(3 years, 4 months ago)Lords Chamber
Motion to Take Note
That this House takes note of A Green Future: Our 25 Year Plan to Improve the Environment and of Her Majesty’s Government’s stated goal of working with communities and businesses to improve the environment within a generation so that it is left in a better state than that in which it was found.
My Lords, it is the greatest of privileges to open this debate on the Government’s 25-year plan to deliver our ambition to leave the next generation a better environment than was given to us. In the context of this debate, I declare my farming interests as set out in the register.
The approach we take puts the environment first, and will enhance the daily lives of all who live in our great country. To achieve this, we seek the active engagement of farmers, land managers and the fishermen producing food for us, and who are instrumental in shaping our environment and acting as stewards of our environment. We surely have a moral obligation to protect and enhance the environment, for this and future generations, in harmony with the sustainability of our farming industry and for the benefit of all species with which we share this planet. This transformation must be achieved on an extensive scale, yet delivered through local action. We will continue to work with all the Defra group, including the Environment Agency and Natural England, to make sure that change is implemented in an open and transparent way.
As the Prime Minister and Secretary of State have made clear, protecting and enhancing the environment is a central priority for this Government. A Green Future: Our 25 Year Plan to Improve the Environment sets out the actions that we are taking now and in the future to achieve this ambition. This is not just the responsibility of government; everyone needs to play their part. We all need to act now and ensure that we advance year in, year out. However, as recommended by the Natural Capital Committee in 2015, we need a long-term approach, which is why this is a 25-year plan.
It is also important to remember that environmental change occurs not just across the years but across borders. While this is a plan largely for England, we will continue our strong collaboration with the devolved Administrations and deliver our international obligations as four parts of the UK.
We know that our task extends beyond these shores. We have committed to provide long-term protection of vital habitats and species around our overseas territories through the blue-belt programme, and have committed at least £5.8 billion to help developing countries to mitigate and adapt to the impacts of climate change, reduce deforestation and support cleaner economic growth. We work through the UN, G7 and G20 to tackle marine plastics pollution at an international level.
To achieve our ambition, we have set out clear goals in the plan which maximise the benefits we obtain from the environment. On clean air, significant progress has been made in improving air quality. Since 1970, emissions of potentially damaging sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides have fallen by 96% and 69% respectively. Our ambition is to reduce significantly the effect of air pollution on health. Only last week legislation was passed to address air pollution from medium-sized combustion plants and generators.
On clean water, we are determined to improve the quality of our rivers and waters. We have introduced new rules for water relating to farming, which will be in force from April this year. While our rivers may be cleaner than they were 50 years ago, we will continue to work with the Environment Agency, local authorities, farmers and businesses so that we all bear down on pollutants that affect our waters and environment.
We also aim to support our native plants and wildlife to thrive and enhance the beauty of our landscapes. We will help to achieve this by restoring 75% of 1 million hectares of protected sites to favourable condition, and by increasing woodland in England, planting 444,000 acres of trees. We will put the environment at the heart of planning and development to create better places for people to live and work, while maintaining economic growth. We intend to embed an “environmental net gain” principle for development, and explore options to introduce conservation covenants in English law.
We will invest in a new northern forest that crosses the country in a belt of trees to bring accessible community woodlands to an area of increasing population. This project will be a test bed for new, innovative funding mechanisms that seek to combine public and private sector funding, working in partnership with charitable trusts to secure extra funding. We will support people in the UK to engage with nature, but also make it easier for everyone to take action themselves to improve the environment. We will support a year of green action next year and take inspiration from the excellent work of the National Citizen Service and others to advance change.
We are investing £10 million to boost children’s connection with the environment, helping primary schools create nature-friendly grounds. Pupil referral units already do an excellent job for pupils in our most disadvantaged areas and we will support the expansion of school outreach activity, trebling the number of opportunities for people to visit specialist farms for health, social or educational care services.
Enhancing the beauty of our landscapes can often reduce the risk of harm from flooding. That is why we are already investing in natural flood management solutions. We will make sure that national planning policy is maintained and strengthened so that new homes are built in a way that reduces demands for water, energy and material resources and improves flood resilience. We will make sure the resources we obtain from nature are produced and used sustainably and efficiently, on land and at sea. We have set out our core principles for a replacement to the common fisheries policy in this plan, and this will be expanded on in the fisheries Bill later this year. Marine protected areas are vital for the further protection of our marine wildlife and today already cover 23% of UK waters. We will complete our network of marine protected areas by next year.
We must also tread more lightly on our planet and manage the pressures that the environment faces in a more enlightened manner: we must work with nature. We are already taking action to minimise waste. Our ban on microbeads, one of the strongest in the world, demonstrates global leadership in tackling the litter which is so detrimental to marine life. We are exploring ways to use the tax system and charges to reduce single-use plastic waste. We have already announced that we are working with industry to explore introducing plastic-free supermarket aisles, with some notable successes already. By continuing to work with businesses, retailers and local authorities, we will achieve our ambition of zero avoidable plastic waste.
We urgently need to mitigate and adapt to climate change. Although we have cut greenhouse gas emissions by 42% since 1990, our clean growth strategy sets out how we will continue to decarbonise the power sector. We want to encourage more businesses to offset their emissions by planting trees to help us meet our targets. Our national adaptation programme, to be published this year, will set out how we address the risks of climate change and adapt to its impact.
In 2016, we played a crucial role in amending the UN Montreal protocol to deliver a phase-down of hydrofluorocarbons, potent greenhouse gases, by 85% by 2036. We are on track in the UK. This year, we will see a 37% cut in the amount of hydrofluorocarbons placed on the market compared to 2015. We will make sure levels of harmful chemicals are significantly reduced through actions set out in our upcoming chemicals strategy, including exploring how we can bring together our monitoring work to develop a single early warning system for emerging chemicals of concern.
As Minister with responsibility for biosecurity, I place the utmost importance on enhancing biosecurity to protect wildlife and livestock and boost the resilience of plants and trees. We are developing public/private partnerships to encourage greater investment for research into plant and tree health. Our tree health resilience plan, to be published this year, will set out a national-level framework for how we can build the resilience of our trees, supported by the work of our chief plant health officer.
The plan does not sit in isolation. The clean growth plan published in October last year works to reduce emissions and boost economic growth. Our industrial strategy promotes the move towards a regenerative, circular economy safeguarding our future prosperity. Together, alongside Defra’s strategies for clean air, resource and waste, litter and pollinators, they form a coherent approach to boosting economic productivity, prosperity and clean, green growth, while restoring and enhancing our natural environment and tackling the scourge of litter and waste which lets our country down badly. All these objectives are complementary to each other.
To deliver our vision we require reliable data, strong governance and accountability and a robust delivery framework for environmental protection. We will consult shortly on a new body to hold government to account. Whether the new body will assume responsibility for monitoring progress on the goals or provide independent advice will be considered in the consultation.
Strong foundations come from strong principles. We will propose a new policy statement on other environmental principles to apply after we leave the EU. These principles, which underpin EU legislation, are already central to government environmental policy.
The prize to be seized through all this work is for our islands to secure our health and well-being, our livelihoods and a lasting, positive future for the natural world. We must surely act together across all parties and none to achieve these common objectives. The fulfilment of this plan is an imperative for all as it goes to the core of daily life of everyone, wherever they live in this country. That is why the challenges this plan identifies must be tackled. Government and Parliament must give a lead, but for us to advance these objectives each and every one of us in our nation must engage. The words of this plan must, and will, be translated into action. I beg to move.
My Lords, I declare interests as the chairman of the Woodland Trust and either president or vice-president of a range of environmental and wildlife bodies, including the RSPB and the Wildlife Trust for Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire and Northamptonshire—a fine part of the world.
I thank the noble Lord, Gardiner, for his exposition of the plan. The noble Lord, Lord Deben, alas, is not in his place today. When he was Secretary of State for the Environment, he used to say that environment NGOs were “thank you, but” organisations; they used to thank him for anything that he achieved but always impressed on him that more was needed. The 25-year plan raises that sort of response in my heart.
The Government have to be admired because it is a tough pledge to leave the environment in a better state at the end of a generation, bearing in mind some of the immense pressures and the real signs of decline, such as climate change and declining biodiversity. Fifty-six per cent of species in this country are in decline—much threatened by agricultural practice and, increasingly, by urbanisation. The Minister talked about improvements to air quality but we have been struggling in the end game of making sure that air quality meets environmental standards on a European basis. Soils are rapidly becoming a key issue, having been neglected in the past. The startling figure that the Woodland Trust has come out with reveals that our country may actually be deforesting at the moment, rather than increasing woodland cover. It is admirable that the Government are being bold and looking forward but, as I said, we are “thank you, but” organisations so I will now have a go at some of the thank yous and buts.
First, it is great that there has been recognition of the myriad benefits of woods and trees. Noble Lords have heard me bang on about those so often that I shall not bore them again. It was a great pleasure a few Sundays ago for me to hear a Prime Minister, Mrs May, launch on “The Andrew Marr Show” her support for the northern forest. This £500 million project has been brought together by the Woodland Trust and the Community Forest Trust. It will be a wonderful forest: 50 million trees will be planted over 25 years and it will span from Liverpool to Hull and greatly help the economic regeneration of the north.
But there is a huge mismatch between the amount of new woodland planting that the Government are committing to deliver through their own funding and the stated commitment to increase woodland cover in England to 12% by 2060. We are currently at around 10%. The plan commits to planting 7,200 hectares per annum with government resources for the next 25 years, which is better than the measly 700 hectares achieved in 2016. But that means that the target in the plan will be heavily dependent on a range of players planting trees, not just the Government. We will need developers, local authorities, businesses, farmers, private individuals and public bodies to take a role. Will the Minister give a commitment to incentivising all land managers to plant trees, as the Government develop a post-CAP land-use policy? Will he assure the House that environmental benefits, including woodland creation, will be at the heart of future farming payments and tell us how the Government intend to arrive at their woodland cover objective of 12%, without more ambitious planting targets and schemes than are currently in the plan?
Another “thank you, but” goes for the commitment in the plan to protect ancient woodland, because protecting existing woods is as important as creating new ones. Our existing woods are under threat from development and tree disease, as the Minister said, and from conversion to other land uses. Based on the evidence that it has, the Woodland Trust believes that we are now in a state of deforestation, where actual woodland cover is reducing. But, to be honest, the data is pretty duff and we do not really know—which is a bad way to be in this data-rich age. So we welcome the role of the new national tree champion. I would quite like to be that champion but I am sure I am not eligible, being parti pris and part of the Woodland Trust—but good on that person, whoever they are. However, they need to ensure that improved baseline data is available, that monitoring improves and that there is real reporting of all woodland losses if we are really to protect our existing woodland resource.
I particularly welcome the reiteration of the manifesto commitment to improve the protection of ancient woodland, but 700 ancient woodlands are currently under threat. HS2 is a big enemy of ancient woodland and, as we dash for housing, that, too, is beginning to threaten ancient woodland considerably. So the Government really must go further than the changes they have already proposed to the National Planning Policy Framework. I have seen two independent legal opinions, sought by the Woodland Trust and by lawyers active in the development field, which confirm that the proposed changes to the NPPF would not alter the currently inadequate level of protection for ancient woodland in practice.
I therefore hope, again, that the role of the national tree champion will come good. I was slightly anxious to see that he or she will explore opportunities to further strengthen the protection of ancient woodland. I rather hoped that the NPPF changes, when they came forth, would have done that job and that he would not need to worry his head about that one. All this illustrates the fact that government alone is not sufficient: we need all government to be involved, not just Defra, and we need other players to make a difference.
It is encouraging to see the natural capital approach that the Government are putting at the heart of the plan, but we must make sure that ancient woodland is not seen as part of this process. Ancient woodland is 400 years old; it is a complex web of species and ecosystems and is completely irreplaceable. It should not be damaged in the first place and cannot be traded as part of a no net loss scheme.
Last but not least in my “thank you, but” list, I will address the governance gap after breakfast—I mean, Brexit; Brexit and breakfast are a real contradiction in terms. After Brexit we will have lost the sanctions that Europe provided on government and government bodies for failing to meet environmental standards: namely, infraction proceedings and fines. There is a promise in the plan on consultation and on an independent body that will hold government accountable. We must look closely at how independent that body is and what sanctions it will have. Will the Minister tell the House whether the new statutory body will have, for example, the power to bring a legal challenge to the Government if they fail to meet the objectives of the 25-year plan?
Overall, therefore, the 25-year plan is a “thank you, but” job. There are lots of initiatives; it needs legislative and policy underpinning; there is an excellent direction of travel; but it now needs clear, measurable objectives that are based in statute, and better metrics—and it needs to report to the public and Parliament year on year. Can the Minister tell us how and when these will be put in place? I will end by saying, “Thank you, but”.
My Lords, “thank you, but” is an excellent description of this debate.
Some in your Lordships’ House may remember a very old radio programme called “Beyond Our Ken”, which went on to become “Round the Horne”. One of the characters was named Fallowfield and his response to any question was, “Well, I think the answer lies in the soil”. He was right—who knew? The bulk of my speech today addresses that issue.
Last year, my team and I did a lot of work on agriculture and land use change and it is all published in a report we commissioned entitled A Vision for Britain: Clean, Green and Carbon Free. It is well documented that the Government will miss their carbon reduction targets for the 4th and 5th carbon budgets. The UK will need to find significant reductions in a range of different and complex sources of greenhouse gases arising from our land use and our agriculture, because agriculture accounts for around 10% of UK greenhouse gas emissions. We will have to take drastic action to ensure that negative emissions from the United Kingdom’s land use, land use change and forestry includes addressing our degrading peatlands and supporting the use of sustainably sourced timber in construction, together with additional carbon removal through soil management, afforestation or alternatives.
First, on peatlands, as far as I am aware, the Government have never counted the emissions from our degrading peatlands as part of our emissions totals. That underestimates our carbon emissions, so the actual situation is worse than it seems. It is clear that we need not only to preserve our existing carbon sinks but to significantly increase them. I am pleased that the Government clearly recognise in the plan the need to address the peatland issue. The report includes this example:
“Over the last 200 years, we have lost 84% of our fertile peat topsoil in East Anglia. The fens there could lose the remainder in just 30-60 years”.
That is shocking. We will therefore have to cut emissions from peatland by 16 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent by restoring that peatland, especially in upland areas. Can the Minister say whether the actions proposed in the report will deliver the 14% reduction in emissions that the climate change committee says is necessary? I do not think they will. Of course, attention to restoring our peatlands holds huge potential not only for reducing emissions but for reducing flood risk and supporting biodiversity.
In terms of improving our approach to soil management, the Government state that,
“by 2030 we want all of England’s soils to be managed sustainably”.
If we read the highlighted actions in the plan, we find that:
“Defra will invest at least £200,000 to help develop soil health metrics and test them on farms across the country”,
“investigate the potential for research and monitoring to give us a clearer picture of how soil health supports our wider environment”.
That is obviously to be welcomed but I suggest that it is small stuff and should be going hand in hand with action. We know enough already to take action. Why can we not follow France’s lead in promoting the “4 per 1,000” soil initiative to increase the amount of CO2 captured by four grams per kilo? Of course, we also need to manage the reduction of fossil fuel use in the sector and improve land management practices for natural carbon sequestration with a better application of manure and fertiliser. I suggest that addressing soil compaction should be a priority for the Government.
As was said by the noble Baroness, Lady Young, we need an even more ambitious programme of afforestation in order to meet carbon removal associated with the Committee on Climate Change max scenario, which it estimates will require 30,000 hectares of additional woodland coverage in the UK each year by 2050. I go for the max scenario because we are not reducing our emissions adequately to get anywhere near the 1.5 degree limit that we have signed up for in the Paris Agreement. To put it in context, that commitment to 30,000 hectares a year is around half a New Forest. The government plan is to plant 180,000 hectares by the end of 2042, which is simply nowhere near enough.
We also need to work with industry and forestry sectors to support the increased use of sustainably sourced wood in construction, which delivers negative emissions, rather than the use of carbon-intensive materials such as concrete. The ability of wood used in buildings to capture carbon from the atmosphere and store it for long periods is a huge opportunity that we should not ignore. We also need a recognition that alternatives to woody biomass, such as organic waste, agricultural residues, algae and domestic energy crops, could play an important role and contribute to landfill reduction strategies.
In the given time, I have been able to address only one section of this very large plan but I was hoping for a really bold, radical plan that defined new commitments, enhanced old commitments and laid down clear objectives and metrics that would effect measurable and reportable results. We need new environmental legislation and the plan should be placed on a statutory footing. ClientEarth has said that the plan is “full of empty promises”, and Wildlife and Countryside Link says that words must be backed up with action. I do not want to be unkind to the Government—I think that they are trying—but I hope that they understand the message that warm words will not be enough. In responding to the debate, perhaps the Minister will lay out a clear road map for how this plan will be delivered and the measurables for the journey, and say what reporting will be made to Parliament. If we are to have confidence in the plan, what legal framework will the Government put in place to ensure delivery?
Therefore, although I welcome the 25-year environmental plan, I feel that the proposed actions in the report are not strong enough, urgent enough or extensive enough. I encourage the Government to go much further and much faster.
My Lords, I declare interests as a farmer and landowner, as chair at the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology and as a trustee at Rothamsted Research.
I have a lot of good things to say about this plan. It is ambitious and sets out precisely what we ought to be doing in many different fields. However, something about it provoked a memory for me of the tombs of the nobles at Luxor, dating from 4,500 years ago. The pictorial stories set out how those ancient Egyptian nobles aspired to live their lives—something which, from all accounts, they singularly failed to achieve. I hope we will not be looking back, in a mere 25 years’ time, wondering why we failed to live up to our expectations. Certainly, our past record does not inspire much confidence, with an ongoing decline in biodiversity and four-fifths of our chalk streams still not classed as fully functioning ecosystems. Furthermore, I worry that this plan is closely linked to the current ministerial team at Defra.
In my first draft of this speech I touched on a series of mild changes that I might have made to the plan, but instead I would now like to focus solely on its long-term execution, and pick up the last words of the noble Baroness, Lady Featherstone. How can we best ensure that this excellent plan will work? Twenty-five years is a mere blip in environmental terms, but it is a very long time in politics. Can we get all political parties and all regions signed up for 25 years? Unlikely, I would have thought. Will even all future Secretaries of State sign up? The way things go, over 25 years that could be up to 12 different people.
There is no doubt in my mind that, when it reaches its final post-consultative state, the key principles of the environmental plan—its prime targets and commitments—must be embodied in primary legislation. It should be like the Climate Change Act 2008, where a framework and targets were set and a body was established by Parliament to report to Parliament. The body should be funded by several departments, because I am always worried about the piper being paid by only one sponsor. The plan already involves several departments—the MHCLG, the Department of Health and Social Care, the Department for Education, the Department for Transport and even DfID—so that should not be difficult. I admit that more legislation for Defra during the Brexit period might be a challenge, but an environmental protection Bill is promised, and perhaps the proposed environmental protection agency could be the relevant body.
Is not the quality of life aspired to by this plan even more important to the next generation than, say, the effects of climate change? Perhaps even the noble Lord, Lord Deben, could agree that they are inextricably linked. Is not this plan even more important to our young voters than possibly some of the best-laid economic plans, which no one really believes in? Is this plan not exactly what we need to set out on our own after Brexit, with a high-quality agenda? It is probably not as important to the young as housing, but I bet it comes a pretty close second. For anyone to believe in the plan, it has to be established for the long term by statute and be continually monitored independently. We are told that the young are disillusioned by politicians, because the latter come and go without making any real difference. Let us surprise them, and fix this plan, in whatever final form it takes, firmly in the psyche of our nation.
As the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner, said, to make the plan really work we need to get most of the people in the UK to sign up to it in their personal lives. We are the environment. We affect it by the way we live and work, and the way that we travel between the two. You can legally enforce certain aspects of the plan and, I hope, the government responsibilities, but unless we all adopt it in our hearts it could be 150 pages of wasted words.
If I have a criticism of the plan as it stands, it is that not enough thought has been given to selling the ideas by appealing to the social and economic aspirations, as well as the environmental aspirations, of people at large. It is the three-legged stool of sustainable development. We need a marketing programme over many years, because we have to inspire people for them to make a difference. There are good proposals to involve urban communities and schools, but it is a pity that we do not yet have the Agriculture Bill to see how we will inspire the land-managing community. We all know that environmental success and the growth of biodiversity will not happen by itself. Farmers, landowners and even householders must be encouraged, not regulated, to positively foster an enhanced natural world—an enhancement that will improve the lives of everyone, socially, economically and, of course, environmentally.
I am coming to the end of my time, so I finish by drawing the attention of the House to the fact that nearly 30 years ago, when I was at the CLA, we tried to promote the case for environmental land management services, as mentioned in the plan. I spent a lot of happy time trying to ingrain the concept of ELMS—as we called them—into the minds of departments, their Ministers and even local authorities. Having read this plan, I must say it was immensely gratifying to see that, after all this time, their day appears to have finally come.
My Lords, I very much welcome this ambitious and attractive plan, which is good for the environment, the economy and quality of life. The Lords spiritual have a strong interest in the environment out of a concern for the care of God’s creation as well as the opportunity stated in the Natural Capital Committee’s advice to Government in September 2017 as part of the preparation for this plan. It said:
“The Plan is a huge economic and social opportunity that can genuinely transform the natural environment, support the growth of the economy, allow citizens to reconnect with the health, wellbeing, spiritual and educational benefits of interacting with nature, and gift our children a richer, better and more resilient natural inheritance. With a natural capital approach, the environment should no longer be regarded as an obstacle to development; rather, a healthy environment is the basis of sustainable economic growth”.
My former colleague and now near neighbour, the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Chartres, reminded us regularly in the diocese of London that the economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment. There is a spirituality about this as well as a technical challenge.
A Green Future is a significant change of mindset and very much to be welcomed. The plan will be the basis for holding Her Majesty’s Government to account. Having set the direction, there now needs to be considerable work to translate ambition into action. Out of 44 success criteria in the plan, only 11 are what could be called smart objectives. As currently set out, these success criteria go only a small way to explain how the plan’s actions will serve to meet the goals. For example, what does,
“Achieving zero avoidable plastic waste by the end of 2042”,
mean? What is avoidable plastic waste? Compare that with the European Union’s less ambitious but much more specific policy announced just a few days after the publication of A Green Future that,
“all plastic packaging … will be recyclable by 2030”.
To aid this increase in recycling rates, the European Commission will provide €100 million of finance to develop smarter and more recyclable plastics. How much finance will Her Majesty’s Government commit to making these developments happen?
The ambition in relation to plastics is laudable, but there needs to be more to boost our stalled recycling rates. In 2015, they fell for the first time in more than a decade. There is a proposal to extend the 5p plastic bag charge, but nothing about charging for disposable coffee cups, of which only one in 400 is recycled. The plans do not include a bottle collection scheme. Every day, 38.5 million plastic bottles and 20 million aluminium cans are sold across the UK. Evidence from other countries such as the US, Norway and Germany shows that introducing a simple deposit on plastic bottles and cans can raise collection rates above 90% and reduce litter, so it is disappointing that the plan does not follow the recommendations of the Environmental Audit Committee for a legislated deposit returns scheme for plastic drinks bottles. The Scottish Government committed to that at the end of last year. Will this be revisited by Her Majesty’s Government?
The House will welcome the Government’s intention to update the plan at least every five years, develop a set of indicators on metrics to monitor progress by the end of 2018 and report annually to Parliament.
Currently, as has already been pointed out, the EU has the power to fine the UK for breaches of environmental standards. It is not yet clear whether the proposed UK environmental watchdog will have the same power, so I have sympathy with the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, and those who have suggested that there needs to be an environment Act to do for the restoration of nature what the Climate Change Act is doing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions; that is, by creating stronger accountability for such an important matter.
Three further things worth commenting on are: timing, because this is urgent; policy integration, because we need joined-up thinking and action; and developing an international approach, because environmental matters do not keep national boundaries. They are going to need much stronger handling than is suggested in the report. For example, the Paris Agreement on climate change recognises the urgency of the task. We are still a long way from agreements that will meet the two degrees Celsius target, yet we know that to be effective, change needs to be front-loaded. Christian Aid and CAFOD, the British churches’ aid agencies, have identified that the UK Government’s overall spending in developing countries continues to be more on fossil fuels than renewable energy. As was noted in the recent debate about green finance, there is an urgent need to scale up financing in support of a big shift to renewable energy both in public finance and private finance.
In housing, there is a laudable ambition to build many new homes. For them to be energy efficient with low or zero-carbon emissions, that will not be achieved by deregulation. Specific targets need to be set for different parts of the plan which can identify quick wins and recognise the most urgent actions so that we develop changed actions and new habits capable of furthering this admirable plan.
My Lords, I begin by declaring my farming and other interests as listed in the register. The 25-year environment plan is long awaited and I for one am very glad that the farming and environment plans have been merged into one document. I am grateful to the Minister for introducing this debate. As he will be aware, some 70% of our land is farmed; crops, livestock, forestry and conservation are all interlinked in good farming practices. The food industry that they supply is worth more than £100 billion a year, and farmers must look to making profits if the wider aspirations of this plan are to be achieved.
There is insufficient time to cover all the topics, so I will concentrating on three chapters in the report: namely, chapter 1, on using and managing land sustainably; chapter 3, on participation and improving health and well-being; and chapter 4, on the reduction of pollution and waste.
I begin at page 32 of the report. This section highlights the need to improve our soil, air and water—in other words, the earth’s natural resources—by improving land management, helping biodiversity and delivering new environmental land schemes. I am sure that the Minister will recognise that a one-size-fits-all approach will not suit all types of land or farming methods and that the flexibility in these schemes that is referred to in the plan is essential. I turn to page 37 which states:
“We will continue to invest in technical advice to support farmers and land managers in delivering the outcomes and to help them to work together”.
The Minister will be aware of the coming together of various farmers to create farmer clusters which have been growing in number since they were started back in 2008. Their valuable work together has created corridors of adjoining land that has boosted conservation and wildlife. These are great success stories which encourage profitable farming and conservation to go hand in hand. It is a good example of what can be achieved and I welcome the Government’s announcement of an agriculture command paper which will involve wide consultation with farmers and stakeholders.
I turn to chapter 3, “Connecting people with the environment to improve health and wellbeing”—something which is precious to us all. I welcome this chapter, which considers ways to encourage children to be close to nature. Many schools give their students the opportunity to visit farms to observe and, in some cases, handle livestock and have the joy of being outside in the rural countryside. I place on record my gratefulness to FACE for its work in schools and to LEAF for promoting Open Farm Sunday, which gives families a chance to visit farms and learn about food production. I mention in passing the importance of care farming projects, which help those who are individually disadvantaged.
Sadly, too many people have never experienced the peace that can be found in the countryside. This week is homeless week, and only yesterday at Leicester Cathedral the reverend Helen Hayes, a pioneer priest among the homeless, spoke of the difference that a visit to the countryside can make. She and others took a very small group of disadvantaged people, some homeless, who were given the opportunity of a three-day break in Derbyshire. When they initially met them, the people they were taking had their heads down and their hoodies up. Their self-worth was at rock bottom. But, as the days went on, they were transformed by their visit, and at the end they were standing tall and appreciating the countryside. I am glad that this 25-year plan includes a section on well-being, because it is hugely important. Doing more to help people who have hit difficult times will be worth while.
Finally, I turn to chapter 4, on the reduction of pollution and waste. Over the past years, I have regularly asked questions on fly-tipping. Waste dumped on public land is cleared by the local council at public cost. When it is dumped on private land, the owner has to foot the bill. The problem is becoming worse. Councils use CCTV in areas where they know that there is regular activity, but criminals in rural areas arrive early or late, at dusk or in the dark, using vehicles carrying only a very small number plate for identification. Sometimes I wonder whether we should not have to have that sort of identification in a much bigger state so that it can be seen even in those dark times.
I move now to plastics, which are used by manufacturers to change the image, shape or weight of their products. When the party opposite legislated to reduce the packaging weight, pet food manufacturers moved away from tins, which were universally recycled, and introduced pouches, which have to go to landfill. Much more work needs to be done to ensure that manufacturers use products that can be recycled—I so agree with the right reverend Prelate. I understand that recycling systems that use infra-red to separate plastic from the rest of the rubbish have to send all the black plastic to landfill. Could the Minister tell us whether research is being undertaken in this area?
As others have suggested, if this 25-year environment plan is to succeed it must set challenging but realistic targets. Progress must be monitored and revised regularly. I understand that a five-year review is planned. The Government have also proposed to set up an independent statutory body to oversee that plan to assess progress in the environment and conservation sectors. But we should not be afraid to have flexibility with any scheme, because over the years new and exciting things will be discovered about ways we can do things better.
I welcome the opportunity to take part in this debate. The plan challenges each and every one of us to think about the way we live and use natural resources. I wish it and the Minister every success.
I start by offering a welcome to this 25-year plan for the environment, even though it is by no means perfect and has been justifiably criticised as heavy on aspiration and light on detail. The plan outlines some progress that has been made: it highlights significant improvements in water quality made in recent decades. Most of us in this House are old enough to remember that we were once “the dirty man of Europe”; bathers waded through raw sewage on their trips to the seaside. So what does success look like? Last May the European Environment Agency reported that in 2016 96% of Europe’s beaches met the basic standards and 85% met the most stringent requirements. How do you achieve such success and what can we learn from it?
It started with campaign groups making a fuss and raising awareness among the general public, leading to political pressure. The response to that was legislation that included binding targets, an enforcement regime and penalties. This changed behaviour. Pressure groups continue to act to highlight shortcomings and the whole process becomes iterative. Of course, because water quality is a cross-border issue, EU legislation such as the bathing water directive and the water framework directive were the legislative underpinning. It seems to me that campaigning groups are fundamental to holding Governments’ feet to the fire. In recent years changes to charity law have been made regarding what the Government describe as “lobbying” but is in fact the rightful campaigning role of this sector. The rules have been described as having “a chilling effect” on charities’ ability to get their concerns across, especially during election time. These groups must be able to tell truth to power.
The plan recognises that many of the proposals will need to be put on a statutory footing. However, there is already a huge body of existing EU legislation which does much of this work: around 80% of the UK’s environmental law comes from the European Union. A number of environmental organisations have expressed the view that the provisions in the withdrawal Bill simply do not provide sufficient safeguards, while constitutional experts query the legal status of retained EU law: we will continue that debate tomorrow. Many of the objectives in the plan are weak, they lack statutory force and targets remain aspirational. The Government have already missed non-binding targets for halting biodiversity decline, phasing out horticultural peat, achieving good ecological status for water and others. Some objectives are unambitious. For example, the target for water quality does not set a date for achieving good ecological condition, unlike the water framework directive, which does. Experience of climate change legislation shows that targets should include realistic delivery dates, with milestones for achieving them.
As we have heard, the plan commits to an independent environmental watchdog as a replacement for enforcement at EU level. For such a body to be effective, it must be properly resourced. We are currently seeing serious funding issues with other statutory regulators, such as the Charity Commission, Natural England and the Marine Management Organisation. This has to be a concern. Such a body must have an effective complaints mechanism and access to remedies for the whole of civil society, and should definitely be accountable to Parliament, not to government. As the Minister emphasised, cross-border working is essential to delivering the plan. A new post-Brexit framework for international co-operation must be a priority. The Defra website names 40 international agreements on environmental matters to which the UK is a signatory. Can the Minister say how many of these we are signed up to as a consequence of EU membership and how many in our own right? Are there any we would not seek to rejoin? I am sure that the House would like an assurance that the fact that many of these agreements are justiciable in international courts will not be a bar to our continued membership.
The 25-year plan must address the UK’s impact on nature overseas. We are dependent on natural resources embedded in our imports: 70% of the water consumed here comes from imports, as does about one-third of biomass. Is the Minister able to give an assurance about the important role played by European funded research projects? Can he say that every effort will be made to see that the UK remains engaged in the same way that other non-EU member states, such as Norway, currently do? This issue was highlighted in the EU Select Committee report into regional co-operation in 2015. We noted then that the economic and environmental importance of shelf seas, such as the North Sea, is four times higher than the open ocean. We found that a lot of data is collected but not widely shared or fully utilised. However, one mechanism that exists for doing this is the European Marine Observation and Data Network, so can the Minister say whether we will continue to participate in its projects? In a similar vein, the RSPB has highlighted the value of European funding for environmental projects such as LIFE and BEST, not just here in the UK but in the British Overseas Territories. Is the Minister able to tell the House the current thinking on projects such as these?
Last summer I fulfilled a long-held dream to visit Svalbard and came away with both wonderful memories and serious concerns about the rapid environmental changes which were evident even to a visitor such as me. We were given strict instructions to leave nothing behind and take nothing away. The one exception to that rule was litter, which we were encouraged to collect and take back to the ship. Among my stash, there in the high Arctic, just a few hundred miles from the North Pole, I found, washed clean by the ocean’s currents, a polystyrene burger box. It is a reminder that pollution and environmental problems know no boundaries and that we can tackle them only if we work together.
My Lords, I declare my interests as a member of the advisory board of the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit, I work for the Wellcome Trust on its programme on environment and health, and I am a former member of the Committee on Climate Change. I welcome this long-awaited 25-year plan. It has not been quite 25 years in the making but it has been quite a long time. I congratulate the Government on their breadth of ambition and their long-term view.
As the plan records, some aspects of our environment, such as our beaches and some of our water bodies, have improved in recent decades. As has already been said, this is in large part a result of EU legislation. Nevertheless, there is a lot to be done. Only one-fifth of English water bodies are in good condition and only one-third of our sites of special scientific interest are in favourable ecological condition, and this proportion is declining. Only 4% of upland peat is in favourable ecological condition.
In relation to biodiversity, the plan reports some success stories on page 21. Indeed, there are some success stories, in part due to the excellent work of organisations such as the RSPB, the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust, and the Wildlife Trusts. But these are still the exception rather than the rule. The RSPB’s State of Nature 2016 report states that 56% of the 8,000 species recorded have declined in the past few decades and more than one in 10 is in danger of extinction. Although many of the steepest declines occurred in the late 20th century, the trends have, with rather few exceptions, not stopped or been reversed. Shockingly, the report concludes that the UK ranks 189th of countries in the world for the preservation of its biodiversity. This is in spite of the fact that previous Governments have had targets for reducing or reversing wildlife declines.
So will it be different this time? At the moment we cannot tell, but if noble Lords look at the 25-year plan they will see that the actions to tackle biodiversity and habitat loss include “learn lessons”, “consider”, “investigate” and “evaluate”, none of which sounds too promising. But, as has already been mentioned, the plan also states that there will be a set of metrics by which progress in all areas can be measured. Can the Minister confirm that these metrics will be outcome-focused and quantifiable, with timescales and clearly identified owners?
Equally important is the question of who will establish and report on the metrics. The plan says:
“We will develop a set of metrics … We will report on progress annually”.
It is really important to understand who “we” is. I hope it is not the Government measuring and reporting on their own progress. As other noble Lords have already said, it would be far better to have a fully independent statutory body, analogous to the Committee on Climate Change, reporting to Parliament on progress in implementing the plan. Does the Minister agree that the public, Parliament and environmental groups would have more confidence in the implementation of the plan if there were an independent body, set up under a new environment Act, charged with reporting to Parliament on progress?
Although the plan is published by Defra, it will require commitment from across government and many other bodies to implement it. I shall take two examples from across government. Page 35 states that all newbuilds will be climate resilient and energy efficient yet, in the Housing and Planning Act 2016, the Government refused to incorporate measures such as zero-carbon homes and sustainable urban drainage systems that would help to guarantee that. Will the Minister reassure us that the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government is now fully committed to those requirements?
My other example relates to chapter 3, which correctly identifies the link between environmental and human health, but in only a very limited way. Is the Department of Health and Social Care fully signed up to the plan? I offer the advice of the Wellcome Trust, which has a major research programme on environment and health, if the Minister and his officials would like to take it up.
Finally, I turn to scientific evidence. Plans to enhance the environment should be based on the best available science. A recent review by the University of Cambridge showed that many of the current agri-environment schemes have little evidence to show that they work, and that other measures would be more effective in protecting and enhancing biodiversity. The same report concludes that the approximately £1 million spent in the UK on bat gantries, meant to protect bats from flying into traffic, has been a waste of money because they do not work. In this crowded and heavily exploited island, combining the protection of nature with maintaining livelihoods is a delicate balancing act, and good science is needed to ensure that we achieve the right balance. Research by the Natural Environment Research Council on shell-fisheries and shore-birds has shown how the interests of the shell-fish industry and of conservation can be satisfied if there is proper research to underpin decision-making. Can the Minister assure us that the implementation of the plan will be based on scientific evidence and that Government are prepared to invest in the necessary research to ensure that all actions, whoever carries them out, bring real benefits to our environment?
My Lords, I refer to my farming and environmental interests set out in the register. Like other speakers, I welcome this 25-year plan but, like the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, I speculate about whether we can be confident of a successful outcome in 25 years’ time.
I want to my limit my remarks to the concept of natural capital accounting, which is central to this plan. We have to recognise that to deliver on protecting our natural capital and enhancing our ecosystems, we must first have an agreed understanding in the public and private sectors of just what we mean by natural capital, how we monitor it and how one restates one’s accounts to take it into account. We need agreement on how national, regional and local priorities, however local, for restoring and enhancing ecosystem services can be determined. They have to conform clearly to the overall strategy, as set out in this paper. There also has to be recognition that no implementation plan can succeed unless there is widespread ownership of the plan involving the managers of the natural resource in question as well as others with an interest in the outcome.
The concept of developing policy objectives informed by natural capital got a major boost under the last Labour Government when they commissioned the United Kingdom national ecosystem assessment. It was published at the beginning of the coalition Government in 2011. It provided a comprehensive overview of the state of the natural environment in this country and offered a new way of estimating our national wealth. The underestimation of the value of natural processes such as water filtration or air purification can be appreciated if you try to calculate the cost of providing these ecosystem services would by industrial means.
Since that report, there have been many helpful studies on how we should take account of the full value of ecosystem services in our decision-making, not least from the Natural Capital Committee. But as the committee itself stated in its advice to the Government on the draft 25-year plan last September, as already mentioned,
“there are significant gaps in current knowledge and a lack of joined up approaches to data collection, measurement and monitoring of the UK’s natural assets … many different agencies are responsible for the collection of data (e.g. the Forestry Commission, Environment Agency, Met Office, Natural England, and Joint Nature Conservation Commission). This leads to both gaps and duplication in the data collected and inconsistencies in approaches to analysis”.
If the 25-year plan is to benefit from using natural capital accounting and monitoring, there simply must be a concerted attempt by Defra to align all these. Defra’s job here is to knock heads together.
If the plan is to deliver in 25 years’ time, there needs to be a robust evidence base, as has just been stated. We are still awaiting definitive guidance from the Office for National Statistics on the development of national natural capital accounts, without which you cannot measure overall progress on natural capital improvement. Much of our natural capital is, inevitably, owned and managed by the private sector, so the plan will need to mobilise sustained private sector initiatives.
We have already heard much about agriculture—not surprisingly as it is the sector that manages 70% of our land, and so is clearly a highly important industry in delivery of the plan. But even the largest farms will invariably benefit from following the guidance of the Lawton report of 2010, which suggested that working in larger blocks, with neighbours, to deliver enhanced ecosystem services at a parish or landscape scale is going to be much more effective. Providing bigger, better and more joined-up habitats will deliver better results for biodiversity enhancement. As the water companies and farmers have demonstrated, as referred to in the report, you simply cannot contemplate flood control and water purification without operating at this scale and larger.
The recent development of farm clusters, a number of which have now been set up, has the great virtue of being run by farmers or land managers. The members know what it is feasible to deliver in terms of environmental enhancement and, with suitable encouragement, can select and deliver agreed local improvements to ecosystem services. I say “agreed”, because it is no good the farmers just charging off and saying, “This is what we want to deliver”. One should say in parenthesis that delivering food or timber is an ecosystem service and very desirable, but clearly we want to move on to other services.
Getting a considerable number of land managers to consult their neighbours and the relevant agencies, and to agree among themselves what programmes can be delivered, will take a bit of organising. In other words, a part-time, paid convenor is required for each cluster. Therefore, I strongly recommend to Defra that the funding of such convenors would prove a highly effective way of ensuring delivery of many of the land-based objectives in its 25-year plan.
My Lords, I declare my interests as a professor at UCL; president of ACOPS, an NGO that reviews the marine rubbish around our shores; and director of an environmental consulting company.
This report is a welcome return to strategic UK and international planning for the UK environment; indeed, that is mentioned by the Prime Minister in her foreword to this document. This restores the mistakes made by the coalition Government, who in 2011 eliminated the widely admired Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution and the UK sustainability development strategy, which was established by John Major after the Rio Earth Summit. Both were effective in co-ordination so the new development is welcome. However, all parties have continued with the co-ordination of climate change and—it is important to relate—environmental policies for people, especially those in exposed areas in the UK and globally. I am familiar with North Devon, where several villages in steep valleys were flooded last week and were even on the nine o’clock news.
The main conclusion of environmental science, practice and policy is that co-ordination is essential. That also means international co-ordination, which has to go beyond government agencies and departments to regional, international and global bodies. For many experts and civil servants, the implementation of international environmental co-ordination has been frustratingly slow but it has happened and, if politicians and parliaments are determined and support it, will continue to. For example, as I saw when I represented the UK at the World Meteorological Organization, there was greater co-ordination of meteorological, hydrological and oceanographic data and this had led to the improved prediction of weather and flooding extremes and the consequences for food, forestation and desertification. There are also the very important environmental changes in the Arctic, which will have a significant impact in the UK in the next 25 years, as the House of Lords Select Committee discussed.
It is important to consider the changes that there are going to be in clean energy. Green energy has been an important development in the last 25 years, but in future we are going to see the use of not only solar and wind but also the less visible but important power of small-scale nuclear fission, which has been much discussed in the press. There is also the likelihood in the next 25 years of modular nuclear fusion, which is being developed in the UK by the private sector and the Government. It will not be necessary to wait until 2040 for the large international fusion system; I believe this important development will happen long before that, in the next five to 10 years.
With this cleaner energy, we may well have a future in which vehicles are primarily electrically driven. As Rolls-Royce explained in a seminar last week, we may also have electrically driven short-range aeroplanes. Another feature of clean energy supplies will be the pumping and desalination of water, which enables the billions of people still suffering from water shortages and waterborne diseases to get water, as was debated last week here in the Lords. Over the next 25 years the Government should also consider the decades after that, when the UK will finally have to begin to deal with its stored nuclear radioactive waste. It may be in geological reserves or, as Euratom has suggested, it could be transformed and made safe by alternative isotopes.
Another important feature of the environment is the urban environment, which other noble Lords have not emphasised. Here I emphasise a considerable UK success, with support from all the parties: the restoration of the environment in the east end of London—the Olympic legacy, as it is called. No other country has been as successful as this in developing an Olympic Games, and now we see remarkable green developments in the environment and water supplies there, with new cultural and educational areas. Although that is a great plus for the UK, and there are other important port cities such as Liverpool, many people have commented to me that in many rural areas we see considerable poverty and environmental and social deprivation. The standards in communities have gone backwards. The very successful Sure Start programme introduced by the Labour Government was dropped in 2010-11 by the coalition Government, and the consequences for some of those areas is very serious. There seems to be no acknowledgement by the Government of the damage. What do they propose for those communities in the next 25 years?
Finally, one feature of the environment which has not been mentioned is the connection of industrial, environmental and cultural development which one sees in many other European countries. We have our great pop festivals here and there, but many beautiful areas of Britain should have much greater cultural investment, and that should be an important part of the environment looking to the future.
My Lords, I declare my interests as in the register. Today, I mostly want to talk about biodiversity and measuring improvement. Of course, the aims in the plan are laudable, but how will we know that the environment is in a better state? Sure, we can measure that water is cleaner or that the air has fewer pollutants in it, and we can see some things, such as those which the author Michael McCarthy describes in his book, The Moth Snowstorm. I am sure that many of your Lordships will remember when moths used to,
“pack a car’s headlight beams like snowflakes in a blizzard”,
or the insects that used to stick to the windscreen. There was just so much insect life. Now, those moths have, by and large, gone.
Perhaps that tells us as much as a scientific calculation, but the environment plan needs to measure whether the whole ecosystem is improving. Currently, the lack of definition of ecosystem health undermines the plan’s entire approach to biodiversity. Will the return of a few iconic species be measured as success, even though many other species become extinct? Take the plan’s proposed increase in wildflower meadows. It is of course a good aim in itself, because a wildflower meadow is a lovely thing to behold, but it should be about far more than its flowers. It should support colonies of insects. Butterflies, bees and, in turn, insect-eating birds, should do well and find enough food to feed their young. In damper areas, frogs would find shelter. The meadow is cut later for hay when the seeds have mostly set and, in the meantime, hares can make their forms in the long grass for themselves and their leverets.
The picture I am painting is of a whole ecosystem, but what if the new wildflower meadows have no hedges where birds can nest? What if the meadow is next door to arable fields where there is intensive use of slug pellets? Then the frogs, thrushes and so on are likely to die of metaldehyde poisoning.
As I search the plan for definition, I found that it is only marine areas that benefit from the government ambition to be ecologically coherent. Those words are very important. I hope that the Government will develop an ambition for the terrestrial places, too, to be ecologically coherent.
The environment plan has a nod to Lawton and the need to create landscape-scale areas and wildlife corridors. It talks of the nature recovery network, and I was very excited about that. Like the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, I turned anxiously to the actions listed on page 59 that would enable that to happen. As he found, they are “considering”, another “considering” and then “evaluating”. In my book, those are just thoughts about actions.
What about measuring the health of ecosystems or, as the report calls it, metrics, which is rather a dry word for its job of creating a picture of ecosystem health? In its current form, the plan will be like a 500-piece jigsaw with 250 pieces missing. The plan itself recognises this, because on page 130, it states that the Government need “better measures”. The metrics need to consider, for example, the potential value of the site, including the role that it can play in connecting habitats. Currently, the metric looks only at habitats in development sites and, strangely, does not account for the species present. The inclusion of the species metrics will be essential to the delivery of biodiversity net gain. For biodiversity net gain to be effective, it should be mandatory for all developments, which I believe is not the case currently. As other noble Lords have identified, there are no milestones for the delivery of long-term targets. This is very much a work in progress, and there is a long way to go.
I was surprised at the very strong emphasis on the reintroduction of native species. Is that really the most productive use of limited resources and effort? Why not try first to preserve what we currently have but which is really threatened, such as the curlew, the small tortoiseshell butterfly, the natterjack toad or even the hedgehog? The environment plan is very light on whether, in future, farming policy will be based on a conversation with nature or just diminishing somewhat the battle against it. I was heartened that the Minister talked about working with nature because too often there is a mistaken thought that it is a choice between agricultural productivity and an agro-ecological approach.
There is a very interesting quote from John Cherry, the farmer who started the organisation Groundswell. He said:
“It has been calculated the ‘good’ bugs outnumber the ‘bad’ bugs by a factor of 1,700:1. So the chances are collateral damage by insecticides will take out a lot of the guys looking after our wheat and controlling potential pests. Many farmers now find they are routinely applying slug pellets. Could it be they would be better off allowing ground beetles to control them? It may be coincidence, but on our farm we have found since we stopped using insecticides on wheat, our need to pellet for slugs has all but disappeared”.
That is the sort of approach that we need to see in this plan.
In my last few moments, I shall just mention a few of the things that I welcome, such as the tree health resilience plan and, maybe, the integrated pest management. I do not understand quite what the Government mean by,
“at the heart of a holistic approach”.
I hope that it means what I think it means. I welcome the national parks and AONB proposals. The Government obviously feel that they are on more solid ground there than with land with no particular designation. I particularly welcome connecting people with the environment. The Government should recognise all the work done by people like the RHS, delivering horticultural learning into schools.
I welcome the statement on illegal wildlife trade. Does that mean that the Government are committing to continue to fund and, one hopes, expand the wildlife crime unit, which is of global importance but is always having to fight for its financial future? Finally, I welcome the mention of international work on migratory species in our overseas territories. I hope that we continue to contribute to scientific work globally.
My Lords, I give a very warm welcome to this plan, prepared by my noble friend and others. It outlines great aspirations with which it is hard to disagree and provides a good template for the future. It is welcome news that it has been welcomed by some of the more sensible environmental groups, which are acting more in concert with the farmers than as political lobbyists, as in the past. That is a welcome move.
To an extent, we have already travelled down some of the road of the improving natural environment. I give as an example Sir John Lawton’s report in 2010, Making Space for Nature. For many years, Governments of all persuasions have said that they wish to improve the environment and biodiversity, but each year that has got worse.
So why could it be different this time? There are a number of reasons. First, we are going to leave the EU and the common agricultural policy, and that gives a huge opportunity. There is also a change of mood of appreciation of the environment. Despite that, an overwhelming majority of people now live in urban areas. In the UK, nine out of 10 people must go back at least five generations before they find an ancestor who worked on the land. It is important to work not only with those who live on the land, like the farmers, but with everybody involved who wants to improve nature. Working with farmers is easier now, because they are going to be able to do what they so often want to do—improve the environment. Organisations such as the Nature Friendly Farming Network are already acting in that way.
We also need to connect with people and the environment, as Chapter 3 outlined well. The noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, and my noble friend Lady Byford majored on this. However, Defra has a difficult task ahead. It has to reduce its budget by £147 million and, as at 30 November, had to recruit for 400 or so full-time posts. How is that going? Perhaps some of those posts could be apportioned to work on replying to debates in this House. I have received no replies to the questions I asked in my debate on 7 December.
I agree with what my noble friend Lord Selborne said about natural capital, but that is only one tool in the box. It must not be the only one which the Secretary of State uses to improve our natural environment. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, I too want to talk about biodiversity. Charlie Pye-Smith, in his excellent book, The Facts of Rural Life wrote that Nick Fox, another scientist, farmer and conservationist, told him:
“Conservation should be about maintaining high levels of biodiversity, which is the sign of a healthy habitat. Biodiversity is not just about species diversity, but the structural diversity of habitats and the range of trophic levels. It’s not about encouraging the biggest population of any one species, but ensuring that each is in balance with the habitat and the resources”.
That is one of the best descriptions I have read: it should be taken as the Government’s aim.
This plan has shied away from discussing tough issues such as wildlife management, and these have to be confronted. We know that we need good habitat and sufficient food supplies all year round but we must also accept the truth—uncomfortable for some—of predator and species control. There is a little objection to the culling of deer in Richmond Park that is happening now. Transpose the lack of that control to Dartmoor, for example, and one finds a biological desert compared to some well-managed grouse moors. I hope the Government will make species predator control part of any agreement involving wildlife and biodiversity management.
The noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, mentioned the threat to trees and ancient woodland and I sympathise with her, but she did not speak about the threat to those woodlands of the grey squirrel, the muntjac deer and overstocking of deer. On page 60, the plan says:
“We will encourage dynamic management of nature”,
which hints at wildlife management without spelling out what it means. When will we be told more about this? For example, the plan suggests that hen harriers,
“when carefully planned and managed”,
can enrich our environment. There is indeed a Defra hen harrier action plan, but it is not mentioned in the report and it is not put into action because of the obduracy of the RSPB, which refuses to accept the scientific evidence. We could have had many more hen harriers by now. I like the idea of the 500,000 hectare nature recovery network and am glad that Defra is learning lessons from the nature improvement areas and farm clusters: again, it is working with the grain.
Turning briefly to tenant farmers, who will receive the financial benefits from public money for public goods? It is no difficulty for owner-occupiers and landowners, but what about the tenant farmers? Should landlords such as the Elan Valley Trust, a charity owning 47,000 acres, encourage their tenant farmers to farm in a more environmentally sensitive way and then take part of what the farmer gets in rental? There is a huge principle here. I gather that the RSPB will follow the Elan Valley Trust’s example with its new tenancy agreements. The Government need the support of tenant farmers to achieve their aims.
I support what the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Chesterton, said about green infrastructure in urban areas and welcome what the report says. However, we have a clash in urban areas between a demand for more housing and the existence of gardens. Will the Government look at all local authority plans, including that of the Mayor of London who wishes to build many new houses on suburban gardens? There is a clash there to be resolved.
I repeat what I said on 7 December: it is up to all of us to participate in the changes that are necessary to improve our environment.
My Lords, it is always a pleasure to follow the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, who has such expertise in the natural world. It is also a pleasure to see the Secretary of State with us today. I hope that he is listening to the debate but I do not think he has done so very much so far. I think he should be separated from the noble Viscount, Lord Ridley, if the Government Whips could do that.
I would very much like to welcome this document and, in a sense, I do as the Government appear to be thinking in the right terms. However, there are two huge flaws which they have to put right before they take this measure any further. I would be happy to give them the Green Party’s Manifesto for a Sustainable Society, if they are interested, which should put them on the right track.
The first problem is that there is not enough reference to legislation in the strategy; in fact, there is barely any. The Government cannot talk in these fine terms if they do not say exactly how they are going to bring their proposals into being. That is a big flaw. Secondly, the strategy talks about the effects of climate change and how to deal with them but does not talk about its causes and how to deal with them. Therefore, it is talking about damage limitation: how to manage damage and decline. We cannot allow that; we just do not have the time. The Government are already in breach of a lot of their environmental commitments. Climate Earth has taken them to court on air pollution, and won the argument in court. It has taken repeated threats from the EU for the Government to do anything about cleaning up our polluted rivers. The Government do not have a very good track record of delivering on the environment. That just does not wash when they have a 25-year environment plan. I could have written the executive summary to this plan; I thought it was very good, but the plan itself is lacking and lightweight and is a missed opportunity.
I know that much of this 25-year plan has arisen thanks to the work of the Natural Capital Committee. That committee has recommended that the plan should be placed on a statutory footing. Therefore, I have four questions for the Minister. If he cannot answer me today, perhaps he can do so in writing. First, when will the Government commit to incorporate the plan in statute, or will they indeed do so? That is incredibly important. Defra has said that it will “legislate when needed”, but the Government’s intention seems to be to legislate in dribs and drabs, with no coherence—the odd Bill here and the odd statutory instrument there. It is a very weak approach. The Secretary of State seems to have a genuine interest in, and care for, the environment. However, Ministers move post, enthusiasm wanes, reality bites and sometimes it is difficult to get legislation through Parliament. Therefore, we need to move fast and get an environment Act in place so that all these aims and ambitions are turned into law while we have the political will to do so.
The 25-year plan makes a lot of natural capital and that is very welcome as environmentalists have talked about it for decades. However, I am worried that it will go down the same path as David Cameron’s commitment to make national well-being a key economic indicator and a central part of decision-making. That idea seems to have died a death; we do not hear about it anymore. That shows that these lovely ideas are completely useless if they are not put into legislation. If the Government are serious about natural capital, they should put the Natural Capital Committee on a statutory footing, with powers to scrutinise legislation and assess its impact on nature’s common wealth.
It is impossible to go through this debate without mentioning Brexit. I will not rehearse my speech for tomorrow—or Wednesday—on the withdrawal Bill but the Government need to heed the fact that they must get their legislative proposals in order, and fast. These gaps will have to be filled before the Committee stage, otherwise there will be no option but for your Lordships’ House to put forward amendments that put these things into the Bill. Can the Minister please commit to publishing legislative proposals urgently, so that we are not forced to try to put stopgaps in the Bill?
The plan also proposes to embed a principle of “environmental net gain” in the planning system. We all know that nature is a very complex system and not easily replaceable. Environmental net gain cannot be allowed to be an excuse for developers to ruin one area and replace it elsewhere—for example, by planting orchids a couple of miles away. That just does not wash. I was on a council which took away a substantial chunk of land and then gave back the same area, but in tiny squares and triangles all over the council’s area. That just was not good enough. The RSPB has been mentioned today. It has expressed concerns that net gain must be based on a three-step mitigation hierarchy. It says that developments must, first and foremost, avoid any impact. Secondly, it says that if impacts happen they must be mitigated and, thirdly and only in exceptional circumstances, that there must be compensation where biodiversity or environmental impacts cannot be avoided. There are some irreplaceable habitats. We have heard about ancient woodland, for example, which, once lost, cannot be replaced. Such habitats are inappropriate for this concept of net gain.
It is amazing how quickly the time goes. We really have to do something about plastic quickly. Something the Government could do almost immediately is to have a deposit system on plastic bottles. Please, are we going to see that? I am also incredibly concerned about recycling at the moment. The recycling market is struggling with low oil prices, which means that it is much better to produce new plastics than use recycled ones. That is of course an absolute disaster. I would like to know whether the UK Government have been lobbying against EU recycling targets. Is that true, and what representations have been made to the EU on those targets? I am very concerned that we are not ambitious enough in our recycling targets. On air quality, I propose to bring a Bill before your Lordships’ House on clean air. I very much hope that it will get general support.
There are many green voices in this Chamber. I might claim to be the only Green Party Member here but I am not the only green voice. I hope that the Government will listen to these green voices and hear the critique of their 25-year plan and how we can improve it to make it a real environmental plan, not just fine words.
My Lords, before I start I should declare that I have a farm and forestry and let houses.
I think most people welcome this plan, in that it is wide-ranging in the number of areas covered, but it is short on detail. The plan is an ambition and it sets the direction of travel. It is to be welcomed for that but some NGOs are disappointed by the lack of consultation before the plan was published, so Defra must engage with the NGOs and those who will implement the plan. Some NGOs originally expected a high-level framework of the plan to be published before a more detailed version, and stakeholders to have already been consulted before the final plan was put together, but this did not happen. Defra asked the Natural Capital Committee to advise it on its aims for the plan. There was some disappointment that the NCC’s membership consisted entirely of seven professors. It was all academics with no farmers, foresters or agronomists et cetera involved. So when the flesh is put on the bones of this skeleton plan, it is vital that full consultation is carried out with experts on the ground—those who have to put the plan into practice. Without that, the plan will just not work.
Secondly, farmers have carried out a huge amount of work over the last 30 or 40 years to encourage wildlife, as well as benefiting the landscape, soil and water and reducing their impact on the climate, much of which was unpaid. Most farmers have already planted trees. On my farm we have planted six new woods, half of which received no grant. I suspect that most farmers and landowners would like more trees on their land. Farmers have also planted over 20,000 miles of hedges, some with a grant but many without. Like many others, we have recently cleaned out four ponds without grants. This will let the sunlight in and encourage insects.
Like many areas in the countryside we have one of the local cluster farm groups that have already been mentioned by my noble friends Lady Byford and Lord Selborne. I am a member of one that consists of about 20 farmers, who work together over 20,000 acres to produce a cohesive environment programme that boosts biodiversity in that enlarged group of farms, rather than each of us working in isolation. In our case, our aim is to encourage turtle doves, grey partridges and lapwings, along with barn owls and snipe, marsh fritillaries and other butterflies, bats and wetland plants. My point is that farmers already do a huge amount of environmental work for no extra payment. So as far as this plan is concerned, if the Government get it right they should be pushing at an open door.
Thirdly, how do the Government encourage farmers to take up any of these schemes? It must be remembered that farmers and landowners need to make a profit from their enterprise to survive. This includes farming and environmental schemes. Without a profitable farm business, farmers will go bust and then there will not be the people to look after the environment. For example, cereal growers might expect to make a profit of between £150 to £200 an acre, depending, of course, on the price and yield. So when these environmental schemes are put forward, the Government should have in the back of their mind that farmers should be compensated sufficiently for the loss of this potential profit, because any environment scheme will take acres out of production for the farmer. One recent Countryside Stewardship scheme was very poorly taken up by farmers because it was overcomplicated and the amount being paid to them was a fraction of what they would get if they continued to grow cereals. As for the Government encouraging farmers and landowners to plant woodland, why would a cereal grower plant, say, 100 acres of woodland and forgo an annual profit of £15,000 to £20,000 for cereals when he will not receive a return from his forestry investment for 30 or 40 years? I will certainly be dead by then.
Many people think that food production and environmental projects are incompatible. I do not believe that is right and I encourage the Government to produce an environmental policy based on encouraging farming activities that not only improve productivity but deliver environmental benefits or improve our resource efficiency. This plan could be very exciting if only the Government will listen to those who have to put it into practice.
My Lords, the point the noble Earl just made about the importance of working with those affected and interested is tremendously important. There is a lot of good will, and that needs to be maximised by enabling people to feel that they are part of the implementation of the plan.
I found the plan a good read. Those who drafted it should be commended; it is better than most government documents one reads. It also has a lot of interesting ideas and aspirations, as we have heard from several noble Lords. I like to put in a plug where it is deserved; the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner, is winning a lot of brownie points in his role by his obvious personal commitment to the environment and the way in which he is going out of his way to get out of the ministry to meet and talk to people in the field. That is done well, and he should be thanked for that.
The plan is aspirational. It is short on detail and it is certainly very short on how it will be implemented. What the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, said, is also important: one must have an effective arrangement to measure progress. It will be crucial that it is felt to carry weight because it is independent and free-standing. It would be disastrous if the Government became their own monitor on progress. There needs to be an independent voice, which will be valuable for government itself.
When we look at what the plan talks about, we have to realise that for an awful lot of people the environment is not in this realm at all. The noble Lord, Lord Heseltine, once said something which really struck home to me: that we have to remember that, for very many people, “environment” is the block of flats in which they live. We must not become so concentrated on the countryside and the rural environment that we do not look at the importance all the time of enhancing and improving the urban environment. With the great drive in housing and affordable housing, it is terribly important that that is imaginatively tackled, with green space available to the inhabitants and with an immediate opportunity for youngsters, for example, to have fun and enjoy themselves without becoming a public nuisance.
It is also important in the urban environment to avoid stigma—but that goes for the countryside too. I have always thought it sad that we have created a situation in which people can say, “Those are the council houses”. With a bit more imagination, those houses could have been attractive houses which enabled people to feel that they were part of the community and not stigmatised as living on the council house estate. I hope that that kind of point will be kept in mind, too.
The plan does not overemphasise the issues of light and noise pollution, which have become great social curses. I was a youngster in the Second World War, and I came to appreciate the blackout. I remember my older sister taking me outside in the blackout on many occasions to look at the sky. How many children in our society have the opportunity to see the sky? It is crucial to their development and education to see themselves in perspective against the realities that are there. Light pollution needs to be given far more attention, as should the issue of noise pollution. Too many people have never had the chance to think in a peaceful and quiet environment—they experience noise all the time. Before I was born, my own family moved from central London to a rather attractive suburb outside London, on the North Downs. They said that one of the things they found difficult to adjust to was the noise of the individual vehicles, because for years they had been used to noise all the time, even back then in the 1920s and 1930s. That needs a great deal of attention as well. A lot of joined-up work needs to be done on healthcare, education, and certainly youth work.
We should remember that 80% of scheduled ancient monuments are on agricultural land. If the plan is talking about access, so people are able to learn from and enjoy our heritage, some issues need to be resolved. Again, this is an illustration of how we need more practical suggestions about how things will be tackled.
My last point picks up what has already been said by several other noble Lords. Environmental issues which affect us cannot be contained within national frontiers; they all have regional and global implications. If we are to have a strategy that is effective and right for our environment, it has to be one in which, inescapably, we work together with others in other nations on how we get it right.
My Lords, I draw to the attention of the House my interests as a proud member of the board of the Marine Management Organisation and as a director and chair of a small number of regional development companies in the south-west.
I absolutely agree with the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, that the one area where Brexit should work in particular is around the common agricultural policy and changing issues there. However, it is interesting that we now have a commitment from the Government to keep the area payment system right the way through until 2024—a full six years-plus, which is about a quarter of the 25 years in this environmental plan. So we are perhaps already pushing back some of the action as regards how we move forwards.
I know that the Minister often feels frustrated by many of these environmental debates, which are sometimes initiated by my own EU Select Committee, because we all pile down our concerns and look negatively at these things. I therefore also start by saying that this report and the plan are important. I congratulate the Government on trying to look 25 years ahead, and they have not forgotten marine at all, which is often a side issue. I am particularly pleased that the report talks about the “polluter pays” principle; I hope that will be reflected in the withdrawal Bill in due course. I welcome the move and the commitment to natural methods of flood defence, which is inevitable but which is now being taken on by the Government, as well as, in the marine area, the whole blue-belt issue.
However, the one area I particularly welcome, which comes back to a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, who is still in his place, is around homes. Although this is primarily a MHCLG area, page 35 of the plan says:
“High environmental standards for all new builds. New homes will be built in a way that reduces demands for water, energy and material resources, improves flood resilience … encourages walking and cycling”,
and it mentions resilient buildings. Yet I remember only too well in July 2015 the Chancellor making a statement and a policy decision at Treasury level—not at the DCLG, I admit—to get rid of the zero-carbon homes targets for 2016. That programme had been worked on by the industry as well as by environmental NGOs and the climate change lobby.
However, two years after that and three years after the announcement, here we are bringing it back. Like the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, I would like confirmation from the Minister that the MHCLG is also committed to doing this, because it requires improved building regulations—regulations, not just aspiration. Once those building regulations are in place—I know this from my role in development—you have to comply with them. You tell your customers or the people you are building for that that is what you are going to do and, as we have seen in the car industry, economies of scale soon bring the cost of the buildings back to where they were before. Therefore, I am very encouraged by that and I hope that the Minister can give further confirmation of it.
The area on which I want to concentrate and which I find particularly interesting is referred to two pages earlier in the report—embedding a net environmental gain principle for developments, including housing and infrastructure. The Minister will probably not be able to go into that a great deal in his reply but I would be very interested to hear more about it. We are now used to plain speaking from Defra and its Ministers, which I welcome, and Defra now has a spring in its step as a department, which is good. However, when reading about this embedding we again see language such as:
“We will seek to embed … We will explore strengthening … and will consult on making this mandatory—including any exemptions … We would expect this should have a net positive impact”,
and those things are delegated to local authorities. This is a hugely important principle. The plan says:
“This will enable housing development without increasing overall burdens on developers”.
One hopes that that is the case but it seems to me to be another “have your cake and eat it” approach. I do not understand how there will not be what would be defined as an increasing burden on developers. They might welcome that if it is mandatory for all developers, but I would be very interested to hear how that goes.
In my last few minutes I would like to talk about the international side. Some Members have mentioned Brexit but Brexit does not apply to the European environment. I would be interested to hear from the Minister how we intend to work with Europe, particularly with regard to invasive species—an area that I know the Minister has championed over the years. How will we co-ordinate environmental policy in the future where we share the environment with all our European neighbours? Will we remain a member of the European Emissions Trading Scheme? It is mentioned in the Climate Change Act. It seems very important and is something that the Government have promoted in the past. Importantly, chemicals are also mentioned in the plan. Will we remain a part of the REACH regime? From the evidence that the sub-committee had, I know that the chemical industry is very keen to remain a part of that.
I have come to the end of my time. I welcome the plan but I can understand some scepticism towards it. I remember the plan first being launched by Liz Truss. We are now two Secretaries of State further on and it is still there, which is good news. However, we have not met our clean air targets—we are still struggling there—and our recycling rates are not what they should be. Our attitude seems to be that it is still too difficult to get recycling up to 65%. So there are a number of areas where we should be cautious.
I shall be interested in hearing the Minister’s comments on something that was mentioned in particular by the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington: will the Government and not just the enforcement authority be able to make this a much more independent process, as with the Committee on Climate Change? If the Government are really serious about this, then having an independent body that similarly tries to meet targets and gives independent advice will be important in making sure that the Government reach those targets and in future-proofing them beyond whoever happens to be in government—it might even be a Conservative Government—in 25 years’ time.
My Lords, I should like to say, first, how glad I am that we have my noble friend Lord Gardiner of Kimble as the Minister. He is pretty good and we are lucky to have him.
My interests are declared in the register but the only one that I shall particularly mention in this debate is that I am president of the Suffolk Preservation Society. However, I would like to refer to the fact that I spent 12 years on the old Countryside Commission. I mention that because the chairman throughout virtually the whole of that time was our late colleague Lord Barber of Tewkesbury. He died just a few weeks ago aged 99, so he did pretty well in terms of the length of his life but he also did a wonderful thing for this country. We all owe him a deep debt of gratitude for his perceptive and dedicated work as a conservationist.
There is a bit of a lesson there. In those days, I happened to be on that commission and on the Rural Development Commission at the same time, and there was also something called English Nature. Those three bodies have now been amalgamated into Natural England. Following on from what the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, said, I say to the Government that invigilation is very important. It is important to have a sensible body to advise the Government on what the pressure groups are saying. Pressure groups are quite different; they overstate their case. However, bodies such as the ones I have mentioned or indeed the Environment Agency, which the noble Baroness chaired with distinction, are there to give a balanced assessment, and that is very important. Civil servants in Whitehall are very clever and so on but you cannot expect them to know very much about these things.
One thing about having an invigilating body is that, if it covers too big an area, the people who form the council or whatever it might be—outsiders; people like us who sit on it—have too big a responsibility to be able to do it properly. If there are a dozen of them and they have a huge area to cover, they will not do it effectively. Having the Countryside Commission, English Nature and the Rural Development Commission was a better way of handling things than having one much larger quango.
We are talking here about the beauty of Britain. The countryside is one of our very greatest treasures and that is why we have to protect it. In earlier days, it could be destroyed and replaced; now, that is much more difficult—once it is destroyed and put under several feet of concrete, the danger is that it will never come back again. I remember the very wise words of one of our best Secretaries of State in that area, Nicholas Ridley, who was, I think, the uncle of my noble friend Lord Ridley. His policy was “the protection of the countryside for its own sake”. That really mattered. It stated succinctly something that we and the civil servants all followed, and it was very helpful. Conservation and protection matter to us. It is partly a matter of dealing with big problems that arise but it is partly also a matter of luck. If the old Palace of Westminster had not burned down in 1834, it might have lingered on quite unfit for purpose and been replaced, perhaps in the 1960s, with some ghastly concrete brutalism, which we would be only too glad to move out of. Let us cherish what we have.
I want very quickly to mention two or three points. The first is an example of where we can save things. One of the great achievements of the National Trust—a body of 5 million people, bigger even than Mr Corbyn’s Labour Party—is operation Neptune. Without it, we would have lost the coastline for ever. The original target was to acquire and protect 900 miles of coastline, and I think it has more than 700 miles already, which is good.
Let me give a practical example, however, of where things have gone wrong in my own backyard, the little medieval town of Framlingham. Framlingham is very important historically and in its beauty. There were three big development plans to plonk 360 houses in three different areas. One area was a genuine brownfield site, where there had been a mill. That development was done by a company called Hopkins Homes; it is not completely right, but the company made a pretty good job of it and should be praised. The other development is called Mount Pleasant. It was done by Persimmon and the results are perfectly frightful. I recommend that those noble Lords who have not done so read the wonderful speech by the noble Lord, Lord Best, when he introduced the housing debate on 11 January. The third development is in an area that has been taken over by Taylor Wimpey, which is putting in another 150 or so houses. It is a greenfield site, and the development will block the view of the castle and the church from the east side. It should never have been allowed but, sadly, the inspector allowed it. We in the Suffolk Preservation Society did our best to save it, but we did not succeed.
I hope that one thing the Government will do is ensure that the inspectors are kept well directed as to what the desires of the people and the interests of the country really are. You cannot rely on the developers: they will, understandably, do whatever they think will make them a quick buck.