Welcome to the March Parliament activity report

Note this is a summary of some of the points - Read the full set of Hansard on https://hansard.parliament.uk/ - This blog is to inform rather than to express affiliations with a certain point of view. Feel free to scroll through to the headline that interests you - the House of Lords Hansard summary is in indigo and the House of Commons in green. 

This month there is coverage of the Agriculture Bill, Bovine TB, COP 26, Environment Bill, HS2, Japanese Knotweed, and the Green Economy.

03 March 2020 - Agriculture Bill

In relation to delinking payments, which could be used to improve productivity, diversify, or retire, there are concerns that retiring farmers could accept a lump sum and sell land on to a larger holding or move away from farming entirely.

Further information is available on the Hansard

05 March 2020 - Bovine TB

It is estimated that 30,000 cattle are slaughtered on a yearly basis due to infection. It was noted that there are various issues with eradicating the disease, including:

  1. Diagnostic tests are not perfect;
  2. BTB can survive in the environment for several months
  3. BTB is harboured in wildlife (badgers being a known vector)
  4. BCG vaccination does not provide full protection and is not a cure

The UK previously made positive strides to eradicate the disease between the 1930s and 1980s by controlling cattle movement, diagnosis, slaughter of infected cattle and management of badger populations. Unfortunately, the disease has become prevalent again and so measures will be taken to reduce cases and break the infection cycle between cattle and badgers.

It was noted that badgers are iconic and a protected species, and as such the intensive cull that we have seen in past years was a temporary activity. A deployable cattle vaccine should be developed, diagnositics should be improved, and culling reduced to include cases where epidemiological evidence is provided.

Further information is available on the Hansard

09 March 2020 - COP 26

The Baroness Jones asked if airport expansion, new road building, building houses that are not zero-carbon, and building new waste incinerators will cease. Lord Goldsmith confirmed that the Government are introducing legislation this year, in the form of the Environment Bill, Fisheries Bill and Agriculture Bill.

Baroness Jones raised her concerns about our global environmental footprint and the consequences of our activities. Lord Goldsmith agreed that our impact extends further than our domestic activities. He raised that we are leaders in marine protection and that we have doubled our climate funding.

Viscount Ridley wanted assurances that the enactment of any Bill will not cause damage to the environment. Lord Goldsmith acknowledged that bad environmental policy has been employed previously.

Lord Goldsmith stated that delivery of net-zero emissions by 2050 involves every single department of Government.

Further information is available on the Hansard

10 March 2020 - Environment Bill

Office for Environmental Protection: there is some concern about how measures will be enforced. Martin Baxter (IEMA) voiced his views that "largely, it is a body that could have strategic effect in helping to drive improvements in environmental performance". Signe Norberg (Aldersgate Group) agreed that some aspects could be strengthened such as the provision of an explicit five year budget, and the appointment of an appropriate chair.

The scope of the Bill: Dr Benwell (Wildlife and Countryside Link) acknowledged that fulfilling the Bill is a big task. He backed this up by stating that 44% of species are in long-term decline, with 15% of species in the UK are at risk of extinction. On biodiversity it is important to consider species abundance, diversity and extinction risk. Habitat extent and quality should be considered. In addition to resource productivity and waste minimisation, the reduction of air pollutants and a consideration for water quality (biological and chemical status, and abstraction).

George Monbiot stated that we are 189th out of 216 countries with respect to intactness of the ecosystem. The collapse of wildlife diversity and abundance catastrophic. George commented that our mindset has been "let's protect what we have" rather than "let's think about what we ought to have". He added that we could focus on bringing back the missing habitats and species (including keystone species). He also believes that ecosystems could be re-established. Dr Benwell agreed, adding that we should start thinking about restoration and improvement. He stated that the environment has to operate as a system so that ecosystem components are put in the right location.

Stakeholders: Edward Lockhart-Mummery (The Broadway Initiative) stated that a lot of work has been done with 20 business groups, and that research factored in decision making, project cycles, and investment cycles. This thinking would essentially ensure that businesses can adjust to any requirements. Long term goals can become part of business strategy rather than an issue of compliance. Signe Norberg followed on to say that business members, representing £550 billion of global turnover, support the Bill.

Targets: Kerry McCarthy raised the point that a lot of the targets are long term (15 years), and wondered what would happen in the interim. Signe Norberg answered by saying that there would be milestones or intermediate targets that they would need to hit, on the way to fulfilling a long term goal. Martin Baxter agreed that long-term targets are beneficial as they give "strategic predictability" and "confidence for businesses to invest". Any interim targets would contribute to the overarching, long-term, objective. The Bill would provide clear guidance on what is required and act as a point of reference. It was suggested that the long-term objective would be legally binding, where as businesses would need to provide evidence of ongoing improvement against interim targets.

Interim targets could be, for example, the planting of wildflower meadows to increase bird species abundance, or a reduction in pesticide pollution in waterways.

Defining a healthy environment: This still requires further work to make sure this is measurable and implemented legally.

OEP and the UK: England and Northern Ireland are committed to the OEP, but Wales and Scotland want to set up their own bodies.

Engagement and plans: Mayor Glanville confirmed that on areas such as waste, recycling, plastic pollution and single-use plastics, the engagement has been extensive. There is interest in reducing plastics and single-use plastics, and also the management of packaging through upstream regulation and the production of items that can be recycled. Internal modelling revealed that there would be a £700 million gap in local government funding to meet new responsibilities. This figure includes the handling of food waste.

In some areas, such as biodiversity and air pollution, responsibilities need to be clarified. In order to meet biodiversity requirements it is necessary to ensure that local authorities have the expertise and the funding that they require. It is recognised that not every local authority will have in-house tree specialists or biodiversity officers. Aside from that, investments are being made in agriculture and parkland management in order to meet targets around tree planting and the provision of green infrastructure.

In terms of air quality, the car industry is currently starting to shift towards electric and funding is being directed towards bus funding. To meet 2030 targets the industry needs to make positive moves forward, in combination with clean air zones, ultra-low emission zones, investments in disabled transport, clean bus fleets.

Local nature recovery strategies: Dr Young (Wildlife Trust) stated that a nature recovery network is crucial due to it being a joined up system of places that allow for the recovery of species and habitats. This should span across the UK in both urban and rural areas, providing connectivity in the wider landscape. This really needs to be linked to the overall target, with all components being set out in the context of a system that works ecologically. The establishment of habitats should be based on solid ecological principles. Local nature recovery strategies have a mapping element that allow the targeting of opportunity areas with other policy areas, so that multiple benefits can be realised in one geographical area. Alan Law confirmed that not all wildlife will be in a nature recovery network or a nature recovery strategy. It is important, however, to develop a healthy and resilient environment that can withstand pressures, variation, pollution, climate change, etc.

Alan Law (Natural England) believes that this Bill has the potential to be "the most significant environmental piece of legislation since the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949".

Dr Mitchell (National Farmers Union) stated that "British farmers are the stewards of our natural environment, and they have a good track record of protecting, maintaining and enhancing our environment". She was concerned that how local nature recovery strategies may be used is unclear, and that strategies will be used to inform planning decisions, thus limiting land use by farmers in the future. In terms of the ELM scheme, measures need to take account of farmers' views and also provide protection for the environment. Judicaelle Hammond (Country Land and Business Association) was concerned with being able to 'knit' food production and the environment together.

Judicaelle Hammond shared her concern that heritage, which is the sixth goal in the 25-year environment plan, is not referenced in the Bill. She believes that heritage contributes to the environment and the wellbeing of visitors. People enjoy parkland and historical features.

Rico Wojtulewicz (National Federation of Builders and the House Builders Association) raised the need for further clarification of expectations for developers. Dr Whitehead suggested that strategies could specify a percentage of canopy cover for residential buildings. Rico Wojtulewicz voiced their view that canopy cover needs to bespoke for each area. Indeed, what suits one area may not suit another. Canopy cover would also need to account for the species that are being encouraged into an area. This information needs to be provided to developers. The Trees and Design Action Group produces a document on Trees in Hard Landscapes, but this expertise is not provided across the wider industry. In relation to biodiversity and net gain Rico confirmed that they are starting to understand what is needed, and currently use things like eDNA tests for Great Crested Newts, bee bricks and swift bricks. There is concern that delivery against targets may be difficult as some information may be lacking, for example the flight path of a migratory bird. Wildlife corridors are also a concern with regards to knowing where to build. There are opportunities to undercut hedgerows or raise hedges - but what species will use the corridors and what properties do they need to encourage certain species. Are there particular lights that attract or repel species?

Pollution and waste: Air pollution consists of a range of chemical entities in the form of particulates and gases. Some particulate matter is secondary, and is formed as a result of chemical reactions in the atmosphere. This needs to resolved on a global level. The Government has a Clean Air Strategy in place in order to aid the reduction of emissions.

The House also discussed recycling, waste disposal, the movement away from plastics and unnecessary packaging, fly-tipping and organised waste crime.

Water efficiency and quality: There are considerations around the reduction of water usage (homes and businesses). There are projections of water deficit available. There is concern from the Marine Conservation Society that waste water and drainage does not adversely impact the marine environment. Concern was raised that the Bill does not cover marine explicitly, although does mention the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009. Interestingly, 55% of territory in England is under the sea. In terms of water quality, the Bill does refer to substances that are regulated through the Water Framework Directive.

REACH: The House discussed the Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation, and Restriction of Chemicals. There is still a large amount of work to do - with a number of chemicals to be processed - due to movement, of industry, away from one product and towards one that is structurally similar. A question was raised as to whether we are better in or out of REACH. The general consensus was that we had been working on REACH registrations, as a country, for 10 years, and so it would put us on a back-foot if we change course.

Further clarification and improvement needed: Edward Lockhart-Mummery wants to see a clarification around "improving the natural environment". He finds it important that there is emphasis around health and wellbeing, as well as sustainable resource use. Specifically Edward believes in the setting of a strong target that drives the development of a "healthy, resilient, biodiverse natural environment, to health and to wellbeing for everyone".

George Monbiot (Journalist and Environmental Campaigner) noted that there are key points that are missing from the Bill. This includes the unlicensed release of birds, which has ecological impacts. Along with that is the use of lead shot. Phytosanitary issues are also of concern, with the movement of tree pathogens via importation. This has economic impacts as well as ecological. George also noted his concern over the idea that agencies such as the Environment Agency or Natural England should have a duty to promote economic growth.

Dr Benwell suggested two areas of improvement. Number one is the targets framework could be improved by setting a single target in the key priority areas (air, waste, water, wildlife). Number two, there needs to be more efficient spending of money. Development planning and environment spending should be aligned. Local Nature Recovery Strategies need to be tightened up with a clear day to day focus to ensure correct spending.

Further information is available on the Hansard

11 March 2020 - HS2

Baroness Bennett noted that the HS2 plans are still going ahead. She stated that Chris Packham is seeking a judicial review of the decision. The Government have said that they will not appeal. She noted that we are in a climate emergency and in a nature crisis. She stated that "The UK is one of the most nature-deprived countries in the world, a fact that has led civil society groups representing some 10 million Britons, from the National Trust to Buglife, and from the RSPB to the Woodland Trust, to demand that the current HS2 plans do not go ahead". The "straight line" will impact 350 wildlife sites: nature reserves, ancient forests, and woodlands.

Lord Faulkner countered this by suggesting that HS2 will be a green and environmentally friendly railway, with a commitment to create a green corridor along the length. 7 million trees and shrubs will be planted and 650 hectares of woodland established. There was no mention of the benefits of older trees in relation to newly established trees.

Lord Greaves stated that he disagrees with Baroness Bennett. He offered the opinion that the alternative to the HS2 may be worse, as the HS2 is the equivalent to two whole new four-lane motorway. He suggested that a thing that may help is the reduction of travel and the quantity of goods being moved around the country. Lord Greaves went on to say "As much as I support the Wildlife Trusts in all sorts of ways—particularly their planting loads of trees in places such as the new Northern Forest—they are probably overstating their case substantially. Yes, starlings, frogs and sparrows are important, but what they want is woodland; the frogs want nice places where they can breed and splash about. If that can be provided in greater quantity, we do not need to preserve every single existing sparrow, starling and frog; otherwise, there is no development of any sort, anywhere".

Lord Stutt also showed his support of HS2.

Baroness Randerson offered a three pronged argument for the HS2. Firstly - the North will see properity, secondly - electrified rail is cleaner than road, air, and sea traffic, and thirdly - HS2 will help ease capacity issues.

Discussions continued on. It is clear this is an issue with many factors to consider.

Further information is available on the Hansard

12 March 2020 - Japanese Knotweed

Lord Greaves queried the eradication of Japanese Knotweed. This is a species that is very difficult to control. Lord Gardiner confirmed that a biocontrol agent trial has shown promising results. Two highly specific biocontrol agents include the Aphalara itadori psyllid and a Mycosphaerella leaf spot fungus. In order to progress, psyllids are being sourced from Japan where there is a similar climate, to overcome temperature issues, and CABI is trying to, bring to market, a fungus that is a single-mating type of specialist pathogen that does not persist in the environment or threaten other species.

Further information is available on the Hansard

12 March 2020 - Green Economy

Baroness Parminter acknowledge investing in a green economy to promote resource efficiency and zero carbon usage. She noted "Scientists have been warning us for years that disasters of all kinds—wildfires, floods, droughts and storms—will become increasingly common as the planet heats up. ​Alongside this climate emergency, we face a nature emergency. Last year’s State of Nature report found that one-quarter of UK mammals and nearly half the birds assessed are now at risk of extinction. On a global scale, the latest report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services concluded that nature is being eroded at rates unprecedented in human history. This is not only a tragedy for the wildlife and wild areas that humanity is destroying, but another threat to the economic prosperity, health and well-being of human societies". She raised her concerns that we have seen far too little action to meet new targets and stated that the economy would need to be re-engineered to suit a green outlook.

Further information is available on the Hansard

...More next month