EFRA Committee Scrutinise White Paper

On Wednesday, 29 June, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee held a one-off evidence session to explore initial reaction to the Natural Environment White Paper (‘The Natural Choice: securing the value of nature’). Representatives of the National Farmers’ Union, the National Trust, Wildlife and Countryside Link, PricewaterhouseCoopers and Defra attended to face questioning from assembled Committee members on the content of the Paper and improvements which could be made.

You can watch the hearing in the Parliament TV Archive.

Pavan Sukhdev, leader of the TEEB (The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity) study was also present, in Westminster prior to collecting the Institute Medal from the IEEM at a House of Lords reception later that afternoon. Pavan welcomed the inclusion of natural capital in the White Paper, along with plans to provide guidance for business in reporting their impact on natural capital. However, he warned that the results of TEEB should not be used to provide a cost-benefit analysis of nature when making decisions.

Chris Knight, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), said that most of businesses consulted by PwC had responded favourably to the White Paper, but had expressed uncertainties over how the commitments outlined would connect with reforms to water regulation (expected in the Water White Paper in December this year) and to planning. Funding for the commitments was also a cause for concern. Greater incentives were needed for businesses to invest in environmentally friendly schemes, he suggested.

Planning reform, and the need for this to enable, not undermine, the commitments in the White Paper, was a topic touched upon by almost all those questioned, as was funding. The National Planning Policy Framework, expected for consultation this month, should include a spatial planning tool, to help farmers balance competing demands on their land, it was suggested.

The National Trust and Wilidlife and Countryside Link both suggested that the White Paper contained no clear funding strategy. An over-reliance on agri-environment schemes is unsustainable, the witnesses suggested during later questioning; instead there needs to be an exploration of what options for leveraging funding are most sensible. Several options were suggested, including biodiversity offsetting, competition between farmers to deliver environmental services, tax reform (such as tax breaks for particular land uses or reduced fertiliser application), or raising money through taxation on timber imports – whilst tracking illegally logged timber and reducing its passage into the UK market. Private sector funding was likely to be vital to the future of nature conservation, all acknowledged.

The NFU called for greater investment in research and development, arguing for more money to be put behind the development of new technology to allow farmers to deliver food production whilst reducing their environmental impacts; sustainable production is possible, they argued. There was also a plea for research into how to make it easier for businesses to invest in the environment.

Finally, witnesses suggested that more work is needed around engaging the public with the natural environment. The National Trust argued that the White Paper did not include enough detail on how the environment could become a mainstream concern for the population of England, assisting in health and education. There was a plea for the need to cut red-tape and beaurocracy around health and safety on school trips, to enable more children to experience the natural world.

Witnesses suggested that the Committee should reconvene in a year’s time to examine progress against the commitments made in the White Paper, and new tools for improving progress if the commitments are not being met.