I don't know whether you manged to catch the Channel 4 News nature conservation special last night. I couldn't watch it all as the opening section was so dramatic that my boy ran out of the room screaming "I don't want the hedgehogs to disappear". I thought that was probably a rational response to the crisis we face.
Anyway, I promised an assessment of the environmental assessment of the Queen's Speech. Sorry it's a day late. And I cannot blame the sunshine this time.
There are four notable bills proposed and I thought I'd give a quick view on each. I've given a "nature-rating" for each where 5 stars suggests that this could give nature conservation a great boost and 1 star suggests the interests of wildlife could be seriously undermined.
1. Deregulation Bill (**)The Bill (which was unexpected) aims to “reduce the burden of excessive regulation on businesses”, in particular via the introduction of a “growth duty” on statutory regulators such as Natural England. While we strongly support the principle of identifying opportunities for more efficient and effective regulation, and agree that regulatory bodies should carefully consider the impacts that their activities have on those that they regulate, we are mindful of the considerable risks associated with a new duty that weakens the focus on safeguarding the natural environment. As I wrote here, we need agencies to be free from political interference or requirements to boost short-term economic growth.
The ground-breaking 2011 UK National Ecosystems Assessment clearly highlighted the wide variety of significant benefits provided by the natural environment in terms of economic prosperity, human health and well-being; the risks posed to the delivery of these benefits through inadequate protection and management; and the importance of regulation in safeguarding and enhancing the delivery of key services. Therefore, when regulators are faced with situations where protecting the natural environment may result in short-term costs to regulated bodies, we do not believe that economic factors should be given priority over social and environmental factors in deciding the best course of action.
I would have given this one star, but for the fact that the wording proposed for the duty "is have regard to" rather than "further" growth. That said, we shall be looking to ensure the pre-legislative scrutiny considers the implications of this new duty on the role of agencies in protecting the environment.
2. Energy Bill (***)The Energy Bill (which carries over in to this sessiono of Parliament) will introduce sweeping changes to the way the UK energy market is regulated and to how different energy sources, including renewable energy is subsidised. It aims to bring about the investment needed to replace the fossil fuel and nuclear power plants that are coming to the end of their operating lives, and to meet our renewable energy and climate targets. The Bill should have been a seminal moment for the ‘greenest government ever’, but instead it has failed to establish a clear commitment to a near-zero carbon electricity sector by 2030, in spite of overwhelming support from businesses and NGOs. What’s more, the complex changes that the Bill will introduce are causing confusion and a hiatus in investment in clean green energy, just when we need it the most.
I have given this one three stars because there is still a chance that this Bill steers us confidently down a path towards a low carbon future. This will however require a change of heart from the Coalition Government.
3. High Speed Rail (Preparation) Bill and the HS2 Hybrid Bill (The HS2 Preparation Bill will authorise expenditure to build a High Speed Rail network, while the Hybrid Bill will provide the Government with the legal powers to construct and operate the High Speed 2 railway. ) (***)Few would argue that the UK's strategic transport infrastructure does not need improving. The question is whether HS2 is the right solution. There’s two tests it will have to pass before we would agree that it is. Firstly, it must reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. A report last year for the RSPB, CPRE and Campaign for Better Transport showed that this is by no means a given; it will only help the climate if its part of an overall strategy that ensures passengers are get out of their cars and planes and on to public transport, including HS2 itself. Secondly, the route must minimise any damage to wildlife. Like many others, we are concerned about the damage likely to be caused to special sites for wildlife and want to see Government do much more to avoid impacts. Where impacts are unavoidable, however, we expect proposals that replace the losses on a like for like basis.
4. Water Bill (**)The Water Bill aims to “improve the water industry” by making the water sector more resilient to droughts and floods, increasing customer choice and encouraging investment and innovation. We are disappointed to see that Defra appear to have discounted a primary sustainability duty for Ofwat. Instead, they are promoting the idea of a resilience duty. This raises the question of what resilience is. At one end of the spectrum, resilience might be seen as a mandate to maintain business as usual in the face of ever greater economic, social and environmental pressure. At the other end of the spectrum resilience could mean building environmental and socio-economic limits into how we manage water, fundamentally changing the way we organise land management, water supply and demand controls. Where Defra sit on this spectrum will determine how useful the resilience duty will be for the environment, but it’s clear that if we continue to lurch from drought to flood, maintaining the status quo won’t be enough. The Draft Water Bill, which received pre-legislative scrutiny by the EFRA select committee, focussed on competition within the water industry as an end in itself, with no evidence that progress on abstraction licensing, water allocation and management will be accelerated. I fear we have some way to go before we can describe the way we manage our water resources as either sustainable or resilient - hence two stars.
That's it for this session of Parliament. And then there's just one more opportunity for a five-star bill for nature before the General Election in 2015...
Growth needn't be all bad - though it is very, very hard not to be cynical at present.
I'm currently involved in two ways Defra could support growth through its agencies - the first is big, bringing our neglected woodlands back into sustainable management, particularly through developing locally-based supply chains for wood for small to medium scale heat. In contrast to big biomass & co-firing of power stations, where I support RSPB's stand against some very dubious carbon saving claims, we're talking about woods which have been managed for centuries and owe a lot of their special character to the interaction of man and nature (read Oliver Rackham and George Peterken to understand this complex idea). Everyone across forestry and conservation is agreed on the causes of the serious declines in woodland flora, birds and butterflies - lack of management, followed by deer grazing - and also the as yet still to be elucidated problems our migrants may be having on their migration and wintering grounds. Its not often there's a win-win in the economy & nature conservation, but this is one - potentially 250,000 low carbon households, maybe £500m/pa of new business and more nightingales - the right sort of growth.
The other is in the wonderful Avlalon marshes - part of the Somerset Levels where, led by RSPB, 35 pairs of Bittern are now booming (right now !) - unimagineable a decade ago - and where a partnership including RSPB and Natural England are planning to develop a new wetlands centre to help people enjoy this wonderful area, and also to link visitors with the local economy - holiday cottages, cycle hire, local food, guided wildlife safaris - all in an area that has suffered badly from too much water this winter, and where the local economy is fragile.
It is just amazing how much Parliamentry Legislation these days can have a direct or indirect affect on the environment and the natural world. Well done to the RSPB for monitoring all this. It must be a big job.
On a separate subject, interesting report today recommending significant expansion of Heathrow and totally rejecting any new airport east of London.
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