Below is the full text of Sue Hayman’s speech to the Natural Capital Committee today.
I’d like to start by thanking Dieter and the members of the Natural Capital Committee for inviting me here to speak today. The committee undertakes vital work on an area that deserves the full attention of policymakers.
The government’s aspiration for us “to be the first generation to leave the natural environment in a better state than it inherited it” is well known and much-repeated. It’s a noble aim, and I can’t think of anyone who would disagree with it. Since 2010, we have seen the establishment of the Natural Capital Committee and the publication of the 25-Year Environment Plan. It’s progress, but they’re means through which to enact change, rather than ends in themselves.
As Dieter sets out in his foreword to the 2019 report, the absence of progress on our environment by this government since the committee’s foundation is more notable than the successes, and our natural environment has been deteriorating over the last decade. There is still much to do in order to turn good intentions into tangible results for our environment.
This is truly disappointing, and ministers need to make good on their promises and get us back on the right track. We need to change course, and we must do it urgently, if we want our children to inherit from us a better environment. Radical and immediate action across government is the only way to halt the decline of our green and pleasant land.
At last year’s Labour Party conference, I launched our Green Transformation policy document, setting out our priorities and principles for environmental action – preventing and adapting to climate change, achieving high air and water quality for all, and reversing the decline of biodiversity and protecting natural habitats. That will only happen if we act in every area – in housing, transport, energy, and environmental practices. Transformative action from across government that will integrate the environment within all major policy and spending decisions.
Not only am I Labour’s Shadow Secretary of State for the Environment, but I’m also the Member of Parliament for Workington in Cumbria. My constituency includes part of the Lake District National Park and the Solway Firth. As someone who has always lived in rural communities, our natural environment has always been so important to me, and it has always played a large part in my daily life.
The committee’s report mentions the establishment by DEFRA, on the recommendation of the committee, of four Pioneer projects informing the development and implementation of the 25-Year Plan. One of these plans is the Cumbria Catchment Pioneer, featuring a section of the Derwent catchment at Braithwaite, just up the road from where I live. This is of particular interest for me as many of my constituents live within the Derwent catchment so are at risk of flooding such as that seen in 2009 and 2015, when Braithwaite itself was devastated.
The Braithwaite pilot takes stock of the extent and quality of the natural capital assets within the sub-catchment. This allows the number and flow of ecosystem service benefits to be estimated and then valued. This is key to identifying trade-offs and synergies between different ecosystem services. Braithwaite supports 13 priority habitats, with 60% of the area falling within SSSI and 90% within SAC designations. A large number of the SSSIs are in unfavourable condition, including freshwater, lowland fen, neutral grassland and dwarf shrub heath.
There are issues with long-term phosphate and zinc pollution in the water from abandoned mines. There’s threats from invasive non-native species in the lake and rivers. And of course flooding is a grave concern. These issues are not exactly unheard of – but they are happening in the heart of one of the world’s most famous National Parks.
It’s not all bad news, and there’s significant opportunities to improve the situation for both local residents and habitat conservation. This is of course the key question – how do we strike the right balance between flood alleviation and conservation of our environment, for wildlife, recreation which is so important to the local economy, and for upland farming.
Both the committee and I want to see the government commit to strong, enforceable and measurable targets that go even further on environmental standards after we have left the European Union. Ambition is the key here – and I know that the Secretary of State is ambitious – the future of Britain’s natural environment is relying on him to make good on his promises and deliver a better environment for future generations and enrich our relationship with the natural world. He will have genuine cross-party support for this.
I know his main battle will be with the Treasury, and they will need persuasion that the money we spend now on our environment is ultimately a priceless investment in the future of our country. Nature has an intrinsic value, and it’s impossible to put a price on everything, but to me it’s clear that nothing will be achieved without Treasury commitment to drive through the adequate funds.
It’s impossible to overstate the critical importance of Treasury and cross-departmental buy-in for delivering for our environment. The committee’s report provides clear recommendations to embed natural capital into all public spending decisions, for departments to fully take account of natural capital in policy design and publicly funded projects and programmes and to ensure the Treasury’s Green Book is implemented across all departments, and we must listen to this advice and change how we account for value.
Unfortunately, the draft Environment Bill falls far short of what we were led to expect. It contains more warm words with no substance to underpin it. We need effective oversight and enforcement of environmental law. Enforcement relies on having an “independent and adequately resourced body or bodies” to hold public authorities to account.
It is frustrating that the proposed Office for Environmental Protection lacks teeth and is not directly accountable to parliament. There is no proposal to replace the commission’s powers of sanction. The Office must be able to enforce law and must be properly resourced. We need a watchdog with power, independence, and scope to hold ministers to account.
Labour has pressed the government repeatedly on the need to enshrine crucial environmental principles such as the precautionary principle and the polluter pays principle into domestic law. I’m pleased that not only has the committee echoed our call in their report, but also that they are in the draft bill. However, the principles must be legally enforceable.
Labour’s proposal for an Environmental Tribunal with simplified procedure would better enable civil society organisations to hold government to account, and so would safeguard against an inadequately resourced Office for Environmental Protection. We need to know how the bill will actually deliver on the promise to leave our environment in a better state, with legally binding and ambitious, measurable goals and plans.
We’ve got to a point where we are seeing iconic British wildlife populations – like hedgehogs and songbirds – in freefall. Putting in place measurable goals is the only way to stop this shocking decline and provide certainty for the future of our natural world.
In our seas, we need to ensure that the Fisheries Bill has provisions to safeguard our marine environment, promoting healthy seas and sustainable fish stocks. I have fishing communities in my constituency, and people there want to see our fishing sector growing again. That won’t happen without sustainability in British waters being prioritised. The boats won’t leave the harbour if there’s nothing left to catch.
What we’re enshrining in law must be rights and not just principles. We’re now at a point where experts have said that the government’s proposals are unfortunately “riddled with loopholes and undermined by vague aspirations”, that simply “do not go far enough” in tackling the challenges we face.
There is a risk that a bad deal or no deal Brexit could set us back on all the progress we’ve made on environmental protection. We have an opportunity to mitigate those risks, and it is an opportunity we cannot afford to pass up. But this will only happen if the government ensures that the bill makes it onto the floor of the House in a better state than the draft we’ve seen.
The state of the British environment is now at a historic crossroads. Brexit must not be a gateway to a future of lowered standards that would put our environment at risk in the name of “cutting red tape”. We must redouble our efforts to ensure that this cannot be allowed to happen.
We must build on the progress we have made so far, and that means the government has to set out a robust action plan, detailing exactly how it will leave the environment in a better state.
The draft bill doesn’t do that yet but there is still time to get it right. And that means putting in place the appropriate independent governance and accountability in the form of a rigorous Office for Environmental Protection, as has been set out time and again by the Natural Capital Committee.
To me, Natural Capital involves putting a price on nature while taking care not to turn nature into a commodity. We’re depleting our resources faster than the Earth can replace them. Chopping down trees faster than they can mature. Harvesting more fish than the oceans can replenish. Emitting more carbon than the environment can absorb.
Natural Capital must ensure that nature is factored into all governmental decision-making. It reconciles economic growth with a healthy environment. This approach has public and political support – just this weekend, I spoke at a local environmental conference where sixth formers from my constituency asked me about how we make it happen.
There’s a lot of hard work that still needs to be done. And I’m ready to play my part and get to work with the Secretary of State and his colleagues to make sure that the bill that receives Royal Assent properly protects our precious natural environment.
Let’s enshrine in law the goals set out in the 25 Year Environment Plan, with a robust framework to deliver them and hold the government to account. As the committee has set out, DEFRA needs to establish, through an environmental census, a robust baseline to measure the progress towards the goals against, a recommendation I strongly support.
Let’s put three principles at the heart of everything we do to safeguard and enhance our natural environment: public money for public goods, the polluter pays principle, and net environmental gain.
The message from the Natural Capital Committee today could not be clearer – business as usual is going to lead to failure. The necessary action is now urgent. While it will be a difficult undertaking, let’s be the generation that embedded the idea of natural capital throughout the public sector and in major infrastructure projects.
It’s easy to make promises, and it’s easy to offer warm words. But unless we deliver on our ambition, and back them up with strong legislation, we will be remembered as the generation who left our children a degraded environment past the point of no return.