Today, the Environment Bill comes to the House of Commons one last time before being sent for scrutiny in the Lords. While the proposed legislation contains some positive measures, it’s nowhere near ambitious enough to face the challenges of the climate emergency and the rapidly declining quality of our natural environment.
Ministers have repeatedly shrugged off attempts to guarantee that environmental standards will not regress now we’ve left the European Union, claiming there’s no need to enshrine them in law because the Bill will make us a world leader in environmental protections. The boasts belie the reality.
On air quality, biodiversity, plastics, fracking and much more, the Government could be taking far greater steps to support nature and the environment. There are three things on which I’d like to focus specifically: the use of bee-killing pesticides; protecting our areas of special conservation; and, as part of that, the restoration of our peatlands
Bees are increasingly at risk – ten species are now extinct in the UK, and across Europe one in ten wild bee species is in danger. The rapid decline of a species is inherently horrific to watch, but bees also pollinate a huge range of plants. The consequences could be catastrophic for biodiversity.
That’s why the Government should rethink the authorisation of bee-killing neonicotinoid pesticides that are banned in the EU. Some have argued that we need these pesticides to help sugar beet farmers deal with blight, but there are better ways of supporting farmers that don’t put bees at further risk, such as allowances for crop loss to be included in next year’s sugar contracts, or accelerating research into resistant sugar beet varieties such as are used in the US.
We also need to take a wider look at the use of pesticides in the UK. Chemicals like acetamiprid, cypermethrin and glyphosate are dangerous to mammals and birds. Despite being designated as toxic by the Forestry Stewardship Council, they’re used on both publicly and privately managed UK forests.
As well as the devastating impact they have on animals and the natural environment, they’re bad news for forestry workers. One constituent told me that ‘frequency of site visits by forest managers is, in my experience highly variable. Some visit and check PPE compliance several times a week. Others never make site visits’.
When I asked Ministers about PPE for these workers, they replied ‘Forestry England do not have a statutory role to monitor compliance but visit sites in their control as part of their normal site management arrangements’. The answer speaks to the need for far better and stronger regulation of these chemicals not only to protect animals and the natural environment, but the people who handle them.
The use of pesticides is not the only environmental issue on which we’re behind the curve. Late last year, the Government announced to fanfare that they would expand the area of protected land in the UK from 26% to 30%. Again, the headlines contrast with the reality, which – far from being world leading – simply align us with existing EU targets. However, on the quality of the protections extended, there’s a real danger the UK will fall behind.
The Government has failed to put resources into maintaining our protected areas, with investment in biodiversity falling by 29% (£185m) in the five years from 2012-13 to 2017/18. According to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), the result has been the ‘neglect of basic monitoring and compliance, a reliance on voluntary approaches and unwillingness to regulate, and dwindling public resources for action’.
That neglect has had consequences. In 2010, 43% of Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) in England were in a favourable condition. Last year that fell to 39%. Shockingly, SSSIs within English National Parks and Areas of Natural Beauty are in even worse condition than those that are not.
Without being amended, the Environment Bill is unlikely to stop this decline. Government Ministers told me that national conservation sites will be included in the local ‘nature recovery strategies’ described in the new legislation. But the Bill says cash-starved local authorities will only need to act with ‘due regard’ to the strategies. The already diminishing investment in preserving and restoring nature, coupled with the lack of any statutory obligation to protect it, is a recipe for further decline.
It’s not speculation to say that this hands-off approach doesn’t work – just look at our peatlands. Peatlands occupy around 12% of the UK land area and have been recognised as internationally significant habitats with a unique biodiversity. The UK is among the top twenty countries globally in terms of total peat cover and Britain’s blanket bogs make up 10-15% of the world’s entire resource. They’re one of our most precious natural assets.
They also store of 3 billion tonnes of carbon – that’s equivalent to all the carbon stored in the forests of the UK, Germany and France combined. RSPB suggest that UK peat releases the same amount of CO2 per year as 140,000 cars, due to intensive forms of land management, including heather burning. The burns create artificial habitats suitable for grouse shooting – damaging the natural ecologies of the bogs – and release millions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere.
The Committee on Climate Change recommended that peat burning should be banned last January, but the Government has yet to make any legislative progress toward this. Instead, landowners have only been asked to sign voluntary agreements not to burn.
Rather than rely on the goodwill of individuals to act with ‘due regard’ to their environmental obligations, we need proper legal protections for peatlands, alongside a well-resourced plan to restore them through rewetting.
Without investing in the restoration of nature and our peatlands, or properly regulating – and if necessary, banning – the use of damaging pesticides, the Government’s claims on environmental protections are hollow. That’s why I’ve supported a range of amendments to strengthen the legislation, including amendment NC5 to enshrine in law a responsibility on the government to put an end to the decline of the Nature in England no later than 2030. Ministers could support these changes and put the UK on the path to being a world leader for the restoration and protection of nature. Unfortunately, that’s an opportunity it looks like they’ll waste.