Report (3rd Day) (Continued)
Clause 84: Water abstraction: no compensation for certain licence modifications
64: Clause 84, page 83, line 34, leave out “No”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment seeks to remove the proposals for increased powers to vary or revoke abstraction rights without offering compensation to licence holders.
My Lords, I declare my interests as a farmer, as set out in the register, and that water abstraction is used on my land to grow crops such as potatoes. I am also a member of the National Farmers’ Union, which has supported me in the tabling of my amendments. While moving Amendment 64, I shall speak also to Amendments 65 to 69 in my name, and to Clause 84 regarding the revocation of water abstraction rights without the payment of compensation, and the need to raise and clarify the evidential bar before revocation or variation. I shall then speak on Amendments 70 to 74, on the refinement of circumstances in which excess headroom can be removed.
By way of background, I think it important to focus your Lordships’ attention on the use and users of water abstraction licences, and to emphasise that farmers are not advocating the over-abstraction of water; they thoroughly understand that this damages the environment and are happy to work with the Environment Agency to ensure that this does not happen. Water abstraction is used by farmers to grow food crops; it is not something done for fun. The noble Baroness, Lady Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist, said in Committee that farmers hold more abstraction licences than any other sector, so a higher number of farmers are affected than other sectors. However, this is because of the number of individual licence holders; it has nothing to do with the volume of water abstracted. In fact, farmers account for just 2% of all water abstracted.
We should remember again that this is used for the production of our food, not for a car wash or a water slide. On the whole, water abstraction is used to produce high-value crops such as potatoes and vegetables, as well as fruit and certain horticultural products, on some of our most productive land. It involves very expensive investment in irrigation equipment, specialist storage and processing equipment. Investment decisions are carefully made on the basis of long-term planning, which includes availability of water and other inputs, together with market demand. Investment decisions of this sort are not taken lightly, as in most cases there is need for recourse to bank or other finance, requiring repayment at points in the future.
I do not wish to repeat what I said in Committee but would like to answer and clarify certain statements that were made. One noble Lord opposed the amendment on the basis that water is a resource that we must all share and that farmers’ historic water abstraction rights are historic happenstance and can be inequitable in their impact on the environment and other water users. This may well be historic, but so is the production of the food to which they relate, and I hope we are not talking about the revoking of food production.
Let us be clear: farmers are not advocating over-abstraction, only that those licences should not be revoked or varied as a result of arbitrary and undefined definition of damage by the Environment Agency. We do not oppose changes to licences, but we do oppose the ability to remove a licence without compensation. Payment of compensation is a hugely important point, and not just a legal one. It represents not only a long-standing property right but is a valuable business asset. It provides a degree of certainty for food production and manufacturing, together with the confidence to make important investment decisions. The overriding purpose of compensation is to enable farmers to make the necessary adjustment to their business if that licence is varied or revoked. In Committee, noble Lords encouraged the greater use of reservoirs. Surely this measure, together with any move to precision irrigation systems, is the perfect reason why compensation is necessary to enable farmers to reorder their business.
The Minister—the noble Baroness, Lady Bloomfield —informed us that only 10% of permanent extraction licence holders would be affected. But those holders were given legal rights when their applications were considered, determined and approved by the regulatory authorities. The goalposts have moved through no fault of the farmer. Surely all farmers deserve a clear definition of what the damage that has caused the revocation or variation is, in order to ensure that provisions are transparent and applied consistently going forward. Such information would also allow them to plan better for the future if a breach was likely. This is the purpose of Amendment 67, which tightens the ground for the revocation of licences.
The noble Baroness, Lady Bloomfield, also told us that the Government wanted
“the Environment Agency to continue to work closely with abstractors to explore all voluntary solutions to unsustainable”
water abstraction. She said:
“I do not agree that this is a blunt regulatory process; rather, it is the last resort in a collaborative process.”—[Official Report, 7/7/21; col. 1324.]
This is excellent news. In a letter to the noble Lord, Lord Colgrain, and me, the Minister—the noble Lord, Lord Goldsmith—wrote that the Government would set out in guidance that they would expect the Environment Agency to seek collaborative non-licence change, such as habitat restoration and mutually agreeable voluntary solutions where possible. He continued:
“Responsibility for demonstrating that a licence is damaging or risks damaging the environment will lie with”
the Environment Agency. The Minister wrote that guidance to the Environment Agency would be issued and helpfully set out the expectations of the agency, which cover many of the farmers’ concerns, including, I hope, how long farmers will have between being notified that their licence is under threat and enforcement.
I thank most warmly the Minister for his further letter to the noble Lord, Lord Colgrain, and me, which we received this morning. His letter confirms a lot of what has already been said, in particular, the expectation of a collaborative process with the Environment Agency and that new powers should be used as a last resort. He also promised discussions with all stakeholders before the publication of the guidance. The confirmation of this today by the Minister would be much appreciated, together with an idea as to the timing of the publication.
The purpose of Amendments 70 to 74 is to make the removal of excess headroom from abstraction licences without compensation more appropriate to the real world of farming and consequences of the British weather. It is a question of maths—I am sorry, it is quite late for maths. But if you can grow potatoes on the same field only every seventh year, yet you lose headroom if you fail to use it in a 12-year cycle, it only needs a very wet year when you are growing those potatoes and therefore do not need to abstract for you to lose that right. Therefore, you have no ability to abstract when you next grow spuds. This makes business planning and investment in this crop a major gamble that farmers are unlikely to accept.
Turning back to the importance of compensation, I have referred to compensation being a source of funding to alter the business model to, say, replace river extraction with building and using a reservoir or more precision irrigation equipment and other mitigation measures. However, we also need to acknowledge that revocation could lead to a loss of profit and loss of land value and other asset value, such as equipment loss. For most farming businesses these are no small matters and could result in significant loss and danger to the farm’s viability.
Although the building of reservoirs is an obvious solution for some, it is not as easy as it sounds. Some can be built under permitted development rights, but they are not cheap or easy to build. The planning process is often lengthy and costly, so a proper transition period from river abstraction is required. The lovely idea of a shared reservoir presents even more challenges, with the need for complicated legal agreements governing not only whose land the reservoir is on but what rights need to be granted to allow access on land not owned, how much can be abstracted, remedies for breaches, responsibility and cost of maintenance.
The adoption of Clause 84 unamended would do serious damage to part of our farming industry that is at the high value-added end of the food chain. The proposed amendments take account of the need to vary and revoke licences when the need is clearly and openly proven. The industry looks forward to seeing the Government’s promised guidelines so that sensible business plans can be adopted to mitigate any adverse effects of revocation or variation of licences.
Finally, the suggestion of no compensation should be reconsidered as it is so important to the funding of any mitigation measures, together with any losses incurred. The production of sustainable, world-class food in this country is paramount and not something that should be risked. I beg to move.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, for the introduction to his various amendments. As he said, Clause 84 removes the need, from 2028, to pay compensation to the holders of environmentally damaging abstraction licences when those damaging licences are amended or revoked. Although we have listened carefully to the concerns expressed by the noble Lord, we believe that we should put the needs of the environment first.
The requirement to pay compensation has been a barrier to action to protect waterways, including vulnerable chalk streams, which we considered earlier today and which in some cases have dried up completely, from the impacts of unsustainable abstraction. Over the years, a number of schemes have been introduced to identify and amend the most damaging and unsustainable licences, but the need to pay compensation to licence holders when those damaging licences are amended or revoked has been a significant barrier to progress.
The Water Act 2003 removed the requirement to pay compensation to the holders of licences causing “serious damage”, but this is an extremely high bar and is therefore rarely invoked, so in practice has provided little protection to our vulnerable waterways. The Water Act 2014 recognised this and removed the requirement to pay compensation for water company licence changes altogether. This has set a clear precedent for the removal of damaging licences without compensation. It is also important to recognise that 5% of surface water bodies and 15% of groundwater bodies are at future risk, where existing licence holders not currently using their licences in full could legitimately increase abstraction, thereby causing further damage to the environment.
The timescales proposed by the Government for this change provide ample time for catchment solutions to be identified and implemented wherever possible, with licence changes considered as a last resort. We must not curtail the ability of the Environment Agency to take action to protect and improve our rivers and wetlands, but instead should increase its ability to do so effectively.
In Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, hit the nail on the head when he said,
“the days when you can be compensated for not causing environmental degradation have, in my view, long since gone”.—[Official Report, 7/7/21; col. 1313.]
We on these Benches could not agree more; we cannot support the noble Lord’s amendments, but instead believe that the Government have got it right in Clause 84.
I am grateful for both contributions and for the support of the noble Baroness opposite. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, for his amendments, and for not only meeting with my noble friend Lord Goldsmith and officials over the summer to discuss his concerns but for this constructive engagement.
The measures which we are introducing in Clause 84 are absolutely necessary to protect the environment from further damage and from over-abstraction. Members of this House have spoken of the necessity of protecting our water environment, including the fish and invertebrates which live within it, as well as of the need to protect our internationally important chalk streams, on which we have already heard from the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, and others. Ending unsustainable abstraction is essential if we are to achieve this. But as I said in Committee, we also know that abstraction is vital for food production.
The Government recognise the impacts that these changes will have on permanent abstraction licence holders and are taking all steps possible to implement the changes fairly. The changes will not take effect until 1 January 2028. This will allow time for the full implementation of our 2017 water abstraction plan and for the Environment Agency’s catchment-based approach to become embedded, working with stakeholders, including permanent licence-holders potentially affected by these new powers, to voluntarily solve issues of access to water and unsustainable abstraction.
I reassure the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, that, by contrast, water companies can already have their extraction licences varied or revoked without the payment of compensation. I hope I can also reassure him when I say that this is not, as he termed it, an arbitrary or undefined process. Excess headroom will be assessed over each year of a 12-year period, to allow for weather variations and crop rotations, and to align with the abstraction licensing strategy timeframe. The Environment Agency will assess licences within scope on a case-by-case basis, considering all relevant factors including business needs and existing and future water resource needs, as the noble Lord mentions in his Amendment 73, before deciding what action is proportionate, as the noble Lord raises in Amendment 65.
We expect the Environment Agency to use this power as a last resort, once all other options have been exhausted. But if those options have been exhausted, it is simply not right that unsustainable abstraction and environmental damage should be allowed to continue. That is why this power is necessary. Should that decision be taken, the licence holder will have a right of appeal to the Secretary of State, as is currently the case. They can put forward expert evidence should they wish to do so, which was also a concern raised in Amendment 64.
The noble Lord, Lord Carrington, asked about timing. We are working with partners, including the National Farmers’ Union, on the guidance and will publish this guidance as soon as possible. The Government have worked, and will continue to work, extremely hard to ensure that these new powers are reasonable, proportionate and just. We will continue to work closely with a wide range of stakeholders to ensure that their implementation is a smooth and fair process.
I hope that the noble Lord recognises that the Government have endeavoured to put in place necessary safeguards. We can go no further without undermining the very purpose of this clause, which is to protect the environment. I acknowledge his comments about the long-term planning for the necessity of new reservoirs. I am afraid that I have no further details and can only acknowledge that this is a long-term solution. I hope that he agrees with the necessity of that purpose and will withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, I thank the Minister very much indeed for the very considered response. Although I do not totally agree on the compensation issue—but I was never going to—I accept all the assurances and the work that has been done by Defra to help ease our concerns. I have no hesitation in withdrawing my amendment, although I will continue on the compensation issue in future discussions. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 64 withdrawn.
Amendments 65 to 74 not moved.
75: After Clause 88, insert the following new Clause—
“Isles of Scilly: disapplication of water quality legislation
(1) Article 3 of the Isles of Scilly (Application of Water Legislation) Order 2020 (S.I. 2020/214) has effect as if—(a) at the end of paragraph (1) there were inserted “and to paragraph (3)”, and(b) after paragraph (2) there were inserted—“(3) Part 3 of the Water Resources Act 1991 does not apply to the following islands—(a) Bryher;(b) St Martins;(c) St Agnes.”(2) Accordingly, no charges may be levied under the Environment Agency (Environmental Permitting) (England) Charging Scheme in relation to the application of the Order on those islands.(3) Subsections (1) and (2) are repealed if a nominated water or sewerage undertaker has demonstrated to the Water Services Regulation Authority and the Environment Agency that it has invested in infrastructure so as to comply with the requirements of the Order.”Member’s explanatory statement
The water and sewerage regulations came into force on the Isles of Scilly in March 2020 but, on some islands, there is a statutory undertaker appointed for water supply but none for sewerage and no ability to comply with the sewerage regulations. This amendment would disapply the related Environment Agency charges until the necessary infrastructure is built and a statutory undertaker appointed.
My Lords, Amendment 75 is part of the relevant activities in this section but it is very specific to the Isles of Scilly, which, as the Minister will know, is where I live. In fact I was late this morning because the transport there did not work, but there we are.
The amendment relates to the drainage and water supply of the island. As noble Lords will know, there is one big island, St Mary’s, and four inhabited islands. A couple of years ago, after the Isles of Scilly (Application of Water Legislation) Order came into force, the water supply was taken over by South West Water as the nominated undertaker, and that has all been working fine. The sewage on most of Saint Mary’s and Tresco has also been taken over by South West Water, but on the other three islands it has not.
I am raising this issue today because this is very opportune. I heard about this only a couple of weeks ago, when the farmer next door to where I live, in Bryher, who in his spare time empties septic tanks and soakaways if they overflow, received a letter from the Environment Agency saying that, from 1 October, some very high charges would be imposed, plus fines, if he did not comply with the Water Resources Act 1991 as it is now applied to Scilly. That came into effect about 18 months ago, but, frankly, no one seems to have done much about it. Worse still, what do you do about it? You cannot suddenly put in a main drainage system or deal with septic tanks just like that, as we all know. At present, the system seems to work all right in the off-islands; if your tank needs emptying, the farmer empties it and deals with it in a reasonably environmentally friendly way. It does not get into the water supply or the sea, but it gets dumped somewhere nobody knows. But of course this is not what the Water Resources Act wants and, reasonably, needs.
The real problem is that the Environment Agency says that everything should be screened, and anything caught in the screen should then get incinerated. That is fine, but the first job is to build an incinerator. On a small island, that is not particularly easy, even if you have the money—and I do not yet know where the money is going to come from. St. Mary’s is going to have one, and maybe that will mean transporting 10 tonnes of solids every week on the inter-island ferry —in watertight containers, presumably—to be incinerated there. Again, that is a perfectly good solution, except they have not started building an incinerator yet, so they cannot do that anyway.
With the amendment, I have tried to produce a way to persuade the Minister that these charges and potential fines should not be applied to those who are not connected to a statutory undertaker for sewage until or unless something is built that enables their sewage to be treated in a proper way. Whether much happened between March 2020 and recently, I do not know, but I have talked to the Environment Agency locally, and I am also grateful for the help that officials at Defra gave me last week when we had some very useful conversations. What I think will come out of this, if the Minister is prepared to give me some assurances, is that these new charges and/or fines will not come into effect until it is possible and, shall we say, cost-effective to implement and operate them. I hope the Minister can give me assurances such as that tonight.
In the last two or three weeks, there have been several meetings between the Duchy, the Council of the Isles of Scilly, the Environment Agency and South West Water, and I hope that that indicates some progress. I think we all want progress, including the Ministers and the Environment Agency, and it occurs to me that it might help that progress if it were possible for a Minister to go there and, shall we say, encourage the working group to get on and do it. First of all, you have to design a sewage system, but some islands are solid granite and, fairly obviously, it is not that easy to build septic tanks in granite. There are an awful lot of things going on and it would be easy for this issue to fall to the bottom of the list.
So, if the Minister can give me assurances in the way I have suggested, I certainly will not divide the House. If the Minister can say nothing, well, we will see—but I hope that will not happen, because I have had some really good discussions with officials. This is not anything like as important as everything else we have been discussing in the Environment Bill, but it is an opportunity for me to bring this to your Lordships’ attention and, hopefully, not only get the Minister to give me the assurance I want but encourage islanders to get on and do this and make sure that their water quality and sewage quality are compliant with the Water Resources Act, as the rest of the country should be. I beg to move.
My Lords, I am very pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, has brought this amendment forward. I had the privilege of representing the Isles of Scilly in the European Parliament many years ago. They are often forgotten in legislation, as well as in terms of policy implementation and how that happens. The most obvious example was in 1651 when we declared war on the Netherlands—absolutely justifiably —and, in the peace treaty that followed, forgot to include the Isles of Scilly. This was discovered, and only in 1986 was peace agreed between the Kingdom of the Netherlands and the Isles of Scilly. Never mind President Biden, that equals the longest war in history: some 355 years. I am pleased to say that it was a bloodless war that has now been resolved.
On a serious note, this is real, and what I like about the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, is that it does not say that these islands should be exempted for ever—not at all—but that we have to fix this problem and then make the regulations apply equally there as in the rest of the nation. Also, having spoken to the Isles of Scilly authorities over the past week, I know that there have been serious discussions about this with senior officials in Defra and the Environment Agency. I very much hope that the Minister can give the assurances asked for by the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, because this is something that we do not want to last for 355 years; we would like it to be solved a lot more quickly than that.
Well—follow that. I thank my noble friend Lord Berkeley for moving this amendment. He has identified a situation that clearly needs rectifying. We should thank him for drawing the Government’s attention to this. I hope that the Minister has understood the concerns raised and the potential way forward outlined so clearly by my noble friend today.
It was interesting to listen to the noble Lord, Lord Teverson. I have learned an awful lot about the Isles of Scilly that I never expected to today. Clearly, as someone who has never been there, I need to arrange to go as soon as possible and enjoy the islands’ pleasures.
I am sure that the residents of the Isles of Scilly will be very pleased to get this properly sorted out. So, as I said, I am grateful to my noble friend for his work on this, and I look forward to the Minister’s response.
I too thank noble Lords for this debate on Amendment 75 from the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley. I was going to start with some background, but the noble Lord provided the background very well. I admit that, if this only arrived on his desk two weeks ago, it arrived on mine probably even more recently than that.
As he said, water, wastewater and corresponding environmental management legislation were applied to the Isles of Scilly for the first time in April 2020. This was the culmination of a project lasting more than 10 years. It addresses water-quality risks to public health, risks to the environment from over-abstraction of water resources, sewage treatment and resulting pollution on the Isles of Scilly. The Environment Agency is now working with the Council of the Isles of Scilly, the Duchy of Cornwall, Tresco Estates, residents, and other local partners to ensure that environmental legislation is complied with, and practices modernised over time. I urge all parties to continue their valuable work toward this endeavour.
I know that everyone involved shares the aim of helping isles such as Bryher to avoid long-term environmental damage and risk to human health. It is therefore crucial that the legislation that so many people worked so hard to apply to the Isles stays in effect. The Environment Agency recently consulted on a charges scheme regarding environmental permits to help support the work. Currently a risk-based transition plan for the management of septic tank waste and sludges on the Isles is being developed as a priority, ensuring that the fragile environment and groundwater resources are as well supported as possible into the future.
Very briefly, in response to comments from the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, I can tell him that septic tank wastes are currently disposed of outside the above permits under other legislation, but we will need an evolution and transition to a better system, hopefully aligned with the development of water company assets in the future. Again, we are working very closely with partners on the Isles of Scilly to achieve that future.
The Government recognise that this will involve change for residents, and the Environment Agency is managing that change sensitively and through partnership. I am very grateful to the noble Lord for taking the time to discuss this issue with my officials and for bringing this to my attention, and I reassure him that we will continue to monitor progress on this issue. I will ensure that my colleague Rebecca Pow, in whose portfolio this sits, is kept fully abreast of the issues. I beg that the noble Lord withdraws his amendment.
I am grateful to the Minister for that response, to my noble friend, and to the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, for his intervention. Perhaps I might press the Minister just a little bit further and ask him to make it quite clear that this charge sheet that came in a couple of weeks ago, and will start to come into effect on 1 October, will not be applied until the relevant work has been done. My next door neighbour, if he does not like it, will feel threatened. There is a good solution: stop emptying septic tanks. That is not something that any of us want to see. So a little bit of comfort from the Minister on the charges would be very helpful, before I withdraw my amendment.
I assure the noble Lord that I absolutely commit to continuing to work with the residents to implement the changes in as sensitive and sensible a way as possible, but I do not think I am able to commit to specifics or comment on specific cases at this time. I hope that is enough for the noble Lord.
I am grateful to the Minister, and on that basis I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
Amendment 75 withdrawn.
Clause 90: Valuation of other land in drainage district: England
Amendments 76 to 78
76: Clause 90, page 90, line 17, leave out “, in particular,”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment, together with Lord Goldsmith’s other amendments to Clause 90, changes a consequential amendment power being inserted into the Land Drainage Act 1991 from a power to amend any Act, to a power to amend the Land Drainage Act 1991.
77: Clause 90, page 90, line 18, leave out “, repeals or revokes” and insert “or repeals”
Member’s explanatory statement
See Lord Goldsmith’s amendment to Clause 90, page 90, line 17.
78: Clause 90, page 90, line 19, leave out “an enactment (including”
Member’s explanatory statement
See Lord Goldsmith’s amendment to Clause 90, page 90, line 17.
Amendments 76 to 78 agreed.
Clause 92: Valuation of agricultural land in drainage district: England and Wales
Amendments 79 to 81
79: Clause 92, page 93, line 19, leave out “, in particular,”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment, together with Lord Goldsmith’s other amendments to Clause 92, changes a consequential amendment power being inserted into the Land Drainage Act 1991 from a power to amend any Act, to a power to amend the Land Drainage Act 1991.
80: Clause 92, page 93, line 20, leave out “, repeals or revokes” and insert “or repeals”
Member’s explanatory statement
See Lord Goldsmith’s amendment to Clause 92, page 93, line 19.
81: Clause 92, page 93, line 21, leave out “an enactment (including”
Member’s explanatory statement
See Lord Goldsmith’s amendment to Clause 92, page 93, line 19.
Amendments 79 to 81 agreed.
Amendments 82 and 83 not moved.
Schedule 14: Biodiversity gain as condition of planning permission
84: Schedule 14, page 222, line 17, at end insert—
“(6) The Secretary of State must lay the biodiversity metric, and any revised biodiversity metric, before Parliament.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment requires the Secretary of State to lay the biodiversity metric and any revised biodiversity metric before Parliament.
Amendment 84 agreed.
84A: Schedule 14, page 222, line 17, at end insert—
“(6) Within the period of six months beginning with the day on which this Act is passed, the Secretary of State must produce or revise the biodiversity metric, having particular regard to the ecological importance of—(a) diversity of habitat types and management approaches, including open mosaic habitat, scrubland, and habitats that mature slowly, (b) the potential of individual sites to support rare, endangered and vulnerable species, and(c) habitat connectivity across a landscape.(7) The Secretary of State must review the biodiversity metric at least annually and revise it to take into account—(a) any significant developments in scientific evidence, and(b) any assessment of progress toward meeting targets set under Part 1 of the Environment Act 2021.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment ensures that the Biodiversity Metric includes the ecological requirements of rare and endangered species, that it recognises the importance of habitat heterogeneity and connectedness, and that it is updated regularly in light of scientific evidence.
My Lords, in moving my Amendment 84A, I will also speak to support Amendments 85 and 87 in this group in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, to which I have added my name along with the noble Baronesses, Lady Parminter and Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb. I thank the Minister for his time in discussion with me, and officials at Defra and Natural England for going into considerable detail in subsequent meetings.
I will be very brief, in view of the late hour. To cut to the quick, the biodiversity metric, which is what this amendment is about, is the measure by which developers and planning authorities calculate whether biodiversity off-setting produces a net-positive outcome for nature. Of course, if we think back to Clause 3, which we debated last week, this net gain concept will be crucial if the Government are to succeed in delivering their target of halting species decline by 2030.
However, as I said briefly in Committee, the metric as currently proposed by Natural England and Defra is, in the view of at least some leading academic experts, practitioners and end-users, deeply flawed for the following reasons. First, it does not adequately consider the requirements of key species. Secondly, it uses an oversimplified classification of habitat type and quality as a surrogate for species abundance. Thirdly, it does not adequately incorporate the so-called Lawton principles of bigger, better, more connected habitat, which are the accepted gold standard for protecting biodiversity.
I will illustrate these flaws with an example. A few hundred metres from my home in Oxford, there is a city council nature reserve called Burgess Field, known locally for its rich biodiversity. Many species of birds, butterflies and other insects, as well as wildflowers, thrive there. Yet, as my colleague Professor Katherine Willis of Oxford University points out, this nature reserve would count as “poor” habitat if it were assessed by the metric. This simply cannot be right.
Defra officials and Natural England acknowledge that the metric is a work in progress, but they argue that a great deal of work has gone into its development —of course, the fact that a great deal of work has gone in in the past does not mean to say that more work cannot easily be done in the future—and that it has to be kept simple to make life easier for developers. I think it should be made more difficult and life made easier for nature. My amendment simply asks the Government to reconsider the metric and to revise it yet again. My ask is a modest one—to review the deficiencies and continue to improve the metric. I very much hope that the Minister will confirm his commitment to doing this.
I will leave it to others to speak in more detail to Amendments 85 and 87, which ask the Government to extend the lifespan of net gain from 30 to 125 years, but I will make two very brief points. Having spoken to Defra officials, as I understand it—I hope I am wrong and that the Minister will correct me—there are two lines of argument for defending the 30-year, rather than a 125-year, limit. First, if the requirement for the duration of net gain were too onerous it would be an obstacle to development because no one would want to commit their land for a long time for preserving biodiversity. It is said that the experience from other countries demonstrates this, although I have not been able to find the evidence. The second argument is that if at the end of 30 years valuable habitat has been created, that habitat will be protected by other regulations, such as a designation as an SSSI. These two arguments seem self-contradictory. On the one hand it is important to tell developers that they can have their land back after 30 years, but on the other if they do a good job of creating new habitat for net gain they cannot have it back. I look forward to the Minister’s reply. I beg to move.
My Lords, bearing in mind the hour, I shall speak briefly to Amendments 85 and 87. It is a pity that it is late, because these are terribly important amendments. I have been sitting and thinking: how long does it take to create a habitat? The noble Lord, Lord Krebs, just said that at the end of 30 years we may have rip-roaring habitat, but the likelihood is that we will not have rip-roaring habitat for many habitat types.
There are some instant habitats: wetlands, for example—just add water and you get birds. It is instant habitat creation. There are some middling habitats, such as meadows, where you can grow grass and wildflowers, but it will not be a complex meadow ecosystem, certainly not SSSI quality, by 30 years’ time. As for woods, a wood will not really get into its stride in 30 years. You will have canopy formation by then, but it will be a fairly limited wood. Of course, many habitats are very long-term: ancient woodlands take 400 years. Long-standing woods, which the Government have said they are now interested in protecting, are complex assemblages of habitat and we do not yet know how long standing “long standing” will be, but it is certainly more than 30 years. Peatlands take 1,000 years, so 30 years for newly created habitats for biodiversity gain, planning gain or conservation covenants is a bit pathetic; in fact, it is pretty useless. Destruction of these biodiversity gains and climate change carbon sequestration at 30 years will be unacceptable to the public and it makes no sense to create and then destroy.
Longer periods do not discourage landowners and farmers. I draw attention to my interest as chairman of the Woodland Trust. We regularly deal with farmers on woodland creation schemes. What farmers and landowners want is clarity for the future, so that they can make decisions. The current woodland carbon code requires woodland sites for carbon storage to be in place for at least 100 years and we have no shortage of people banging on our doors wanting to create at least 100 year-old woods, so I ask the Minister to accept this amendment.
My Lords, I draw attention to my interest as a Church Commissioner, as set out in the register, and I wish to support what the noble Baroness just said: 30 years is rather a short period of time. I am grateful for the way the Minister, in proposing Amendments 86 and 88, is showing us the possibility of some flexibility in the future, but may I just tempt him a little further? What he is proposing would allow a future Government, by regulation, to change that period of 30 years—one would hope that it might go up to 50, 60 or perhaps even 125—but if they did, there would be nothing to prevent a subsequent Government reducing it back to 30 again. If we are to have a direction of travel in how long a site needs to be protected for, it should be one-way, without the possibility of going back down again. That could create a sort of planning blight, whereby somebody, particularly towards the end of a government cycle, might feel that, rather than making some land available for development, they can wait and hope that the period will be knocked back down to 30 years by the incoming Administration. Would the Minister be willing to think again so that, whatever period we set, any future changes would have to increase it rather than potentially allowing it to decrease?
My Lords, I shall speak in favour of all the amendments in this group—even, in a very soft way, the government amendments. They address issues that I spoke on at considerable length in Committee, so I will, given the hour, be brief. It is a great pleasure to follow the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester and all the speakers on this group. I think the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, really hit the nail on the head. If 30 years is all we can tie things up for, if it works, you are tying it up, one would assume, indefinitely, which 125 years serves as a figure for.
In Committee, I talked about 30 years being a blink of an eye in nature, and the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, set out a very nice template for us thinking about different kinds of habitats and ecosystems. I will add to this my—perhaps now inevitable—point about soil, which is about the biodiversity of the soil and producing what you might describe as a mature soil, whether it is under any of those habitats. A meadow might look quite nice on the top, but the soil is not going to be anything like a long-term developed meadow for many years. These are ecosystems that take a long time to develop to get the real richness you would need for a proper, healthy soil.
I will just note that we are strongly behind Amendments 85 and 87, which my noble friend Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb signed, but I would also particularly compliment the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, on Amendment 84A. I would have signed it had I actually spotted it, but I am afraid I missed it. There has been much discussion in the media, in the public and in the environmental community about the utter inadequacy of the biodiversity metric. In this amendment, the noble Lord is going some way to finding a way forward to fix that, and I really do hope the Minister will take it on board.
My Lords, I declare my interests as on the register. I want to comment briefly on two amendments. First, I welcome my noble friend’s Amendment 89; it is important to keep under review the amount of land available for the net gain register.
Secondly, I want to comment on Amendment 84A from the noble Lord, Lord Krebs. I say this to him: I do not think it is necessary. As he said, this is evolving. The metric as published by Natural England is not set in stone. It will be an evolving measure, and as further and better particulars come along, it will be changed and amended. An annual review by the Government is not needed for that to happen.
The other point I want to make is this: yes, of course, the metric could be made more complicated. Some on the Climate Change Committee condemn it, because it is just a biodiversity net gain metric. They want an environmental net gain metric, which would be an all-singing, all-dancing super one, but incredibly complicated to produce. No one is capable of doing it properly at the moment.
If we bring in lots of other factors, which would no doubt make this much better in biodiversity terms, we would be faced with an industry and builders that have not a clue how it would work. Net gain is terribly, terribly important. It will be one of the greatest improvements to planning and the environment we have ever seen in this country. But it is a completely new concept; it is innovative. For it to happen, we have to get developers on side, working with it. At the moment, they have not a clue how it works. They have a couple of years, I think, to get that right.
I am concerned that we keep this initially simple. The current metric, which is still doing a good job and can evolve and can change, will not be detrimental to biodiversity; it will be a big improvement to biodiversity. But I am certain that in a couple of years’ time or a year’s time, it may be tweaked again to improve it. As developers and Government and Natural England bed this down, I am certain it will become more sophisticated and more perfect from a purist environmental point of view.
So I say to the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, who is incredibly able and thoroughly knowledgeable in this matter—he is 10 times more knowledgeable than I am, though I am practical—that we have to start somewhere. There used to be an army acronym KISS: “Keep it simple, stupid.” We have to keep it simple to begin with, and we can make it a lot more complicated as we get used to it.
My Lords, I hear what the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, says, but I still think the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, raised some real concerns that this House deserves answers to, and I hope the Minister, in his summing up, can give the reassurances the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, has asked for. I wanted to briefly add my voice to the others in support of Amendment 87, which deals with the issue of perpetuity versus the 30 years for the biodiversity net gain.
I will not add to the other arguments people have made, but I just wanted to remind noble Lords that in Committee, in response to a question from the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, the Minister said that the Government wish to introduce biodiversity net gain
“in a way that requires developers … to bear as little cost as possible.”—[Official Report, 7/7/21; col. 1377.]
It seems to me that overriding constraint is as much relevant in terms of this debate, because this is not about worrying that there will not be enough landowners coming forward to provide the amount of nature conservation that we need. It is really about limiting the liability of developers. That is at the heart of this, and that is why I support the amendment.
My Lords, I am speaking in support of Amendment 84A of the noble Lord, Lord Krebs. I will then speak to my Amendments 85 and 87. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Parminter and Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, for adding their names to my amendments.
First, the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, has raised important points about the quality of the metric currently being developed to implement biodiversity net gain. Over the summer he was kind enough to share the paper to which he referred by his colleague Professor Katherine Willis. I have to say that it shocked me, as it shows that we are in danger of drifting into a new system which, far from being a positive asset, could be highly detrimental to the environment. This is why I am not reassured by the use of words such as “progressing”, “virtuous” and “improving” by the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra. We could be going backwards if we do not get this right.
We therefore support the amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, that would set up a process of review of the metrics within six months, taking into account the broad range of factors that determine the ecological importance of sites. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, has been in dialogue with the Minister about these concerns, and I hope that, in his response, the Minister will provide sufficient reassurance that this matter is being addressed.
My Amendments 85 and 87 address the length of time that any habitat enhancement agreed through the planning process should be protected. As it stands, Schedule 14 to the Bill defines this period as 30 years. After that, the habitats could be destroyed, losing any ecological gains or carbon storage benefits. This goes against the grain of ecological best practice, which emphasises the need to let nature recover for the long term.
In recent advice, Natural England has said:
“Mitigation measures will need to be secured for the duration over which the development is causing the effects—generally 80-125 years.”
The building developments on the land where the displacement takes place will clearly be expected to last more than 30 years. For example, MHCLG has issued advice on property that makes it clear that a long lease is usually 125 years. So it is right that the creation of any new habitat, in compensation, should also last a lifetime. Our view was echoed in the recent Environmental Audit Committee report, Biodiversity in the UK: Bloom or Bust?, which stated:
“Nature recovery does not happen overnight and must be maintained and built upon for generations. The proposed 30 year minimum to maintain biodiversity net gains will achieve little in terms of delivering long-lasting nature recovery.”
In Committee, we tabled an amendment that would have protected habitats in perpetuity. There was considerable support for our position, but there were also questions about how perpetuity could be measured. So in our new amendment, we have now defined this period as 125 years, which was the only legal definition of the concept, as set out in the Perpetuities and Accumulations Act 2009. We believe that this is the right length of time to create and maintain long-term species-rich habitats to compensate for the destruction of existing established habitats elsewhere.
In Committee, the Minister made it clear that the provision of 30 years was a minimum requirement. He has now tabled further amendments in this group that would give the Secretary of State a power to increase the 30-year period and keep that duration under review. However, we do not believe that this gives the guarantees of long-term habitat protection that we need. There is no indication in the Government’s amendment of the criteria that would be used to vary the duration. I am also grateful to the Bill team for their recent advice that this variation, if introduced, would apply at a policy-wide level and not on an individual project basis. However I do not see where in the Bill this would be assured, since the Government’s amendment just gives a general power to vary the time period and could therefore, in my reading, apply to particular building developments.
The Minister has also raised concerns about whether sufficient landowners would make their land available for a longer term period, but surely landowners who contract to create these new habitats would have to be there for the longer term, otherwise our very fear that the habitat would be destroyed after 30 years becomes a reality. We believe that the long-term timescale of 125 years, as set out in Amendment 85, gives landowners certainty and would ensure that habitats which are destroyed could be recreated for the long term on a like-for-like basis.
This is an important principle which is necessary to legitimise the process of biodiversity net gain. Otherwise, the truth is that it would just be delayed damage. On that basis, I hope the Minister is able to give further reassurances, and I look forward to his response.
I thank all noble Lords for their contributions to this important debate, in particular the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, and the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, for their detailed conversations on this over the summer.
I am pleased to confirm that the Government have brought forward Amendments 86, 88 and 89 on the long-term prospects of biodiversity gains. The Bill currently introduces a 30-year minimum period for biodiversity net gain agreements, and these new government amendments will place a duty on the Secretary of State to review the duration for biodiversity net gain agreements and provide legal powers to increase the duration—that could be up to 125 years, for example, or it could be less. This process will be informed by the biodiversity net gain monitoring and evaluation programme, and will apply at a policy-wide level. These amendments will ensure that an extension of the duration is actively considered in future, supporting the long-term protection of our habitats.
Amendments 85 and 87, proposed by the noble Baroness Jones of Whitchurch, while welcome in intention, would, we believe, deter landowners in key areas from offering land for conservation. Based on the engagement, consultation and evidence-gathering that we have undertaken, setting a requirement for biodiversity enhancements to be secured for 125 years now means that we are less likely to see land offered for enhancement in the right places at the start of biodiversity net gain roll-out. That would mean that we were less able to create the coherent ecological networks that we need and may end up with money for net gain sitting unspent.
If restrictions placed on biodiversity net gain funds are too stringent from the start, landowners are unlikely to commit to the agreements we require. There is strong evidence from international practice that this might lead to the Government being unable to invest biodiversity gain funds and achieve the benefits we want from the policy. For example, in the environmental offsets framework for Queensland, Australia, a shortage of appropriate projects has meant that the state Government have been unable to spend much of the money collected for habitat enhancement. In addition, Ermgassen et al published a paper in Conservation Letters in June this year which sets out an academic assessment of the ecological outcomes of mandating biodiversity net gain that very much supports our position.
The amendments that the Government have introduced strike a fine balance between robustness and managing these risks of land supply. Clearly, I, my colleagues in Defra and everyone involved in the Bill want the habitats created and enhanced through net gain to thrive forever. That is where we all start, but it would be a mistake to let our desire for perfection in future undermine our first and more important steps on this policy. We need to get going.
I have almost been deterred from raising this argument by the introductory remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, but it is fair to say that after 30 years of improvement, a new habitat would benefit from a whole range of protections that already exist in legislation. If those protections have not continuously improved and evolved over the next 30 years and, in 2050, we find that new, beautiful habitats paid for through this scheme can be easily grubbed out in the way that has been predicted or feared by a number of Peers speaking today, frankly, we are in a whole heap of trouble. The world will be a very different place in 2050, and today it is waking up to the urgency. If we have not properly woken up by 2050, this discussion is nothing more than an exercise in academia.
In summary, we need a supply of land in the right places to see biodiversity gains delivered. Setting a perpetual, or 125-year, minimum agreement duration from the start in a newly created policy context creates a serious risk of deterring landowners from offering their land for net gain. That would be a terrible outcome for nature and for society, so we have been careful to design biodiversity net gain in a way that mitigates this risk and maximises the chance of success.
On Amendment 84A, from the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, we will publish the biodiversity metric for mandatory biodiversity net gain soon. The Bill’s provisions rightly require proper consultation on the final biodiversity metric before it is published for mandatory application. I can assure the noble Lord that the quality, diversity and function of habitats is already the focus of Natural England’s work on the metric and, as he knows well, our understanding of biodiversity is constantly evolving and improving. I can confirm to him that the metric will be regularly reviewed to take account of the latest scientific evidence and user experience. We will consult on a timeline and metric next year; after that, we expect to suggest a review every three to five years.
I also highlight that we are already on our third iteration of the metric and will consult next year on the version to be formally published for mandatory net gain and on the timeline for subsequent updates. The Government absolutely recognise the importance of species, as well as microhabitats, and the need for connectivity across our landscapes. The biodiversity metric’s habitat scoring is fundamentally linked to the value of habitats to priority species. The net gain regime will work alongside our existing regulatory framework for protected and rare species. This is already embedded within planning policy and practice, and will act in addition to biodiversity net gain.
I would also like to address the way in which the Lawton principles of “bigger, better, more connected” underpin the entire design of net gain, not just the metric. Net gain aims to improve the size and quality of habitats delivered through development; that is the whole point of the policy. The net gain percentage increase of 10% underpins that principle. Natural England’s latest update of the biodiversity metric also includes a strategic significance multiplier, which places a higher value on biodiversity enhancements supported by local nature recovery strategies, providing a wider strategic blueprint for nature investment. We will, of course, consider the Lawton principles when updating the metric and wider policy in future. They are inseparable from the key goals of this policy.
Finally, I highlight to the House that the Government have listened to the points raised by noble Lords about biodiversity net gain and brought forward government amendments on multiple occasions in response. We have extended the biodiversity net gain regime to cover nationally significant infrastructure projects, from major roads to new railways. We have provided for the option to bring marine development in scope of biodiversity net gain in the future, and today I am moving government amendments to ensure our biodiversity net gain policy is protecting our habitats for as long as possible. I hope I have been able to reassure noble Lords and ask them not to press their amendments.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this short debate. I also thank the Minister for his response. With regard to Amendment 84A, in brief, I accept the reassurance that he gave in his reply. The metric will be regularly reviewed in light of scientific evidence. The Government recognise the importance of species and microhabitats, and the need for connectivity across landscapes. Rare and protected species will be safeguarded by regulations that will work alongside net gain, and the Lawton principles will underpin net gain and be considered when updating the metric.
I still think that, given the concerns expressed by many stakeholders on the current version of the metric, there should be an urgent consideration before it is finally put into practice, so that we can get it as good as it can be. I also accept the point that the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, made: that this is an ongoing work in progress and will be continually improved.
With regard to Amendments 85 and 87, I am disappointed that the Government are not prepared to go further. However, I accept the reassurances of the Minister on Amendment 84A and beg leave to withdraw it.
Amendment 84A withdrawn.
Amendment 85 not moved.
86: Schedule 14, page 223, line 48, at end insert—
“(4) The Secretary of State may by regulations amend sub-paragraph (3) so as to substitute for the period for the time being specified there a different period of at least 30 years.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment allows the Secretary of State to vary the period for which onsite habitat enhancement must be maintained, subject to a minimum of 30 years.
Amendment 86 agreed.
Clause 96: Biodiversity gain site register
Amendment 87 not moved.
Amendments 88 and 89
88: Clause 96, page 98, line 48, at end insert—
“(6A) Regulations under this section may amend subsection (2)(b) so as to substitute for the period for the time being specified there a different period of at least 30 years.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment allows the Secretary of State to vary the period for which habitat enhancement of biodiversity gain sites must be maintained, subject to a minimum of 30 years.
89: Clause 96, page 99, line 3, at end insert—
“(8A) The Secretary of State must keep under review—(a) the supply of land for registration in the biodiversity gain site register;(b) whether the period specified in subsection (2)(b) or in paragraph 9(3) of Schedule 7A to the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 can be increased under subsection (6A) or paragraph 9(4) of that Schedule without adversely affecting that supply.” Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment requires the Secretary of State to keep under review the supply of land for registration in the biodiversity gain site register and whether the period for which habitat enhancement must be maintained could be increased (see Lord Goldsmith’s amendment to Schedule 14).
Amendments 88 and 89 agreed.
Clause 97: Biodiversity credits
90: Clause 97, page 99, leave out lines 27 and 28 and insert “Payments received under arrangements under this section are to be retained by local authorities for the following purposes (only)—”
Member’s explanatory statement
The effect of the amendment would be that credits would be retained by local authorities for local use in promoting biodiversity rather than retained by central government.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, regrets that he cannot be in the Chamber at the moment, so I am moving Amendment 90 with his permission.
The Bill seeks to introduce measures whereby a credit system will allow the sale of proposed statutory biodiversity units when improvements on site are not possible. It currently does not require that biodiversity credits raised from developments be retained locally. The amendment that I am moving is simple. It does not seek to change the proposed approach to biodiversity credits but to ensure that the income from such credits is retained locally. Improving biodiversity and protecting nature is self-evidently something that happens in places. Central government sets the legislative and regulatory framework, but it is how local actors, and particularly local government, play their leadership roles that will ultimately determine success.
I turn now to my Amendment 94. I am grateful to the noble Baronesses, Lady Jones of Whitchurch and Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, and the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, for their support. If we are to rescue nature and biodiversity from the perilous situation that we have allowed it to get into, the local nature recovery strategy set out in the Bill will be critical. It is equally critical, however, that strategies do not become just more paper gathering dust, and that the powers provided to enforce them are not just vested in a remote Secretary of State issuing regulations from Whitehall but in local authorities, which are on the front line of the battle to save nature.
This Bill is not at all shy about imposing new duties on local authorities or in granting the Secretary of State a whole range of powers to make regulations, but it is painfully, timidly, and indeed speechlessly shy about giving local authorities any of the powers that they need to discharge those duties. Part 6 of the Bill is no exception. Clause 102(3), which governs the content of local nature recovery strategies, allows local authorities to designate areas that
“are, or could become, of particular importance for biodiversity, or … where the recovery or enhancement of biodiversity could make a particular contribution”.
Nowhere, however, is there any power for a local authority to stop a landowner from destroying biodiversity on such designated sites.
My amendment would correct this. It would allow a local authority to issue a biodiversity contravention notice to the owner or occupier of any land designated under Clause 102(3) as a site of importance for biodiversity, where it appeared to the local authority that there was a serious risk of biodiversity destruction or where such destruction had already taken place. The notice could require the landowner to provide information about their operations on the site, to allow access to the site and to comply with obligations to preserve biodiversity as specified in the notice.”
In Committee, I used the example of the Seething Wells filter bed site by the Thames, in my hometown of Surbiton, to illustrate the problem that my amendment would tackle. The land has been disused since it was decommissioned in 1992 by Thames Water and subsequently developed into a haven for plant and animal life, including birds, bats and grass snakes. It has become an important site for diversity in our borough, yet when the new owners started on a programme of wholesale destruction of nature on the site, there was nothing the council could do to stop them, despite it being a site of interest for nature conservation. The council did not even have the power to demand information about what the owners were doing on the site, let alone the power to stop the destruction. Here I pay tribute to the Seething Wells Action Group, which has done so much in our local community to raise the profile of this issue, and I know that many of its members have recently been in touch with the Minister.
Responding to my amendment in Committee, the Minister argued that local authorities either already had the necessary powers to tackle such issues or would gain them in the Bill. But when the Minister and his officials were kind enough to meet me over the summer, they conceded that the council had no powers to act in this case because the site was not the subject of any planning application and so planning powers did not apply. The Minister undertook to look into how this gap in powers might be addressed, although he questioned whether the problem was widespread and what motivation site owners would have for such destruction. Regrettably, since that positive meeting, I have heard no more from the Minister or his officials.
My interaction with local government colleagues indicates that this is indeed a widespread issue across the country, and I am pleased to say that this amendment has the strong support of the Local Government Association, as well as Greener UK. As to the motivation of landowners, that is not so hard to discern. They may simply want to make their sites easier to manage, they may regard the biodiversity on it as untidy or problematic, or they may simply not recognise its importance. Indeed, were this not a problem, there would be no need for nature recovery strategies in the first place.
In conclusion, this is a critical amendment because it provides the means to achieve the end that the Bill seeks. It is critical because it would show that, in this House, we understand that we simply cannot go on imposing more and more duties on local government without providing the mechanisms by which it can discharge them. Finally, it is critical because, without these powers in the hands of local authorities, as the front-line defenders of nature, biodiversity destruction will continue, notwithstanding the many laudable intentions of this Bill. I beg to move.
My Lords, I have three amendments in this group. They have a common theme because they are based on the fact that, very sadly, a lot of the good intentions of this Bill are going to fail. Although I support the Bill and support the drift of where we are going, they are going to fail because they are based on, and are building on, the existing system that is already a failure.
Let me give some examples. Since 2000, Defra has spent £10.3 billion or thereabouts on biodiversity. Agri-environment schemes have cost us £8.5 billion in the last 25 years. Roughly 28% of our land is designated for nature and biodiversity, and yet we have an appalling and increasingly bad record. Why? Because the current system is failing. Let me give just a couple of examples. Because of climate change we have gone for bioenergy and we have planted more maize. That has caused huge environmental problems and been very damaging for biodiversity. We are encouraging people to plant trees on what they call unproductive farmland, but that unproductive farmland is the haven for many of the red-list species, and we are damaging those. This Bill is going to build on those failures, and I believe we need to change tack. I know my noble friend will not accept that that is the right way to go but, nevertheless, I believe it is worth putting on the record that it is the right way to go.
We have to accept that there is more to improving biodiversity than just habitats. In the last amendment, my noble friend Lord Goldsmith said that habitats were very important and that we had to improve them. Yes, habitats are important, but they are not the only thing that is important. Equally important, as I have said many times, is winter feed, early spring feed and farming practices and management, in particular predator control. I give the example of the Allerton Project, which is entirely devoted to improving biodiversity and has hugely increased songbird numbers, but it cannot get waders and curlews back because of the lack of predatory control. We need to alter our stance on that.
I have three amendments: Amendment 92A refers to “nature-friendly farming”. These are the people who are managing the land. The noble Lord, Lord Oates, is right that the local authorities have a role, but the bulk of the land is in the hands of the farmers and we need the farmers on side. We need to encourage those that are nature-friendly-oriented. Farming and nature cannot be divided or separated; they have been separated for too long and here is a good chance in the Bill to put the farmers in the position they ought to be in.
Amendment 98 relates to wildlife conservation licences. I tweak the Bill in this respect, in that I propose the use of the word “status” instead of “survival”, as effectively a single individual of a species could be considered to be survival. Population can mean anything from an individual site colony to the total number of that species in the UK. Therefore, scale comes into any definition of detrimental to survival, as reducing the population at the local level may not actually have a bearing on the overall population due, for example, to infill from the current year’s young of the species.
My third amendment is Amendment 105. The noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, spoke on the last amendment in support of what I have said. She feared we would be going backwards if we do not get this right. The purpose of Amendment 105, which is a sunset clause, is to allow us to take a deep breath and stop us going backward if we are. My noble friend Lord Goldsmith said on the last amendment that there would be serious trouble if habitats in 2050 are not in the state we want them to be in. The purpose of this clause is to allow the Secretary of State to stand back, take a look and say “We were well intentioned, but we got it wrong. We need to change and go in a slightly different direction for the sake of biodiversity and the environment.”
We now have binding targets in the Bill but, as my noble friend Lord Benyon, who was in his place a moment ago, said on 25 May in this House:
“We are always wary of targets”.—[Official Report, 25/5/2021; col. 890.]
I am extremely wary of targets when it comes to biodiversity, because every target we have aimed at in the last 25 years has been missed. The purpose of Amendment 105 is therefore to give the Minister a chance to stand back, have a rational look and, if necessary, take a different direction.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, whose passion for improving the Bill from the government Back Benches is evident even at this hour. I commend him for that. I declare my role as a vice-president of the LGA and the NALC.
I shall deal with Amendments 90, 91 and 94 together. Amendment 90 appears in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, and is also signed by the noble Lord, Lord Oates, while Amendment 94 is also signed by the noble Lord, Lord Oates, and my noble friend Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb. They all deal with the fact that the people who know best about a local natural environment are local people. We confront again, as we do in so many different areas, the fact that the UK—and England in particular—is one of the most centralised polities on this planet. That has many negative effects for people, but it also has negative effects for nature.
On Amendment 90, as the noble Lord, Lord Oates, said, we keep giving local government responsibilities but, through a decade of austerity we have seen fewer resources in local communitiesw available to deal with those responsibilities. We have gone through a cycle where local authorities barely have enough funds to meet their statutory responsibilities—those dictated from here in Westminster. They do not really have enough funds for that, let alone to reflect local priorities and desire for action.
The amendment signed by my noble friend Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb is particularly telling. We can think of so many case studies; the noble Lord, Lord Oates, gave one. I was also struck thinking about the case of the River Lugg in Herefordshire last year, where we saw trees felled, the river bridged and a reprofiling of the riverbanks along a 1.5 kilometre stretch, to the shock and horror of local people. Investigations are still ongoing, so I will not go too far into this, but the country was alerted to this through local people using social media and through the local media outlets picking up this story. Of course, it was at local level that the knowledge arose, and perhaps at local level some action could have saved some biodiversity or nature there.
I was up in Kendal a few years ago in a village that was struck by flooding, and the vehicles driving along a particular road were pushing flood water into people’s homes. The local people were shaking with anger and frustration; if they had been allowed to close that road, they could have stopped those homes being flooded, but they were told they would face police action if they did so. That is the kind of emergency situation where we need to ensure that local people are able to act, whether it is a biodiversity emergency or a flooding emergency affecting people’s homes.
I really hope that we might see some progress on Amendments 90, 91 and 94. I also want to mention Amendment 92A, in the name of the noble Earl, Lord Caithness. The Nature Friendly Farming Network represents a really activist group of farmers; I have met quite a number of them. They are doing some very strong things at that nexus between acknowledging the need to produce food and looking out for nature. Here we have a very modest addition to the Bill that would acknowledge and put on the statute book recognition of, and support for, the important work of nature-friendly farming. I hope that we will hear from the Minister about that amendment.
My Lords, my Amendment 91 in this group seeks to give some bite to the nature recovery strategies, which are a very welcome addition into this Bill by this Government. As they stand, however, local authorities will be producing them but they will be almost irrelevant in terms of the planning process, because they would not be a material consideration. My amendment therefore seeks to ensure that local authorities have to act in accordance with them rather than just take account of them.
I am grateful for the support for the amendment from Members from all Benches, and to the Minister and his team for discussing the matter with me. I am also grateful for government Amendment 93 that has been produced as a concession, but saddened that it is still just guidance. I suppose that I should not have really expected the Government to compel local authorities to do anything. It is also a necessary step, given that the pilots for the nature recovery strategies showed that local authorities said: “These won’t work unless we get more guidance,” so the Government had to do something. However, it is a step in the right direction, and it will help local authorities to ensure that nature recovery strategies are used properly in the planning system.
I am particularly grateful for the letter that the Minister sent to Peers, which said specifically just how important nature recovery strategies would be within the planning system as a tool for protecting the environment. That is an important statement, and I am grateful for it. Clearly, we have expectations for a planning Bill some way down the road; we are not sure quite how much of it will survive, if we are to believe the newspapers over the weekend. However, there will be a planning Bill, so without prejudicing what might come in future, I accept gratefully the concession that the Government have offered. We might have to return to this issue when we see what those planning changes are, at which point, we will be happy, I am sure, to take up the cudgels again.
My Lords, I rise to speak to a number of amendments which have been debated at this late hour in your Lordships’ House. I will make my comments brief.
I turn first to Amendment 90 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, on supporting local authorities to be able to keep funds as they are better placed to promote biodiversity than people sitting in Whitehall. My noble friend Lady Jones of Whitchurch mentioned the Environmental Audit Committee’s recent inquiry, Biodiversity in the UK: Bloom or Bust?, earlier this evening. This report highlighted that funding shortfalls and a lack of in-house ecologists in local authorities means that they may not have the capacity to deliver some of their statutory duties under the Bill, specifically biodiversity net gain and local nature recovery strategies. Local authorities are essential to the successful implementation of many of the Bill’s provisions. However, their effectiveness relies on the resources and expertise they have available to deploy these crucial tools.
Moving to Amendment 91 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, I absolutely agree that local councils need to be empowered. I look forward to hearing the response from the Minister to see how he will reassure the noble Baroness, who made some pertinent points in this area.
I also agree with the concerns of the noble Lord, Lord Oates, in Amendment 94. It is important that strategies do not become just more paper gathering dust and that the powers provided to enforce them are not controlled from Westminster but in local authorities, which are on the front line and know better how to save nature in their localities.
I am also grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, for raising a number of important points, and I appreciate his efforts and sincerity in wanting to improve this landmark Bill.
Finally, the Minister will be glad to know that we are happy with government Amendment 93. It is good to see that the Government have listened to the concerns across your Lordships’ House and accept that local authorities require more support and information concerning the conservation and enhancement of biodiversity.
In the same spirit in which the Minister has presented Amendment 93 to address cross-party concerns expressed in Committee about empowering local authorities, I hope he can address the concerns of noble Lords who have spoken on the various amendments in this group. I look forward to his response.
I thank noble Lords for their contributions to this debate. The Government have listened carefully to the valuable debate both here and in the other place, and I thank the noble Baronesses, Lady Parminter and Lady Jones of Whitchurch, for their drive in this area in particular.
We share the desire to make sure that local nature recovery strategies are actively used and delivered, and we entirely agree that the planning system is a key mechanism for achieving this. That is why we have tabled government Amendment 93 to make it a legal requirement for the Government to produce guidance on how local planning authorities should “have regard” to local nature recovery strategies. Local planning authorities, as part of the planning system, will have to “have regard” to relevant local nature recovery strategies, as will all public bodies. Defra is supporting MHCLG in developing proposals for planning reform ahead of the introduction of the planning Bill, including creating a clear role for local nature recovery strategies.
Turning briefly to Amendment 91, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, I appreciate that she is also seeking to ensure that local nature recovery strategies are actively used, and I know she tabled this amendment before the government amendment in my name was tabled. I thank her very much for her thoughtful response and her—was it support?—gentle support for our amendment. The local nature recovery strategies will be developed collaboratively to identify where changing the way land is managed will give greatest benefit for nature and the environment, which will also reflect local priorities. The shared vision will then guide the delivery of biodiversity net gain, environmental land management schemes, planning, use of nature-based solutions and many other current and proposed actions for nature’s recovery across the public, private and voluntary sectors. To do this, each strategy must capture potential actions relevant for all these purposes, brought together to create a coherent overall approach. The duty on public authorities to “have regard” to the strategies will require them to consider which of these proposed changes they can realistically make and then take that action. The amendment the Government have tabled will strengthen the integration of the strategies into the planning system in particular.
Turning to Amendment 90 tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, local authorities will be able to fund habitat creation or enhancement on their own land by selling biodiversity units to developers, on exactly the same basis as other suppliers on the market. Local authorities may also choose to work with other local landowners to bring additional habitat creation or enhancement opportunities to the market. Statutory credits are separate from market biodiversity units. They are intended to be sold by government as a last resort, when developers are unable to achieve net gain on site or off site, either on their own land or by purchasing biodiversity units on the market. It is therefore necessary for central government to sell credits as a last resort and use the revenue to invest in new habitat creation and enhancement.
We do not, however, want lots of money to come through the route of government-supplied credits. We want the market to provide locally led solutions, in which local authorities will of course play a key part. We intend to set the cost of government credits in a way that does not undercut the biodiversity unit market.
Turning to Amendment 94, I share the concern of the noble Lord, Lord Oates, regarding the degradation of important sites for nature. I thank him for our discussion over the summer. As he said, I recently received a great deal of correspondence from concerned residents in Kingston regarding the Seething Wells filter beds site; I have read it with interest and will respond over the coming days. However, for this debate, I must address the implications of this amendment for local authorities and the protection for biodiversity more widely.
I am afraid that I do not agree that giving local authorities such sweeping powers is the best way to address the issue. It would amount to de facto protection of the entire country, which, although on the one level it would be fantastic, could have a wide-reaching effect on land use nationwide, creating confusion over whether an area is protected. We have a system of protections for our best sites for nature and our most important landscapes. Wildlife, including all nesting birds and other rare and declining species, is protected across the country. The forthcoming Green Paper will explore specifically how these protections can be strengthened and improved.
Turning to Amendment 98, tabled by my noble friend Lord Caithness, Natural England’s assessment of licence applications will be evidence-led and based on robust science, taking into consideration the likely impact on the relevant population and biodiversity. The Government remain fully committed to our international obligations on biodiversity. The wording used for these proposed tests within a reformed Wildlife and Countryside Act is in alignment with Article 9 of the Bern convention on the conservation of fauna and flora. I agree with my noble friend that any assessment of impact should be at the scale of the population concerned. The clause in this Bill intends to do that by referring to any population of the protected species concerned, be that at local, regional or national levels.
Amendment 105 was also tabled by my noble friend Lord Caithness. As I said, the Bill introduces a comprehensive statutory cycle of monitoring, planning and reporting. Our proposed objectives for domestic biodiversity targets reflect current draft international targets being developed under the CBD. The Government are already developing an evaluation and monitoring programme for biodiversity net gain and have commissioned the first stages of delivering this. The relevant public authorities will report every five years on their actions to comply with the biodiversity duty, including contributions to net gain and local nature recovery strategies; those strategies will themselves be regularly reviewed and updated. These processes go beyond merely reviewing regulations and will ensure that the Government’s actions are both adaptive and effective.
Finally, turning to Amendment 92A, I fully agree that future farming practices should support nature recovery. We are strengthening the existing duty by requiring authorities to “have regard” to clear strategies that will include specific actions. However, having regard to a broad concept such as “nature-friendly farming” would not make the overall duty any clearer or more meaningful. Also, to reiterate the point I made in Committee, where an authority has influence over farming or has farms on its land, it already needs to consider what it can do to ensure that biodiversity is supported. The Government have already committed to aligning environmental land management farming schemes for rewarding environmental benefits with local nature recovery strategies; this should be revolutionary for our countryside and biodiversity. With the environmental land management schemes contributing to biodiversity enhancement through the provisions of the Agriculture Act and targets set in the Environment Bill, we believe that an amendment such as this is not necessary.
I hope I have reassured noble Lords. I beg them to withdraw or not press their amendments.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his response. He will not be hugely surprised to know that he has not reassured me, particularly in regard to Amendment 90 and my Amendment 94. He is wrong to state that my amendment would mean that the country was de facto covered—that is, that these local authority powers would de facto cover the whole country—as they would apply only to sites designated under Clause 102(3).
However, overall, I regret that the Government have arranged business so that a meaningful vote is not possible on my amendment tonight, and also that a number of noble Lords who would have liked to take part in this important debate were not able to. It is critical that local authorities are given not just duties but also powers to implement them. The Minister can be assured of our determination to ensure that local authorities are given these powers, which they need to protect biodiversity in their local areas, and we will seek the next possible legislative opportunity to do so. In the meantime, with great regret, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 90 withdrawn.
Amendment 91 not moved.
Clause 98: General duty to conserve and enhance biodiversity
92: Clause 98, page 101, line 9, at end insert—
“(c) agroforestry.”Member’s explanatory statement
The amendment enables agroforestry to be seen as a direct mechanism for public authorities to meet their biodiversity targets.
My Lords, I declare my interest as chair of the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Local Nature Partnership. Following the Sunday Telegraph article yesterday, I should declare my “not-at-all” interest in and non-membership of climate—forgive me—
Yes, Extinction Rebellion. That was not where the emergency amendment that we debated last week came from. I will speak to Amendments 92 and 102, and I thank very much the noble Earl, Lord Dundee, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, for their support.
As the amendments specify, their purpose is to strongly raise the profile of agroecology, which is very important for the way agriculture moves into the future. It is very striking that when we think about trees in a rural context, we think of forests and also farmland that on the whole does not have trees or may have trees around the boundary, young trees as part of hedgerows, or maybe the odd copse in the middle, at the sides or in the corner of a field. But that need not be how we practise our tree planting and growing and our harvesting of the products that come from trees.
At the moment we have that divide, but agroforestry is very much a combination of those types of agriculture; it is farming with trees, not farming and forestry. There are great benefits to this. Clearly, it is not right for the whole of the British countryside—I would not argue that at all—but some strong benefits come from it. Those are that we can plant more trees, and more diverse types of trees, and they are not necessarily trees just planted within meadows or pastural land; they can be, for instance, a grove of hazel trees within an arable field too. There are a number benefits from this, in terms of climate change, sequestration, water management, soil health, animal welfare, shade and retention of water. Clearly, there is also the extra income to farming from what those trees can produce, such as fruit, nuts or timber, from the types of wood that can be used for timber, then replanted and replenished. There is a wide range of benefits to using agroforestry and bringing it much more predominantly into farming systems in this country.
In 2016, a survey showed that, in Europe generally, agroforestry accounted for some 9% of land use, whereas within the United Kingdom that was down to 3%. So the purpose of these amendments is to raise the profile of that form of agriculture in England by way of the Environment Bill, but also to have the benefits that flow from it.
I have something to ask the Minister. One of the concerns is that, with the rollout of the environment land management schemes, which we covered in discussions on what is now the Agriculture Act, there are lots of pilots going on but few decisions have yet been made. I understand why decisions need to be made carefully, based on pilots, but there is more and more concern among farmers and land managers about understanding what ELMS will mean at the end of the day to them. In agroforestry, as in other areas of conservation, there is a concern that anything done now means that there will not be extra compensation to them under ELMS in future. So I ask the Minister to give some reassurance that those who implement agroforestry systems now will not be effectively penalised once those ELMS systems come into operation over the next few years.
I do not expect the Minister necessarily to agree with my Amendment 102 for a specific strategy for agroforestry—although it would be great if there were one—but will Defra, as part of its continuing 25-year environmental plan, look carefully at this area and make sure that it is promoted as an important way in which climate change is tackled and biodiversity loss is reversed in England’s land and agricultural sector in future? I beg to move.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, for moving the amendment so ably. Its consensual premise is that agroforestry development usefully contributes towards afforestation targets. Although most of the target of 30 million trees that the Government have committed to plant will apply to upland areas, through agroforestry an increasing proportion could be planted on lower ground, which is otherwise, nevertheless and for good reason, often the sole preserve of agricultural production.
Yet, conversely, agroforestry itself, where deployed on lower ground, can much assist afforestation targets as a result of designing fields of agricultural crops with trees planted at certain wide intervals between them. Through agroforestry, as carried out on United Kingdom farmland, it is estimated that 920 million trees could be planted in fields and, in so being, would cause our agricultural output to reduce by only 7%.
The practice brings huge benefits for biodiversity, climate and nature, as well as financial advantages for farmers. Thus, not least, it is strongly backed by informed land bodies including the Woodland Trust, the Soil Association, the Nature Friendly Farming Network, Sustain, the Landworkers’ Alliance and the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission.
My noble friend Lord Caithness has just correctly lamented how many projected targets of all kinds we fail to attain. However, in this case, in seeking to plant enough trees, we are all the more likely to achieve our aims by encouraging agroforestry. I am sure that my noble friend the Minister will therefore agree that, as the amendment urges, agroforestry should now be part of legislation as a very welcome and balanced mechanism for public authorities to meet their biodiversity objectives.
My Lords, I shall speak to Amendment 104 in the name of the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, who, alas, cannot be with us at this late hour. With his permission, I shall lay out his amendment, which would reduce the importation of tree disease by ensuring that all trees planted by or for the Government would adhere to a biosecurity standard.
Over the last 30 years we have imported more and more plants and trees, and plant diseases have gone up correspondingly. We have at least 27 new pests and diseases recorded with impacts on native plant and tree species. Wales alone is set to lose more than 6.7 million larch trees because of the spread of phytophthora ramorum—one should not have to say that at this time of night. Sweet chestnut blight is spreading like wildfire. Ash dieback is well recorded, and its impact will see something like 90% of our native ash trees going and a cost to the economy of £15 billion by 2050.
On the continent, xylella fastidiosa is rampaging through the lands and is as near as the Netherlands and Denmark. It eats everything, basically—over 500 species of tree and plant so far. If it arrives in the UK, the effects on our native species could be devastating, so this is a really important issue. However, we do not need to do what we currently are doing, which is to import a very large proportion of our tree and plant supplies. We could be growing these trees in particular here in this country. The Government are one of the biggest purchasers in the market for trees so, if we are to change the way in which trees are sourced and minimise the risk, it is only right that the Government take the first step. The new biosecurity standard that the amendment calls for would set a new standard in sourcing of trees by government agencies and third parties from UK growers, thereby curtailing the risk of importing diseases on tree stock and at the same time delivering investment that would see hundreds if not thousands of new jobs created. I hope that the Minister can consider this amendment.
I support Amendment 92 on agroforestry, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, and declare my interest as chair of the Woodland Trust. To give one example, we did a very interesting experiment in Wales with electronic sheep. It is true to say that shelter belts protected the electronic sheep. Now that we are doing it with proper sheep, those protected by tree shelter belts produce bigger lambs with less lamb and ewe mortality. Therefore, there are all sorts of benefits for animal welfare and biodiversity, and I am sure that the Minister is clear about their benefits of hedgerows and very short trees. Farming needs agroforestry, but nowhere is it enshrined in statue as the desirable way forward, and this amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, would do just that.
Amendment 103 in the name of the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, whom I have just usurped from introducing his own amendment before I speak to it, is a great amendment. The noble Earl has been doing wonderful work on the UK Squirrel Accord. We really must take effective action on animal damage if we are to see a big increase in protection of ancient woodlands and the increased creation of woodlands that climate change requires. Deer management, for example, is failing in many parts of the UK because of a lack of the co-ordinated action by all landowners in an area that must happen if proper control is to take place. Amendment 103 would ensure that all public authorities play their role and encourage other private landowners to do so in that co-ordinated, area-based way which is essential.
My Lords, a note to self is to employ the noble Baroness, Lady Young, as my speechwriter.
I shall speak to Amendment 103. Before I make my few remarks, I thank the Minister and his Bill team, who met me. We had a productive exchange of views. I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Colgrain, and the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, who have supported this amendment, along with the noble Baroness, Lady Young. I declare my farming interests, but also particularly my interest as a trustee of the Blair Charitable Trust, which not only has substantial landholdings in the north of Perthshire but runs land on behalf of a number of other substantial landholders, and therefore is one of the largest forestry concerns in Scotland. There are no grey squirrels in north Perthshire but my gosh there are a lot of deer, so I do know about that.
I also chair the Squirrel Accord, which is the coming together of 40 organisations across the whole of the United Kingdom to try to deal with the grey squirrel problem: its killing of broadleaf trees in Britain, preventing fresh broadleaf plantations in, for the example, the south of England being made today simply because the trees will be destroyed before they reached maturity. The Squirrel Accord includes all four Governments of our country and their nature agencies, the major voluntary bodies and the major private sector bodies. No one who has ever been asked to be a part of the accord has said no, and we are a number of years old.
As I said, the accord deals with the grey squirrel problem. Therefore, I am pretty familiar with that. The problem is simply that these animals will destroy the trees before they reach maturity. Therefore, all the planting that we need to do, for admirable climate change purposes, will simply not succeed if we do not put in place a good management system so that the trees can see themselves through to adulthood. As I mentioned in Committee, the Royal Forestry Society surveyed its membership and got 777 responses this year. The grey squirrel was noted as the number one threat to the planting of trees. I meet the Deer Initiative every now and then. It is similarly trying to promote a UK-wide way of handling this.
The Squirrel Accord has a good plan for how to manage everything. It is a plan that involves plenty of science, and the major science for fertility control, which is just one element of it, is being done at Defra’s own laboratories. It is now three years into a five-year project and going well. We have good science and good connections to deliver the product of that science in various ways into the countryside of Britain to deal with the problem. However, if there are refuges then we will get nowhere, because the responsible landowners and land managers will do everything and those who are not interested will do nothing. The purpose of the amendment is to try to cater for that and to make sure that the Government not only have the powers to handle it but will exercise those powers.
At this late hour I will not make many more points, but in the meeting I had with the Minister and his Bill team there was mention that the Government felt that they may have the powers. I, with my rather elderly wig on, felt that those powers probably needed to be newly minted, but it would be helpful to hear from the Minister whether he believes that he really does have those powers, and to hear comfort that those powers will be exercised so that there can be no giant refuges and so that all the work of the Squirrel Accord and the Deer Initiative, which I hope will be reinvigorated, and the work of those up and down the land who are trying to promote the ability to plant trees, particularly our native trees again, will not go to waste.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, and indeed all the speakers in this group. On Amendment 103, I have to draw to noble Lords’ attention a study published about three weeks ago by the Woodland Trust and the National Trust of a trial that found that there are practical alternatives to plastic tree guards. I note that the Woodland Trust is planning to stop using plastic tree guards by the end of this year. Given how much we have debated plastics in other parts of the Bill and much discussion of the problem of microplastics, that is very much to be appreciated, while also offering support for the need to make sure we protect young trees.
I will also briefly comment on Amendment 104, so very ably and expansively introduced by the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone. I fear electronic sheep may be wandering through my dreams.
It is also worth highlighting the economic benefits and the local community benefits to strong local economies if we establish tree nurseries up and down the land. We are mostly focused on talking about environmental benefits but let us not forget the potential economic benefits as well. However, given the time, I want to comment chiefly on Amendments 92 and 102, both on agroforestry, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, and signed by the noble Earl, Lord Dundee, and me. If noble Lords have not seen a picture of Wakelyns Agroforestry in Fressingfield, founded by the late Martin Wolfe, there is an aerial photo showing this wonderfully rich, verdant patch of agroforestry in the midst of a desert of industrial monoculture. That photo is just so powerful a demonstration of the biodiversity benefits, the sheer productivity benefits, of agroforestry.
The noble Earl, Lord Dundee, ran through a list of organisations that are promoting agroforestry. I will not repeat that list, but it is worth noting that none is particularly large. We are seeing agroforestry being trialled—with, for example, trial plots being run around the country and doing spectacularly good things—but we need to see a massive scaling up of that across the British countryside. If noble Lords have not seen it, I particularly recommend the Soil Association’s Agroforestry Handbook. To pick just one example from that, really interesting research has been going on for decades, through the Open University in Buckinghamshire and Essex, using walnut trees. This is an example of how we can use our countryside far more productively for nature and for farming products. Walnut trees obviously produce nuts, but they also produce dyes, abrasives and oils, as well as saw logs and veneers. I return to the point I started with: think of all the jobs and small business opportunities that arise from a far more diverse countryside, not just producing mass, identikit commodities but products that can then develop whole local industries.
Finally, I am aware of the hour and I could wax very lyrical about agroforestry for a long time, but noble Lords will be pleased to hear that I am not planning to do that. I point to the fact that a great deal of interesting research is being done about the benefits to animals of producing trees as forage crops, benefits that can particularly see the replacement of anthelmintics, which are significantly damaging chemicals—medicines and drugs—that produce problems of resistance that can wipe out many of our arthropods. Indeed, instead of using those drugs, we can actually feed animals a mixed, varied diet. I have to look at the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, here. Both of us often speak about the benefits to humans of a varied diet; we also need to think about the benefits to animals of a varied diet, something on which there has been insufficient focus.
My Lords, this is the first time that I have spoken on this Bill. I know that convention says that one should not speak on Report if one has not been involved in the previous stages of a Bill, but there are mitigating circumstances. I have such appalling broadband strength in Norfolk that though I can send and receive emails, due to the lack of broadband, invariably they are not received on the day they are sent, so Zooming is out of the question. I came down during Committee to speak to a number of amendments, only to be told that I could not speak, as I should have put my name down 48 hours beforehand.
Before I start, I declare my interest in woodland and my farming interest in Norfolk. I support Amendment 103, moved by the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull. I fully concur with what was said in Committee about the awful damage that deer and, in particular, squirrels do to young plantations. My noble friend Lord Lucas said in Committee that he had a cumulative tree loss of about 60% due to squirrels. With this in mind, is it any wonder that the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, said this in Committee?
“In my part of the Chilterns, a large forestry management business is refusing grow beech again until the grey squirrel is controlled.”—[Official Report, 12/7/21; col. 1652.]
If nothing is done, future trees planted using government grant funding will be destroyed by grey squirrels at a wasteful cost to the taxpayer. But squirrels do not just damage woodland. An overpopulation of squirrels will not only bark strip young trees but steal the eggs and fledglings of our songbirds. We are told that broad-leafed woodland can have up to 18 squirrels per hectare if nothing is done. Where they get that figure, I do not know. I have a wood on the edge of my farm in Norfolk of about 1 hectare. Last year, we dealt with about 25 squirrels in that wood, and this year we have so far accounted for over 40 in that same wood. One must wonder what all these squirrels are going to eat, and where they have all come from. As far as their eating is concerned, they are not only going to bark strip young trees, but they will also steal songbird eggs and fledglings, which are easy pickings. They have been known to eat adult songbirds if they can catch them.
We are constantly told that certain species of songbirds are in decline, and the blame is being put squarely at the door of modern farming practices. I would argue that squirrels also have a detrimental effect on songbird populations, and if we want to have a healthy songbird population, we must control the squirrels. In answer to my second question of where these new 40 squirrels have come from, I would argue that after catching 25 in the first year, we have created a vacuum, and it takes only a few weeks for that vacuum to be filled from neighbours who have no squirrel control programmes. They are also prolific breeders.
It would be helpful if the Government, even if they cannot accept this amendment, took steps to ensure that all landowners, and especially government and public body landowners, control their squirrel numbers. I argue that the damage to squirrels is twofold: by bark stripping our trees, and decimating our songbird population. I support the amendment in the name of the noble Earl, and hope the Government does too. By accepting this amendment, they would be killing two birds with one stone.
My Lords, we have had some excellent contributions this evening, and I am sure that because of the lateness of the hour, your Lordships do not need to hear my views on this. The Minister will be much more enlightening in his response to the debate.
I offer many thanks to all noble Lords who have contributed to this debate. Protecting trees and woodlands is a priority of the Government, and I hope my response will reassure your Lordships on this.
I start with Amendment 92, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Teverson. There are numerous ways for public authorities to fulfil the biodiversity duty, such as creating habitats for pollinators or other threatened or declining species. However, it would not be appropriate to prescribe each one on the face of the Bill. We want authorities to identify where there are opportunities to make a change, but we do not want to force public authorities to have regard to a particular form of land use that in many cases will not be relevant to their functions. We will provide detailed guidance to support public authorities with both what they should do to comply with the biodiversity duty and what they should report on.
Our environmental land management schemes are about giving farmers and land managers an income for the environmental public goods they provide. We are considering how more environmentally sustainable farming approaches, including agro-ecological approaches such as agroforestry, should fit within environmental land management. Turning to the noble Lord’s Amendment 102, I share his enthusiasm for agroforestry systems, which will undoubtedly play an important role in delivering more trees into our farmed landscape, improving climate resilience, and encouraging more wildlife and biodiversity in our farming systems.
We have outlined support for agroforestry within the England Trees Action Plan, which sets out our aims for expansion, investment and research in agroforestry systems. That includes commitments to support agroforestry across the sustainable farming incentive, local nature recovery and landscape recovery schemes. The England Trees Action Plan also laid out the intention to develop the evidence base for agroforestry, further aiding responsible authorities to invest in agroforestry systems.
Agroforestry systems compatible with basic payment scheme support have been defined in the publicly available Rural Payments Agency guidance document Agroforestry and the Basic Payment Scheme. As the commitment to support agroforestry and definitions of it have already been published, I very much hope that the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, feels reassured and I ask him to withdraw his amendment.
I turn to Amendment 103 from the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, who I thank for meeting me over the summer. As I mentioned when debating the amendment in Committee, woodlands created using public funding must conform to the UK forestry standard for woodland creation 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.
In the England trees plan that I mentioned earlier, we announced a number of commitments to go even further to protect our woodlands from browsing animals such as deer and grey squirrels. They include updating the grey squirrel action plan, which we will publish next year. We will be consulting with the signatories of the UK Squirrel Accord as part of that update process. We are also working with the UK Squirrel Accord to support the ongoing research into grey squirrel management.
Very briefly, I say to both the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, and my noble friend Lord Cathcart that the Forestry Act provides a legislative basis for the management of pests affecting woodlands, which is a core part of management for anyone who receives public money. Given the ongoing work and progress in this area, I do not believe that we require new legislation to ensure that newly planted trees are protected from browsing animals.
Turing to Amendment 104, I thank the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, for his amendment, and the noble Baroness, Lady Young, for presenting it. The Government are committed to increasing biosecurity, and we support the plant health management standard and certification scheme—an independent, industry-backed biosecurity standard available to the market and international supply chains.
Our existing biosecurity legal framework already implements a comprehensive range of measures to address and minimise biosecurity risks. Recognition of the importance of domestic production to meeting our planting commitments is clearly a very big part of that. We engaged with the nursery sector to inform our England Trees Action Plan and we have provided support for the nursery sector. In the plan, we committed to fund nurseries and seed suppliers to enhance the quantity, quality, diversity and biosecurity of domestic production. We will help the sector to better plan for sapling supply and demand, ensuring that suppliers can produce the right stock at the right time, with all the economic benefits that the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, mentioned. A further published strategy is not necessary to ensure that this is delivered.
I thank noble Lords for their valuable contributions at this very late hour, and ask that they not press their amendments.
My Lords, I apologise to Extinction Rebellion for having completely forgotten its name. No doubt there will be a picket line outside my farm gate when I return to Cornwall later this week.
I thank every noble Lord for their contributions—particularly, the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, for her examples and the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone. I look forward to her amendment on a tree strategy when we meet again, which I think we still have to do. And I thank the three noble Earls for their contributions.
I am not going to prolong this evening. I thank the Minister for his enthusiasm for agroforestry and his recognition that this is an important part of the jigsaw for the future. On that basis, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
Amendment 92A not moved.
93: Clause 98, page 101, line 9, at end insert—
“(2B) The Secretary of State must issue guidance to local planning authorities as to how they are to comply with their duty under subsection (2A)(a) when complying with subsections (1) and (1A) in their capacity as such authorities.(2C) Guidance under subsection (2B) must be—(a) published by the Secretary of State in such manner as the Secretary of State thinks fit,(b) kept under review, and(c) revised where the Secretary of State considers it appropriate.(2D) The first guidance under subsection (2B) must be published by the Secretary of State within the period of two years beginning with the day on which section 98 of the Environment Act 2021 comes into force.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment requires the Secretary of State to give guidance to local planning authorities as to how they are to take a local nature recovery strategy into account when discharging their duties under new section 40(1) and (1A) of the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006 concerning the conservation and enhancement of biodiversity.
Amendment 93 agreed.
Amendment 94 not moved.
Clause 102: Content of local nature recovery strategies
95: Clause 102, page 104, line 42, at end insert—
“(7) The Secretary of State must lay before Parliament, and publish, the guidance.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment requires guidance under Clause 102 of the Bill concerning the content of local nature recovery strategies to be laid before Parliament and published.
Amendment 95 agreed.
Clause 105: Species conservation strategies
96: Clause 105, page 106, line 34, at end insert—
“(7A) The Secretary of State must lay before Parliament, and publish, the guidance.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment requires guidance under Clause 105 of the Bill concerning species conservation strategies to be laid before Parliament and published.
Amendment 96 agreed.
Clause 106: Protected site strategies
97: Clause 106, page 108, line 40, at end insert—
“(8A) The Secretary of State must lay before Parliament, and publish, the guidance.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment requires guidance under Clause 106 of the Bill concerning protected site strategies to be laid before Parliament and published.
Amendment 97 agreed.
Clause 107: Wildlife conservation: licences
Amendment 98 not moved.
Consideration on Report adjourned.
House adjourned at 11.29 pm.