Heather and Grass etc. Burning (England) Regulations 2021

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Thursday 18th March 2021

(3 years, 3 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park Portrait The Minister of State, Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park) (Con) [V]
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I thank noble Lords who have contributed to today’s debate. As we look forward to COP 26 this autumn, it is essential that we debate such matters fully. I will address as many of the questions put to me as I can.

This instrument—the Heather and Grass etc. Burning (England) Regulations 2021—which was laid on 16 February 2021, seeks to ban the burning without licence of specified vegetation on peat over 40 centimetres in depth on sites of special scientific interest that are also special areas of conservation and/or special protection areas.

In response to comments from my noble friend Lord Randall, I can say that its purpose is to prevent further damage to approximately 142,000 hectares of protected deep peat by clearly setting out the circumstances in which a Secretary of State, as the licensing authority, may grant a licence for burning.

The noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan, talked about the need to restore England’s peatlands. That is a priority for the Government: it will help us achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050, and it will protect valuable habitats and the biodiversity therein. Blanket bog is a fragile peatland habitat of international importance, as a number of speakers have said; the UK has 13% of the world’s blanket bog.

England’s peatlands store, overall, around 580 million tonnes of carbon, but they emit around 11 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents per year. Therefore, restoring our peatlands is a crucial part of addressing climate change and achieving net zero emissions by 2050. Blanket bog is a habitat at risk of being further degraded where it is not protected from damaging activity. Under the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017, the Government have responsibility for protecting this priority habitat—maintaining it as an active bog and restoring it to favourable conservation status.

The Government’s ambition is to have healthy peatlands that will provide us with a wealth of ecosystem services. This includes, as a number of speakers have pointed out, carbon storage and sequestration, a natural habitat for wildlife, high-quality drinking water and—as the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, and the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, pointed out—flood mitigation. Blanket bog makes up around 40% of England’s deep peat reserves and is one of our most extensive protected habitats, yet only about 12% of it is in a near-natural state. The remainder is degraded by practices that impact on the natural functioning state of that habitat.

Rotational burning as a moorland management tool is carried out to manage unnaturally dominant heather species in winter months, typically on a 12 to 15-year rotation. While this activity does not have a significant impact on carbon emissions per se, there is now an established scientific consensus that burning of vegetation on blanket bog can be damaging to peatland formation and habitat condition, making it difficult or, in some cases, impossible to restore these habitats to their natural state and to restore their hydrology.

The Government recognise that by allowing repeated burning on protected blanket bog sites in England, they were not fulfilling their obligations under the conservation regulations. This instrument has been drafted to ensure compliance with our domestic obligations, as well as our international obligations under the Bern Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats.

Landowners and managers required consent from Natural England to burn on protected blanket bog. To answer the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell: since 2017, only 47% of those consents have expired or been removed by Natural England, and the majority remain in perpetuity, covering 52,000 hectares of protected priority habitat.

The Government have previously stated that if voluntary measures to cease burning on blanket bog did not work, they would look at the role of legislation. This voluntary approach has not worked, and this instrument aims to plug that gap. These regulations do not, however, simply ban the use of burning as a management practice on protected blanket bog sites. First, the prohibition does not apply on land that could never be accessed by cutting equipment by virtue of it being exposed rock or a steep slope. Such land can continue to be managed without need of a licence. Secondly, where land is otherwise inaccessible to cutting equipment, perhaps by virtue of its remote nature, then a licence may be considered to allow burning to take place.

The Government have also included in the regulations explicit reference to the objective of preventing wildfires. Wildfires can be devastating, as a number of speakers have made clear, for the environment, and this risk has not previously been given sufficient weight.

The evidence and process by which the Secretary of State will make decisions on licence applications will be set out in accompanying guidance—this point was raised by a number of noble Lords, including the noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose, the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, the noble Viscount, Lord Trenchard, and the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh. The Government recognise that any application process will need to be accessible to all landowners and managers. We have extensively engaged with stakeholders, and it is clear that many agree that good-quality, cohesive management plans are the key to supporting a licence application. That is why these plans will be at the heart of the process we develop. We will continue to listen to the sector and will conduct a post-implementation review of the guidance to ensure it is right.

The guidance will emphasise an aspiration that the management of the protected sites should be complementary to high-quality natural habitat restoration plans for those sites. It is hoped that through such plans, the need to manage these sites by burning will diminish and, ultimately, become unnecessary. Work to develop and produce this guidance is well under way. The Government’s engagement with the upland management sector and environmental NGOs is well established and extensive. The guidance will also set out whom the Secretary of State will consult, which will be not only Natural England but other interested stakeholders, including, for example, the local fire and rescue service when considering issuing a licence for wildfire mitigation.

The Government are very aware that the management of upland habitats, on which this regulation will have an impact, is complex and unique. They are also aware that the guidance must be capable of being understood by both large land management organisations and small estate teams. And they aware of the view, backed up by science, that there is a risk that burning heather to reduce wildfire risk could itself dry the land and exacerbate the risk. So, we are looking closely at this.

In July 2019, all consent holders on the protected sites were made aware, as part of our survey work, that the Government were considering legislation. Further targeted stakeholder engagement, as a result, was carried out in August 2019. Twenty-six key stakeholders, including environmental, shooting and conservation bodies, major landowners and protected landscape authorities took part.

The Government recognise that the new regulation may place additional burdens on some landowners and managers. However, they also recognise that inaction and the continuation of burning on protected sites will be unacceptable.

All peatland is important, and these regulations represent an important step in delivering the Government’s nature recovery and climate change mitigation targets. We will set out further measures to protect England’s peatlands this year as part of a package of measures to deliver nature-based solutions. This instrument attempts to strike the right balance between protecting our habitats from harm and ensuring that our landowners and managers have the right tools available to protect those habitats and restore them to their natural state.

A number of additional questions were raised by noble Lords. The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, asked about flooding, and the answer is that acting now to protect our peatlands from further degradation and investing in their restoration will mean they are resilient to further climate change and will begin to contribute to our net zero targets. In a healthy, functioning state, our peatlands will help us mitigate carbon emissions and adapt to climate change while also providing a whole wealth of public goods, including flood mitigation and provision of good-quality drinking water.

I was asked when the peat strategy will be published. We will publish it soon.

The noble Lord, Lord Knight of Weymouth, asked about monitoring. The monitoring of specific impacts from burning is not done on a granular scale. However, the Environment Agency and Natural England monitor the overall condition of our rivers and moorlands, and Natural England keeps up to date with all the latest scientific studies, which include monitoring the specific impacts of burning.

I was asked whether the Government agree with the comments of the RSPB, a comment echoed by my noble friend Lord Caithness. Some of the clearest evidence points to improving the resilience of our peatlands to wildfire by ensuring that they are wet and in a natural state. Managed burning results in an increase in vegetation type, such as heather, which have a higher fuel load compared with natural blanket bog vegetation.

I was asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, if we had been subjected to pressure from landowners. Yes, of course we have. We have been lobbied by all interest groups—everyone from the large landowners to the small and from the conservation groups to the NGOs, as would be expected. We have balanced the information that we have received from all of them.

My noble friend Lord Ridley raised a number of issues, particularly around the science. The growing evidence base shows that, on balance, the consensus of scientific opinion in the UK is that burning on blanket bog is detrimental, as it moves the bog away from its original wet state and risks vulnerable peat bogs becoming converted to drier heathland habitat. However, the Government are aware that research is ongoing and there are findings both in support of and against the practice; I am therefore happy to confirm to him that we will continue to listen to the science and keep our policy and our minds open.

The noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, asked about the use of peat in horticulture. We are committed to phasing out the use of peat in horticulture in England, and we intend to publish a formal consultation shortly.

My noble friends Lord Benyon and Lord Caithness raised a number of issues around wildfire. I hope that I have addressed them. I simply say that some of the clearest evidence that we have points to improving the resilience of our peatlands to wildfire by ensuring that they are wet.

My noble friend Lord Marland, pointed out that we were lucky to live in a green and pleasant land. We do live in one: this country is among the most beautiful in the world, but it is also—we must be honest—one of the most nature-denuded. The biodiversity decline just in my lifetime—the last 45 or 50 years—is not far off 70%, so we do have a biodiversity crisis in this country and it requires us to address it.

My noble friend Lord Shrewsbury also made the point about biodiversity. Blanket bog in favourable condition will have a minimum of six plant indicator species, including heather, cotton-grasses, feather mosses and sphagnum species. The best examples might have as many as 12 indicator species. Where bog is degraded, dry and heather-dominated, there might be only heather and a few feather mosses—in some cases only two indicator species.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, made a number of points. We, of course, recognise that the significant amounts of peat—this is in response to the noble Lord, Lord Randall, as well—will fall outside the scope of this regulation. It will enhance the protections afforded to about 142,000 hectares, but we will be setting out further measures to protect England’s peatlands this year as part of a package of measures. This is a first step.

The noble Baroness also asked whether I enjoyed doing toasts with my shooting mates while we guffawed at the ruination of the countryside. I do not have a particularly large number of shooting mates and I do not engage in shooting. As I approach these issues, I do so with a keen interest in ensuring that I am looking at the science and aiming for a balanced policy —one that is, above all, in the interests of our country and its natural environment.

I can see that I am running out of time. I hope that I have covered most—I do not think all—of the questions raised by Members. To conclude, I trust that noble Lords understand the need for this instrument. It represents an important first step in our efforts to restore, recover and protect all of England’s peatlands. All peat is important; while these regulations only extend additional protections to our most protected sites, they are just a first step. They will ensure that burning is a management technique that only takes place in the right place and for the right reasons. Once again, I thank noble Lords for their contributions and support today. I commend the regulations to the House.

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Division 1

Ayes: 252

Labour: 130
Liberal Democrat: 75
Crossbench: 31
Independent: 9
Green Party: 2
Bishops: 1
Conservative: 1

Noes: 274

Conservative: 217
Crossbench: 38
Independent: 8
Democratic Unionist Party: 5
Labour: 3
Ulster Unionist Party: 2

House adjourned at 6.20 pm.