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Environment Bill
Exerpts for Caroline Lucas
Monday 28 October 2019

(3 months ago)

Read Full debate
Commons Chamber
Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Sue Hayman

The hon. Lady makes an important point. I shall come to non-regression later.

Caroline Lucas Portrait Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion) (Green) -

The hon. Lady is making a powerful case. The Secretary of State talked a lot about how the Bill would put in place a long-term vision. Does she share my concern about what it says about biodiversity net gain? It says that the net gain sites are guaranteed for only 30 years. They could be ploughed up after 30 years. Does that reflect a long-term vision?

Sue Hayman

What the hon. Lady has said reflects some of my own concerns. I also have concerns about backing everything on to net gain, which has not proved as effective as would have been hoped in other countries, such as Australia.

Break in Debate

Damian Hinds Portrait Damian Hinds -

If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I will not give way because of the number of speakers.

I have a few asks of the Minister, not all of them legislative, some of them complementary to the legislation. The first is on fly-tipping, which has a huge cost for my constituency, in terms not only of the responsibility for landowners, who have this stuff visited upon them, but, increasingly, of the cost of putting in place gates and other infrastructure to try to prevent it. I hope we can see higher financial penalties and greater risk for the perpetrator, including the seizing of vehicles.

Trees stand at the intersection of what we are trying to do on climate change and on clean air, and the importance of the physical environment. I very much welcome the Bill’s provisions on street trees, but we can do so much more. My local council has committed, over time, to planting one tree for every resident in the district, and I wonder what incentives can be given to others.

On engine idling, I know that the Department for Transport is currently reviewing its guidance on enforcement, but what more can be done on public information to persuade people not to idle their engines, particularly outside schools.

On electric vehicles, I hope the Minister will continue to work strongly with the DFT, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and others to make sure that the improved performance of electric cars and the way the costs have come down are more widely understood.

I pay tribute to local groups doing practical work: those doing litter picks and sorting litter to help to educate the public; the schools in my constituency that provide recycling for crisp packets; the repair cafés we have seen across the country, and so on. I welcome the principles and so many aspects of this Bill: those on resource efficiency and recycling; the single-use provisions; the deposit return scheme and the measures on waste crime, those on biodiversity and net gain; those on tree cover; and those on the most fundamental, elemental things of all—water and the quality of the air we breathe. If given an opportunity to vote this evening, I will be proud to vote for the Bill.

Caroline Lucas Portrait Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion) (Green) -

At a time when we needed a strong environmental Bill, this one regrettably goes backwards, not forwards, in a great number of areas. For example, on non-regression, as many other hon. Members have said, we have had countless promises that leaving the EU will not lead to backsliding on environmental protections, including from the Prime Minister just last week, but if those promises are genuine let us make it official, with a straightforward commitment to non-regression within this Bill.

The environmental principles need serious strengthening, including an unambiguous duty on all public bodies to apply them to policy and funding decisions. Crucially, that duty must be in the Bill, not relegated to a policy statement that we have not even seen, much less had an input into. We need stronger powers and real independence for the Office for Environmental Protection, for example, by giving Parliament a greater role in appointments. The setting of targets must be based on independent, expert scientific advice. The fact that the Bill currently would allow the Secretary of State unilaterally to weaken a target on a whim is completely unacceptable.

We also need legally binding interim milestones. We face an ecological emergency, and it is utterly unacceptable that the Bill could give the Government almost two decades before they are legally required to meet any new targets.

The Bill must also cover the enormous overseas environmental footprint of the UK’s domestic consumption and economic activities. Just last week, statistics from the Office for National Statistics revealed that Britain has become the biggest net importer of carbon dioxide emissions per capita in the G7 group of wealthy nations, outstripping the United States and Japan, as a result of buying goods manufactured abroad. So that has to be part of this Bill.

There is, however, an even more fundamental problem with the Bill—a glaring omission. I refer to the economy, because if we are to truly turn around our relationship with nature, we must confront this elephant in the room: the current economic system, where the environment is too often just an afterthought, and the wellbeing of people and nature comes second to the pursuit of economic growth. Too often we see that at the national level, especially in Treasury decisions, yet the Bill exempts

“taxation, spending and the allocation of resources within government”

from the environmental principles and from the scrutiny of the Office for Environmental Protection. We see the results of this already at a local level, where the prioritisation of economic growth means that projects such as the Oxford-Cambridge expressway are strongly supported, even though they mean the destruction of stunning wildflower meadows, ancient woodlands, hedgerows and so forth.

The Government clearly believe in the infinite ability to decouple economic growth from environmental impacts, but if we look at the evidence, we see that there is no case in respect of absolute decoupling at the scale and speed we need, and it is simply fanciful to assume that that is going to be possible. The UN report on the declining state of world nature from IPBES—the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services—which was published earlier this year explicitly identified the growth of the global economy and, specifically, the growth of material consumption in affluent nations as one of the major driving forces behind these trends. It is unambiguous about the need to move away from endless consumption and GDP as a key measure of economic success, stating that we must steer

“away from the current limited paradigm of economic growth”

to include other indicators that are better able to capture more holistic, long-term views of economics and quality of life. It means that we have to shift beyond standard economic indicators such as GDP.

Although there are some things in the Bill to welcome, overall it is going in the wrong direction. Crucially, it is not accepting that an economy based on infinite economic growth is never going to be sustainable. We have to change the way our economy works, as well as the way our environment works.

Mrs Maria Miller Portrait Mrs Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con) -

I do not like to totally contradict the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), but I think that there is so much in the Bill to welcome. I applaud my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), the Minister sitting on the Front Bench, as well as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and the whole Department for their work to demonstrate how we can lead the way on environmental issues outside the EU.

I turn briefly to three aspects of the Bill. First, there is recycling. At the moment, every group of young people in Basingstoke whom I speak to want to talk about the plastics deposit scheme—an idea that has captured the imagination of young people, who want us to go further with such practical ways to help protect their environment for the future. I wholeheartedly applaud the Government’s ambition for all plastic packaging to be recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2025.

However, will the Minister touch on the National Audit Office’s concern about the lack of checks on what happens to recyclable material when it is exported abroad? My local authority has taken a principled approach: it does not allow recyclable plastics from Basingstoke to be exported. That means, however, that we are finding it difficult to secure a domestic contract for the disposal of mixed plastics, which has had an impact on our recycling rates. We need an ethical approach and a level playing field, so that local authorities such as mine are not penalised for taking a strategic decision not to export their plastics.

The second issue that I was delighted to see in the Bill was that of air pollution, on which I have been campaigning with my local authority for a number of years. I particularly applaud the long-term target on particulates in the air, which affect not only the climate but the health of our constituents more directly. I urge the Government to look specifically at the British Lung Foundation’s proposals for tailored interventions around schools and nurseries. They should look no further than Basingstoke and the rest of Hampshire for a lead. Hampshire County Council is taking a lead with the My Journey project, which goes into schools to raise awareness of the impact that the idling of engines can have on air quality outside schools. The Clean Air campaign in Basingstoke aims to stop idling that might increase pollution in any area. All this is not because we have pollution problems in Basingstoke, but because we want to prevent such problems from starting in the first place. I urge the Minister to keep a close eye on the impact of those campaigns.

On water supply, I welcome the measures in the Bill to encourage transfers between regions rather than over-abstraction, which damages wildlife. However, a significant cost is associated with that, and I urge the Minister to be clearer on how that will be met.

In conclusion, the Bill is about what we can all do to tackle environmental issues in our constituencies; I shall take one small example from my own. Back in 2007, a water cycle study identified a significant problem with water pollution in the River Loddon. As a result of fantastic work by Thames Water, our local environment agency, our catchment partnership and others, we have managed to tackle the problem through ground-breaking technology. There has been a step change in our water quality because local people have acted, and local people have cared.