention is to capitalise on this new framework and, to enable us to do so, we must be able to update our conservation laws. So it is right that those laws should be updated to meet our new heightened ambition for nature restoration in this country, even while we must be clear—as the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, emphasised— that whatever changes are brought in do not reduce existing protections for our most vulnerable sites and species.
Earlier in Committee, I brought forward a new clause to require the Government to set a further legally binding target aiming to halt the decline of nature. Ensuring that our protected sites can be restored to good condition to provide a safe haven for our most vulnerable habitats and species is a key part of this. That is why we are introducing a power to amend Part 6 of the habitats regulations. The twin climate and biodiversity crises present long-term challenges that threaten our future if left unchecked, so we need to ensure that we have the means to act, if we need to, to adapt some of our principal nature conservation rules to address these pressures.
The Government want to see a more nature-rich Britain, with a fit-for-purpose regulatory framework that drives the delivery of our ambition and reverses the decline of nature. A Green Paper in autumn this year will seek views on any proposed changes within the context of the Government’s approach to nature recovery. The paper will be informed by the habitats regulations assessment working group, led by my colleague, my noble friend Lord Benyon. Stakeholders will have the opportunity to influence how we can improve our wildlife laws to deliver on these ambitions. Noble Lords will know that the clause includes a number of safeguards that are designed to retain our existing protections. I will set them out here, as it is important to demonstrate that the Government do not treat this casually.
The power to amend Regulation 9 cannot be used before 1 February 2023, after the Government have set our biodiversity targets and reviewed the environmental improvement plan. In addition, Ministers will have to be satisfied and explain to Parliament that any change would not reduce our existing environmental protections, and Parliament will have a vote on any use of the powers. In addition, Ministers must consult before the powers are used. We have committed to consulting with the OEP, in particular, before these powers are used. Moreover, we will of course ensure that consultation on any proposals is comprehensive and appropriate to deliver our environmental ambitions.
In response to Amendment 257AA in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, I stress that the test that the Secretary of State must “be satisfied” that protections are not reduced is a high bar. It requires certainty on his part that there have been no reductions in protections from the existing habitats regulations. The Secretary of State will also have to demonstrate this by making a statement to this House and subjecting that statement to scrutiny. If the judgment of the Secretary of State is proven, or even thought, to be wrong, it can subsequently be challenged in court.
Looking slightly more widely, I will also address the noble Lord’s Amendments 255 and 256. I hope I have demonstrated that we want to enhance the regulatory framework to improve outcomes for nature in this country. I understand the concern that this power might substitute the protections offered by the directives with more general requirements. However, it is designed to allow requirements to specify particular protections for habitats and species. For example, we could require specific species to be strictly protected to ensure delivery of our new species abundance target. It will also provide greater clarity for public authorities on the precise requirements they are required to meet. These amendments would not allow us to reconsider existing requirements in the directives. This would deprive us of the scope potentially to clarify or improve the requirements and would therefore remove the opportunity to tailor and improve the existing legislative framework to support our domestic ambitions and international obligations.
To address some of the points raised by my noble friend Lady McIntosh, the UK, probably more than any other country, is playing a central role in reversing biodiversity loss—for example, in negotiating the Leaders’ Pledge for Nature, which commits world leaders to urgent action by 2030, and goes far beyond that. I encourage anyone who has not read it to do so; it is a very ambitious document, to which 86 countries have signed up so far.
At home, we are committed to protecting 30% of our land for nature and have come forward with a duty to set a legally binding target on species abundance, which we have already discussed in Committee. We are also publishing a Green Paper later this year, which will provide the first opportunity in a generation to draw together the evidence for change to update and modernise our current patchwork of wildlife legislation, which has been developed in a somewhat piecemeal manner over many decades. We can then build a coherent system of protection to ensure that our most precious habitats and species thrive across England. But time is critical. Where the evidence is clear that amending the regulations could improve the natural environment and make the processes clearer and more legally certain to help improve the condition of our sites, we will have the means of doing so.
In response to a question raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, we will provide a full impact assessment of any regulations made under the powers, when bringing them forward, in line with the approach taken to delegated powers across the Bill. My understanding is that we cannot use those powers until the metrics are in place and the targets have been set.
In response to a number of noble Lords and as I mentioned earlier, the Secretary of State has asked my noble friend Lord Benyon to form a small informal group to oversee consideration of how the habitats directive amendments proposed in the Bill, in relation to these regulations, might be progressed. This thinking will feed into the Green Paper planned for autumn this year. If the evidence suggests that amending the regulations can help improve the condition of our sites and contribute to our 2030 ambition, we will have the means to do so swiftly.
I add one further point to the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter. Her compelling speech described the habitats directive as having worked, but the reality is that it has not. We have experienced a dramatic collapse in our biodiversity over recent years and decades, despite the rules that are in place. It is wrong to hold them up as some kind of gold standard. That is not to say they are without value; they have been an extraordinarily important framework that, I suspect, has prevented even more damage being done to our nature and biodiversity, but it would be wrong if the extent of our ambition were to end with the status quo, which is not delivered. I reiterate to noble Lords my assurance that the Government will not do anything to undermine existing protections and will take a measured, inclusive and consultative approach to reform. In light of this, I beg that Clause 106 stands part of the Bill.
I recognise the importance of the proposal of my noble friend the Duke of Montrose, in his Amendments 257A and 257B, to encourage sustainable development and betterment. Our farmers play an enormously important role as custodians of our natural environment—a point made well by the noble Earl, Lord Devon. They play an enormously important role and their contribution will be critical to delivering nature recovery. Nature recovery and our ambitions will not be possible without them. It is not a choice of farmers versus nature, farmers versus biodiversity or farming versus beauty. As is already happening all over the country, we have to find a way to reconcile these ambitions. We are already working on guidance to support our ambition of modernising on-farm infrastructure, a vital part of the agricultural transition to improve productivity and efficiency, and to protect the environment.
Clause 105 offers the opportunity to ensure legacy EU legislation can protect and enhance our natural environment as effectively as possible. The Green Paper, which will be published later this year, will provide an opportunity to explore these issues further. I welcome discussion with noble Lords and stakeholders as part of this.
I hope I understood the question from my noble friend the Duke of Montrose. He asked me to reconfirm that the UK will adhere to those international agreements to which we have signed up. If that is what he asked, I would be happy to do so, as any of my colleagues would.
The noble Earl, Lord Devon, asked about consultations generally. The Secretary of State must consult people before making any change to the habitats regulations. The power is general and therefore can include the organisations the noble Earl cited, and many more. I would be very happy to meet my noble friend Lord Cormack, with Professor Wilson, at a time that suits him. He is right to raise this issue. Reconciling the needs of historic buildings with those of important species, such as the 18 species of bat that we have in England, can be difficult and raises all kinds of issues such as those in his speech. I applaud the “bats in churches” project, a partnership between Natural England, the Church of England and other heritage and conservation partners. It is a really good example of these different interests working together to deliver solutions. Long may that continue and long may we learn from that.
Regarding Amendment 257C, we do not want to limit the scope of the clause to development alone, as enhancing biodiversity can have a multitude of benefits, including sustainable development. Social and economic considerations may already be considered in Part 6 of the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations, where there are imperative reasons for overriding public interest.
I thank all noble Lords for their impassioned and informed contributions to this hugely important debate. As I have set out, the Government believe that without the ability to update our conservation laws where the evidence suggests that it is necessary to meet our ambitions and our new legally binding targets, our ambitions for nature may end up being constrained. Clause 106, in conjunction with Clause 105, will ensure that our conservation regulations can contribute to meeting the tough challenges that we set for ourselves as we seek to restore nature in this country. I listened carefully to the debate and legitimate and understandable concerns have been raised, but I hope that I have gone some way towards reassuring noble Lords about the Government’s intentions for these powers, because that is what this comes down to: our intention to improve the conservation status of protected habitats and species across the country and to improve our ability to deliver on those wider ambitions. I ask the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.
I have received two requests to speak after the Minister, from the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, and the noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose.
My Lords, I was not intending to speak to this group of amendments, especially as I was keen to keep the Minister sweet for my tree amendments in the next group, but I have become increasingly worried and suspicious. I support the amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, and want to ask the Minister about the Government’s intentions.
Why the Government would want to put their head into this particular lions’ den mystifies me. Why were the clauses to weaken the habitat regulations introduced without consultation, late in the day in May? The habitat regulations, with protections for SACs and SPAs, are one of the jewels in the crown of EU environmental legislation. Even for Brexiteers there are such things, one of them being the habitats regulations. They give protection for the very small number of the most important priority sites and species, and there are only about 900 across the whole four nations of the UK. Quite a lot of them are in Scotland and out to sea, so it is not as if you would be falling over SPAs and SACs on every street corner and being prevented from doing anything as a result. We know that their protections are much valued by the public. They are also a bit of a coup for the UK. The UK led on negotiating these protections into EU law originally. It was the Prime Minister’s dad who played a substantial role in that, so threatening the habitats regulations is tantamount to a declaration of war. Why would the Government invite this sort of conflict? That is what is worrying me.
Clause 105 says that there will be no diminution of the habitats regulations’ requirements, but the judgment on this is left to the Minister, and, although he will consult and bring proposals to Parliament, he will to some extent mark his own homework—so noble Lords can see why I am suspicious. Speeches like that of the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, stir up that suspicion even further. The government proposals could quite easily be set alongside and be complementary to the habitats regulations’ requirements. The requirement to meet the Environment Bill targets and the environmental improvement plan targets could be additional and not instead of the habitats regulations’ requirements. The noble Lord, Lord Krebs, very clearly pointed out that they are not the same requirements.
In fact, of the targets that we discussed earlier in Committee, the one that the Government are prepared to move on is on species abundance, which is about species numbers, rather than habitats or sites. So the habitats regulations’ protection for these most important habitats and sites is still required. Why do the Government want to junk one of the decent pieces of EU legislation? Is it simply because it is a European law? Is the Minister being forced into sweeping the ground for a set of planning proposals that have not been seen across government yet, let alone by your Lordships or the public?
In these circumstances, Clause 106 ought to be deleted from the Bill—it is a pig in a poke, and we do not know enough about what is going to come in its wake. Above all, I would like to hear from the Minister why the Government are stepping into this maelstrom—because it will be one—and how the changes that they plan to make could be made more transparent so that your Lordships could be enabled to decide whether or not to be suspicious. I would also like to hear why we cannot have what the Minister is proposing as an addition to the existing habitats regulations’ requirements, rather than instead of them.
I am sorry that I have raised the noble Baroness’s suspicions. I have described the safeguards that are in place, and I will not repeat them because she will have heard what I said. It is wrong to imply, as I think she did, that we are scrapping the habitats directive or that it is deemed to have no value by government—that is not the case, and I hope that I made that clear in my speech. However, it is equally wrong to pretend that it is unimprovable; clearly, it is improvable and clearly we need a better or improved set of rules to deliver on the ambition that we have set ourselves. The facts make that unarguable.
However, I will go further and say that describing what the Government are doing as a “declaration of war” against nature is very hard to reconcile with an Environment Bill that has unprecedented targets. I challenge the noble Baroness to find any other country with ambitions that come even close to those that we are setting out here in relation to peat, water, waste, species, tree planting, et cetera. I challenge her to find any other country that has as ambitious an approach in relation to land-use subsidies. Indeed, I can tell her that we are the only country to have attempted, let alone achieved, the transition from the kinds of subsidies that dominate worldwide to the subsidy system that we are replacing them with, based on the condition of the delivery of public goods. Through the Bill, we are the only country to legislate to clean up our international footprint. I believe that we are introducing a world first in net gain. I could go on with many other examples. The idea that the Bill represents a declaration of war on nature is frankly absurd.
I am grateful to my noble friend the Minister for expressing concern for the rural economy and farming, but the only question is whether, without this amendment, it is a continuing commitment. It was interesting to hear him thread together his arguments about the habitats directive and how it is safeguarded under the Bill.
I asked about the position on permitted development rights for farmers—perhaps he would like to write to me.
I thank all Peers for their contributions to this very interesting and well-informed debate, and I thank the Minister for his reply. I listened very carefully to what he said, and he certainly made some encouraging noises. He reiterated that the Government wish to ensure that we do not reduce existing protections and that we want to create a more nature-rich Britain. I understood, I hope correctly, that there will be some Green Paper consultation on changes to the habitats regulations and that, in making any changes, the Secretary of State will consult the office for environmental protection. The Minister did not mention the other bodies that I listed—Natural England and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee—but I hope that the Secretary of State will also consult them. In response to the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, he also confirmed that there would be some form of impact assessment related to any proposed changes.
In spite of that, having listened to what the noble Baroness, Lady of Young of Old Scone, just said, I think that a number of us are not totally convinced and wonder why, if the Government’s intentions are so genuinely for nature, they are not prepared to make some relatively modest changes to Clause 105 and, possibly, if not remove Clause 106, certainly change its wording to give us in the Bill the reassurance that the Minister is prepared to give us at the Dispatch Box.
I will also comment on a few points that were made by various contributors to the debate. Many Peers, including the noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose, my noble friend Lord Devon, the noble Baronesses, Lady McIntosh of Pickering and Lady Hayman of Ullock, and the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, spoke about the balance between the needs of nature and the needs of people. None of us doubts that there is a balance to be struck, and we do not know exactly what that balance is. But what we do know, without any question—I do not think anybody in this Chamber or elsewhere could deny it—is that, in the past, the balance has been in favour of human exploitation, wealth and economy, and against nature. Otherwise, if we have not got it wrong in the past, why are we living in one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world? Whatever balance we seek, it must be a balance where the needle shifts from the past towards a position on the dial where nature is given higher priority. That is what I and many other Peers who have spoken in this debate and previous debates in Committee firmly believe. I think the Minister shares that belief.
The second point is about the combination of trust, consultation and non-regression. My noble friend Lady Boycott gave a compelling example of why we should not take things on trust—why we have to look at what is happening on the ground rather than honeyed words that we might hear. The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, also referred to the Government’s commitment to non-regression, which the Minister did not actually repeat but I think he implied. It is not that we do not trust the Minister, but trust is something that has to be borne by future generations of Governments and many of us would like to see some tweaking of the Bill to underpin that trust.
The final point that came up in the debate, which the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, mentioned, was the question of whether this is really all about cutting red tape. The noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, gave us the impression that, in her view, there is a need to cut excessive bureaucracy that we have inherited from the European Union.
I will take away and reflect on what the Minister has said, but I end with one final comment, picking up on something that the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, said, about the biodiversity metric. Yesterday, I read a very powerful criticism of the biodiversity metric by Professor Katherine Willis, a member of the Natural Capital Committee until it was disbanded. She argues that the metric, as currently developed by Defra and Natural England, is absolutely not fit for purpose. Among the many other meetings that he is now committing himself to, is the Minister prepared to meet me, Professor Willis and perhaps some other interested Members of this House to review these criticisms of the biodiversity metric and, perhaps at the same time, to discuss any changes in wording to Clauses 105 and 106? In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw.
Amendment 255 withdrawn.
Amendment 256 not moved.
257: Clause 105, page 106, line 15, at end insert “or (Environmental targets: species abundance)”
Member’s explanatory statement
See the explanatory statement for new Clause (Environmental targets: species abundance).
Amendment 257 agreed.
Amendments 257A to 257B not moved.
Clause 105, as amended, agreed.
Clause 106: Habitats Regulations: power to amend Part 6
Amendment 257C not moved.
Clause 106 agreed.
Amendment 257D not moved.
Clause 107 agreed.
Schedule 15 agreed.
We now come to the group beginning with Amendment 257E. Anyone wishing to press this or anything else in this group to a Division must make that clear in debate.
Clause 108: Local highway authorities in England to consult before felling street trees
257E: Clause 108, page 107, line 33, at end insert—
“(2A) Before giving any guidance, the Secretary of State must undertake detailed consultation on the impact of the guidance with local authorities.”
My Lords, I first declare my interest as the recently stood-down president of the Local Government Association. My other interests are as listed in the register. I take this opportunity to apologise that a technical problem prevented me from speaking to my Amendment 201D last week. I plan to return to this on Report.
I shall speak today to two amendments in my name. Amendments 257E and 257F seek to require the Secretary of State to understand the impact of the new duty of consult residents on the felling of street trees on councils before the duty is set out in guidance and to allow a local highways authority to create a local exemption to the duty to consult. I am very conscious that I am tabling these amendments remotely from the city of Sheffield where the origins of Clause 108 probably lie. Although not directly involved, my family home is some 15 minutes’ walk from where some of the most contentious issues arose. Suffice it to say that the tree-felling debacle in Sheffield has been a particularly unhappy episode in the life of the city. I hope that the new Labour and Green Party administration can finally lay this issue to rest.
I can therefore well understand the desire to bring in greater requirements on councils to consult before trees are felled. However, I am concerned that, in addressing an issue particularly related to the actions of one council, we do not inadvertently create a whole set of other problems for other councils. Local authorities are responsible for the management of many thousands of trees, so this will not be a small issue. Councils generally work hard to protect and maintain the natural environment, including urban trees. That is why a lot of councils have set out their long-term vision for trees and are seeking ways to increase tree-planting, for example by working with local volunteer groups to promote trees and woodlands.
Tree preservation orders provide an established route for protecting trees as part of the local environment. Trees in conservation areas also benefit from protection in law. However, decisions on the felling of trees should ultimately remain a matter of local determination. There is a risk that the new duty will be bureaucratic, and a lot of care must be taken that it does not clash with the existing duties—for example, the statutory duty to consult if street trees are to be removed as part of a housing development.
As a whole, this Bill relies significantly on secondary legislation. We have seen quite a bit of detail on proposals to be enacted by regulation in other areas such as waste, but less in this case. My amendment would require the Government to consult fully with local government and others on the impact of the guidance before it is taken forward. It may be that the Minister can provide greater assurance today on this issue, which would make such an amendment unnecessary. I do not of course intend to push my amendment to a Division. However, it is an important issue: when we put forward legislation, we should have a clear understanding of how it will impact on individual areas up and down the country.
My second amendment, Amendment 257F, would allow local authorities to set exemptions locally, in addition to the reasons for exemptions set out in the Bill. Councils must have a workable set of exemptions, so that they can protect the public from harm and act quickly to prevent the spread of pests and diseases. I am concerned that the areas for exemption on the face of the Bill may be too narrowly defined and again have unintended consequences in their implementation.
These are two practical amendments about the delivery of policy that do not challenge the intent. I beg to move.
My Lords, this is the tree group of amendments: we seem to have quite a large number of them clustered together. I declare my interest as chairman of the Woodland Trust.
My Amendment 258 would give protection to ancient woodland equivalent to that already provided for sites of special scientific interest. Ancient woodlands are at least 400 years old. By their very age, they are one of our most rich and complex communities of biodiversity, both above the ground and below in the soils and mycorrhizal communities. Many of them are also historically and socially important. They have the added value, these days, of continuing to sequester carbon every year that they continue in place. They are known as the cathedrals of the natural world. They are irreplaceable—if you plant a new wood, it will not be an ancient woodland for 400 years at least—yet over 1,200 ancient woodlands across the UK are currently under threat from development: mostly housing, roads and railways. Over the last 20 years, nearly 1,000 ancient woodlands have been permanently lost or damaged. Many of the remaining fragments are small and incredibly vulnerable to pressures from surrounding land or the built environment. They are often much loved, and trampled excessively out of love by dog walkers. They are damaged by fly-tippers and subject to drift from agricultural operations. They currently have inadequate protection, hence the 1,200 currently on the threat list.
Planners and developers are warned away from developing on ancient woodland in the National Planning Policy Framework, except in “wholly exceptional” circumstances. But the NPPF is not always observed and does not apply to major infrastructure projects—and who knows what will happen to the NPPF under planning reform? Developers and planners are supposed to consult the ancient woodland inventory in order to avoid trashing ancient woodland through their development. They can see where there is ancient woodland and try to avoid it. However, the inventory is pretty out of date, it was always geographically patchy, and it does not list a large number of small sites. Very late in the day, it is now slowly being updated.
My amendment seeks to use a well-known, long-standing and comparatively easy and effective model, the system used for protecting sites of special scientific interest, to protect ancient woodland. Planners and developers have been working with SSSI rules for 70 years. SSSI status was part of the post-war settlement introduced in 1949. It is a well-known process, so we would not be inventing new bureaucracy, simply adding gently to existing regulations. I am not saying by my proposal that ancient woodlands should meet the biodiversity standards outlined in SSSI regulations, but that all ancient woodlands entered on the ancient woodland inventory would be protected from development, would be monitored in respect of their condition and would be required to be managed to reach and maintain ecological status, under the same processes that are in place for SSSIs.
I hope the Minister will seek to assure me that the England trees action plan has lots in it to help protect ancient woodland by bringing in measures to support long-established woods—woods established before 1840—for example by bringing in schemes to increase buffering around the smaller fragments, and by the removal of inappropriate conifer overplanting on ancient woodland sites. We may see targets for ancient woodlands, but there is nothing quite like statutory protection on existing highly threatened sites, and it could be so simply achieved by my amendment to stop the rot. Otherwise, our children and their children will judge us harshly for our record of destruction of these very English cathedrals of the natural world. SSSIs were an iconic part of the post-war settlement. Let us have ancient woodland protection as an iconic part of the post-Covid settlement.
I turn to my Amendment 259 on a biosecurity standard when planting trees using public money. Tree disease resulting from importing seeds, young plants, and more mature stock from abroad has been disastrous for the health and existence of our woodlands, their biodiversity and our landscapes. There is now a pest or disease for virtually every species of native tree. Many noble Lords will remember Dutch elm disease and how dramatically it changed the nature of our landscapes. We now have oak diseases, oak processionary moth, and, of course, with ash dieback we will lose millions of ash trees and change the face of the countryside and its wildlife dramatically. The incidence of new pathogens entering the UK mirrors exactly the rise in plant imports.
Amendment 259 would require the Government to draw up and implement a biosecurity standard which would apply to all planting of trees and shrubs by Governments, their agencies and contractors. The standard would include a provision that all native tree stock would be “sourced from UK growers” and be certified as having been grown within the UK for its entire life. At the moment, stock moves backwards and forwards between the UK and Europe for stages of its rearing, with all the risks of tree disease importation. The amendment would be good for woods, trees, nature and landscapes, and would represent a major opportunity for job creation in an expanded UK tree nursery industry.
The Woodland Trust’s UK and Ireland sourced and grown assurance standards will have produced 27 million home-grown trees between 2014 and 2024. More and more nurseries are taking part. We applaud the Government’s commitment to an exponential uplift in the number of trees planted, in the interests of climate change and biodiversity, and major taxpayer money is going to be invested. So there is no time to lose. We need more than a voluntary scheme; we need a statutory basis for the standard. We need a clear future estimate of the number of trees required, so that nursery businesses can grow in the UK and get on with confidence to develop a UK-based capacity to meet the demand for safe trees.
My Amendment 260 places a duty on the Government to prepare, maintain and report on a tree strategy for England and to produce targets for the protection, restoration an expansion of trees in woodlands in England. I welcomed the Government’s recent England trees action plan, which is, to all intents and purposes, a tree strategy. But it is non-statutory and, as we all know, Governments come and go and Ministers come and go. I hope that the Government are going to be consulting on tree targets of the sort I have touched on. So, if there is to be a tree action plan and tree targets, why not just make them statutory? Can the Minister tell us why he is not keen on a statutory basis for these two issues?
I support Amendment 260A in the name of the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, to which I have put my name. We will be planting 30,000 hectares of trees a year to meet our carbon and biodiversity targets. This will be severely compromised if damage, not just by disease, but by deer in particular, is not reduced to below its current level. The standard proposed would need to be based on clear evidence on tree losses following proper assessment and to be set in a framework of landscape-scale deer management plans across multiple owners. As the noble Earl will no doubt say, part of the current problem is landowners who do not undertake control and who could wreck the efforts of others around them to control damaging pests such as deer. I therefore hope that he receives support for his amendment.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, who spoke with her typical authority and strong logic. I declare my interests as set out in the register, particularly those in respect of agriculture and as chair of UK Squirrel Accord, of which more later.
I shall speak to Amendment 260A, which stands in my name, and Amendment 259 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone. One plank of this Bill is afforestation. We have heard much throughout the many days of debate on the Bill about the benefits of carbon capture and the biodiversity dividend of afforestation. It is worth recalling that the level of afforestation in the United Kingdom in 1919, just after the First World War, was just 5%. Today, it is 13%, but the 2021 EU factsheet on afforestation for the EU shows that it is 37% afforested. In his very good speech at Second Reading, my noble friend Lord Cameron of Dillington pointed out that it is important to balance food production with forestry on our limited land area, but I still feel that 13% is the wrong number and needs to go up significantly. I agree with many others who have said that over the course of our many days.
The problem is that simply planting trees is not enough. Amendment 260A is about the management of the main animal damage threats, while Amendment 259 is its biosecurity analogue. The squirrel problem is very simple in that grey squirrels ring-bark trees between the ages of about 10 and 40 and suck out the sap. This damages the trees and kills many of them. UK Squirrel Accord was formed five or six years ago to try to combat this at a UK level. It comprises the four Governments, their nature agencies, the main voluntary bodies and the main commercial sector bodies. There are 40 signatories overall. It seeks to co-ordinate not only communication among those bodies so that everybody knows what is going on but the use of science in controlling squirrels, and that science will of course be able to be used for the control of deer.
The key thing at the moment is the fertility control project, which is getting to the end of its third year at the Animal and Plant Health Agency’s main laboratories just outside York. The project will do exactly what it says on the tin, which is to control the fertility of grey squirrels and therefore shrink their numbers dramatically.
This year saw a very interesting piece of academic research by the Royal Forestry Society on the level of the problem that the grey squirrel poses to afforestation. It is called An Analysis of the Cost of Grey Squirrel Damage to Woodland. It is quite a lengthy report, and I shall not give your Lordships all the details, but 777 land managers were surveyed. They said clearly that the greatest threat to them in trying to grow woodland was the grey squirrel, and 56% of them said that they were experiencing damage quotients of between 35% and 100%, with only 14% feeling that the damage quotient was less than 5%. I should say in addition that the oak tree, which is one of the most iconic species for our country, is the greatest supporter of biodiversity, with some 2,000 species supported by oak trees.
The UK Squirrel Accord and its associated voluntary bodies are extremely worried about there being safe zones for squirrels because some people do nothing. The biggest problems we see in those safe zones are patrolled by Amendment 260A. First, if you have been in receipt of a grant or if you are a public body—this is a very big problem—you must comply with the animal damage protection standard. If you are somebody else, you will be encouraged to comply with it. Given those who are interested enough to participate in the UK Squirrel Accord, I think people will obey that, but I feel that some motorway and railway agencies in particular are doing nothing at the moment and therefore have a lot of safe harbours for the squirrel.
I will say a brief word on the cost of compliance. I congratulate the National Forest Company, which has employed volunteers to help with some of its control issues, greatly reducing any costs that may be involved. I believe there is a significant number of volunteers—the UK Squirrel Accord is very much in touch with them—who would assist with that and therefore help with the cost element.
I turn briefly to Amendment 259. I feel that the science will get there for Amendment 260A in the end, and we will have sufficient scientific weapons to be able to reduce the level of grey squirrels in the country so that it will be commercially possible to plant broadleaf trees in the south of England again. We will hear about that from later speakers. The difficulty is that the disease problems associated with importing trees, particularly pest problems such as the oak processionary moth, fill me with an appalling dread. Here I very much agree with what the noble Baroness, Lady Young, said just a moment ago. It is important to be a bit like a Chinese doctor and act before some of these problems arise, and act very strongly indeed. Both these amendments are enabling provisions for afforestation. We will not get there without them.
My Lords, I am very pleased to be able to follow the noble Earl. I declare an interest as an owner of a plantation on an ancient woodland site, mostly replanted in 1986. I reckon that my cumulative loss to squirrels is about 60%. There are areas of the wood where nothing has survived except the coppice regrowth, and a lot of that is damaged. I have been trying to control squirrels throughout that time. This is a really serious problem if we want to take trees seriously, particularly if we want them to be commercial. I therefore very much support Amendment 260A. It would be a really useful way to go, getting us all working together in the same direction.
Deer are important too. Those who know the border between Wiltshire and Dorset will know the troubles the RSPB has had in Garston Wood with the herd of fallow deer it had there. It got zero regeneration at the end of the day because there were just too many deer. It has now excluded them, which is not fun for the local farmers, but at least it solves the RSPB’s problem. However, generally we have to recognise our position in this ecosystem. We are very important as the top predators—the controller of what happens with herbivorous activity—and if we want particular species and kinds of things to grow, we must act on that responsibility.
We need to start to understand how regeneration is working around us. Oak regeneration does not seem to be happening at all, something that is echoed by other people in the south of England. I do not know what circumstances need to change to make the ecology right for that. These are things that, with a big ambition for forestry, we need to understand. We do not want to have to be for ever planting trees; we ought to be able to rely on a pattern of regeneration.
I am very much in favour of the direction of Amendment 259. We need to be quite strict about the diseases that we let into this country. We have a very limited degree of biodiversity when it comes to trees and shrubs; we have about 30 different ones, around one-tenth of what an ideal temperate woodland would have by way of variety—courtesy of the Ice Ages, mostly, and the opening of the Channel but also, subsequent to that, the effect that man has on restricting the natural movement of plant species. We need, as the Forestry Commission is setting out to do, to improve our genomic diversity within species as well as the number of species that we have.
While I do not at all resent the activities of the Romans and others in bringing across chestnuts, for instance, or the buddleia in my garden—a cousin to many that are spread over the south downs—I do not think additional biodiversity hurts us. We are a very impoverished ecosystem and should be able to stand some introductions—but not, please, diseases. We have seen the devastation caused by ash dieback around here in Eastbourne. With a limited ecosystem, each disease is a big hit, and we do not want to risk more of that because it will take a very long time before we have a more diverse forest population.
However, I am not convinced by Amendment 258. As I said, I own a plantation on an ancient woodland site, and an SSSI designation would be a disaster. There is so much needed to do to make it better. The point of an SSSI is that you pick on a bit of landscape that is as you wish it to be, and the focus is then on keeping it as it is and making it difficult for people to change it. A plantation on an ancient woodland site means a lot of restoration to do, and you do not need the level of bureaucracy that goes with being an SSSI. I would be happy to have something to give it greater protection against invasion by planners but not something that stops the woodland owner from making it a better wood.
My Lords, I welcome this group on the subject of trees. As we know from the work of the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, and the Woodland Trust, which I think she chairs, only some 7% of our woodland is in good condition. We have a very small percentage of cover—13%—as has been noted by the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, and ancient woodland covers roughly 2.5% of our area.
I have put my name to Amendments 260 and 283, but I shall start with some comments on Amendments 258 and 259 about ancient woodlands and SSSIs. I very much take the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, in that SSSIs can be complicated areas involving many rules. One issue that we have not tackled in the Bill, and which appals me, is that—if I have this right—the target by which to get 75% of SSSIs in good condition is 2045. I am sure the Minister will put me right if I am wrong, but it is an atrocious statement of where we are and where we intend to be if that is the case. Having said that, I can say on behalf of my colleagues that we would very much welcome this sort of amendment, even if it were not drafted exactly as at present.
In terms of biosecurity, too, I am very aware that the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner—who used to be Minister for Defra in this House and was replaced by the noble Lord, Lord Benyon—was a great advocate of biosecurity. I always looked forward to him coming to the Dispatch Box to reassure us that one of his key missions was to ensure that this country’s biosecurity was improved. As noble Lords have already said, this is a huge challenge, not just in terms of trees but in other areas as well. However, trees certainly focus this because they make such a big difference to the landscape. Where I live in Cornwall, I have some splendid ash trees along the frontage by the road. It would be a huge change for me and for the landscape if those disappeared. At the moment they are in good condition, but I expect that that will change at some season in the future. Again, I am sure that my colleagues are entirely behind finding a way of pushing forward this amendment.
On the amendments I have put my name to, I turn to Amendment 260 from the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, on a tree strategy. What she says makes a lot of sense. We all remember that there was almost an outbidding by political parties on tree planting in the last two general elections. I sometimes wondered where these trees were going to come from. What was the highest bid? I think we got into the billions, but I cannot remember. While one welcomes that competitive edge, the real issue is about delivery, followed by tree management, where they are planted, the types of species that are planted, and the balance between climate change, biodiversity and even the commercial sector, so that we know where we are going.
When it comes to moving those action plans into a proper strategy, strategies can often be made, forgotten and put on the shelf. However, I believe that that investment, which is for a hundred years, is a strategy that we understand; it is generally accepted and is based on the science and the nature recovery networks. This is something that I would welcome, and I hope the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, will pursue it.
No one so far has talked about peatlands, which are dealt with in Amendment 283. I am very pleased to put my name to that amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch. This is a very contemporary and high-profile issue. As I have said before, I had the privilege last month of going on to Bodmin Moor and seeing the peatland restoration there. It is a massive task that is gradually moving through our countryside, particularly in uplands, moorlands and such areas. We are working to protect biodiversity or, in many cases, using natural solutions to stop run-off and flooding downstream, as well as carbon sequestration, and these areas are jewels in our countryside and landscape. This is one of the habitats and ecosystems that is particularly important to the United Kingdom, and we hold a large proportion of global blanket peatlands.
We should protect these areas better. I find it very difficult to understand why we still permit peat burning in those areas. I understand why, commercially, that is often the case for grouse shooting in other areas, but this is clearly something that we need to change. We also need to change altogether peat extraction for horticultural purposes, where we have had a complete failure of voluntary schemes. I will be interested to hear from the Minister where we are on that as well.
I support this amendment very strongly, but may I ask Hansard just to stop reporting for a minute? I have an environmental confession to make. I used to be in the freight industry and I operated a transport depot very near to where my noble friend Lady Bakewell lives at the moment, on the Somerset Levels in a place called Bridgwater—that is Bridgwater in Somerset, where you do not have an “E” in the middle of the word; if you put one in, it is very bad. One thing that I used to transport was cut peat for horticultural purposes out of the Somerset Levels. I apologise to my colleague that I ever did that; it was before such things were even realised. But now we have no excuse for that sort of commercial activity. On that basis, I give complete personal backing to Amendment 283 from the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch.
The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, has withdrawn from this set of amendments, so I call the noble Viscount, Lord Trenchard.
My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, that decisions on the felling of roadside trees should remain a matter for local determination, and I support Amendment 257E. It is right that the Secretary of State should have to consult extensively with local authorities before he issues guidance on a public consultation, as provided for in Clause 108, which adds a new section to the Highways Act 1980. There is a risk that the new duty will be too bureaucratic, and care should be taken to ensure that any guidance issued does not encourage that.
I also support the noble Lord in his Amendment 257F, which allows local authorities to decide which exemptions there should be to the new duty to consult before felling any roadside trees. Councils should be free to take quick action to protect the public from harm, including against the spread of pests and diseases. Councils do not always get these things right, however, and the Committee may remember the outcry when South Tyneside Council cut down six horse chestnut trees to prevent children gathering conkers in 2004. At the time, my noble friend Lord Callanan was MEP for the north-east, and he described the pruning as
“the nanny state gone mad.”
He said that:
“In years gone by people didn’t try to rule lives in quite the same way as this. I wonder if the council will follow this to its natural conclusion and cut down all the trees in South Tyneside so that children won’t hurt themselves climbing up them.”
I hope that any guidance issued by the Secretary of State with regard to the felling of trees would aim to discourage councils from taking such disproportionate action to prevent the citizen from each and every risk he undertakes when he passes his garden gate.
As for Amendment 258 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, I think it may be unnecessary, because ancient woodland sites worthy of protection are already included within the category of sites of special scientific interest. I cannot see any sufficient reason to create a separate category of land— ancient woodland—which, as the amendment is drafted, does not even need to be of special scientific interest to qualify for Natural England’s protection.
I am not sure that I can support Amendment 259, also in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Young. I understand that they think that a policy of diversity and freedom of movement, as far as flora and fauna are concerned, could introduce unwanted tree diseases, but could it not equally prevent the importing of other tree species with genetic resistance to diseases? What would Capability Brown and Humphry Repton have achieved without the exotic cedar of Lebanon or the magnificent Wellingtonia? I confess that I am sceptical about whether the Secretary of State’s adoption of a “biosecurity standard” would actually have a positive impact on the natural environment.
I have some sympathy with the noble Baroness, Lady Young, in her Amendment 260, because the tree strategy is perhaps too modest in its aim to raise England’s woodland cover from 10% to just 12% by 2050. The Conservative Party’s manifesto commitment was to plant 30,000 hectares of trees a year across the UK by 2025. It is therefore impossible to measure the extent to which the tree strategy meets the manifesto commitment, which sadly shows yet another instance where the devolved authorities will not, but should, co-operate together to agree on a single national tree strategy.
Sir William Worsley, chairman of the Forestry Commission, has said that it will work with the devolved Administrations to deliver a UK-wide step change in tree planting and establishment. I am not sure whether the England trees action plan is exactly the same as the proposed “Tree Strategy for England” from the noble Baroness, but given the number of statutory targets proposed in the Bill, the absence of one for trees seems to stand out. I look forward to hearing my noble friend the Minister’s views on this.
I also sympathise with Amendment 260A, in the names of the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, my noble friends Lord Colgrain and Lord Caithness, and the noble Baroness, Lady Young. However, I am not quite sure how the standard would actually work. As the Committee is aware, deer and grey squirrels, among other species, can cause great damage to young trees. I worry that the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill, now before your Lordships’ House, may become a medium for increasing restrictions on the control and culling of animals that cause damage to young trees. Does my noble friend the Minister recognise that the entire countryside and farming community would applaud him if he and my noble friend Lord Benyon were to make the sensible decision to withdraw that Bill and use the available parliamentary time to better effect?
Lastly, I will comment on Amendment 283, in the names of the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, and others. First, its heading refers to the burning of peat, but the text of subsection (1) refers to the burning of vegetation on peatland. As has been pointed out, the two are very different. The prohibition of the rotational burning of heather is likely to increase the burning of peat because old, dry heather is very susceptible to uncontrolled wildfires in the summer months, which are much more likely to lead to the burning of peat. My experience of assisting my father in managing moorland in Angus, in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, showed that the rotational burning of heather is hugely beneficial to biodiversity. Moorland where this is practised sustains much greater numbers of butterflies, caterpillars, hen harriers, golden plover, black game and short-eared owls, besides the obvious higher numbers of red grouse.
Could the Minister confirm his remark on 18 March, that the Government will
“continue to listen to the science and keep our policy and our minds open”?—[Official Report, 18/3/21; col. 529.]
In any event, I cannot support this amendment, which I think would have an effect that is the reverse of its mover’s intent.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Viscount, Lord Trenchard. I wish to speak to Amendments 259 and 260 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, and to comment on Amendment 260A in the name of my noble friend Lord Kinnoull. I once again state my interests, as far as this debate is concerned, as a trustee of Clinton Devon Estates and chair of the Cawood group.
Much comment has already been made in this debate about tree health, including the deep concern about biosecurity and tree diseases and the need for a tree strategy. Given the Government’s ambition to plant 30,000 hectares of trees each year to improve tree cover and for climate change mitigation, and with the perilous state of tree health in Britain, the need for a tree strategy is undeniable. As has been said already, it was a tragedy when we lost our elm trees to Dutch elm disease; what a lovely tree the elm is. Our ash trees are now at risk from ash dieback, not to mention our larch. We have in our garden an ash tree that will have to be felled soon because it is infected. A recent forecast predicted that more than 90% of ash trees will be taken out by ash dieback. Most of our fence lines—our field divisions—in Northumberland are populated by ash trees; it is the most dominant species. Many are mapped as part of stewardship audits and are the homes of little owls, for example, and many other species, so their disappearance will be a disaster both visually and environmentally, as the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, mentioned.
Biosecurity is so important. We must reduce our dependence on imported tree stock. As the noble Viscount, Lord Trenchard, said, this does not mean that we need to ban imported trees completely, but a biosecurity plan would be able to identify the tree species that we could safely import. Outside the European Union, we can grow our own and in doing so support the rural economy. The Government should see this as yet another important opportunity.
The tree strategy should not only include our ambition to plant trees but incorporate the appropriate biosecurity measures and guidance on a species mix to minimise disease spread. I spent some time early last year in New Zealand, where large numbers of farms are being purchased and planted as part of a carbon offsetting scheme by global corporates. A lot of the planting has been indiscriminate, without due regard to soil type or carbon sequestration potential and without assessing the risk of disease. We must not make these mistakes. Identification of land quality in areas suitable for growing a specific mix of tree species to optimise long-term carbon sequestration is essential. To plant vast areas of land with tree cover—30,000 hectares a year, for example—to ease our climate change conscience and potentially become part of the carbon market without clear guidance on tree species and topography would be hugely irresponsible.
This strategy would help to reduce this risk and hopefully maximise the benefits: economic benefits; environmental benefits in terms of both carbon and biodiversity; and, importantly, public access benefits. The adequate protection of trees from a variety of predators is of course also essential, as suggested in Amendment 260A, and could be part of a tree strategy. I encourage the Minister to think about this very seriously indeed.
My Lords, I declare my interests as in the register. I rise to commend the statements by the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, and her excellent moving of the amendments. She set out the case admirably. I also agree with what was said by the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, and just now by the noble Lord, Lord Curry of Kirkharle.
I strongly believe that ancient woodlands must be protected where possible since they cannot be created except through a process that takes 400 to 500 years. This means that all developments that would remove them or parts of them or damage them must be avoided, and only in very exceptional circumstances should an ancient woodland be harmed. There should be a presumption against all developments affecting them.
The suggestion by the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, in Amendment 258 is ingenious and I have some sympathy with it. However, I am not certain that classifying every ancient woodland site—I think she mentioned 1,200 of them—that has been wooded since 1600 AD as an SSSI automatically is the right answer. As I understand it—I think the noble Viscount, Lord Trenchard, made this point—there is nothing to prevent any woodland being classified as an SSSI right now if it meets the current criteria. I would prefer to see ancient woodlands assessed individually and, if suitable, declared—each one on its merits—an SSSI. I must also say to the noble Baroness that I do not think that it is legally possible to mass nominate dozens or even hundreds of pieces of land and to do it en masse, whatever features are on them.
As someone on the board of Natural England who has to decide on new SSSIs or extensions to them, I can tell the House that it is an incredibly detailed and exacting procedure. Officials must produce reams and reams of scientific justification and strict legal protocols must be followed, with all affected landowners entitled to make representations and appeals. If over that two or three-year process we put one foot wrong, we are straight into judicial review territory, which I should say has never happened yet. There might be an argument for simplifying the procedure—we certainly need to do that in the case of declaring new national parks or AONBs—but, for the moment, we have to follow the current law. Thus, while the noble Baroness’s amendment is ingenious, it will not stand up.
On Amendment 259, I am 100% behind her. This is not a “little Englander” new clause. For tens of thousands of years, our native fauna have survived and developed in a habitat of native British flora. Putting it simply, we cannot have red squirrels unless we have the native woods producing the nuts, fruits and seeds they normally eat. The Back from the Brink project to recover 20 species from near extinction depends on native habitats. As colleagues will know, we face an increasing threat from diseases unwittingly imported along with plants sourced from abroad. Even if we step up biosecurity now that we have left the EU, there will still be an enormous risk of bringing in destructive bugs and diseases. Nearly every single disease or bug that has destroyed our UK trees has been imported. If Xylella fastidiosa—the most dangerous and lethal plant disease in the world—gets here, God help us. It can kill 595 different plant species in 85 different botanical families. Our countryside and all our gardens would become wastelands.
No matter how good port control might be, even if it is beefed up from the current inadequate levels, we cannot stop bugs and diseases coming in. Contractors will want to source the millions of trees and bushes needed for HS2 or Highways England road schemes from the cheapest suppliers. At the moment, they are the huge Dutch growers; that is where diseases will come in. This is why a requirement on acquiring plants from UK sources is so important. As the noble Baroness, Lady Young, said, it will also be good business for UK nurseries, which can easily supply all that would be required in due course.
We have a huge range of UK native trees, and there is no excuse not to use them: noble Lords need only look at the Woodland Trust website to see the range of native species and all the animal, bird, butterfly and other species that depend on our native flora for survival.
Finally, I want to support Amendment 260A. We will never achieve a fraction of the new woodlands that we wish to create unless we deal with rabbits, which are no longer much of a problem, and grey squirrels and deer, which are. One day in 1990, the then Minister of Agriculture, John Gummer MP, asked me, as junior Minister, to go through the MAFF research budget and root any unnecessary or wasteful research. Among others, I found a £250,000 programme researching the effect of rabbits on new woodlands schemes, which the department was funding. There was also one on controlling rabbits, which had been on the go since the 1940s, and another that was also running at £250,000 per annum and was on something that I cannot recall. I called in officials and said, “Have you found that rabbits are eating the bark of new saplings and killing them?” They looked surprised and asked if I had seen the report’s preliminary findings. Remaining remarkably calm for me in the circumstances, I pointed out that I was a countryman and did not need to spend £250,000 to discover that rabbits eat the bark of young trees.
When I spoke to officials on rabbit control, they informed me that there had been a marvellous breakthrough in that contraceptive pills were now 100% effective if eaten by the rabbits—but they could not find any way to make the rabbits eat them. I said that we did not need to spend another £250,000 researching the effects of ferrets and shotguns on rabbit populations, which had been proven to work in the past. But the problem was—and I think still is—that the department, understandably, was looking for huggy, squeezy, nice ways to control rabbits, and we have the same attitudes today dealing with grey squirrels, the destructive American tree rats. I recommend that the Minister have a word with the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, who ran a highly successful programme to deal with grey squirrels in Northumberland. With proper funding, that should be replicated throughout the country.
We also need to eliminate the Chinese muntjac deer. They are not a native species, either, and the damage they do to our native flora is immense. I quoted that story about rabbits, but rabbits are not the main problem now: squirrels and deer are. The point is that for over 40 or 50 years we have been researching how to deal with rabbits and have not got the solution. I wonder how many years we have been researching dealing with grey squirrels. We cannot wait another 40 years until we find a solution. This proposed new clause cleverly does not state what the solution should be, but that there has to be an animal damage protection standard. That is a clever way to tackle the problem and I commend it.
To conclude the anecdote of the never-ending Ministry of Agriculture rabbit research programme, I told that story in 1998 to the new Minister, who is now the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, who chuckled and said, “Don’t worry, David, we’re not so daft as to do that.” Two weeks later, he came steaming up to me and said, “You’ll not believe this, we’re still spending £700,000 on rabbit research”. Policies and Ministers change, but academic research goes on for ever. I am told that there has been an amazing scientific breakthrough in dealing with squirrels. The current research shows that contraceptive pills for grey squirrels, I can tell the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, are apparently 100% effective—but they still cannot get the squirrels to eat them. It will take 10 more years of research, the experts will no doubt advise the Minister to pay for. Omnia mutantur nihil interit: Everything changes but nothing is lost.
My Lords, it is always a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra. Much of what I was going to say has already been said by more eminent voices than mine, and, given that I have the lead amendment in the final group this evening, I will cut my comments quite short. I support the efforts of the noble Baroness, Lady Young, to introduce a national tree strategy for England. If she does not achieve her national land-use strategy, this might very well be the next best thing. We need a consensus that is locally informed but nationally co-ordinated, so that all areas of England can grow the trees that their local topography, climate and land-use heritage recommend.
I am also fully supportive of the thoughtful Amendment 260A, which was well introduced by the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, regarding animal damage. There is simply no point in planting broad-leaf trees in the south-west of England on a commercial basis these days, as squirrels and deer execute them long before they become viable.
Biosecurity is also vitally important, but we cannot prohibit or unduly limit the importation of trees from abroad for two principal reasons. First, we simply do not have the nursery infrastructure to grow sufficient stock on these shores to satisfy the demand, if the Government’s ambitious planting strategies are to be fulfilled. Secondly, our national forest is strengthened by the introduction of foreign species: it improves resilience and, with global warming an inevitability, we need to be planting tree species in the south of England that can withstand warmer weather during the 250-plus years that some of the broad-leafs should stand.
Finally, as for the controlled burning of peat and Amendment 283, given that this is not a common land-management practice in Devon, which has no native grouse, I should probably keep out of the debate. However, on Dartmoor and Woodbury Common we see increasing wildfire each summer, burning vital peat habitats, often many metres deep, with terrible environmental consequences and the release of vast quantities of carbon. If controlled surface burning of excessive vegetation would decrease the likelihood of this happening, while also encouraging young growth, I do not see that it should be precluded.
My Lords, I support Amendment 259, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone. It is tragic how many of our native trees have died and are dying from imported diseases. I hope that the noble Viscount, Lord Trenchard, will not mind me gently correcting him on one point. The giant sequoia tree—known in this country as the Wellingtonia—was imported from California many years after Capability Brown and Humphry Repton. I also support Amendment 260A, tabled by the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, and particularly the need, as has been mentioned by a number of noble Lords, to try to find a way to control grey squirrels, who are certainly destructive of so many tree species in this country.
I now turn to Amendment 283 and wish to pose some questions. The amendment has been tabled by the much-respected noble Baronesses, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb and Lady Bennett, and the noble Lord, Lord Teverson. I often agree with them on their amendments, but on this one I fear it is far too complex a matter to be solved simply by a ban on burning heather, bracken and other vegetation. I must make it clear that I have no interest to declare, other than that one of my children is trying in Scotland—which I think is outside the scope of this Bill—to regenerate heather in an area where there are no grouse and have not been for many decades. So far there, they have not burnt heather but are experimenting with cutting. Heather burning has become controversial, but it has been used for generations for moorland management and often in areas where there are no grouse.
I commend to noble Lords two papers that I have read recently. One is entitled “Experimental evidence for sustained carbon sequestration in fire-managed, peat moorlands”, published in Nature Geoscience in December 2018, and I quote from it:
“we quantify the effects of prescribed burning … and show that the impacts … are not as bad as is widely thought.”
The second paper I commend is the report of the Molland Moor project on Exmoor, where also there is no grouse interest. This study was co-ordinated by the Exmoor National Park Authority and brought together landowners, conservationists, farmers, ecologists and academics. The lessons learned from the project include:
“We can regenerate heather by burning on as large a scale as possible … We can control the Molinia and reduce the stands of bracken”.
The report comments that it is necessary to micromanage each small area, as there are so many variables. It continues:
“National policy makers must understand this. Molland Moor is hugely different”
from the moor next door.
In March, we debated the Heather and Grass etc. Burning (England) Regulations 2021, which ban the burning without licence of heather on peat over 40 centimetres in depth, on sites of special scientific interest, in special areas of conservation and in special protection areas. In that debate, the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville, talked with local knowledge about terrible wildfires on Dartmoor and Bodmin Moor. The noble Earl, Lord Caithness, described a horrendous fire in Caithness and Sutherland in 2019. It burned for six days and emitted 700,000 tonnes of CO2 equivalent. I mention these fires as there is plenty of evidence that controlled burning in relatively small strips at the right time of year and in the right place creates, among other outcomes, firebreaks against wildfires. The risk of wildfires is greater on unmanaged moorland, as old heather becomes woody and tinder-dry. Wildfires do much more damage to peat and to the environment generally than controlled, limited burns, sometimes described as “cool burns”.
All I am saying, and I repeat that I have no direct interest, is that this is a complicated matter on which the science is still evolving. Therefore, to include a ban in the Bill would be inappropriate. I suggest to Ministers that they consider and gather more evidence. Clearly, there should be rules, and perhaps they should be in a future regulation, but such rules must recognise that no two areas of land are ever exactly the same. Of course, this general point may be one of the difficulties of the new environmental land management schemes.
In conclusion, I could not support Amendment 283, but I look forward to hearing the Minister’s view.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington. I absolutely agree with him that no two pieces of land are exactly the same.
I support Amendment 260 in the names of the noble Baronesses, Lady Young and Lady Jones, the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, and the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, in particular proposed subsection (3) about the percentage of native woodland and the new native woodland that is achieved by natural regeneration.
I draw the Committee’s attention to the work of Professor Simard at the University of British Columbia. When she was 20, she was put to work on commercial forestry—the process of clear-cutting large areas of old-growth forest and planting individual seedlings, pine or birch, in neat and regimented rows. The thinking was that, without any competitors, trees would grow faster, taller and stronger. Instead, they were more frequently found to be vulnerable to disease and climatic stress than the older trees, which shared their patch of soil with other plants, mosses, firs and associated lifeforms. In particular, she studied the newly planted Douglas firs—great giants which provided valuable wood to the logging companies. Ten per cent of those plants invariably got sick and died whenever nearby aspen, paper birch and cottonwood were removed. Initially, when she was 20—she is now 60—she did not know why, because the trees had plenty of light and water, more than the old trees in the crowded forest. She worked through her life and in the end revealed and became the inventor of what is known as the “wood wide web”. The forest, she wrote, is like the internet, but instead of computers linked by radio waves, the trees are connected by fungi. There are centres and satellites, with the oldest trees as the biggest communication hubs. When the piece with her theory was published in Nature in 1997, it had that title of “Wood Wide Web”, and the name has stuck.
Once the underground pattern is understood, it is easy to see how seedlings can emerge in clear ground, because they have been nurtured underground by other trees, waiting for their moment to start growing. They are being fed by the mother trees—the central hub that the saplings and seedlings spring from—with threads of different fungal species, of different colours and weights, linking them layer upon layer in the strong and complex web. When the forest is cleared and the mother trees are cut down, the forests lose their way.
Professor Simard’s discoveries have kept coming, and she now finds that trees support each other in times of stress, drought or disease, and they can communicate needs and send supplies. Since Darwin, biologists have always maintained that survival is all about the selfish gene, doing anything to get ahead in the evolutionary race. But her work tosses that on its head.
We now understand that monocultures, whether of crops, trees or any plant species, are not healthy. My plea would be that in the tree strategy we understand that all new planted forests and woods must be of multiple trees. I absolutely agree with the noble Earl, Lord Devon, when he says we should start experimenting with trees, especially in the south of England, that will thrive in our newly warmed environment. But please do not let us spend all our tree-planting money on monocultures which end up leaving dead soil beneath that is not home to myriad mosses and animals and, in fact, ends up sequestering much less carbon than a mixed forest growth.
My Lords, I draw attention to my interests in the register. I have pleasure in supporting my noble friend Lord Kinnoull on his Amendment 260A.
The Government are setting ambitious tree-planting targets in their various plans, which is to be lauded, but those targets in England are not only not being met but, frankly, are being missed by a mile. Partly, this is to do with the delay in providing the much sought-after grant details associated with ELMS. More importantly, in my view, it is to do with the two uncontrolled destroyers of trees: deer and grey squirrels. I know there is a body of opinion that views these two mistily as Bambi or Landseer’s “The Monarch of the Glen”, or Beatrix Potter’s Squirrel Nutkin. But the reality, I am sorry to say, is that these pests have assumed the characteristics of vermin and, between them, have made the planting of trees in many parts of England a completely uneconomic proposition.
There are now more deer in the wild in England than in the Middle Ages, and climate change will only help expand their number. By way of example, in west Kent, Knole Park had a very nice deer herd. The deer fences were completely obliterated in the hurricane of 1987, and those 600 deer became the foundation of the indigenous population of fallow deer in our part of Kent. I am sure the same has been true of many other deer parks. In answer to the comment from the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, about SSSIs: a piece of council land that was adjacent, that was an SSSI, was also completely obliterated in that hurricane. The council has no money to replant that, and therefore it is never going to come back as the SSSI it once was. Looking forward to 2045, I do not think it is reasonable to assume it will, to be honest.
The grey squirrel population, not indigenous but an import gone feral, has exploded in number, to the detriment of the red squirrel, all bird life—eggs and chicks—and, most importantly, trees. Until the Government contribute to taking responsibility for its control, woodland owners, whether in the public or private sector, are being asked to put good money after bad. This amendment is intended to address this. The animal protection standard, as proposed, would ensure some accountability for public funds. It would ensure that land owned by the Government, local authorities, the Forestry Commission and agencies owning or operating public roads and railways would be obliged to undertake control against deer and grey squirrels. Given the parlous state of the public finances and, in particular, the demands being placed on the funds of local authorities, this amendment would necessitate proper commercial audit funds being invested in woodland, rather than have tree planting be a palliative feel-good factor.
Some will see this amendment as of little consequence, but the outcome is that the money invested in the planting of trees without these protections will result in silviculture that lacks its commercial production potential. It would also lack aesthetic appeal, with dead and dying trees providing the possibility of injury to the passing public, and increasing numbers of deer causing more and more road accidents. The private sector is doing what it can to control numbers by shooting and, in the case of grey squirrels, trapping and poisoning, and the work being done with Defra funding to find a sterilisation or fertility vaccine, following successful trials in the US, is to be welcomed. I assure my noble friend Lord Blencathra that if they are successful in that, I will get the squirrels in west Kent to eat what they are being asked to eat.
Private landowners need to know that if they are successful in controlling or even reducing deer and squirrel numbers, their efforts are being complemented by the measures proposed in this amendment to reduce public land providing sanctuary to these pests. Why would my noble friend the Minister not wish to support this amendment?
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow my noble friend Lord Colgrain, and I add that deer are a problem in my part of Wiltshire. Unfortunately, they also eat my roses.
I am very glad to speak on the subject of trees, which make Britain so special, captured for eternity by John Constable and indeed by David Hockney. In my career at Defra, I legislated for and launched the farm woodland scheme, which encouraged the planting especially of native oak and beech trees on agricultural land, working with Natural England’s very professional predecessors. We also had a 33,000-hectare planting target for the Forestry Commission, which was quite forward looking, if one thinks about it.
Turning to the proposals before us, my impression is that local authorities and highways authorities are paying more and more attention to the need to conserve trees, so is there really a case for the heavy-handed and detailed regulation in Clause 109? There is a cost, not least to local authorities, and I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, that there should be consultation on any guidance. Assuming that there is a harm and that the case is made for new powers, I would be grateful for some idea from my noble friend the Minister of the caseload expected. How will the consultation take place? For example, will there be a paper notice on the tree or nearby lamp-post? Will there be any statutory consultees and how long will it take for approvals to be given? I would also welcome confirmation that the pruning of trees will not be affected and will indeed be encouraged. In my experience, councils do not keep up to date with this at all well. Indeed, I have personal experience of an overhanging tree that was missed two or three years ago, and which is causing a lot of trouble to adjoining houses, notably mine.
We also need to be aware that nature is not the only objective in road maintenance. The safety of pedestrians, cyclists and drivers is important too. The latest fashion for leaving roadsides uncut can be dangerous, certainly in the lanes around my home in Wiltshire. The lusty green growth on banks and hedges makes it tight for passing cars and can hide cyclists, causing accidents.
Turning to the important issue of cost-benefit, apparently the costs for the felling proposals total £81 million over 10 years if you top up the figures in annexe 41, on page 260 of the statement of impacts. I await a reply from officials as to whether it is right to tot them up in that way, but I think that the costs will be significant. Can we really justify this, or should we be finding a simpler way to deal with the problem of the cutting down of trees alongside housing?
Still on the subject of trees, I should add that I could not find an impact assessment on the forestry provisions in Clause 109 and Schedule 16, which are not being discussed. These appear to introduce very wide-ranging powers to regulate and perhaps ban imports of products such as beef, rubber or soya that might be associated with wide-scale conversion of forest. One obviously understands and supports the rationale for this—saving the rainforests—but it could have a huge impact on business and trade if done in the wrong way. The Bill’s impact assessment is of course out of date because it was prepared on 3 December 2019, and the Bill has not made as rapid progress as we would all have hoped. Is there a late addition on the forestry risk commodity proposals that could be shared with us before Report?
In closing, I recognise the significance of the Bill and my noble friend’s understandable wish to progress it, but there are many uncertainties for us to swallow because of the use of delegated powers. Even affirmative resolutions, favoured by my noble friend Lord Blencathra, do not allow amendment to a set of regulations in the light of parliamentary scrutiny, and it is very unusual for draft regulations to be withdrawn. That applies to the trees regulations as well as to several other sets.
That is why, on Wednesday, I shall be moving an amendment to sunset individual regulations after a five-year period to allow a review of such provisions in the light of a cost-benefit analysis. An amendment of this type might help to make some of us happier with the wide-ranging powers being taken here and the lack of clear plans showing how many of them will be deployed to deal with the sort of issues being raised in this group of amendments and elsewhere in the Bill.
I support Amendments 258 to 260 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone. Amendment 258 would place ancient woodlands, which are clearly defined in the amendment, on an equal footing with sites of special scientific interest. The reason why it is so important to preserve ancient woodlands from the point of view of biodiversity, climate change, heritage and health of both nature and human beings has already been well spelt out, and I shall not repeat it. I shall add only that their significance is perhaps even greater than that of sites of special scientific interest; and the reasons put forward for why such sites need to be protected are perhaps even stronger in the case of ancient woodlands.
Amendment 259 requires the Government to implement a tree-planting standard that makes biosecurity an essential consideration—in particular, protecting our native trees from diseases coming from outside the UK. This welcome amendment relates to Amendment 31, on tree health, standing in my name and debated earlier in Committee. Amendment 31 stated:
“The Secretary of State must by regulations set targets in respect of trees, including targets on the overall health of tree populations, particularly in respect of native species, research into disease-resistant varieties, and progress in planting disease-resistant varieties.”
Sadly, as has been said many times this evening, the trees in this country are in a terrible state. A few years ago, as we know, the magnificent English elm, such a feature of our landscape when some of us were young, was completely wiped out by Dutch elm disease. Most recently, ash dieback has swept the whole country, from the east coast to the west coast, in just a few years, leaving a trail of thin, leafless branches. Our oaks are suffering from a blight, and so are our chestnuts.
The health of our trees must be a fundamental consideration in assessing the overall health of our environment. Ash dieback originated in Asia, where it has little impact on the local species, and has moved steadily west where, sadly, it has a deadly impact on native ash. Coming, I believe, from trees imported from Holland to East Anglia as recently as 2012, it has left a terrible trail, which breaks one’s heart to see, as I see it in west Wales.
In a highly globalised world, our native trees, like the human population, are increasingly vulnerable and susceptible to diseases, which may do little harm elsewhere but which are killers here. The need for tight biosecurity regulations and a clear standard of what is required is obvious. This requires an overall strategy, involving not just government but other public authorities, and the amendment sets that out clearly. I very strongly support it.
I also strongly support Amendment 260, which requires the Government to have a tree-planting strategy that contains targets for the protection, restoration and expansion of trees and woodland in England. This chimes in well, but in much more valuable detail, with an earlier amendment in my name, Amendment 12, on the planting of new trees. There I set out the reasons why we need to plant new trees—reasons mainly to do with climate change, which I shall not repeat here. The amendment before us requires the Government to have targets. Where I believe my earlier amendment has something to add to the present one is that that Amendment 12 said
“The Secretary of State must lay before Parliament, and publish, a statement containing information about progress towards meeting any targets set under subsection (3)(e) on an annual basis after any initial target is set (in addition to the requirements under section 5).”
Climate change is a threat of such urgency now that it is not adequate just to have targets. We need an annual report to Parliament on the progress being made to meet those targets, and this my earlier amendments sought to ensure. However, this present amendment is very welcome indeed because it sets out in detail what such a target should include, and I strongly support it.
It is a pleasure to follow the noble and right reverend Lord. I support the general message conveyed by most of the amendments in this group, but I single out for special mention Amendments 258 and 260 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, and Amendment 260A in the name of my noble friend Lord Kinnoull.
Amendment 258 seeks to place ancient woodlands on an equal footing with sites of special scientific interest. I have to confess that it was not until I was introduced to them when I was sitting on the HS2 committee that I became truly aware of what ancient woodlands are and how much they contribute to the biodiversity of our countryside. However, that introduction made a very real impression on me, as the evidence drew my attention to what was being lost as ancient woodlands—fortunately in very small sections in my case—were being given up to make way for the railway: a matter that I know is of great concern to the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra. I have taken a close interest in them ever since, whenever I can get out into the countryside.
As I have said on several previous occasions, ancient woodlands are not just about trees; they are, in short, havens of biodiversity of a kind that has been built up over centuries. It is all too easy to overlook what is going on at ground level. As the years go by, leaves fall, the ground lies undisturbed and a carpet is built up which gathers together a huge variety of wildlife within the soil and on its surface. There is much else above ground level, too, in the trees themselves, in that they provide food and shelter for other creatures. The older they are, the richer the habitat becomes. You cannot create, or indeed recreate, such an environment overnight, or even in a few decades. That is why we must redouble our efforts to preserve what remains of this part of our heritage as much as we can.
Of course, many sites of special scientific interest contain ancient woodlands. Indeed, in their case it is the woodlands themselves and the biodiversity that goes with them that justifies their listing in such sites. However, size matters when it comes to the listing of SSSIs and, indeed, the other elements of diversity. Many areas of ancient woodland are too small to justify that kind of listing. However, I wonder whether that is a reason for discarding the idea that they are entitled to special protection. It may be that to protect every single one of them in the kind of scheme that is referred to in this amendment goes a little too far, as the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, suggested. However, I would be very reluctant to rely simply on SSSIs as a means of protecting ancient woodlands. More needs to be done, which is why I support the thinking behind this amendment.
Amendment 260 would require the Government to prepare a tree strategy for England. This is another much-needed addition to what we can provide to preserve and enrich this resource. Steps, however, also need to be taken to greatly improve the protection we afford to trees, especially new trees, against animal damage. That is subject of Amendment 260A. I pay tribute to how the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, introduced his amendment, and to the work he is doing to draw attention to what is needed for their care and management. His particular concern is damage by grey squirrels. Where I am, which is not all that far away from he is just now, is too high for squirrels; our problem is damage by brown hares, though I would certainly not wish to eliminate brown hares. Whatever the cause, more needs to be done to bring this problem to the attention of those who ignore it, with the results that the noble Earl has mentioned.
The creation of new native woodland by tree planting and natural regeneration is, of course, desirable. It is not, however, without some deficits to the wider environment that would need to be addressed in any tree strategy. I draw attention to two of them, to emphasise the need for a carefully planned, properly resourced and worked-out strategy.
The first problem that concerns me is the protection against animal damage that is given to new trees. Until now, we have almost always relied on plastic tubes to protect them; these are unsightly and not biodegradable. Too often, if the trees do not take, we are left with row upon row of tubes that disfigure the scenery. Even if the trees do take, it is years before these cones split and are eventually covered up. Other means, surely, must be found, that provide a more environmentally friendly way of doing the same job.
The second problem that concerns me relates to the extent of natural regeneration. This will almost always require the culling of deer and other animals, or at least fencing to keep them out. That, however, comes at a cost. A balance needs to be struck between the priority that is given to trees and the losses that flow from the exclusion of grazing animals. Grass cover that is out of control makes it impossible for low-growing flowers to flourish. I know several areas where what was once rich meadow land has become a kind of desert for the botanist, as trees and grasses spread out of control. Areas once rich with thyme, field gentian, centaury and harebell, for example, are at risk of being lost to that kind of resource for ever. We should not allow that to happen. Perhaps more can be done by using sheep in small numbers to control the grasses in these areas, because the loss of flower diversity is as much a matter of concern as that of trees. These are just two reasons why a strategy for trees is so important. We need more trees--but we need to pay careful attention to how this resource is to be provided.
My Lords, it is always a pleasure to follow the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead. He invariably has something interesting to say and, normally, when I find it is not interesting, it is about legal matters, but that is because I cannot understand what he is saying. That is my fault. I refer to my interests in the register, particularly in forestry. I begin by underlining my support for trees, tree planting and ancient woodlands for all the obvious, well-understood and generally accepted reasons.
I particularly underscore my support for the amendments of the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, about pests and squirrels because, if they are not kept under control, tree planting is very difficult. I equally support his remarks and those of the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, about stock and phytosanitary protection. It is important to point out that this is not simply a matter of having legislation in place—you need an Administration that can act when appropriate. While we were members of the EU, the phytosanitary rules would have enabled us to put stipulations in place about importing foreign stock if we were concerned about health. It did not happen because the relevant part of Defra did not do anything about it.
My focus this evening is on trees and forestry strategy, in particular the mechanics of delivering whatever detailed strategy may be put in place, rather than the ostensible purpose of the strategy itself. In many ways, this is more difficult to get right than working out the specific target to achieve. In the case of forestry, we are looking for a considerable increase in the area of the country’s land surface growing trees. Trees, however—this point was very well made by the noble Lord, Lord Curry of Kirkharle—come in different types and configurations. They can be planted in large blocks, known as forests, in smaller parcels, normally known as woods, or individually. The issues they pose, as a number of speakers have said, are slightly different in urban and rural locations. These nuances need careful thought and to be built into the policy.
On top of this, increased tree planting impinges on other land uses and livelihoods either based directly on it or derived at arm’s length from it. For example, in the Lake District, which I know well, the visitor economy is dependent on the open fells. If such land is planted up, regardless of any other consideration, it may have a serious impact on other apparently superficially separate sectors of the economy. Similarly, obviously, most tree planting, which costs money, is likely to take place on land currently in agriculture. How is this migration going to be effected? Is it by making tree planting more attractive or farming less so? We know that traditional farming is facing a gloomy outlook, which is frightening many farming families. Perhaps we may see some development of the EU system of cross-compliance.
In this country, certainly since the town and country planning system came into place, rural Britain has been seen as what I might describe as the natural location for agricultural forestry. Now public policy appears to be concluding that we need less farming and more forestry in rural Britain; they are no longer as evenly balanced as they used to be. In the 18th and 19th centuries in England, the enclosure movement was precipitated by a change in farming practice responding to the increased demand for food brought about by the Industrial Revolution. These changes, which introduced a new economic and social dynamic into rural Britain, seem somewhat similar to those we are considering in this particular push for forestry and, probably more widely, in the approach to the environment.
The changes I have referred to caused, in turn, a real revolution in rural livelihoods, rural land use, rural communities and rural land ownership. That is widely recognised and understood. Are these things that the Government are happy to bring about, either as a result of these policies or as a necessary precondition of their policies achieving what they are setting out to do? In north-east Cumbria, small farmers who now see no future for their current activities are selling out to large forestry companies. Do the Government support this, do they think it is a bad development or are they more or less indifferent to it, considering it a matter solely for the invisible hand of the market?
It seems to me that the lesson of the enclosure movements, and then the system of town and country planning, is that changes in land use can have very far-reaching changes in rural Britain. These go far beyond the specific change itself. In this context, the question I pose to the Government is: in their policy for increased tree planting and forestry, do they consider the inherent and inevitable collateral consequences for the wider rural economy to be an integral part of tree and forestry strategy, meriting at least as much consideration as the planting of the trees themselves?
My Lords, it is a challenge to follow a contribution as knowledgeable as that which we have just heard from the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood. I declare my interests as set out in the register, in particular as an owner of both ancient and not-so-ancient woodland. I will speak to Amendments 258, 259 and 260, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone. While understanding their worthy intention, I oppose them, but I give my full support to Amendment 260A of the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, as will become clear.
My reasons for opposing Amendments 258, 259 and 260 are as follows. With regard to Amendment 258, I agree with almost every word that was said by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas. There is much misunderstanding of the words “ancient woodland”. A great many woods listed as “ancient woodland” are not ancient at all, although they may occupy the site of a wood that once met that description.
In England, during the first half of the last century, many of these woods were clear-felled, principally due to the exigencies of war. After the Second World War, many farmers and landowners who were, like others, desperately short of cash, sold or leased their woods to the Forestry Commission, which then planted them according to the norms of the time, which often meant Corsican pine, spruce and similar species, without sufficient regard for their suitability or the location. Much of that woodland has been felled in its turn, and new trees, often native species, have been planted.
All I am saying is that we should be careful about how we envisage ancient woodlands. They are often anything but ancient and often distinctly commercial, so placing them on the same level as an SSSI is not always appropriate and could be distinctly counter- productive if they are to be managed commercially.
Amendment 259 is much more worthy of support, with its objective of preventing the importation of diseases, but I cannot accept a situation where native broad-leaved trees and shrubs are sourced only from UK growers and grown within the UK for their entire life. I will give two reasons. First, with our huge tree-planting ambitions—in particular in urban planting, where more mature trees are required—domestically sourced trees are unlikely to be able to fulfil this requirement for many years, as has already been said by the noble Earl, Lord Devon.
Secondly, surely science and gene editing will steadily improve the safety of imports? With the effects of climate change, we need to look at importing trees grown in more southerly climates, as mentioned by the noble Viscount, Lord Trenchard. Obviously, we need to stringently inspect and test such imports, but please do not forget that ash dieback was spread by wind, not soil.
I was hoping to hear from the proposers of Amendment 260 who would do all the work, and with what resources. Setting out the vision, objectives and policies is pretty simple, but that cannot be said of assembling the underlying information to see what targets are achieved. No doubt it is fine in the case of woodland and forestry owned by the Forestry Commission and other institutional owners such as the Woodland Trust, but think of the burden that this imposes on private owners without access to the generous taxpayer or charitable or institutional funding. Some of the information required may also be of dubious value. I hate to disagree with the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, but there is a problem in proposed new subsection 3(c) on woodland creation achieved from natural regeneration. Where I live, the natural regeneration at present is almost exclusively ash, which is unlikely to survive Chalara.
The concentration on maintenance is vital, but it is an impossible task without serious action being taken to control pests, which is why I support Amendment 260A. In my part of the Chilterns, a large forestry management business is refusing to grow beech again until the grey squirrel is controlled. At present, beech is just squirrel food. This involves tough decisions that are unlikely to be taken if the public have the same negative attitude to killing deer and squirrels as they do to controlling the badger. Also, where is the money coming from? The England woodland creation offer provides support for 10 years, at which point the woodland financed risks joining the huge list of undermaintained woodland not currently eligible for grants.
I am also surprised that Amendment 260 says so little about the importance of newly created commercial forestry. I recommend to all those interested the study by the University of Bangor which has just been published in Nature. It says, first, that
“research contradicts existing opinion that decarbonisation is best served by planting native broadleaves or re-wilding”.
Secondly, it says:
“Climate change mitigation from harvested stands surpasses unharvested stands 100 years after planting.”
Thirdly, it says:
“Newly planted commercial forest can achieve 269% greater climate change mitigation than semi-natural alternatives.”
In summary, this report says that productive new planting can deliver significantly more net carbon benefits than more natural broadleaved systems in the same period—up to two and half times more in some cases. Certainly, we need both commercial and broadleaved woods to achieve carbon sequestration, timber yield and, at the same time, biodiversity.
Finally, we need to recognise that if we want to achieve these massive tree-planting targets, commercial woodland, not amenity woodland, is the key. No doubt there are philanthropic owners who, together with farmers and others, will plant trees either in existing woodland or in field corners supported by ELMS. But in order to attract serious long-term investment, we need a more open approach which recognises that the profit motive is essential. There will be huge demand for timber for the building trade and the like as we try to limit steel and cement due to their carbon footprint. An owner of commercial woodland can see that, ultimately, the value of his timber will rise substantially. He may not receive a current yield on his investment, but the appreciation will be reflected in the capital value of his woodland or forestry. The same is not the case for amenity woodland. Surely this is the way forward, in that it ticks all the boxes of carbon benefits, biodiversity, supply of a product in great demand and a decent investment. Of course, balance is everything. That is something that is underplayed in Amendments 258 to 260, which is why I oppose them.
My Lords, it is very difficult to follow the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, with his expertise and knowledge—much as previous speakers. I share his love of the Chilterns, not only because of the hanging beech woods, where I have often wandered around looking at the orchids, butterflies and other biodiversity, but because, about four generations ago, my family sold furniture that had been made from the beech in those Chiltern woods.
I speak, first, to Amendment 258. I was initially attracted to this because, as we have heard, the importance of ancient woodland is well understood. I was fascinated to hear the epiphany of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, following his excellent chairmanship of the HS2 committee—I am glad that something good has come out of HS2 for once—which was almost matched by the Damascene conversion of the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, in his previous incarnation as a purveyor of peat. However, to me, this is about protection; whether it is a SSSI or ancient woodland, this is about whether we can protect them adequately.
As they say on news programmes, “While we’ve been on air,” though I think it was probably earlier today, I have discovered that 553 acres of privately owned woodland—I do not know if it is ancient woodland—is going to be taken, it is reported, by Center Parcs to open a new site. This area is, I think, a SSSI; it has Schedule 1 breeding birds such as honey buzzard, goshawk, firecrest, hobby and crossbill nesting there, as well as threatened species such as redstart, nightjar and lesser spotted woodpecker. I do not know how protected this will be—we heard in the previous debate from the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, about Swanscombe peninsula and the threats there. If the designation means protection, that is obviously a good thing, but if it is just another designation that does not help, is it necessary? I have listened to the other arguments and I am not sure whether this is necessary. Normally, when it comes to woodland issues, the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, has a lot going for her, so I am tempted by her amendment.
I move on to Amendment 259. Again, we have talked a lot about biosecurity. The idea that this should be British trees initially appeals. However, the arguments about climate change and the amount of capacity that we have with British growers—as the noble Earl, Lord Devon, and others mentioned—are also compelling. The problem is not so much that they are being imported and grown elsewhere but in the actual word “biosecurity”; it is about what they may bring with them. One thing that is a problem is whether we have enough inspections for such things. There are a lot of bad things that are brought in—not just viruses or plant diseases but parasites as well. I am sure that many noble Lords know about the Obama worm, Obama nungara, which is a South American species that is very bad for invertebrates that are very helpful to horticulture. They came over, there are large numbers in France and we have now found them here. They have been coming in the soil; they are not necessarily visible. I do not know what the answer is—perhaps quarantine or something else—but it is too simplistic, I fear, to say that we must restrict ourselves to British-grown trees, however inviting that might seem.
Finally, I would like to say a few things about Amendment 260A. I agree entirely about the problem of grey squirrels. My noble friend Lord Blencathra mentioned muntjac, which not only have been a terrible curse for my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe’s roses—we suffer from that in our own suburban garden here in Uxbridge—but have been devastating the habitat of many birds. I think they are attributed to the decline of the nightingale, certainly in Norfolk and elsewhere, because they are eating that habitat.
I have a solution, possibly for the grey squirrels and the muntjac—and that other invasive species we are not talking about because it has nothing to do with trees, which is the signal crayfish—and that is that they are all excellent to eat. If we could just get the muntjac and grey squirrel shot, but not with lead, we could probably do a good service. Muntjac is particularly tasty.
I think it was the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, who talked about plastic tree guards. There are now surveys looking at jute and wool tree guards, which may be the answer to that. Certainly, there is a problem. Some people will say that too many deer is a reason to introduce lynx—I am not sure whether that would be very popular in Sussex, or elsewhere, but I have a great deal of sympathy with Amendment 260A. I am very interested to hear what the Minister has to say, and I will not detain the Committee any longer.
My Lords, I have added my name to three amendments: Amendments 259 and 260 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, and Amendment 260A, in the name of the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull. I have listened carefully to this very interesting debate.
The noble Lord, Lord Carrington, put his finger on it when he talked about the need for commercial forestry in this country. I have spoken a lot in the past about forestry. We are not good foresters in this country—we have the ideal climate for growing trees, and we do grow trees, but we are not good foresters, and that is why our timber is in the bad condition that it is. In Amendment 260, the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, proposes that the Government introduce a tree strategy. That will be hugely important because whenever we have mentioned trees recently my noble friend Lord Goldsmith has said, “Well, there is plenty of room beside riverbanks and stream-banks and unfarmed bits of land.” Yes, there is, but those are amenity trees and nothing to do with commercial woodland. We are the number two world importer of timber, which is a very bad statistic for the UK to have.
The problem with the idea of the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, for commercial woodland was rightly exposed by the noble Earl, Lord Devon, who said that commercial woodland is unprofitable: nobody is growing hardwood timber commercially any more. You cannot, because of pests and diseases. That is why Amendment 260A is so important, as is Amendment 259, which deals with biodiversity.
The noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, said that there are pests and diseases for every native hardwood. If that is the case, and the Government’s strategy is what it is, commercial hardwoods have seen their day in this country. That is a terrible thing to have to say but, sadly, it is the truth. Not only do we need a tree strategy; for that we need a land strategy, because 20% of agricultural land will come out of production to go into forestry and biodiversity. Where is it going to happen? We do not know; this is all a bit pie in the sky from the Government.
The amendment of the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, adds a duty to set animal damage protection. That is hugely important, and there have been a number of important comments on it. My noble friend Lord Lucas told us of the case in Dorset where the RSPB fenced off a bit of woodland to keep the fallow deer out. That is a hugely irresponsible act of management, because all it does is push elsewhere the problem of excess deer in this country. It does not deal with it. My noble friend Lord Colgrain talked about the increasing numbers of car accidents due to deer and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, talked about how trees and long grasses change biodiversity. All those are very relevant points.
I will talk a bit more about damage to trees. I am very glad that Defra has not lost its sense of humour; I was extremely grateful to receive the other day from my noble friend the “Environment Bill nature and biodiversity factsheets”, on the front of which is a picture of three doe-eyed deer. They are eating the woodland in which they have been photographed. My compliments to Defra on its sense of humour.
I was recently in Dorset looking at some land on which I noticed a lot of self-sown trees last year. Every single leader of those trees has been eaten by deer this spring. Not one single tree that was self-generated will be able to grow into anything like a normal tree. Not only is the eating of leaders detrimental; there is also the rubbing and marking of trees by deer, particularly when cleaning their antlers and marking their territory. I think my noble friends Lord Blencathra and Lord Randall of Uxbridge mentioned the muntjac. Let us not forget that the muntjac can produce three fawns in two years. It is estimated that, if we want to control the present muntjac population as it is, the cull must be at 30% a year. Is that remotely likely? Does that have any support from the Government?
As our development presses out more and more into the countryside, it is getting harder and harder for people to control deer. Those who do will only find that their next-door neighbour is producing an oasis or refuge for deer, and more and more will come on to their land and undo any good being done. We also have the question of rabbits and, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, said, hares.
The answer is that, if timber is uncommercial to grow, you cannot put up fences, which are too expensive, so you have to rely on plastic tubes. I foresee that, in 10 years’ time, we will have a pretty good desert of empty plastic tubes, because they will not work. Hopefully, we will get to a less polluting material than plastic, but I fear I am very negative about the future of forestry in this country under the present arrangements the Government have in hand.
The noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, is absolutely right in her Amendment 260 that there needs to be a plan for the maintenance of trees and woodlands. It is no good having a target just for planting trees—you can tick that box very easily; it is, as I have said before, maintaining trees and bringing them to maturity that will benefit our country. However, as we know, the ages of 15 to 40 are the time when the abundance of grey squirrels will attack and destroy most of our native hardwoods. The Government really need to get their act together if they are going to fulfil their hopes for forestry in this country.
I turn finally to Amendment 283. Here, after six days of agreement, I part company with a lot of my noble friends, and noble friends opposite, including the noble Lord, Lord Teverson. This is a hugely complex and emotional subject. We can all agree that nobody wants to burn peat and everybody wants to keep it as wet as possible; the science is incomplete and in many cases contradictory. There is a lot more work needed to get the science right.
If the point of this amendment is to stop flooding, I simply say that a saturated peat bog does nothing to stop it at all. I could take your Lordships up to Caithness and Sutherland, to the Flow Country, and when that bog is wet, the water just runs off it. It does not stop flooding in any way. The peat bog will have to be managed to keep the bog just below the water table, so that when there is extra rain, it is the sponge that can absorb it. But if it already fully saturated, it is of no great benefit to anybody.
If the purpose of the amendment is to tackle greenhouse gases, it is possibly true that there is some carbon emitted in a controlled burn, but nothing to that which is emitted in wildfires. One has only to look at the fire in the Flow Country that I mentioned at our debate in March on the burning regulations, which doubled Scotland’s CO2 output. At Saddleworth Moor, they lost 200 years of stored carbon, according to the University of Liverpool, because that was unmanaged. The owners of Saddleworth Moor had turned their back on sensible management of heather and peatland, let it grow too long, and the inevitable happened.
Why do those who tabled this amendment want to go completely the opposite way when the science in Australia and America, and all the rest of the world, is telling us that controlled burning helps biodiversity and helps stop wildfires? Is the point of the amendment to make us have more biodiversity? If only we could communicate with the golden plover, the curlew and the hen harrier, they would all tell us: no, it does not. We need a managed moorland to thrive. All the evidence shows that curlews are greater in numbers on a managed grouse moor than they are on unmanaged heather. Heather is one of our great resources but it is declining, and we need to keep it going. One of the best ways of doing so is to burn it on a rotational basis.
We must define peatland, as there are something like 25 different categories of peat. It depends on the amount of organic mixture in the soil; some use 35% organic, some use 30%—the Americans—and I think it is Cranfield which uses 20%. So we do not know what we are talking about—a lot more work needs to be done.
I am very much against this amendment. We are all heading in the same direction; the debate is about how we get there. I believe that we must leave every option open, and allow controlled burning which, if done properly, should not touch the mosses or the peat. It is only the nitrogenous foliage above the peat which gets burned, and you are left with what is known as biochar on the stalks. Although biochar has been totally ignored in all previous research, it has increasingly been shown that it is a hugely important source for not only retaining but absorbing carbon.
The scientists disagree. They were all pretty well in agreement until fairly recently, but recent evidence shows that, in the past, scientists were wrong. I hope my noble friend on the Front Bench will turn down this amendment and say that first, we need to do far more research and secondly, we must not do this until we get the definitions right in the first place.
My Lords, it is a particular pleasure to speak in the same debate as the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, from whose wisdom, when I was a very young bishop some 20 years ago, I learned a great deal. I also an honour to follow the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, who has reminded us, powerfully, of the crucial role that commercial forestry and good moorland management should be enabled to play. Hence, I draw your Lordships’ attention to my interests as set out in the register, specifically my deputy chairmanship of the Church Commissioners, which the noble and right reverend Lord famously once took to court. We are one of the foremost owners of sustainable commercial forestry in the UK and beyond.
I speak, tonight, in support of Amendment 260. I also believe that Amendments 258, 259 and 283 are worthy of further consideration, but note the arguments of noble Lords who believe more work needs to be done to get the balance right. On Amendment 260, we will not achieve the recovery in levels of forestation that our country needs unless we have clear national targets, broken down into detail, as set out here. Moreover, a tree strategy will set those targets in the context of a wider narrative and allow major landowners, such as the Church Commissioners for England, to best play our part in its delivery. As a glance at the Hansard from another place will confirm to noble Lords, my colleague the Second Church Estates Commissioner, Andrew Selous MP, regularly responds there to Members’ questions about the work of the commissioners on forestry, tree and land management best practice among our many tenants. Commissioners have also met regularly with the Minister and his colleagues, and we look forward to a continued dialogue regarding both our domestic and international forestry activities.
This country needs a tree strategy; trees are not a problem to be solved, but a core part of our heritage and our future. Our aspiration is that a tree strategy will help us to plant the right species of trees in the right places. As the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, has reminded us, it is not simply a matter of increasing out total forest cover. Planting trees on high-quality arable land, or where a large number of visitors come to enjoy open vistas, simply to meet a target would be retrograde. However, as well as adding to the total number of trees, planting them where they can assist with managing water levels, prevent flooding or help maintain soil richness, will have a huge positive impact.
To save your Lordships’ time, I have not requested to speak at this stage in support of the later group of amendments that focus on indigenous communities and forestry products imported from overseas. However, I endorse them strongly, and I can assure noble Lords that these are matters that the Church Commissioners take into full account with regard to our own overseas assets. Indeed, we are already proactively engaging with Governments around the world to look at the good stewardship of our global natural assets and protect the rights of indigenous communities.
The noble Earl, Lord Shrewsbury, has withdrawn, so the next speaker is the noble Lord, Lord Framlingham.
My Lords, I would like to speak to Amendments 258, 259 and 260, and I declare my non-pecuniary interests. I was, many years ago, president of the Arboricultural Association, and I am currently an honorary fellow. What a terrific debate this has been so far, with thoughtful, knowledgeable and concerned contributions. There have been 23 Back Bench speakers, and I am number 23, so I am sure you will appreciate that I do not have a huge canvas unworked to paint.
On Amendment 258, ancient woodlands are so precious. Their value and what they contribute to our environment and enjoyment have been so well explained that I need not dwell on it again. I simply remind us all of two things. First, they can be seen as a touchstone—a bellwether for how much we really value them and, by association, our environment. Secondly, we should be judged by how seriously we take steps to protect them from damage and destruction by developments of all kinds. The biggest culprit by far at the moment is HS2, which I have spoken about before. There are 108 sites endangered by this project, 32 of them in phase 1. The photographs of the destruction already done are heart-breaking. We must surely do better.
I will speak briefly to Amendment 259. Post Brexit, we are in the enviable position of being able to determine our own plant import regulations. We must ensure that they are as tight as possible to keep out the many diseases present in Europe and other parts of the world, which would have a devastating effect on our trees were they to get in. A fungal disease of planes, known as plane wilt, that is present in France and the bacterial disease of olives, Xylella, which started in Italy, are just two of the many diseases that would wreak havoc were they to establish themselves here.
Noble Lords have already dealt with many of the other diseases. It is important to remember that the oak processionary moth, so damaging to our oak trees and now present in all parts of the country, was not long ago conveniently distributed there by a consignment of oak trees from Holland, saving the pests the trouble—a woeful breach of security. We must do all we can to protect our trees and raise public awareness of the danger from any kind of plant material.
I completely agree with Amendment 260 on the tree strategy. As we embark on the greatest tree-planting programme of our time, it is essential that we get it right so that a golden opportunity is not squandered, either in money or the time it takes to establish trees. We must be aware of how the scheme is to be delivered and how it will be overseen. It is important to know which professional disciplines will play a role in advising government and monitoring progress.
The Government should have the best possible advice available. If you are planning a housebuilding project, you consult builders, architects and planners. For a medical programme, you would talk to doctors and nurses, while any educational change would involve schoolteachers and universities. Who do we consult on a tree strategy? For forestry—growing trees for timber or silviculture—and planting trees out in the countryside, it is the Forestry Commission, with its wealth of experience over many years. For urban trees in our cities, towns and villages, it must be those dedicated to and responsible for looking after trees for their amenity value: arboriculturists. Urban trees are every bit as important as trees in the countryside, not only for the good they do in improving air quality and absorbing CO2, but for the pleasure and peace they bring every day to millions of people by their very presence in our increasingly stark urban landscape. Patients get better faster in wards with a view of trees than those without.
Whenever you look out of the window in this country, you can almost always see a tree. Who do your Lordships suppose looks after them, from the wonderful planes on Victoria Embankment to the trees in your garden? The answer is tree consultants, tree surgeons and local government tree officers, all of them arboriculturists. Their parent body is the Arboricultural Association, a large, well-organised and very successful organisation. It runs training schemes in all aspects of arboriculture, confers qualifications, produces a directory of qualified people—from tree surgeons to consultants—and monitors standards in the industry. It holds regular training and educational seminars, and a hugely successful annual conference with international speakers. It regularly produces a journal which contains the latest scientific developments in tree planting, diseases and tree management, again with contributions from leading specialists around the world.
In short, if you have a problem with your trees of any kind, including this big planting programme, arboriculturists are the people to consult. If you have an issue of any kind, from what trees to plant where, from crown reduction to felling, from cabling to cavity treatment, from diagnosing honey fungus to deciding whether your tree is responsible for the subsidence to your home, the person you will call will be an arboriculturist. Local government tree officers know their areas. They know what to plant and how to ensure they thrive. All this expertise is needed in planning our tree strategy.
In his response to this debate, will the Minister confirm that he and his department are aware of the importance of arboriculturists, particularly the Arboricultural Association and the experience it can bring to the table? Will he include it in the consultation and the implementation of the tree strategy?
My Lords, this varied group had attracted some 25 speakers, but some have withdrawn due to the timing. The main debate has been about trees, not some of the other amendments.
The noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, set out extremely well the reasons for Amendments 257E and 257F and the dramatic effect that the guidance that the Secretary of State provides could have on the local authorities. It is therefore not only advisable but imperative that local authorities are consulted on the likely impact on their activities and service delivery. We have all heard of the outrage in Sheffield over the felling of trees without consultation. Local authorities need the power to act to prevent the spread of disease in trees, but local people should be consulted and understand the reasons for local authority actions.
The noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, introduced Amendment 258 on the protection of ancient woodland, Amendment 259 on introducing biodiversity standards when planting trees, and Amendment 260 on the duty to prepare a tree strategy for England. She is extremely knowledgeable on the subject of woodlands and trees, and we support her amendments. Other Peers also spoke in favour of these three amendments to protect and expand the planting of trees. We support placing ancient woodland on the same basis as SSSIs, but on an individual basis. Some 1,200 ancient woodlands are on the at-risk register and in need of protection, so something has to be done.
Importing trees runs the risk of introducing pests and diseases into our already depleted woodlands. Growing our own trees has been discussed previously during the round of statutory instruments introduced to assist our passage from the EU. Growing our own is one way to limit the damage from pests. The noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, has supported this.
The noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, introduced Amendment 260A on the risks that deer and grey squirrels present to newly planted and already established trees. The majority of speakers supported the amendment. Grey squirrels in particular are typical of a non-native invasive species that has been imported from abroad, and they have decimated our own red squirrel population almost to the point of extinction. Red squirrels are beginning to make a comeback in selected protected environments—the Isle of Wight and Brownsea Island are two such—but there is a long way to go for them to reach the numbers seen in previous decades.
Deforestation has decreased overall tree cover over the decades to an appallingly low level of 13%. The damage caused by grey squirrels is enormous. The UK Squirrel Accord is working to tackle the problem, but the motorway and railway agencies are not complying. Could the Minister encourage them to comply? Unless a robust standard is set for the protection of newly planted trees from animal damage, I fear the Government are not likely to see many of the trees they plants reach maturity.
The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, has lost 60% of his replanted ancient woodland to grey squirrel damage, and my noble friend Lord Teverson has championed biodiversity, the protection of trees and increased planting. Only 7% of our landscape is covered with trees, and only 2% is ancient woodland. A tree strategy and action plan to protect and invest in trees, based on science, is essential.
Amendment 283, in the names of the noble Baronesses, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, and Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, and my noble friend Lord Teverson would ban the rotational burning of vegetation on upland peat moors. I have listened to the arguments that this will protect the peat, but I am not convinced. In March, we debated the effect of wildfires on peat moors, as the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, reminded us. There are frequent wildfires on Bodmin, Dartmoor and Exmoor peat moors. Some are accidental; some are set deliberately. Wildfires are not confined to the West Country; the upland moors also suffer from them.
The managed burning of a heather moor is carried out under controlled conditions and by a patch at a time. It is a cool burn, and the underlying peat does not ignite. This is not the case with wildfires, which can rage out of control for days, with the underlying peat catching fire and spreading underground over significant distances, causing considerable damage.
Managed burning is better than out-of-control wildfires—a view supported by the noble Earl, Lord Devon. The Government have trailed their peat strategy, which is due to be published this year. However, it is a long time coming. I would rather see amendments to the way we produce and use our peat, both commercially and on uplands, dealt with under this strategy and not piecemeal, as with this amendment.
Peat takes hundreds of years to form but can be depleted very quickly. My husband recently went to the local garden centre to buy compost. He asked the owner which were the peat-free bags—there was only one variety. He stood next to a woman who was instructing her husband to buy several bags of compost with the words, “Make sure it has a very high peat content”.
The message about the finite quantity of peat is not getting through. Can the Minister say when the peat strategy for the country will be published? It will affect not only the upland peat bogs but the lowland peat moors, which are currently being exploited under licence for the benefit of the English country garden. I urge the Minister to consider Amendment 283, along with the peat strategy, when that eventually appears.
Peatland restoration is taking place in a variety of types of peatland. Restoration on the levels referred to by my noble friend Lord Teverson is very impressive: it has created new habitats and restored the water levels. On the next moor, however, peat is still being extracted. I look forward to the Minister’s response to the many and varied arguments put forward in this very long debate.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, for moving his amendments, which now seems quite a long time ago. But I am sure he has listened with interest to the rest of the debate.
I am speaking in support of the amendments in the name of my noble friend Lady Young of Old Scone, to which I have added my name, and to my Amendment 283 on the prohibition on burning peat. I am grateful to the noble Baronesses, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb and Lady Bennett, and the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, for adding their names.
My noble friend Lady Young has made an excellent case for the need for a tree strategy to be included in the Bill. It is interesting that the only mention of trees in the Bill is about felling rather than planting trees. Obviously, the Government’s announcement of the England tree action plan is welcome, as is the commitment to treble woodland creation rates to meet a target of planting 30,000 hectares per year by the end of this Parliament. But I echo my noble friend’s concern that the plan lacks the clarity and targets needed to ensure an effective implementation. As noble Lords will be all too aware, government targets for tree planting have come and gone before and, at last count, we were still way behind the Government’s earlier target to plant 11 million trees.
In his letter to us of 10 June, the Minister said that, following
“the policy paper … published in August 2020, the Government is exploring whether a statutory target for trees … would be appropriate.”
That was a year ago, so can the Minister clarify the result of that consideration? Does he now agree with my noble friend that the time has now come to enact such a target in this Bill?
The Minister’s letter also says:
“The Government plans to consult on a long-term tree target … in early 2022”.
But as we discussed in earlier sections of the Bill, our experience so far has been that these consultations tend to have an organisational drift: targets come and go, and other work priorities take precedence. We think there is urgency for this work, and I hope that the Minister will be able to update us on the work that is planned and the timetables involved.
Meanwhile, there is increasing urgency to increase planting levels, as the Committee on Climate Change has made it clear that across the UK, tree planting has consistently fallen below what is needed to achieve net zero by 2050. This is why we agree with the Woodland Trust and others that we need to put the production of a tree strategy, with targets and interim targets, on the face of the Bill.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, that we need both commercial forestry and conservation woodlands to be included. As he says, balance is everything, but we would expect all those issues to be covered by a tree strategy. I agree with the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester that it is important that planting is done sensitively to ensure that the right tree is planted in the right place. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, that we need more information about what the best conditions are to create natural tree regeneration, because our experience has been mixed in this. I also agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, that we still have a lot to learn about how trees communicate with and nurture each other.
It is also important that smaller woodlands are encouraged and ancient woodlands are protected, as well as schemes to ensure that trees are properly conserved for the longer term. This is why we welcome the proposal that ancient woodlands should be dealt with on the same basis as SSSIs, although I understand the concerns that noble Lords have raised that it could be a lengthy and complex process. What we are looking for is a simplified model of that protection.
I agree with the point from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, that some woodlands are too small to be designated as SSSIs, so we need an approach that can encompass all that. I also agree with the noble Lord, Lord Randall, that SSSIs only have any use to us if they provide real protection for the trees and the diversity that they are meant to be protecting.
The Government’s recent announcement emphasises the need for diverse woodlands with a focus on native broad-leaf trees and the need to improve our domestic tree production with high levels of biosecurity. We welcome this approach. My noble friend Lady Young of Old Scone made a case for urgent action to ensure that domestic nurseries provide saplings grown to a disease-free standard. Many noble Lords have spoken, quite rightly, about their concerns about the progress of new diseases and new pests and the heartbreak caused when woodlands had to be felled as a result.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, I fondly remember the sterling work of the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner, to battle on this front. He did an enormous amount of working in this area, but it did feel that at times that he was on the losing side, despite all his efforts. These issues are spelled out in my noble friend’s amendments, so I hope that the Minister will feel able to support these amendments.
My Amendment 283 would prohibit the burning of peat in all upland areas. This follows on from the inadequate actions of the Government earlier this year to ban peat burning only in sites of special scientific interest—which Wildlife and Countryside Link calculated equates only to a maximum of 30% of the total upland peat. The Government’s SI also included a number of exemptions which mean that large swathes of upland bog burning will take place much as before. The England Peat Action Plan, published in May, says simply that these regulations will be kept “under review”. This is just not good enough. As the noble Lord Teverson, said, our peatlands are the jewels of the countryside.
It is impossible to overstate the importance of the restoration of our peat bogs to reaching our climate change targets. Through well-managed peat bogs we have the capacity to store 3.2 billion tonnes of carbon, but this natural resource has been eroded by habitat encroachment, by the excavation of peat for horticulture and, most damagingly, by the burning of peat vegetation. The Climate Change Committee said last year that
“the practice should be banned across the UK with immediate effect.”
I assure the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, that the committee’s recommendation is based on the best and most up-to-date scientific evidence. Indeed, if you read its report, it is constantly referenced with these citations. We agree that this is a complex issue but ultimately that does not alter its recommendations.
The Adaptation Committee of the Climate Change Committee in its report last month also picked up on this issue and stressed again that the Government must rewet 100% of upland peat moors urgently. In answer to the noble Viscount, Lord Trenchard, that is what our amendment seeks to achieve: not just the banning of burning but to ensure that all the upland peat land is rewetted to deep bog status. This is what our amendment seeks to do. I hope the Minister now accepts that it is necessary to take more radical action on this issue than he has been prepared to take in the past, and I hope he will therefore feel able to support our amendment. Perhaps he can also update us on the banning of the sale of horticultural peat, which a number of noble Lords raised.
I will comment briefly on the other amendments in this group. The new clause to protect street trees from unnecessary felling is welcome, as is the emphasis on consulting communities. The sad fact is that local highways authorities have not always taken their environmental obligations on this sufficiently seriously. I have some sympathy with Amendment 257E in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, on the need to consult local authorities before issuing guidance, and I hope that that would be standard practice. I am slightly more sceptical about the noble Lord’s second amendment allowing local highways authorities to set further local exemptions. The Bill already gives exemptions if a tree is, for example, dead, dangerous or diseased, so giving further exemption powers would seem to negate the wider obligation to consult.
Finally, I agree with the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, that newly planted trees need to be protected from damage by animals by the application of a standard. He made the important point that we need to use the best science to tackle issues such as reducing grey squirrel numbers, working collectively through organisations such as the UK Squirrel Accord. Based on the wise words of the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, we await the result of the squirrel fertility control experiment with some interest.
I agree with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, that saplings should not be protected from animal damage by the widely used plastic guards—which eventually fall off and litter the environment—when alternative, nature-friendly guards are available.
We have had a wide-ranging debate, and it is a late hour. I hope the Minister is persuaded by these arguments and will be prepared to take some of them forward. I therefore look forward to hearing his response.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords for their contributions on this important topic. The best time to plant a tree was, of course, years ago; the second-best time is now, so I am glad that we have committed to doing so at scale. The Government committed in May through our new England Trees Action Plan to action in this Parliament to support unprecedented levels of tree planting to deliver the many benefits that trees can provide. The action plan was widely and warmly welcomed by NGOs, conservation groups and stakeholders. This Bill includes measures which will update our tree protection laws, including by increasing fines and attaching restocking orders to land rather than landowners, who could sell their land without restocking trees.
I want to start by addressing Amendment 260. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Young, for championing trees through her support for the Woodland Trust. I have enjoyed talking to her on many occasions about this issue in recent months. I share her ambition to see more trees planted and our existing woodlands protected. It has been positive to see such support from charities and the public for our plans and ambitions, as these ambitions can be delivered only with the support of the country.
That is why the Government committed to at least trebling tree-planting rates in England over this Parliament and to consulting on a new long-term tree target under the Environment Bill. We have committed in this Bill to producing regular statutory environmental improvement plans, beginning with our 25-year environment plan. This will regularly update our natural environment policies, including for trees. Therefore, we do not need another separate, individual strategy for trees; we have a strategy for trees.
Amendment 258 proposes an amendment to the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, introducing an additional differentiation between sites of special scientific interest and ancient woodland. Ancient woodlands established before 1600 are some of our most precious habitats and many are already designated under the SSSI series. The definition of ancient woodland is also already clearly established in the Forestry Commission and Natural England standing advice. However, we need to update the ancient woodlands inventory to map where they are and we are doing so, as the noble Baroness knows, alongside the Woodland Trust. Our England Trees Action Plan includes new steps to protect and restore ancient woodlands through management and restoration. Our new England woodland creation offer will fund landowners to buffer and expand ancient woodland sites by planting native broadleaf woodland. We will update the keepers of time policy on management of ancient woodland, veteran trees and other semi-natural woodlands, and we are also expanding the ancient woodland inventory to better map those ancient woodlands. The action plan announced our intention to establish a new category of long-established woodland, in situ since 1840. The Government will consult on the protections that these critical woodlands are afforded in the planning system. I also confirm that our upcoming planning reforms will not weaken our strong protections for trees but rather enhance them, with many more trees planted as well. As such, I reassure the noble Baroness that we are taking significant steps to protect and restore ancient woodlands. That said, I will look closely at her proposal. As she said, ancient woodlands are irreplaceable and need our maximum protection.
Turning to the noble Baroness’s Amendment 259, I also assure her of our commitment to increasing UK biosecurity. I know that I do not need to lecture your Lordships’ House about the devastating impact of ash dieback or Dutch elm disease, or the importance of vigilance against other threatening diseases. The Government already support the plant health management standard and certification scheme, which is an independent, industry-backed biosecurity standard available to all market sectors and it covers international supply chains.
The existing plant health regime already implements a range of measures that address and minimise biosecurity risks. I am advised that this amendment would be in breach of WTO rules governing international trade. However, I have asked for more information on this. As a number of noble Lords have said, the risk is real and terrible, and we must use every available lever to protect our trees. Bureaucracy certainly should not become an obstacle to doing that. We are taking steps to support our own nurseries with a view to reducing our dependence on imported saplings, and again I hope that we will be able to go further, in the interests of guarding against future tree diseases.
I thank the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, for his Amendment 260A. Woodlands created using public funding must conform to the UK forestry standard for woodland creation and management plans. Such plans include steps to reduce grazing from browsing mammals, including through active management, barrier protection and the development and monitoring of deer management plans. We recently announced in the England Trees Action Plan a number of actions to go further to protect our woodlands from browsing animals such as deer and grey squirrels.
We are also working with the UK Squirrel Accord to support the ongoing research into grey squirrel management; for example—and I am nervous saying this given the comments of my noble friend Lord Blencathra—looking into fertility control for grey squirrels. The aim is to produce an immuno-contraceptive that can be taken orally by grey squirrels through a species-specific delivery mechanism. I understand that a number of noble Lords have contributed financially to that work. It matters that we exhaust that option, not because it is the only option but because the main alternative—a cull of some sort—is not something that everyone will buy into. It only takes a few areas to not take part for the population to continue growing, so we will need to use every string in every bow.
We will also open a new competitive grant scheme to help land managers improve the ecological condition of their woodlands, including sites of special scientific interest and ancient and long-established woodlands, a new category. Therefore, although welcome in intention, proposed new Clause 108 is unnecessary. We do not need new legislation to ensure that newly planted trees are protected from browsing animals.
I turn to Amendments 257E and 257F in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake. Local authorities and their tree officers play a critical role in managing and protecting valuable street trees. We have launched a local authority treescapes fund to help them plant more trees and to regenerate more publicly owned areas in local communities, as well as other changes to regulations and guidance to see more trees planted and protected. The duty to consult was developed following a consultation and discussions with stakeholders on how we can better protect trees in England. The duty as proposed was considered the most proportionate approach. Guidance on delivery of the duty is being drafted with input from local authority tree officers, the experts who will carry out this duty on our behalf. We will consult further before publishing guidance, but we do not need legislation to make that happen.
Regarding the noble Lord’s Amendment 257F, the exemptions to the duty have been carefully selected to allow local highways authorities to deal with trees which cause immediate issues, such as by posing immediate danger. Providing highways authorities with powers to create further exemptions would undermine the purpose and existence of the duty, as they could then create exemptions that were not in the spirit of the legislation. This amendment could therefore undermine protection for trees and lead to further unpopular and unnecessary felling of valuable street trees.
I agree with those noble Lords who spoke about the importance of trees as carbon sinks. However, just as important for carbon storage are our peatlands, and I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, for raising this via Amendment 283. The Government have invested over £8 million in peatland restoration this year. We recently launched our four-year nature for climate peatland grant scheme, a new competitive capital grant scheme for peat restoration, and we intend to invest over £50 million in peatland restoration by 2025. We have also committed to exploring the environmental and economic case for extending peat protections further still, in the England Peat Action Plan that was published in May. The Government are working to comprehensively map England’s peatlands by 2024, to inform this position.
I heard the argument put forward by my noble friend Lord Caithness about the flood-prevention qualities of peatlands. He declared with great confidence that the value is not there, but I respectfully say to him that the science is absolutely clear that healthy peatlands prevent the flow of surface water and increase the land’s ability to absorb and hold water. The impact in terms of reduced flood risk is measurable and significant.
We have also committed to exploring the environmental and economic case for extending those peat protections further. The Government are committed to protecting deep peat habitats through the Heather and Grass etc. Burning (England) Regulations 2021, which a number of noble Lords mentioned. These regulations prohibit burning on blanket bog in our most protected sites, but they also specify limited purposes for which a licence to burn may be granted, where landowners need to manage the risk of wildfire. For example, those exemptions would no longer be possible under the noble Baroness’s amendment, and we are therefore unable to support it.
However, I reassure the noble Baroness that I share her intention to protect these vital ecosystems. The new regulations will protect approximately 140,000 hectares of England’s upland deep peat from further damage from managed burning—this represents 90% of our SSSI-designated blanket bog habitat and 40% of our upland deep peat.
Finally, on the issue of the use of peat in horticulture, which has also been raised by a number of noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, we have always been clear about the need to end the use of peat in horticultural products. We want the transition to be as seamless as possible for the sector, but, in truth, our voluntary approach has not succeeded. In the England Peat Action Plan, we have committed to publishing this year the full consultation on banning the sale of peat and peat-containing products in the amateur sector by the end of this Parliament.
The Government share the commitment of all those who spoke on the need to protect our trees and valuable peatlands. I hope that I have been able to reassure noble Lords on their points and that they feel able not to press their amendments.
I have received requests to speak after the Minister from two noble Lords. First, I call the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford.
My Lords, we have rightly heard much about the importance of protecting ancient woodland in Britain for global reasons. Is it not as important, and perhaps more urgent, to halt and prevent the loss of tropical rainforests, such as the Amazon? Has my noble friend considered the proposals that I made at Second Reading for the relief of national debt, both interest and capital repayment, equal to a multiple—possibly a high multiple—of the commercial value of the rainforest that we want to protect? Only if the rainforest were interfered with would the debt be reinstated.
I thank the noble Lord for his intervention. We will talk a bit about similar issues in the next debate on due diligence, but it is certainly the case that, if we want forested countries to protect what they have, implement the laws that are in place and help us to turn the tide on deforestation, there will need to be an incentive. In some part, that means financial transfer from other countries. The UK is leading efforts, with the development of a new programme called LEAF, which has already raised in excess of a £1 billion, in theory at least. We hope to continue to attract partners from the private sector and Governments, with a view to working with the main forested nations to protect the forest that they have. This is just one of many initiatives; we are working on a number of initiatives between now and COP, with a view to making a meaningful intervention, we hope, at that event.
My Lords, I am conscious of the hour. I thank the Minister for the initiatives that he spoke of on ancient woodland but ask that, when he continues to look at ancient woodland protection, he also raises the effectiveness of the implementation of the current planning guidance with the MHCLG, because it is clear that, if we have 1,200 cases of ancient woodlands at risk, the implementation simply cannot be working. I would be grateful if he would agree to raise that with the MHCLG and, while he is there, he could ask them about the planning reforms and get some guarantee that they will not reduce the level of protection for ancient woodland below the current NPPF and, preferably, improve it.
My Lords, I have had commitments from the MHCLG that our protections for trees will be improved and enhanced, and will not move backwards, but I will continue to press home that case. I am seeing the Secretary of State in a matter of days to talk about this and a number of other issues, and I will raise the points that the noble Baroness raised in her speech today.
I am also sorry to delay matters. I thank the Minister for his response, but I am afraid he did not address my point about refuges and safe areas caused by governmental bodies not controlling the problems of squirrels and deer. They were listed in subsection (3) of my proposed new clause. To save time, I wonder whether he might add to his lengthy list of things a meeting to discuss that, because it is a very serious area. If we do not address that problem successfully, as I and many others pointed out, we will not be allowed to do the forestation we need.
My Lords, I first thank the noble Viscount, Lord Trenchard, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Neville-Rolfe, Lady Bakewell and Lady Jones of Whitchurch, for their comments. I also welcome the Minister’s response on the consultation. I am concerned about the need to get the practicalities right and, in particular, to have a workable model. That will require the extensive involvement of local government before it is finalised.
On exemptions, I still feel that the Bill is too narrowly drawn to cover eventualities when local authorities will need to move quickly. I wonder if that can be entirely covered by the Bill, in any event. I recognise the risks that local authorities will abuse such a power but, nevertheless, we have not quite got it right yet. Recognising the hour, though, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
Amendment 257E withdrawn.
Amendment 257F not moved.
Clause 108 agreed.
Amendments 258 to 260A not moved.
We now come to the group beginning with Amendment 260B. Anyone who wishes to press this or anything else in this group to a Division must make that clear in the debate.
Clause 109: Use of forest risk commodities in commercial activity
260B: Clause 109, page 108, line 37, at end insert—
“(ba) paragraph 3;”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment would change the parliamentary procedure for making regulations to specify requirements for the due diligence system to the affirmative procedure.
My Lords, I speak principally to my Amendments 260B, 260C, 265B and 265C. Bearing in mind the hour, I will try to make this brief, but they are on important issues.
In the 25-year environment plan, the UK Government articulated an ambitious set of goals and actions for the UK, including the commitment that
“our consumption and impact on natural capital are sustainable, at home and overseas.”
I believe that the Environment Bill should reflect this commitment but, sadly, I do not think it adequately does. The goals and actions must be strengthened to tackle the growing problems caused by deforestation and drive action to significantly reduce our global footprint.
Due diligence legislation is only part of the comprehensive approach that will be needed to deliver deforestation-free supply chains and significantly reduce global footprint impacts more broadly. A mandatory due diligence framework should formalise and obligate responsible practices throughout UK market-related supply chains and finance to ensure comprehensive accountability and help prevent deforestation and other global environmental damage.
The proposed forest risk commodities framework is a welcome first step. It should, however, also commit the Government to introducing a legally binding target to significantly reduce the UK’s global footprint by 2030; address all deforestation linked to UK forest risk commodity supply chains, whether regarded as legal or illegal under local laws; include a mechanism to progressively improve the framework, its implementation and enforcement; establish equivalent obligations for financial institutions; ensure that the right to free, prior and informed consent of affected indigenous peoples and local communities is respected; and establish clear and effective due diligence requirements, including clarity on the acceptable level of risk, public reporting and adequate parliamentary oversight.
My Amendments 260B and 260C would upgrade the parliamentary procedure to affirmative resolution for regulations relating to this due diligence system. Given that the due diligence system required under paragraph 3 of Schedule 16 will be central to the effectiveness of the schedule, any regulations made to specify requirements for this system should be subject—in my opinion—to the affirmative procedure. This is essential, given the public interest in this important new provision and the need for adequate parliamentary oversight.
My amendments 265B, 265C and 265D seek to introduce a requirement that the Secretary of State must take the steps identified through a review to improve the effectiveness of Schedule 16. I welcome paragraph 17 of the schedule, which includes a requirement for the Secretary of State to review the effectiveness of the forest risk commodities framework every two years and to table before Parliament and publish a report of the conclusions, but there are no requirements regarding the quality, transparency or independence of this review. Nor is there a requirement to address any deficiencies or weaknesses identified by a review or to make any needed improvements to the content, implementation or enforcement of the forest risk commodities framework. Given the novelty of the due diligence framework and the fact that much of it will be set by secondary legislation, it is important that the review procedure ensures that, where deficiencies are identified, there are clear procedures that result in improvements to the framework. This would help to ensure that the measure is progressively improved over time and keeps pace with other legislation being developed, including in the EU. It would also enable the due diligence framework to be adjusted to address any deregulation or undermining of protections for forests in producer countries. The Secretary of State should be required to seek and consider independent expert advice and consult with stakeholders when proposing changes to the framework.
My amendment 293B asks for a requirement to set a global footprint target, as the Bill is silent on how the UK Government intend to address our global footprint. The Bill therefore does not deliver on the commitment in the 25-year environment plan, as I mentioned earlier. In its Biodiversity in the UK: Bloom or Bust? report, published on 30 June, the Environmental Audit Committee recommended that the Government should set a target to reduce the UK’s global environmental footprint. New evidence from the World Wildlife Fund found that, as a nation, we need to reduce our global footprint by three-quarters if we are to live within our planetary means. The report highlights that human impacts on the natural world are driven by overconsumption, unsustainable extraction rates and the methods we use to produce material goods. The UK is a particularly large consumer of products with a major environmental impact. The report found that the UK needs to reduce its ecological footprint by 60%, its material footprint by 38%, its biomass footprint by 48%, its nitrogen footprint by 89%, its phosphorus footprint by 85% and its carbon footprint by 85%.
Significant reductions in the UK’s footprint should not be interpreted as meaning that the UK’s economy must shrink, or that the well-being of UK citizens must be reduced. With very few exceptions, the targets proposed are about doing things differently. If the Bill continues to exclude measures to address the UK’s global environmental footprint, we will miss a very significant opportunity. I suggest that my Amendment 293B, which requires the Government to set a global footprint target, would provide them with the flexibility to develop that target following Royal Assent.
I welcome the steps that the Government are taking regarding illegal deforestation; however, Governments could make legal deforestation that is currently illegal in order to circumvent new measures—then we would have a problem. We should also be taking into consideration the many other issues surrounding this general subject; I think particularly of the cutting down of primary forest for biomass both in Europe and indeed in the US and Canada. These are difficult issues, perhaps too complex for us to include in this Bill, but we must address them. What we can do is ensure that we have full parliamentary accountability.
My Lords, I have two amendments in this group: Amendments 263 and 265. I thoroughly welcome the Government’s approach in this area. We have a responsibility as the consumers of forest products to make sure that they are sourced in a way we are comfortable with. To keep blindly consuming, say, palm oil without regard to the consequences is to take less than our responsibility for what is happening. It is our demand that is driving the production, and it is therefore our responsibility. We need to find ways in which we can exercise that responsibility without encroaching on the national rights of the people doing the producing. For instance, in the case of palm oil, I think it is entirely reasonable to ask that it is produced without further encroachment on virgin forest. My Amendment 263 suggests that we should also include peatlands and wetlands within that definition of “forest”. Both of these are environments that palm oil plantations can encroach on. They are both environments of great ecological significance, and we should therefore have as much interest in them as we do in a forest.
In order to know what is going on in response to our demand for palm oil, we need some information. The obvious information we have access to is satellite records, but they are not much use unless you can tie them to what is happening on the ground. We will need some form of baseline—I hope very much that COP 26 may provide that—or a map of where things are so that change can be measured from that. We need to be conscious of the fact that it is not necessarily the big boys doing the encroaching. It can be small farmers, subsistence farmers or people working out a small living who make the first cut, and then the big boys come in behind them, reward them and move them on to the next patch of virgin forest. What we need to watch is not some small detail but the overall effect, so that we know that palm oil sourced from a particular area or country has been done so ethically.
Amendment 265 deals with how we might make that work. I am suggesting that we should be able to give our approval to an organisation such as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil so that we can use it as an internationally recognised collaborative method of telling us which sources of palm oil are ethical. Then we should build some reward into that system. I am sure we would come up against the WTO again, but, as we have discussed before this evening, we need the WTO to become responsive to environmental imperatives. If a country is producing ethically farmed palm oil, we should be able to reward it with a premium, which should then go back into the process of making sure that palm oil is ethical and supporting the people producing it on those terms, so that we get a virtuous circle.
Those are my two suggestions for how we might make things more effective than they appear to be in the Bill. It is important that we look for a system that does not just deal with the import of the primary product but enables us to get at imports that contain substantial amounts of the product; otherwise, we just disadvantage our own producers. Working through something like a round table or an import tariff scheme would allow us to do that.
My Lords, I will speak to my Amendment 264A. The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, was very keen to speak on this amendment, to which he added his name, but for technical reasons was unable to do so.
I congratulate the Government on their attempt to tackle the alarming rate of deforestation. They plan to do this by prohibiting the use of certain commodities associated with illegal—I emphasise the word—deforestation and by requiring large companies to undertake due diligence and report on their activities in the relevant areas. I emphasise the word illegal because here lies the risk; the Bill as it stands risks incentivising Governments to change their laws to make sure that far greater deforestation—perhaps all of it—becomes legal. This Environment Bill will then have little or no benefit in preventing deforestation. I know this is not the intention of the Government, but I ask the Minister to consider most carefully the risk of leaving Schedule 16 as it stands.
As other noble Lords know, deforestation is a huge global problem and solving it has to be a top priority for COP 26. Just a couple of statistics will make the point. In 2020 alone, primary humid tropical forest loss covered some 4.2 million hectares—an area the size of the Netherlands. Paragraphs 2(1) and 2(2) of Schedule 16 make it clear that, as long as local laws are complied with, commodities grown on land where forest has been cleared can be traded commercially by UK companies. However, deforestation behind UK imports of commodities accounts for an area of tree loss almost the size of the entire UK. This year has seen the highest deforestation rates in the Brazilian Amazon in over a decade. This will only get worse without this amendment.
Apart from the Bill as it stands incentivising Governments to legalise deforestation in their own countries, even now a third of tropical deforestation is defined as legal and will not be tackled by Schedule 16, unless it is amended. Scientists in Brazil tell us:
“Currently in Brazil, approximately 88 million hectares … 4 times the size of the UK, could be cleared legally on private properties under Brazilian forest law.”
Another major issue is that laws relating to land use, forests and commodity production are often uncertain, inconsistent or poorly implemented, making the determination of legality very difficult, time-consuming, expensive or virtually impossible. Schedule 16 as it stands risks bogging down UK courts with difficult questions about the interpretation and application of foreign laws.
I know the Government have absolutely no wish to impose these problems on our industries. If they accept this amendment, they will surely provide clarity, consistency and certainty for UK businesses and for the countries of origin where deforestation is currently taking place. Leading UK companies have appealed to the Government to support a more rigorous standard than that set out in Schedule 16.
I thank the head of the Bill team and four other officials for the very helpful meeting we had on Thursday. They argued that 70% of deforestation for agriculture is illegal. Yes, but 30% is legal. Also, this is changing as we speak. The Brazilian Government are in the process of legalising forest lands. Paulo from Brazil, at a highly informative Global Witness meeting—I thank Global Witness for its incredible help on this—referred to a recent forest code which has legalised 12 million hectares of forest and a legislative package that will retrospectively legalise deforestation. The Bill encourages further legalisation to circumvent laws based on legality. This is dangerous. I understand that, despite all these issues, the Government want to work with producer countries to improve governance. This approach assumes that we are dealing with Governments who share our values—sadly, we are not.
Paulo from Brazil was appealing to the UK—appealing to me to appeal to the Minister, I should say—to introduce a strong law to prevent commercial activity based on deforested land, whether legal or illegal. He is deeply concerned about his Government’s determination to undermine our legality-based legislation.
I understand that we must take seriously the fact that WTO rules are against import bans. We need to argue for an exception to this rule on the basis that our law is the least restrictive to achieve our objective. In view of the regimes responsible for the world’s greatest forests, we can legitimately use the least restrictive argument in this case. I understand that the Government’s position is that we should not be creating a wall around the UK in the year of COP 26, but we would not be alone. The Minister will be aware that the EU is planning legislation to adopt a full deforestation approach. That is an approach in line with this amendment. I would be very grateful if the Minister could explain the Government’s attitude to this. I hope the Government want us to be a world leader on deforestation, not a weak state lagging behind the EU. I hope that the Government will bring forward their own amendment on Report based on a deforestation-free standard drawing on international standards and which would apply to all UK sourcing. Dozens of organisations from Brazil, Indonesia and Cameroon working on the front lines of deforestation called on the Government to take this approach, as did over 20 of the UK’s largest agri-food supply chain companies. I ask the Minister to follow that advice and I look forward to his response. I apologise for the length of this contribution.
My Lords, I will speak to the five amendments in the group which either appear in my name or to which I have added my name. I will confine my remarks to them in the interests of time, but I register my strong support for all the amendments in the group, with perhaps a question mark over Amendment 265 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas. It has not been explained in the amendment how relative product advantage would be measured.
I am fortunate to have been preceded by the noble Lords, Lord Randall and Lord Lucas, and by the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, who spoke about why these amendments needed to have been tabled, so I can say a lot less. I am sorry to have to speak before my noble friend Lady Parminter, in whose name Amendment 265A appears. This is an important amendment, which—given the UK’s position as a leader in financial services—in many ways goes to the heart of our leadership on both climate change and human rights issues. It has my strong support.
I will address Amendment 264ZA in the names of the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, and my noble friend Lord Oates, and to which I have added my name also. The amendment has been tabled to draw attention to the current situation in which human rights abuses of indigenous peoples abound, sometimes leading to death, and to offer a remedy of sorts. In order to make local laws fit for purpose, it is critical to ensure that the UK requires businesses to have evidence that the free, prior and informed consent—FPIC—of indigenous peoples in forest communities has been obtained in the production of forest risk commodities on their land and local area.
There is a strong body of evidence which shows that FPIC reduces deforestation, reduces attacks on forest custodians and develops strong, commercially productive relationships. This is particularly important for the 80% of indigenous and community lands that do not yet have secure legal rights. FPIC is defined under international law, and commitments to full or partial FPIC are included in a diverse array of industry standards, OECD guidance and company commitments. It should be specifically included in Schedule 16 to underscore our global leadership on both climate change and human rights. I also point out that the Global Resource Initiative task force—commissioned by BEIS, Defra, and the FCDO, so this is the Government’s own body—in its report of March 2020 specifically recommended that the UK Government urgently introduce a mandatory combined human rights and environmental due diligence approach to forest risk commodities.
Schedule 16 is the UK’s first due diligence process with respect to forest risk commodities, yet it makes no mention whatever of mitigating human rights abuses through free, prior and informed consent. This is a moral and practical oversight and I look forward to the Minister’s response about how this omission can be justified.
Amendment 264A, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, and the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, which I support, seeks to address the potential gaping loophole that would be set up by differentiating between legal and illegal deforestation. Does the Minister accept that the British public do not want these tainted goods? I cite the remarkable outcome of the Government’s public consultation on due diligence on forest risk commodities: over 99% of respondents supported the introduction of legislation to reduce all deforestation. When can we expect a response to the consultation?
I tabled Amendment 264B to paragraph 3 of Schedule 16 on the due diligence system as a probing amendment to see what estimation the Government have made of the acceptable level of mitigation of risk by businesses operating forest risk commodities. If the objective of Schedule 16 to avoid products consumed in the UK contributing to deforestation abroad is to be met, UK businesses must be confident that there is no more than a negligible risk that their products are linked to deforestation. Does the Minister agree that a requirement to mitigate risk without specifying the extent to which risks must be mitigated is rather vague and subjective? What consideration have the Government given to the question, as an unqualified requirement to mitigate risks leaves businesses open to legitimately take the least action required to achieve the most minimal reduction in their assessment of risk rather than the action required to genuinely minimise the level of risk? What would stop this happening? In the way that Schedule 16 is currently drafted, it is not clear to me; maybe the Minister can enlighten me. I would appreciate a thorough response from him on this amendment, maybe in writing.
Amendment 265ZA in my name would require the Secretary of State to consult stakeholders when making regulations on the content and form of annual reports on the due diligence system, and on how such reports are to be made publicly available. The amendment is, I suppose, inspired by lessons learned in the implementation of Section 54 of the Modern Slavery Act 2015, which introduced a requirement on businesses above a certain size to publish a slavery and human trafficking statement every year. It has become apparent that changes are needed. The Commons Foreign Affairs Committee recently published a report which concludes that the MSA is too weak and the criteria for producing the statements are in need of reform. The implication for this part of the Environment Bill is that it is important to ensure that the form and arrangements for publishing reports by a regulated person should be informed by public consultation so that lessons such as those from the Modern Slavery Act can be properly factored in. I look forward to the Minister’s reply.
The final amendment in my name, Amendment 265AA, aims to strengthen the enforcement of Part 1 requirements and Part 2 regulations through a civil sanctions regime. As drafted, Schedule 16 states the potential for civil sanctions to be issued for failures to comply with the Schedule’s requirements, except where a regulated person
“took all reasonable steps to implement a due diligence system”.
However, “reasonable steps” is not defined; it could mean any number of things. The exception to liability is too broad and potentially undermines the effectiveness of the due diligence obligations. Would it not be far clearer to instead mandate a regulated person to take the steps necessary to implement an effective due diligence system, as my amendments suggest? My final question to the Minister is: why do the Government not do that? It would be far more effective to state what they actually want rather than a woolly form of words that is an open invitation to those with, shall we say, creative minds.
I will end with this reflection: deforestation is the second largest contributor to global warming, second only to fossil fuels. What happens to rainforests matters to us all. The Government should seize with both hands the opportunity presented by this Bill to play their part in stopping the wanton destruction of all rainforests, especially in this seminal year, when they hold the presidency of COP 26.
My Lords, I rise to introduce Amendment 265A in my name, for the support of which I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Randall of Uxbridge, the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, and the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch.
Like other Peers, I welcome the inclusion of Schedule 16 and its introduction into law of an essential means of combating the deforestation associated with the consumption of forest risk commodities in the UK. Yet the trade in these commodities is only the final stage of the supply chain; their production must also be financed and, because the UK is such an important global source of capital, British banks and financial institutions currently supply a considerable proportion of this investment.
As Global Witness reported, in 2020, UK banks channelled over £900 million into over 300 major companies involved in forest risk commodities such as palm oil, soya and beef. Between 2013 and 2019, UK-based financial institutions were the single biggest source of international finance for six major agribusiness companies involved in deforestation in the climate-critical forests of Brazil, the Congo basin and Papua New Guinea, providing £5 billion over this period. I am not claiming that all this investment financed illegal activities, but, almost certainly, some of it did. As Forest Trends reported earlier this year, over the period of 2000-2012, 49% of tropical deforestation for agricultural commodities was thought to be illegal; between 2013 and 2019, the proportion rose to at least 69%. Illegal conversion of forests for agriculture is destroying an area of forest the size of Norway each year.
The point is that these banks do not have adequate systems in place to ensure they are not funding illegal deforestation. Extending the same requirements for the exercise of due diligence to banks as this Bill would impose on importers is a sensible move. This is not merely my view. That was the conclusion of the Global Resource Initiative Taskforce of sustainability leaders from finance, business and civil society, which was established by this Government in 2019. It was chaired by Sir Ian Cheshire, who was at that time chairman of Barclays UK. In its report last year, it concluded:
“Financial institutions provide enabling financial services across the commodity supply chain and so should be obligated to exercise due diligence with regard to their lending and investments.”
No other mechanism currently requires banks to carry out due diligence for illegal deforestation. The Government have argued, in their response to the Global Resource Initiative report, that the requirements for reporting on climate-related financial information that they intend to introduce will tackle the problem—but in reality they cannot. These reports will focus only on annual carbon emissions and are not suited to identifying the links between the provision of finance for agricultural crops growing on land cleared of forest several years before; they will also not require any assessment of the legality of the forest clearance.
The reports the importers of these commodities will be required to issue on the actions they have taken to establish their due diligence systems will provide helpful information but, again, they will relate to the final stages in the supply chain—the trade of the commodities. Far better, surely, to require banks to conduct due diligence on their lending and interventions at the start of the process when the initial finance is provided.
The financial sector is one of the British economy’s greatest strengths, but it will fail to remain so if it continues to fund activities which contribute to the climate and nature emergencies. I recognise and applaud the many steps that individual banks and financial institutions are already taking to green their activities. Requiring all of them to conduct due diligence to avoid their lending contributing to illegal deforestation is hardly a radical move. Indeed, it is the minimum we should expect.
My Lords, I very much welcome the Government’s commitment to requiring businesses to ensure that the forest risk commodities they use to have been produced in compliance with local laws, but it is only a start, as other noble Lords have pointed out. I particularly support Amendment 293B in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Randall of Uxbridge. What we have in the Bill does not deliver on the commitment in the 25-year environment plan to ensure that
“our consumption and impact on natural capital are sustainable, at home and overseas.”
The Environmental Audit Committee’s recent biodiversity report called for
“a target to reduce the UK’s global environmental footprint”,
as does the amendment, and I support that idea.
Commitment to a target would set an ambition to do more over the next few years and allow the Government to develop further measures covering issues such as illegal deforestation, as raised by the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, and financial issues, as raised by the amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter. I know that the Minister has a personal commitment to this issue, and I hope he can respond positively.
On a particular case which the noble Lord, Lord Randall, raised just now and previously, every year, an area of forest and biodiversity bigger than the New Forest is sacrificed to feed biomass-based electricity generation in the UK. The replacement forests take decades to mature and cannot be regarded as equivalent in either carbon or biodiversity terms. The people of Britain pay through the nose for this: they pay more than £2 million per day to subsidise those large biomass power plants. In view of the damage to forests and biodiversity caused by the wood pellet industry in the USA and Estonia, can the Minister use the Bill to review the dubious sustainability claims made by Drax, end public subsidy and ensure that the performance of a large biomass power plant is not compared with hugely polluting coal but with other green technologies such as wind and solar?
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, and to express my support for nearly all the amendments in this group, except Amendments 263 and 265.
We should start by acknowledging that this is yet one more sign that campaigning works. Schedule 16 represents amendments brought by the Government in the other place which reflect the campaigning of a great many NGOs and other groups and, as other noble Lords have said, the conclusions of the independent Global Resource Initiative Taskforce. However, as multiple briefings that we have all received show, it still needs improvement to deliver on the recommendations of the GRIT and the expectations of UK consumers and businesses.
I shall not go through each amendment, but I shall start with Amendment 293B in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Randall of Uxbridge, because it is in many ways the most far-reaching and crucial. This is the one that calls for a global footprint target. I shall start with the benefit for the UK, before looking more broadly. It would reduce the risk of future pandemics; I do not really need to say more than that. It would help safeguard against the economic costs of biodiversity decline and climate change. The WWF Global Futures report calculated that that will cost the world at least £368 billion a year, with the UK suffering annual damage to its economy of £16 billion a year by 2050. It would also support the resilience of UK and global businesses. It would help businesses to manage risk proactively. Coming back to the Government’s desire, of which we so often hear, to be world-leading, it would mean that the UK was the first country to embed the latest pledge for nature into its legislation. It is crucial.
It is worth noting that this amendment is another way of addressing the issue I addressed in the amendment I moved to Clause 1, many days ago, on reducing resource use rather than making it more efficient. We need to reduce our ecological footprint by around 75% to fit within ecological limits. The WWF global footprint report looked at some of the key issues: our material footprint needs to come down by 38%, biomass by 48%, nitrogen—for which I tabled a specific amendment earlier—by 89%, and phosphorous by 85%.
The most basic amendment that I would surely suggest the Minister has to adopt in some form is Amendment 264A, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher. She has already made many powerful arguments, in particular that if we do not introduce this amendment there will a perverse incentive to encourage the legalisation of deforestation. UK businesses could also benefit from this amendment. Currently, in many parts of the world laws relating to land use, forests and commodity production are numerous, uncertain, inconsistent and poorly implemented. It is very difficult to determine legality, and companies can be trapped in a regulatory, paperwork minefield from which the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, could free them. Of course, 2.1 million hectares of natural vegetation within the 133 Brazilian municipalities that currently supply the UK with soya could be legally deforested.
I come now to Amendment 264ZA in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, which calls for the recognition of customary land ownership and membership systems. Some 80% of indigenous and community lands are held without legally recognised tenure rights. We know that in indigenous and tribal territories, deforestation rates are significantly lower. Ensuring respect for customary tenure rights is an efficient, just and cost-effective way to reduce carbon emissions. Noble Lords who have been reading The House magazine might know that I have some recommendations for summer reading in there. I would like to add an extra one: Imbolo Mbue’s second novel, How Beautiful We Were, which is set in a fictional African village and shows how it was depleted by centuries of the activities of fossil fuel companies, forest exploitation and rubber plantations, going back to slavery. We really cannot allow this kind of relationship with the world to continue.
I come now to Amendment 265A in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter. What we are doing here is the reverse of what your Lordships’ House achieved in the Financial Services Bill. After a lot of wrestling, we finally got a reference to climate—although, unfortunately, not biodiversity—into the Finance Bill. What we also need to do is to get recognition of the damage the financial sector does to the rest of the world, and we need to see finance addressed in all the other Bills. The UK is the single biggest source of international finance for six of the most harmful agribusiness companies involved in deforestation in Brazil, the Congo basin and Papua New Guinea, lending £5 billion between 2013 and 2019. These UK banks included HSBC, Barclays, and Standard Chartered. We simply cannot allow this to continue.
Noble Lords may not think so, but I am really trying to be brief, so I will turn to some very short concluding thoughts. If deforestation was a country, it would be the third largest emitter of carbon, behind China and the US. Some 80% of deforestation is associated with agricultural production, yet figures published this afternoon from five major UN agencies show that the number of people without access to healthy diets has grown by 320 million in the last year. They now number 2.37 billion in total. A fifth of all children under five are stunted because of lack of access to the most basic resource of all: food.
We have to stop wrecking other people’s countries. We have to ensure that our lives are lived within the limits of this fragile planet, and that everyone else has access to that same basic level of resources that is their human right.
My Lords, I declare my interests as in the register. While I warmly welcome all the provisions that the Government have put into this Bill on this matter of due diligence, I also support the amendments in the name of my noble friend Lord Randall of Uxbridge, who moved them so powerfully, eloquently and rapidly. I pay tribute, too, to the passionate and excellent speech by the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, which was a pleasure to listen to.
I will comment first on Amendment 265A, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, my noble friend Lord Randall of Uxbridge, the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, and the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch. It is a rather ingenious and clever approach, and I was appalled to hear that British institutions—if I heard the noble Baroness correctly—have raised about £5 billion of funding for the illegal destruction of rainforest. If British banks and financial institutions are involved, we have to find ways of putting a stop to them doing that sort of thing.
The current provisions in the Bill quite rightly impose obligations on regulated persons who are trading products from endangered rainforests. As in every other business, however, the normal rule is “Follow the money”: if you want to catch illegal or improper behaviour, look at the money flows. Putting an obligation on all financial institutions to exercise the same due diligence as the companies that import and export timber would plug a potentially big gap. How do we crack down on money laundering and terrorist financing? We do it by putting an obligation on all financial institutions to report transactions above £10,000. It works for illegal money transactions, and it can work for destructive timber transactions or the financing of palm oil, soya bean or ranching projects.
I rather like my noble friend’s Amendments 265B and 265D. Why should we try to save the rainforest? The rationale for saving the rainforest is infinitely greater than just reducing carbon emissions—important though that is—or saving indigenous people or preventing mahogany and other tree species from being extinguished. The rationale is that the rainforest is the “medicine cabinet” of the world, to steal another phrase from the Prince’s Rainforests Project.
As rainforest species disappear, so too do many possible cures for life-threatening diseases. Currently, 121 prescription drugs that are sold worldwide are derived from plant sources, and 25% of western pharmaceuticals are derived from rainforest ingredients. However, fewer than 1% of tropical trees and plants have been tested by scientists. So we have tested 1% and are burning the other 99%, yet we are getting 25% of our drugs from that small 1%. That is a very dangerous pyramid.
A single pond in Brazil can sustain a greater variety of fish than is found in all the rivers of Europe put together. A 25-acre area of rainforest in Borneo may contain more than 700 species of trees—a figure equal to the total tree diversity of North America. A single rainforest in Peru is home to more species of birds than are found in the entire United States, and the number of species of fish in the Amazon exceeds the number found in the entire Atlantic Ocean.
So I repeat my question: how can we in the West be so stupid as to permanently destroy, or fund the destruction of, a habitat when we have not looked at 99% of the species in it? Some scientists estimate that we are losing more than 130 species of plants and animals every single day through rainforest destruction. We just do not know, yet we are carrying on regardless. Estimates of the total number of species in the world vary from 2 million to 100 million, the best estimate being that there are about 10 million species of living things, ranging from nematode worms, slugs, molluscs, plant life and fungi to trees, birds and the cuddly animals that we worry about.
Biodiversity, however, is not just about saving the red squirrels, polar bears, orangutans, lemurs and tigers—as vital and close to my heart as some of those are. Of far greater importance to the planet are the plants and bugs that we never see and are not cuddly.
As John Sawhill of the Nature Conservancy said:
“In the end, our society will be defined not by what we create, but what we refuse to destroy.”
Like the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, I have pointed out that that is why the rainforests are so important. They are being destroyed at an alarming, escalating rate and the types of alternative uses to which the land is being put are changing constantly: soybeans, palm oil, bananas, pineapples, tea, coffee, rubber and cattle ranching. As the destroyers of the lungs of the earth keep changing their modus operandi, so we must be nimble and flexible and change our response. That is why I like my noble friend Lord Randall’s amendments, because they suggest to the Government that we build in a review procedure and if things change, we change our approach.
I say in conclusion to the Minister that I do not think the amendments impose an unreasonable burden on the Government, and I commend them to him.
It is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra. In the light of what he has said, it is unnecessary for me to say anything other than to warmly endorse his words in respect of Amendment 265A in respect of the financial services industry and the amendments in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Randall of Uxbridge, on the longer-term plans.
I shall concentrate on one aspect only, in view of the lateness of the hour: the methods on which control over the use of forest risk commodities can most effectively be framed for enforcement in the United Kingdom. Three methods are under consideration. They can be cumulative and probably should be, and should operate together. What is essential is to examine each and see whether one can stand on its own or whether all three would work better together.
I take the first, which is the proposal in the Bill to allow the use of forest risk commodities only if local laws have been complied with. This is unlikely to be effective and indeed, as the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, explained, it could be counterproductive. The reason why it is likely to be ineffective is that most of the localities with which we are concerned have legal and legislative systems that do not protect from deforestation because of political and economic pressure. Even if protection is initially given, there are numerous instances of retrospective validation of deforestation in contravention of local law. Such retrospective validation would make the use legal under the local law and would therefore render this method of halting deforestation nugatory. Furthermore, proof that the commodity was produced in contravention of local law is likely to cause significant difficulty and uncertainty and considerable expense if the matter comes for enforcement in the UK. Thus, in my view, the first method is unlikely to be effective.
The second method, as set out in the amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, is to add a further requirement in respect of the locality: the informed consent of indigenous people and local communities. I would welcome this as a vital addition and safeguard, if the first method is to be chosen. However, although I have no doubt that NGOs and other organisations would give every assistance in establishing whether informed consent was given, I would anticipate that establishing the factual position in a UK court would be far from easy—the difficulties are obvious. However, if the first method is to be used as set out in the Bill, this would be an essential part of having effective enforcement.
The third method is that set out in the amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, which is to prohibit use if land has been deforested after the commencement of the schedule as further delineated in regulations made by the Secretary of State. In my view, this amendment would be wholly effective on its own and certainly buttress the other two methods. It would leave no room for dispute as to the status of the areas from which the commodity comes, as it is an objective standard not dependent on proof or either local law or the consent of the indigenous people or local communities.
If the third method were adopted, it would give great clarity, which is essential if this law is to operate as a deterrent to industries in the UK using forest risk commodities in breach of what everyone agrees ought to be prevented. I therefore warmly support the third of the methods—that is, the amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher—but if that cannot be done, we must have the amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch.
My Lords, I wish to support Amendment 264ZA, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, and Amendment 264A, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher. As we know, the rate of deforestation on our planet is a scandal and an increasing threat to both our climate and the extent of our biodiversity. In some parts of the world, it is also a threat to the indigenous population who live in the forests, a denial of their fundamental human rights. Their habitat, their lives and their livelihood are often endangered by deforestation.
Amendment 264ZA, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, rightly seeks to ensure that if forest risk wood is imported, it has been felled only with the permission of the indigenous population. It is not enough just for local laws to be observed, which may be too permissive or open to manipulation by local interests; there must be safeguards for those most directly affected. Our laws cannot reach into those areas, but we can at least ensure that we do what is open to us to do in this country, which is to have appropriate checks in place for importers of forest risk material.
Amendment 264A, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, has a similar purpose: to do what we can in this country to prevent exploitive deforestation. It would ensure a total prohibition, except in relation to indigenous people, on importing forest risk products from agricultural land which should never have been cleared in the first place, as trees should still be standing. The noble Baroness put forward powerful arguments in favour of her amendment, strongly supported just now by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, with his important phrase about retrospective validation. A forest which should never have been felled in the first place might get some kind of legal retrospective validation, but we need to ensure that that wood should still not be imported. For those reasons, I strongly support both those amendments.
My Lords, I declare my interest as chair of the advisory board of Weber Shandwick UK. As we have heard in this debate, deforestation poses a catastrophic threat to biodiversity and to the climate of our planet, but in addressing these issues we should show some humility and acknowledge up front that we have almost completely deforested our landscape in the UK and in much of Europe, and we need to be conscious of that in all our debates.
However, the fact remains that life on our planet will not be sustainable if the current rate of deforestation continues. We have heard a range of analogies and figures in this respect. The World Wide Fund for Nature estimates that the equivalent of 30 football pitches of forestry were lost every second in the tropics in 2019. That is a staggering rate of destruction and there are many worrying signs that it is accelerating.
I welcome the Government’s attempts to address the issue in the schedule, but they would be immeasurably strengthened by the majority of the amendments in this group. There seem to be a few main themes in the amendments. The first is around strengthening parliamentary procedures to ensure proper scrutiny of the delegated powers under this section of the Bill. Amendments 260B and 260C in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Randall, to which he spoke so clearly, seek to tackle that. From these Benches, we certainly support him.
The second theme seeks to tackle the issue of legal deforestation and the rights of indigenous people. The amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, is critical if the Bill is to have real effect. As we have heard, it is supported by the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, who, for technical reasons, was not able to be here but was very keen that his support was underlined.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, said, and as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, underlined, if we continue simply with the definition in the Bill as the Government have drafted it, the Bill could end up being counterproductive, either having little effect or incentivising countries to legalise further deforestation, as the noble Baroness said.
We know that there is a particular issue in certain jurisdictions, and we have heard about the situation in Brazil, where, sadly, the President seems to have little regard either for the need to protect forests or for the rights of indigenous people. Although I understand that there are a lot of complexities around WTO rules, their main focus is around non-discrimination; as long as one tackles that and provides a mechanism that is non-discriminatory but focused on actions, that should be possible.
Amendment 264ZA, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, which I have also signed, aims to ensure that forestry commodities cannot be used unless the consent of indigenous communities has been obtained prior to their production.
There are those who claim that measures to prevent deforestation are somehow a case of westerners seeking to impose their values on other countries, having hypocritically destroyed their own forests. However, the reality is that local indigenous people suffer most from deforestation, and it is very often unscrupulous multinational, often western, firms that are responsible for destroying forests and the livelihoods of indigenous people. My noble friend Lady Sheehan and the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, also set out the importance of the human rights angle in relation to deforestation. The amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, seeks to address this gap, and we on these Benches strongly support it.
The third theme in this group of amendments relates to the financing of forest destruction, which is a critical area. Amendment 265A, in the name of my noble friend Lady Parminter, which has support from across the Committee, seeks to address the financing of deforestation, and is highly significant. My noble friend explained the critical role of capital, including UK capital, in funding tropical deforestation, and the fact that banks do not have the mechanisms in place to ensure that they are operating proper due diligence and not funding illegal forest clearance. As the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, said, the watchword here is “follow the money”—that is critical. My noble friend also highlighted the need to protect the reputation of the City if we are to establish ourselves as a centre of green finance in the world. This amendment would help in all these regards.
The theme of global impact is enshrined in Amendment 293B of the noble Lord, Lord Randall, which would require the Government to set a target to reduce the UK’s global footprint. Again, this is a key amendment in tackling deforestation. As the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, said, it is perhaps the most crucial because it gets to the heart of the issue by targeting resource use, and we support this approach.
Finally, there were a number of other important amendments in the name of my noble friend Lady Sheehan, including: Amendment 264B, on introducing an assessment of the level of risk; Amendment 265ZA, which, as my noble friend explained, would require the Secretary of State to consult with relevant persons before making regulations under the schedule; and Amendment 265AA, which would require a regulated person to take all steps necessary to implement an effective due diligence system, rather than the lower bar of “reasonable” steps. The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, also had a number of amendments which are interesting, but we would want to understand a little more about their operation before supporting them.
As currently worded, Schedule 16, while a welcome step forward by the Government, is full of loopholes and, as we have heard, could be counterproductive. Those loopholes would undoubtedly be exploited by unscrupulous political and commercial interests that do not care about either our planet or its people. The majority of the amendments in this group seek to plug many of these loopholes and therefore strengthen the Bill’s ability to deliver on what I believe is the Government’s good intent. I hope, therefore, that the Minister will respond positively and undertake either to accept amendments on Report or to come back with government amendments.
My Lords, this is a really important group of amendments and I am pleased that, despite the late hour, we have managed to have a good debate around them. I will speak to Amendment 264ZA, in the name of my noble friend Lady Jones of Whitchurch and the noble Lord, Lord Oates, but we also support other amendments in this group and thank noble Lords for tabling them. There are some very important points that need to be addressed.
In his introduction to his amendment, the noble Lord, Lord Randall of Uxbridge, talked about the Government’s 25-year environment plan and their commitment to ensuring that
“our consumption and impact on natural capital are sustainable, at home and overseas.”
It is therefore a bit disappointing that the Environment Bill does not currently reflect this commitment adequately.
The Global Resource Initiative task force recommended back in March 2020 that the Government
“urgently introduces a mandatory due diligence obligation on companies that place commodities and derived products that contribute to deforestation”,
whether legal or illegal under local laws, on the UK market. It also recommended that, since not all businesses have begun to commit to and implement sustainable supply chains, a legally binding target to end deforestation —as we have heard from other noble Lords—would provide the “necessary signal” for a shift in industry behaviour. As the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, did, we welcome the Government’s amendment that was tabled in the other place following campaigning, and the fact that Schedule 16 now includes a new prohibition on the use of certain commodities associated with illegal deforestation and requirements for large companies to undertake due diligence and reporting. However, as we heard in the debate, the provisions simply do not go far enough in progressing either the GRI recommendations or the level of action that is demanded.
The noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan, mentioned the lack of attention to human rights in Schedule 16. NGOs such as Global Witness and Forest Peoples Programme have highlighted that there is currently no mention of human rights or of indigenous peoples and others who live in forests and rely on them for their livelihoods and survival. The Bill must be strengthened to tackle the growing problems caused by deforestation and to drive action to significantly reduce our global footprint. The noble Lord, Lord Oates, talked about the appalling impact of this country’s role in deforestation. This really does need to be better recognised. Due diligence legislation is only part of the comprehensive approach that will be needed to deliver deforestation-free supply chains and to significantly reduce global footprint impacts more broadly.
Land conversion for agricultural purposes is often associated with negative human rights impacts. Beyond local laws, it is therefore critical to ensure that the UK requires businesses to have evidence that the free, prior and informed consent of indigenous peoples and forest communities was obtained in relation to the production of forest risk commodities on their land and in the local area. Our amendment does this, although I am aware that some indigenous communities see this as just the starting point. We thank the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich—as others have done—for his support; he was unable to speak in the debate today.
We offer our support to Amendments 260B and 260C in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Randall of Uxbridge. Schedule 16 introduces an important requirement that regulated businesses must not use certain forest risk commodities in their UK commercial activities unless relevant local laws are complied with in relation to that commodity. This is an important first step, but it does not go far enough since 30% of tropical forest destruction is defined as legal under local country laws. The noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, expressed her concerns that this could create a loophole, and the noble Lord, Lord Oates, also mentioned this. This loophole could risk limiting the effectiveness of the legislation and, as the noble Baroness said, could even incentivise Governments in countries such as Brazil to roll back forest protections in order to access UK markets. As deforestation is more prevalent where local laws are not enforced or upheld, this also poses challenges as to how the UK will interpret exactly what is meant by “legal”. So, we support the very important Amendment 264A in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, which addresses this. This amendment also provides for an exception for forest risk commodities produced by indigenous peoples, as the noble Baroness spelled out so clearly.
We also support Amendment 265A in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, on finance. Schedule 16 does not address the financing behind deforestation. The noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, talked about the huge amount of financing that comes from the UK and the lack of due diligence. I have to say, I learned an enormous amount from her introduction to the amendment, and I thank her for it. In March 2020, the Global Resource Initiative task force recommended that the UK should require companies to undertake checks on deforestation risk in their supply chains and that similar measures should apply to finance. But the Government chose to cover supply chains only, responding that UK finance institutions can use the new information gained from companies undertaking due diligence reports to inform their decisions. However, experience has shown that this is likely to fail and that they are likely not to do so unless required to by law. This is very important as broad-based measures on finance, such as the Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures, or similar efforts on nature or biodiversity, are really not suited to the specific issues around deforestation and are unlikely to curb financing. The Bill needs to specify that UK finance institutions must not provide financial services to commercial enterprises linked to deforestation and human rights abuses, so we strongly support the noble Baroness’s amendment.
We also support Amendments 265B to 265D in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Randall of Uxbridge, which seek to introduce a requirement that the Secretary of State must take the steps identified through a review to improve the effectiveness of Schedule 16. Amendment 293B in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Randall of Uxbridge, would require the Secretary of State to set a target to significantly reduce the global footprint, and we support this amendment as well. In his introduction to this amendment, the noble Lord referred to the Biodiversity in the UK: Bloom or Bust? report that was published in June by the Environmental Audit Committee, which recommended that the Government should set such a target.
We also welcome Amendment 263, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas. The noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, talked passionately about global biodiversity, but it is important that we are all very aware of our own impacts on this. The production of forest risk commodities is linked to the conversion and degradation of natural ecosystems other than forests; noble Lords have mentioned savannahs, wetlands, peatlands, grasslands, and mangroves. The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, talked specifically about the production of palm oil, and other noble Lords have mentioned soya as well. There is no policy justification for limiting provisions to forests when other natural ecosystems are under the same pressures from commodity production and provide the same or even greater biodiversity and climate benefits.
A large number of amendments have been discussed in this group, and it has been an important debate on an important issue. I hope that the Minister has listened carefully to the many amendments that have been debated. It is clear that noble Lords have some very serious concerns and believe that it would not take a lot to improve the Bill quite significantly on this aspect. I await the Minister’s response with interest.
I have a number of amendments to address, but before I do, I will take a step back and emphasise what these measures are designed to achieve. Worldwide agricultural expansion drives almost 80% of deforestation. A significant proportion of deforestation is illegal—in some of the world’s most important places, it is closer to 90%. Decades of voluntary action have failed to end our contribution to deforestation through the products that we buy. Our measures will change that. Businesses will be required to ensure that the forest risk commodities that they use are not produced on illegally deforested land. We will consult on the commodities to be included soon, but these could include beef, cocoa, leather, palm oil, rubber, soya and so on.
It has been said in a number of contributions today that we are lagging behind and need to catch up, but it is worth reiterating that we are not only the first country in the world to introduce anything like this legislation but the only country to do so. Of course, we must do much more, but we are doing much more. No one would pretend that this is our sole, single answer to deforestation, but it is an extraordinarily important part of our answer to tackling global deforestation.
To address one further point before I go into the details of the amendment, the noble Baronesses, Lady Bennett and Lady Hayman, suggested that we reluctantly accepted this amendment on the back of campaigning. It was the Government who initiated and commissioned the GRI report which made this recommendation, and we have been working for many months to get this right. It is not something that just popped in as a last-minute concession in Committee in the other place.
I shall start by speaking to Amendments 264, 264A and 264ZA, tabled by my noble friend Lord Lucas, the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, and the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch. Given the fundamental role of producer countries in protecting their forests and ecosystems, and the huge proportion of illegal deforestation, our due diligence requirements are based on legality, and I want to explain why. Our experience has shown that we get the best results for both people and the environment when we work as closely as we can with producer country Governments and communities —something which is crucial in this year of COP 26 and COP 15 on biodiversity. Working in partnership with timber-producing countries on implementing the timber regulation and the Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade action plan has contributed to increased natural resource governance in those countries. We want to replicate this approach for forest risk commodities.
In response to comments made by the noble Baronesses, Lady Meacher and Lady Sheehan, adopting these amendments would be a departure from the Government’s approach and would come at a cost. The UK is a big market in global terms, but on our own we are not big enough to cause the shift globally that we need in the way that commodities are grown. We can have an impact but not a huge impact. To have that kind of