Debates between Lord Harries of Pentregarth and Baroness Neville-Rolfe during the 2019 Parliament

Mon 12th Jul 2021

Environment Bill

Debate between Lord Harries of Pentregarth and Baroness Neville-Rolfe
Baroness Neville-Rolfe Portrait Baroness Neville-Rolfe (Con)
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My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow my noble friend Lord Colgrain, and I add that deer are a problem in my part of Wiltshire. Unfortunately, they also eat my roses.

I am very glad to speak on the subject of trees, which make Britain so special, captured for eternity by John Constable and indeed by David Hockney. In my career at Defra, I legislated for and launched the farm woodland scheme, which encouraged the planting especially of native oak and beech trees on agricultural land, working with Natural England’s very professional predecessors. We also had a 33,000-hectare planting target for the Forestry Commission, which was quite forward looking, if one thinks about it.

Turning to the proposals before us, my impression is that local authorities and highways authorities are paying more and more attention to the need to conserve trees, so is there really a case for the heavy-handed and detailed regulation in Clause 109? There is a cost, not least to local authorities, and I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, that there should be consultation on any guidance. Assuming that there is a harm and that the case is made for new powers, I would be grateful for some idea from my noble friend the Minister of the caseload expected. How will the consultation take place? For example, will there be a paper notice on the tree or nearby lamp-post? Will there be any statutory consultees and how long will it take for approvals to be given? I would also welcome confirmation that the pruning of trees will not be affected and will indeed be encouraged. In my experience, councils do not keep up to date with this at all well. Indeed, I have personal experience of an overhanging tree that was missed two or three years ago, and which is causing a lot of trouble to adjoining houses, notably mine.

We also need to be aware that nature is not the only objective in road maintenance. The safety of pedestrians, cyclists and drivers is important too. The latest fashion for leaving roadsides uncut can be dangerous, certainly in the lanes around my home in Wiltshire. The lusty green growth on banks and hedges makes it tight for passing cars and can hide cyclists, causing accidents.

Turning to the important issue of cost-benefit, apparently the costs for the felling proposals total £81 million over 10 years if you top up the figures in annexe 41, on page 260 of the statement of impacts. I await a reply from officials as to whether it is right to tot them up in that way, but I think that the costs will be significant. Can we really justify this, or should we be finding a simpler way to deal with the problem of the cutting down of trees alongside housing?

Still on the subject of trees, I should add that I could not find an impact assessment on the forestry provisions in Clause 109 and Schedule 16, which are not being discussed. These appear to introduce very wide-ranging powers to regulate and perhaps ban imports of products such as beef, rubber or soya that might be associated with wide-scale conversion of forest. One obviously understands and supports the rationale for this—saving the rainforests—but it could have a huge impact on business and trade if done in the wrong way. The Bill’s impact assessment is of course out of date because it was prepared on 3 December 2019, and the Bill has not made as rapid progress as we would all have hoped. Is there a late addition on the forestry risk commodity proposals that could be shared with us before Report?

In closing, I recognise the significance of the Bill and my noble friend’s understandable wish to progress it, but there are many uncertainties for us to swallow because of the use of delegated powers. Even affirmative resolutions, favoured by my noble friend Lord Blencathra, do not allow amendment to a set of regulations in the light of parliamentary scrutiny, and it is very unusual for draft regulations to be withdrawn. That applies to the trees regulations as well as to several other sets.

That is why, on Wednesday, I shall be moving an amendment to sunset individual regulations after a five-year period to allow a review of such provisions in the light of a cost-benefit analysis. An amendment of this type might help to make some of us happier with the wide-ranging powers being taken here and the lack of clear plans showing how many of them will be deployed to deal with the sort of issues being raised in this group of amendments and elsewhere in the Bill.

Lord Harries of Pentregarth Portrait Lord Harries of Pentregarth (CB) [V]
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I support Amendments 258 to 260 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone. Amendment 258 would place ancient woodlands, which are clearly defined in the amendment, on an equal footing with sites of special scientific interest. The reason why it is so important to preserve ancient woodlands from the point of view of biodiversity, climate change, heritage and health of both nature and human beings has already been well spelt out, and I shall not repeat it. I shall add only that their significance is perhaps even greater than that of sites of special scientific interest; and the reasons put forward for why such sites need to be protected are perhaps even stronger in the case of ancient woodlands.

Amendment 259 requires the Government to implement a tree-planting standard that makes biosecurity an essential consideration—in particular, protecting our native trees from diseases coming from outside the UK. This welcome amendment relates to Amendment 31, on tree health, standing in my name and debated earlier in Committee. Amendment 31 stated:

“The Secretary of State must by regulations set targets in respect of trees, including targets on the overall health of tree populations, particularly in respect of native species, research into disease-resistant varieties, and progress in planting disease-resistant varieties.”

Sadly, as has been said many times this evening, the trees in this country are in a terrible state. A few years ago, as we know, the magnificent English elm, such a feature of our landscape when some of us were young, was completely wiped out by Dutch elm disease. Most recently, ash dieback has swept the whole country, from the east coast to the west coast, in just a few years, leaving a trail of thin, leafless branches. Our oaks are suffering from a blight, and so are our chestnuts.

The health of our trees must be a fundamental consideration in assessing the overall health of our environment. Ash dieback originated in Asia, where it has little impact on the local species, and has moved steadily west where, sadly, it has a deadly impact on native ash. Coming, I believe, from trees imported from Holland to East Anglia as recently as 2012, it has left a terrible trail, which breaks one’s heart to see, as I see it in west Wales.

In a highly globalised world, our native trees, like the human population, are increasingly vulnerable and susceptible to diseases, which may do little harm elsewhere but which are killers here. The need for tight biosecurity regulations and a clear standard of what is required is obvious. This requires an overall strategy, involving not just government but other public authorities, and the amendment sets that out clearly. I very strongly support it.

I also strongly support Amendment 260, which requires the Government to have a tree-planting strategy that contains targets for the protection, restoration and expansion of trees and woodland in England. This chimes in well, but in much more valuable detail, with an earlier amendment in my name, Amendment 12, on the planting of new trees. There I set out the reasons why we need to plant new trees—reasons mainly to do with climate change, which I shall not repeat here. The amendment before us requires the Government to have targets. Where I believe my earlier amendment has something to add to the present one is that that Amendment 12 said

“The Secretary of State must lay before Parliament, and publish, a statement containing information about progress towards meeting any targets set under subsection (3)(e) on an annual basis after any initial target is set (in addition to the requirements under section 5).”

Climate change is a threat of such urgency now that it is not adequate just to have targets. We need an annual report to Parliament on the progress being made to meet those targets, and this my earlier amendments sought to ensure. However, this present amendment is very welcome indeed because it sets out in detail what such a target should include, and I strongly support it.