Debates between Lord Harries of Pentregarth and Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle during the 2019 Parliament

Mon 12th Jul 2021

Environment Bill

Debate between Lord Harries of Pentregarth and Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle
Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Portrait Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle (GP) [V]
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My Lords, it is a great pleasure to again follow the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, and to speak in support of Amendment 251A in the names of the noble Baronesses, Lady Jones of Whitchurch and Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville. Indeed, I would have attached my name to it, had I not missed it.

The case has already been very clearly made that we need strengthened protections for national parks—“have regard to” is simply not strong enough in this legislation. I think it is worth going back to the purposes of national parks in the 1949 Act, which include

“conserving and enhancing the natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage of the areas specified”.

This goes back to a debate that we had some weeks ago about how cultural and natural heritage are linked, but the main point to make on Amendment 251A is about “conserving and enhancing” wildlife.

Just last week we saw a campaign launched to raise £100 million to renature 13,000 hectares of land on the South Downs. There was much pride about the fact that this would mean that 33% of the national park is managed for nature, which reports suggested exceeds a UN-backed target of 30% by 2030. Of course, that is a target for all of the countryside; one might reasonably expect that to be much higher in our national parks. Indeed, you would like to see that figure going somewhere towards 100%. Of course, that does not mean that you cannot have agricultural production associated with that; we are back to a very long-running debate about sparing versus sharing. But we must note that what we are doing now is not strong enough. We have to do much more, and we need the Environment Bill to do it.

To take just one example, the Yorkshire Dales National Park is a notorious black hole for raptors. When the national park did a consultation with the public about its management, the illegal persecution of raptors was one of the issues most raised. Just a few months ago, we saw a hideous video released by the RSPB investigations team of two buzzards being lured to their deaths in the area.

We also really need to think about whether there are not—and I am sure there are—more areas of the country that need to be protected, whether it is as a national park or in some other way, as the Glover review highlights. The South Pennines has been identified as a prime candidate for a different approach as the only upland region in England that does not currently have not a legal designation.

Lord Harries of Pentregarth Portrait Lord Harries of Pentregarth (CB) [V]
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My Lords, the 15 national parks in the UK are indeed a natural treasure and one of the glories of our country, some of them have a worldwide reputation. To confine myself to the three in Wales, I know they may be a devolved matter, but the facts about them still indicate the huge significance of national parks generally. The Brecon Beacons, the Pembrokeshire coast and Snowdonia cover 20% of the land surface of Wales. They have a resident population of 80,000 people and account for over £0.5 billion of Wales’ gross added value—some 1.2% of the Welsh economy. They are internationally important examples of how working landscapes can be protected.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, has set out one of the two purposes of national parks as set out in Section 5(1) of the 1949 national parks Act. These two purposes clearly chime in beautifully with the Environment Bill now before us, and it is therefore very important that they should have a specific clause within the Bill. Although there are legal protections for them under the 1949 Act, we live at a time when there is a desperate need, for example, for more affordable housing. The Government have made this a priority, and some of the checks and balances that used to be in place, in the form of the ability to prevent a particular scheme going forward, are being eroded. We saw one public reaction to this recently in the Chesham and Amersham by-election.

The amendment before us would ensure that any local authority seeking planning permission in a national park would have to take fully into account the legal purpose of the park. The Minister may argue that there are enough protections already in the 1949 Act but, given that the national parks are such a crucial feature of our environment and that the pressure for new housing is now so intense, it is appropriate that there is a special clause in the Bill which keeps these protections firmly in the mind of all those drawing up applications in those areas. Of course, the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, has mentioned some of the pressures—for example, from motorways—but possible housing developments may perhaps be on the edge of a national park. No doubt it would be unthinkable for a local authority to try to put up a new housing estate in the middle of a national park, but there could be building, industrial or waste developments on the edge of a national park, which would have serious implications for its protected environment.

At a time of increasing pressure, the proposed new clause before us comes under the heading of “You can’t be too careful”, and I support it.