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Environment Act 2021: Targets

Volume 824: debated on Tuesday 25 October 2022


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government whether they will meet the requirement of the Environment Act 2021 to set targets by 31 October on air and water quality, biodiversity and resource efficiency and waste reduction.

My Lords, we are committed to halting the decline of nature by 2030 and will not undermine our obligations to the environment in pursuit of growth. A strong environment and a strong economy go hand in hand. We have legislated through the Environment Act and will continue to improve our regulations and wildlife laws in line with our ambitious vision. His Majesty’s Government remain committed to the Environment Act and will publish ambitious, achievable and robust targets soon.

My Lords, the Minister will know that failure to set those targets before 31 October is unlawful and risks the Government being taken to court. It also makes a mockery of all those months of hard work we put into debating the then Environment Bill, because without the targets we have no way of measuring the progress the Government are making on the Act’s implementation. Is this another sign that the Government are backtracking on their environmental commitments, as—quite frankly—was becoming all too clear under the previous Prime Minister, who sneered at the broad coalition of environmentalists?

I will not sneer at any environmentalists. I sat on the board of several NGOs before I took on this role, and I mind desperately that we continue to be a leading country in how we protect the environment. We have consulted on those targets and had 180,000 responses, which are taking some time to go through. We will produce targets that are science-based, evidence-based and cover a range of issues which were of great concern to noble Lords as we took through the Environment Act. We will honour those commitments.

My Lords, can the Minister confirm that the biodiversity targets are not just for the abundance of above-ground species but for biodiversity in the soil? Soils are a critical part of the ecosystem. They are essential for farming and for wildlife to thrive, as we heard in the previous Question. They are mentioned multiple times in the Environment Act, yet I currently see no targets for soils in the targets set by the Government.

Soils are a fundamental part of our environmental land management schemes. The soil standard in the sustainable farming incentive is key to getting those ecological systems functioning properly and to their not being viewed, as they have too often been in recent decades, as just a medium into which you can add synthetic products to produce crops or grow stock. Soils are absolutely fundamental, as is our peat standard. There will be targets to restore peatland and ensure that soils are properly functioning ecosystems. The noble Baroness is absolutely right to raise this issue.

My Lords, does my noble friend the Minister agree that improving water quality is vital? Can he tell us where we are with storm water overflows and ending the automatic right to connect?

The Environment Act places several duties on government and water companies to reduce sewage discharges from storm overflows. The Government have now launched the most ambitious plan to reduce sewage discharges from storm overflows in water company history. Our new, strict targets will see the toughest crackdown ever on sewage spills and will require water companies to secure the largest infrastructure programme in their history.

My Lords, may I press the Minister further on the quality of our rivers? Does he accept that, in order to get action taken effectively, targets have to be not only set but monitored; that those targets must then trigger action to ensure that there is improvement; and that this must be done by not only the UK Government in England but the other Governments in these islands, because many rivers cross borders? Will he give priority to this issue?

Absolutely. We had the water framework directive when we were part of the European Union. We have transposed it into UK law. We want to make sure that it is right for the United Kingdom’s environment. However, that directive had very clear markers, which, to be honest, we failed to hit over many decades. Now, with this investment and the huge drive towards different farming techniques, we should see much clearer evidence about how we will hit those targets to get our water courses flowing and functioning properly; that will be available to everyone.

My Lords, we have a biodiversity crisis but also a well-recognised housing crisis in rural areas. How do the Government seek to avoid the introduction of biodiversity net gain and the off-setting of 10% of biodiversity loss exacerbating the housing crisis, particularly in rural areas?

The noble Earl is absolutely right. We need to see more houses built. We want them built in the right place. Biodiversity net gain is a welcome addition to ensure that we not only protect habitats from damage but replace them—and some—in future. Small housing schemes in rural areas are, I am absolutely convinced, the right way forward because they have the almost unique element of being popular. We need to find housing particularly for younger families in rural areas, where they are finding it much too expensive. Exception site housing, which has been unbelievably helpful in that direction, needs to be stepped up a gear. I hope that my fellow Ministers in the new Administration will understand that this is a popular way of delivering housing.

My Lords, only 3% of our land and 8% of our seas are currently protected and managed, with a target of 30% by 2030. What further steps are the Government planning to take to meet legally binding biodiversity targets in the Environment Act 2021?

I have a graph in my office of “30x30”. We have to hit this target, otherwise we will have no credibility in international fora when we try to encourage countries right across the world to adopt our “30x30” ambitions; for example, in the COP in Montreal in December. We need to set out quite clearly how we are going to do this. The NGOs are a little pessimistic—I think the figures are higher than that—but we can achieve it. I shall have meetings with officials and other Ministers on this issue in the next few days. We will be turning up the heat to make sure that we not only hit but explain how we are going to hit that target.

My Lords, despite compelling evidence of the harm caused by toxic air, the Government repeatedly resisted attempts to put World Health Organization targets into the Environment Act. As there is no sign of those targets, does the Minister understand why so many people doubt the Government’s commitment to clean air? What assessment have they made of the costs to human health of their inaction over recent years, and when a target is eventually enshrined in law, will it be consistent with WHO guidelines?

One area that we consulted on as part of the huge consultation on our targets was reducing exposure to PM2.5, thereby benefiting public health through decreasing cases of heart disease and cancer. There were very moving speeches in a recent debate here about the impact that this can have on children. There are certain hotspots in what local authorities need to do. This is very much part of our environmental targets and one of our commitments given not only at the Dispatch Box during the progress of the Environment Bill but in other forms as well.

My Lords, what is the Minister’s reflection on the recent reports that only one river in England, the Tyne, met water quality standards to be able to sustain migratory fish? We cannot go on like this.

For most of my life, I have been an angler, a fly fisherman. In some respects, I suppose that I have depleted the stocks in rivers too, but not to the extent that pollution is now doing throughout England. I cannot speak for Scotland or Wales—theirs are different circumstances—but the reality is that we are not meeting our obligations.

The noble Lord has a passion that I share, and a passion for restoring the quality of our rivers. I spoke earlier about our commitments under European treaties and the water framework directive, and how we are transposing those into our ambitions for water quality across England. We want to ensure that we are hitting those targets. This is an absolute priority for my department. Whoever is my new Secretary of State, I am sure it will be his or hers as well.

My Lords, as we face a particularly challenging economic period, might the Government consider not sticking to environmental targets if they clash with economic development, growth and levelling up? In an earlier answer, the Minister fudged the hard choices that the Government face. Surely, paying farmers not to produce food will clash with the priorities of reaching environmental targets. Sometimes, you have to choose. I would suggest people and not environment.

I think that is a very simplistic argument. I think that we can continue to produce the food that we do and do it sustainably. I can tell the noble Baroness that there are areas of most farms that I have even been to—as a farmer or a consultant—that are farmed only because of the subsidies that those farmers received. They were uneconomic. If those farmers can concentrate, with new technologies and the new support that the Government will give them, on producing more off the rest of the farm, they will be able to support the needs of a growing population, the demands that people have as well as the demands of our economy.