Richard Benyon MP gives evidence to Efra Select Committee on the Natural Environment White Paper

In an Efra Select Committee hearing on Wednesday (18th April), Richard Benyon MP Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for the Environment and Fisheries answered the panel’s queries into the measures outlined in the Government’s Natural Environment White Paper (NEWP), published last June.

The Committee Chair started the session praising the White Paper but asking how such an ambitious strategy could now be put into practice, Mr Benyon stated that although the NEWP is a broad framework for environmental protection, it also comprises 92 very specific recommendations. Already, he said, 10 have been set-up – including the designation and funding of 12 Nature Improvement Areas (NIA) – whilst action is underway on 80 more. Defending Defra’s decision not to publicly publish an Action Plan on delivering the NEWP, the Minister said that the body felt that it would not be productive to be held to a rigid time-line for action. Instead, Defra is sending quarterly newsletters to all stakeholders detailing the progress made, such as the measurable milestones of establishing NIAs and Local Nature Partnerships (LNPs).

Turning words into action
Nevertheless, a number of the panel’s questions considered how the impressive rhetoric of the Paper would be converted into real action and results. The Minister said that Defra had recognised the challenge in this and that the ‘last thing [they] want is ‘talking shops’’. To address this, all working groups – such as the Ecosystem Service Market Task Force – have been provided with remits that provide a clear outline of the actions they should take, ensuring they will be well-led and ‘effective in bringing about the intended changes’. One of the areas identified as most at risk of remaining theoretical with little effective action was the intended creation of ecosystem service markets. However, Mr Benyon stated that the government has already taken real steps in this direction through work with the independent regulator Ofwat which has undertaken projects to engage land managers in the protection of upstream water sources, rewarding them for the effective prevention of pollution. The Minister stated that the Government intends to continue this route of indirect engagement through regulators and companies as, often, direct attempts by Governments to create markets can ‘cause issues’ and the immense complexity of market dynamics mean the expertise of businesses are invaluable. In order to help with the integration of the natural capital approach across all government departments, Defra is producing a ‘Green Book’ providing guidance on the necessary changes, and is due to publish an Action Plan to identify and address the various institutional and informational barriers to adopting this approach.

A funding shortfall?
A member of the panel quizzed the minister on the apparent mismatch between Sir John Lawton’s estimate of £1.1 billion needed for environmental protection (made in his paper, Making Space for Nature, published in 2010) and the £8 million total spend allocated in the NEWP. Mr Benyon pointed out that the lower limit of Sir John’s estimate is actually £600 million and that the £8 million sum referred only to direct Government funds. In reality, the minister noted, numerous other funding streams will feed into work under the NEWP, including roughly £450mn spent through agri-environment schemes, a sum of £92 million newly allocated by Defra to catchment management schemes, £7.5 million to be divided between the identified NIAs and a further £1mn designed to get LNPs up and running. When these are taken into account, the money allocated is approaching Sir John’s ballpark figure, the minister stated, and this is before the huge value of voluntary action through schemes such as the Campaign for the Farmed Environment, and by naturalist groups and NGOs, is included.

Mr Benyon expanded this point, stressing that in fact most of the recommendations in the NEWP are not just for government to carry out, but will instead be realised through the cooperation of a wide range of environmental bodies and the harnessing of the considerable enthusiasm of local groups and communities. The minister said he has observed enormous enthusiasm for the new approach of the NEWP from the very start of the process, as evidenced by the unprecedented response to consultations from all stakeholder groups. The degree of local enthusiasm shown in the applications for NIAs was felt by the minister to demonstrate an energy which can be harnessed to ensure the effective implementation of many of the NEWP’s proposed measures.

The role and place for Nature Improvement Areas
Answering a concern from the panel as to how the NIAs – 12 of which have been recently designated – will fit with existing nature protection sites such as SSSIs and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, Mr Benyon stressed that Defra did not want to create a new tier of activity which ‘tramples all over existing designations’. Instead, he stressed, the idea is that NIAs will harness and coordinate the various protections and conservation activities already in an area. The minister said he had witnessed in the selection of the 12 initial NIAs, an ‘incredible degree of enthusiasm’ from land managers, naturalist groups and local communities which, he felt, means the administration and management of NIAs sits in a ‘different place’ to AONB Boards and National Park Authorities. The NIAs are not due to have a statutory status of their own, Mr Benyon clarified, but they will be visible in the local plans and the weight given to them will be decided by local communities, using the powers given to them in the Localism Act 2011, and the recently reviewed National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF).

The National Planning Policy Framework and the NEWP
This mention of the NPPF sparked further discussion. Mr Benyon said he felt the drafting process had been very thorough and inclusive, involving very close working between ministers across all government departments. He welcomed what he saw as strong commitments to biodiversity in the wording of the final document, including consideration given to ‘future proofing’ i.e. accounting for the intensifying challenges to nature protection resulting from factors including climate change. A member of the committee inquired as to why the renewed NPPF does not mirror the emphasis on biodiversity offsetting (creation of compensatory nature areas by developers when projects involve landscape destruction) made in the NEWP. Mr Benyon stressed that biodiversity offsetting is still in its infancy and is a very complex concept to put into practice, so at the moment, Defra is trialling six pilot studies to see how successful different approaches are in achieving net gain for the environment. Asked how it will be monitored, the minister emphasised that the process must be transparent and clear so that developers know exactly what they are required to provide and the public know that it is not a ‘licence to trash’ but is a process that provides real net gain for the natural environment. At the moment, he said, there was misunderstanding, perpetuated by the media, of how ‘offsetting’ will be measured – it will not be a case of ‘comparing the value of an otter against the value of a hedgehog’, but a much more holistic and comprehensive process, the details of which will become clear over the course of the pilot studies.

Peat and peatlands
In the final question, the panel challenged the minister on the NEWP’s objective to phase out the use of peat by 2030, suggesting the target shows an ‘extraordinary lack of ambition’. Mr Benyon stated that he had also received criticism to the opposite effect – that 2030 is too soon to achieve a complete phasing out of peat. He pointed out that this target is just one aspect of a step-approach; by 2015, the government will have ‘got their own house in order’ and public sector’s direct procurement of peat will have ended. By 2020, Defra wants to see the phasing out of peat use by amateur gardeners, which will rely on a significant degree of voluntary engagement. The ultimate 2030 target is aimed at professional growers who, Mr Benyon recognised, want a clear direction from government, after which, business tends to be a fast responder. The minister stated that Defra recognises the significant importance of peat in sequestering carbon and as a valuable habitat, and is due to report soon with suggestions for action to put work towards these targets in motion. Already, he said, there are ‘huge advances’ taking place in terms of technologies and methods for reducing peat use through recycling and the creation of other growing media, and he is confident that business will cope within the given timetable. However, although Defra is providing support for this research, it is also aware that many of the largest peat users are commercial food producers, who must be able to continue producing food in the current climate of food insecurity and global competition.

Watch the evidence session and find more information about the Efra Committee’s inquiry into the NEWP at the Parliament website.