HL Deb 16 January 1991 vol 524 cc1166-74

3.7 p.m.

Lord Ezra rose to call attention to the case for further steps to introduce a comprehensive environmental strategy in Britain; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the state of the environment has become one of the major subjects of concern of peoples and governments throughout the world. However, there is the risk that from time to time anxiety about the environment is put on the back burner as other more immediate issues arise.

Nineteen-ninety was a year in which environmental problems loomed large and much study and action were devoted to them both in this country and elsewhere. This year, 1991, could be a year in which reduced emphasis may be given to that issue and more to pressing economic, political and, indeed, military problems. However, if there is to be a progressive solution to the continuing environmental issue, constant vigilance and action are required.

That environmental issue represents one of the basic contradictions of the age in which we live. People want the benefits provided by energy but do not want new mines, as I well know from my personal experience. They do not want new power stations, especially near to where they live. They do not want the risk of oil spills and emissions of noxious elements. They want the benefit of road transport but not to suffer from fumes, congestion and delays. They want the benefit of modern industrial products but not the pollution created by the processes of production and the waste arising therefrom. They want to be able to purchase goods and services as cheaply as possible but at the same time they want them to be environmentally friendly, which often means added cost. It is because of what might be called the environmental contradiction that government action in introducing a comprehensive environmental strategy is essential. To leave matters to corporate or private decision-making would result in only limited progress.

In recent months this House has rightly been concerned with many aspects of the environment. The noble Earl, Lord Shannon, the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Carver, the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, and my noble friend Lady Robson, to name but a few, have introduced important debates on various aspects of the issue. Recently, we also took the Environmental Protection Bill though its various stages, in which the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, and my noble friend Lord Ross of Newport played important parts. Above all, there has been the White Paper which provided a survey of the major environmental problems facing us and of the actions so far taken or proposed to deal with them. I should add that my own party also produced a wide-ranging White Paper entitled, What Price Our Planet. That is readily available to all noble Lords who wish to read it.

When the Government White Paper appeared in September of last year there was general agreement that it was the first comprehensive review of the environment to be issued by government. However, there was also fairly widespread criticism that it fell short in its recommendations for further action. The Financial Times described the White Paper as being, "the palest of green". The Times, in a leading article, asked, "Where's the beer?"

The purpose of this debate is to identify some of the gaps in the environmental strategy and to consider the action which should be taken to fill them. I am delighted that so many noble Lords have decided to speak and I am sure that they will have important contributions to make. I am especially pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, should choose this occasion on which to make his maiden speech, to which we all look forward with great interest.

At present the overriding environmental problem is that represented by global warming, or the greenhouse effect. That issue was dealt with effectively in a debate introduced by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Carver, on 30th January last year on the Select Committee report on the greenhouse effect. In his concluding remarks the noble and gallant Lord said that not only must there be an international effort to improve our knowledge of all aspects of the problem, but also that governments could not wait until they were more certain that science was giving the right answers.

It is satisfactory to note that that viewpoint is reiterated in the White Paper. In it the Government expressed the opinion: Taking action on all greenhouse gases together, the global warming potential of Britain's emissions in 2005 should fall significantly, by approximately 20 per cent. compared with levels in 1990". Within that estimate it is proposed that CO2 emissions in the year 2005 should be no more than the levels in 1990.

There has been much discussion on whether or not the Government should have brought forward that target by five years, as is being done by many countries in the European Community. However, leaving that aspect on one side, there is considerable doubt as to whether even the Government's more limited objective can be achieved as a result of the measures proposed. The Government recognise that more needs to be done. An indication of what the measures might be are discussed but no decision has so far been taken. That will have to be done quickly if the 2005 objective is to be achieved.

Everyone agrees that one of the most effective ways of controlling CO2 emissions is through improved energy efficiency. In recent years the Government's stated intention of achieving improvements in the use of energy has been belied by reductions in the funding of the Energy Efficiency Office, to which we in this House have frequently referred. At long last that situation is being reversed. But the policies proposed in the White Paper do not go far enough. For example, the use of fiscal incentives for energy efficiency and fiscal penalties for misuse have still to be applied in any meaningful manner.

Another way of reducing the emission of greenhouse gases is to develop forms of energy which do not have that effect. Apart from nuclear energy, which has its own environmental problems and cost difficulties, relatively little effort has been devoted so far to what are known as renewable sources of energy. The Government, in the White Paper, indicated that they, will work towards a figure of new renewable electricity generating capacity of 1000 megawatts in 2000". They indicate that that would be about a tenfold increase over current capacity; but it is still very little in terms of electricity generated as a whole, being the equivalent of about half a single large fossil fuel power station. It is difficult to see why much more effort is not devoted to the development of renewables. It is also difficult to reconcile the objective for the year 2000 with the 20 per cent. electricity generation by the year 2025 referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Cavendish, in replying to a Question earlier this afternoon.

As the White Paper indicates, transport contributes some 20 per cent. to total CO2 emissions, and most of that comes from road transport. However, the actions proposed by the Government to deal with that are limited and tentative and they seem unconvinced of the need to develop a more extensive and efficient public transport service as a means not only of leading to decongestion on the roads but also of contributing substantially to environmental improvement.

Much attention in the White Paper is rightly given to the question of waste. That is also dealt with in some depth in Part II of the Environmental Protection Act. However, the distinction which is now drawn between local authorities who are exclusively waste collection authorities, and those who are both disposal and collection authorities, has created certain anomalies. That is so particularly where local authorities, such as Richmond upon Thames and a number of others, have achieved considerable success as collectors. During the passage of the Environmental Protection Bill the Government agreed to have another look at that aspect.

A further anomaly is in the definition of waste in cases where material such as ferrous and non-ferrous metals is systematically recycled and re-used and is effectively a raw material in its own right. The application of the waste definition to these valuable materials could in fact impede effective operations. Here, too, the Government agreed to have another look at the issue.

I have so far dealt with what I consider to be some of the main gaps requiring further action in Britain's environmental strategy. These include the problems of global warming, energy efficiency, renewables, transport, waste disposal and recycling. I have no doubt that other noble Lords, when they come to speak, will draw attention to additional issues which require attention and action. The question arises as to how that whole range of policies and actions is to be co-ordinated and progressively moved forward.

At present the principal bodies involved in ensuring that environmental legislation is applied are the National Rivers Authority and Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Pollution. The regulation of waste disposal is to be in the hands of designated local authorities. In the White Paper the Government accept that there could be a case for forming an umbrella organisation to oversee the whole of the environmental area. They have decided not to proceed along that course for the time being; but the need for a single supervisory body is very strong. There should be no delay in bringing that about.

There is an important international dimension to the whole area of environmental improvement. Not only should developed countries move forward in step with one another, but particular support and guidance needs to be given to developing countries. We do not do that. All the benefits achieved by what developed countries can do to reduce pollution will be more than offset by them as they increase their industrialisation. I am aware that the noble Lord, Lord Hatch of Lusby, will speak on this subject.

Let me now conclude. The Environmental Protection Act 1990 and the White Paper have gone some way towards establishing the framework for a comprehensive environmental strategy in Britain. But there are many gaps in the actions so far put in place to achieve that strategy. These need to be clearly identified and followed up. One approach might be for a Select Committee of your Lordships' House to examine the whole issue of the environment and to relate it to sustainable development. That is the fundamental problem which we face—that is to say, how to care progressively for the environment and yet sustain acceptable development.

Furthermore, unless further legislative action is taken, it is doubtful whether the Government's targets for the decade ahead could be achieved. I believe therefore that there is a need for a further major environmental Bill, possibly entitled the Environmental Development Bill, to complement the Environmental Protection Act passed in the last Session. Until such additional legislation is on the statute book there will not be a comprehensive environmental strategy in place in Britain. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

3.22 p.m.

Lord Renton

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, has done a valuable service in putting this Motion before the House. One is happy to say that it is a non-party issue. I am sure that in your Lordships' House at any rate we are unlikely to score party political points in the matter. I am quite sure that there is much we can learn from each other from each side of the House. The proposals he has put forward deserve the careful attention of the Government. Quite frankly, I am a little hesitant regarding his suggestion about an advisory body incurring delay, because that is what would be involved. I am prompted to say that because of the supplementary question which was asked about half an hour ago by my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter.

I shall have a word to say about planning procedures in a moment. They do involve a good deal of delay and, alas, despite that, planning procedures are not yet right. I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, referred to the Environmental Protection Act of last Session which was certainly a great step forward in the direction that he wishes us to go. He referred to the White Paper, which also contains a very progressive set of proposals. Whether or not there are gaps in them, we should rejoice that the Government took that step. I am delighted that my noble friend Lord Palmer has chosen this debate to make his maiden speech and we shall greatly look forward to hearing it.

Our planning legislation really started with Neville Chamberlain and the Town and Country Planning Act 1929. That Act was always intended to protect the environment: to preserve our lovely countryside and what is best in our towns and villages. Above all, it was intended to ensure that those developments which must take place in housing and in other ways—because of the ever-increasing population, standards of living and methods of manufacture—should take place in a way which preserves our countryside and does not spoil the environment.

What has happened is rather tragic. The application of that legislation has not fulfilled its purpose after this long period of 60 years. We have planning procedures which are fairly elaborate but even so they do not achieve their purpose. The causes of the failure vary. Sometimes it is because of lack of consultation with local people. I know of a recent case in which the town council of a considerable town made objection to a development. There were only two members from that town council on the planning committee. However, by a large majority the planning committee decided to ignore their opinion and that of the CPRE and other bodies and allowed the development just the same. I merely give that as an example.

What should be done to overcome these defects in our planning system? The noble Lord, Lord Ezra, based his case very widely. I wish to confine it to the question of planning developments. I acknowledge that what he said about pollution and so forth is also of vital importance. The noble Lord suggested that there should be a comprehensive environmental strategy. I believe that that should be considered, but it should not introduce fresh procedures. I was startled to hear him use the word "advisory". If the advisory nature of what one presumes will be a new quango is merely to confuse or delay those procedures, then we have to be very careful. However, if a comprehensive environmental strategy is a measure which the Government should ensure is produced, then we can be thankful that it is there.

I suggest that we should also bear other important factors in mind. The more people and the more motor vehicles that we have are among the main causes of the attack on our environment. We cannot get away from that. We have to remember the words of the 19th century hymn: Where all the prospect pleases and only man is vile". We have to face the fact that man is the principal spoiler of God's work in the environment. We could not and should not attempt to prevent every family having a car if it wishes to have one. But we could and should discourage further increases in the population. That is fundamental to the whole issue.

England and Wales as a separate territory is now one of the 12 most densely-populated areas of the world leaving aside small island and city states. In 1986 the population of England and Wales reached 50 million for the first time. It has been increasing steadily in the past few years. That is one very important and overriding factor which the Government should not ignore. Perhaps on some other occasion we can suggest specific ways in which the problem can be dealt with. However, I do not want to digress on that subject at the moment.

A comprehensive environmental strategy could also be made more effective if decisions taken by planning authorities, however damaging, were not so final. Under current legislation only applicants have the right of appeal. Other bodies concerned such as local authorities, statutory environmental bodies and various objectors have no right of appeal at all. I hope we can deal with that matter when the Bill comes before us. In the circumstances which I have just mentioned in relation to appeals, Ministers should be much more daring in calling in cases. Sometimes it is too late even for the cases to be called in because outline planning permission may have been given in accordance with a development plan which was not properly brought to the public's notice. We could also attend to that matter when the legislation is before us.

In conclusion, I have the pleasure and advantage of living in that same part of England's green and pleasant land as my noble friend Lady Blatch, who is to reply to the debate. She has taken on a tremendous responsibility and has so far discharged it with great distinction. I look forward to hearing what she has to say both in response to the debate and in the course of the legislation which is now before us.

3.31 p.m.

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, has done us a great service by introducing the debate today. The depth of our gratitude is obvious from the number of noble Lords who have put down their names to speak. This enormous subject cannot possibly be dealt with in eight minutes. If I do not enlarge on a point that is basic to all our problems—the overpopulation of the globe—I hope the House will not believe that I do not accept it.

It is now widely understood that if the human race is to continue to survive on this planet it must learn to live within certain constraints. We are all familiar with the alarming statistics of devastation and destruction: the loss of forests, of topsoil and of plant and animal species. We no longer question that pollution caused by our activities must be controlled, whether it be life-endangering pollution or nuisance caused by noise and litter. We have seen for ourselves the effects of acid rain on our forests and buildings and we are beginning to realise the devastation that will follow unchecked global warming. Knowing that several noble Lords will speak on that subject today, I mention it only in passing.

Governments must act together to deal with global problems, but each country must take action itself to minimise those elements of pollution and environmental degradation which are within its power to control. The Environmental Protection Act 1990, which we have just seen through this House, makes a useful contribution to pollution control. We congratulate the Government on many aspects of it. However, we remain sceptical about its provisions for nature conservation. The good health of our natural environment is essential to our own health and well-being. It is disappointing that in matters to do with nature conservation the long awaited White Paper, to which reference has already been made, did not live up to the hopes and expectations of our conservation organisations. The noble Lord, Lord Ezra, highlighted many of the shortcomings. I do not propose to repeat them but I agree with what he said in that regard.

The report Our Common Future was produced for the United Nations Commission on Environment and Development under the chairmanship of the Norwegian prime minister, Mrs. Brundtland, and was published in 1987. It presented a world picture of our problems and put forward a programme for sustainable development. Sustainable development was defined in that document as, meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs". In their response to the Brundtland report, the United Kingdom Government accepted the aim of sustainable development as defined in the document. It is disappointing to see in later government publications that they seem to be moving away from that definition. I noticed it in the report by Professor Pearce entitled Blueprint for a Green Economy. There is a quite different tilt to the definition of sustainable development, and more and more we see the question of market forces being brought into it. I believe that we should do well to stick with the original definition.

The Government also accepted the view of the report that the preservation of species and ecosystems is an important element in environmental protection. Their response went on to list the many designations under which the United Kingdom seeks to protect its natural heritage. These many designations—sites of special scientific interest, special protection areas, areas of outstanding natural beauty and so on—as well as the sites protected under international conventions have one failing in common: none gives absolute protection in the face of financial pressure or political expediency.

As an example, designation as a site of special scientific interest is perhaps our most valued protection, but each year the Nature Conservancy Council's list of damaged and destroyed sites makes dismal reading. Most of those sites could not be recreated within acceptable human timescales and therefore they should qualify, under the Brundtland definition of sustainable development, for absolute protection. Time and again they fall victim to the fact that, since their commercial value is low, they provide a cheap route for new roads or other developments.

That is just one example of the need for an umbrella environmental strategy to bring together the many strands of environmental protection into a coherent policy for the future. At the risk of disappointing the noble Lord, Lord Renton, I feel that I must give the Labour Party's position on some aspects of environmental protection. We embrace as it stands the philosophy of sustainable development as defined in the Brundtland Report. We intend to play a full part in global efforts to ensure a future for our children and grandchildren. Here at home we believe that government involvement in environmental strategy is inevitable. We intend to establish an environmental protection agency with powers appropriate to its task. The next Labour Government will make the consideration of environmental impact an integral part of the activities of every major government department.

The noble Lord, Lord Ezra, spoke of the need for good public transport. We shall seek to improve the public transport system so that travellers can choose to leave their cars at home at least for routine journeys. We attach great importance to energy saving as a means of reducing the environmental impact of power generation and of conserving fossil fuels for succeeding generations.

Protection of the well-being of our world is a task for each and every one of us, but it is government which must set the scene and provide the legislative framework. The fragmented and often hastily devised policies of the present Government do not meet the problems we now face. The Planning and Compensation Bill, which starts its Committee stage tomorrow with an astonishing number of government amendments, is yet another example of the badly prepared and unco-ordinated attempts at environmental legislation with which we are becoming all too familiar. The need for a comprehensive strategy is obvious. We support the Motion.

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