§ 3.33 p.m.
§ Lord Tombs rose to move, That this House take note of the Report of the Select Committee on Sustainable Development (HL Paper 72).
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, I begin by thanking the members of the committee who joined me in the task set by your Lordships when our ad hoc committee was appointed on 7th March 1994. Their wide knowledge and experience made the task of absorbing and weighing much written and oral evidence easier than might have been expected at the outset. We also owe a great debt to our advisers, Professor Gerald Manners and Professor Richard Munton, both of the Department of Geography at University College London. Their knowledge of many technical aspects of the inquiry was invaluable to us. I also wish to thank our Clerk, Mr. Edward Wells, for his guidance through the maze of evidence received and for his unfailing good humour in organising us and our work.1197
§ In thanking the many individuals and organisations who gave evidence to the committee, I commend the vast archive of useful evidence—published separately as part of our inquiry—to the attention of the bodies created to further the Government's strategy for sustainable development; namely, the Panel, the Round Table and those involved in the Going for Green initiative. We are also grateful for the help of POST, the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, in surveying and summarising for the committee the vast amount of work already done on the topic of waste disposal and recycling.
§ The task of the committee was an unusually wide-ranging one. It was required to examine the Government White Paper, Cm. 2426, which set out the Government's strategy for sustainable development. This remarkable and visionary document, sponsored by 12 government departments, established a useful framework for action and for public debate as well. It has led international efforts in this important area. Its value has been enhanced by annual reviews but in what remains a complex and somewhat fragmented policy area the ability of the committee to look across the departments concerned has permitted a different perspective.
§ The committee was asked to report to the House by the end of 1994. It quickly became apparent that this would not be possible, partly because of some inevitable administrative delays in setting up the committee, which held its first meeting on 29th March 1994 and in agreeing the scope of the call for evidence. Therefore we negotiated an extension to Easter 1995 and planned our work accordingly. Unfortunately, a further delay occurred when the Treasury declined our invitation to appear before the committee towards the end of our hearings. Much time was taken up in correspondence and meetings before agreement was reached for the Treasury to give oral evidence. I regret that initial reluctance which would have made it impossible, in the judgment of the committee, to complete our report. I am grateful to the noble Viscount the Leader of the House for his help in resolving the problem. In the event the Treasury evidence was helpful as will, I believe, be evident from the report published on 21st June.
§ The topic of sustainable development attracts a great deal of attention at national and international levels as concern grows about the conflict between our present-day lifestyles and the preservation of our environment for the benefit of present and future generations. Climate change, air pollution, transport, biodiversity and land use are among the many aspects of the subject. Some factors are interactive, and health is a consideration which is frequently present. Concerns about sustainable development are shared by rich and poor nations because of their common dependence on our planet, but perceptions of the nature of the problems and their possible solution differ greatly between nations. The third world, anxious to improve its living standards, sees the problems as the creation of the industrialised nations which should therefore bear principal responsibility for their amelioration.1198
§ Partly because of the timescale initially set for our considerations, but also because we wanted our report to be as practical as possible—or as practical as the nature of the subject allows—we decided to impose quite severe limits on our examination. I should like to take a few moments to explain the reasons for those limitations. First, we decided to limit the time horizon of our work to 2025. Our reasons were essentially pragmatic. Technological, economic, social and political developments 30 years from now and beyond are exceedingly difficult to predict; so there is an inevitable tendency to philosophise about a subject where there are pressing problems today. We wanted our report to be relevant to today's policies.
§ Secondly, we decided to limit the bulk of our examination to issues where the UK has a clearly defined role. This covers measures designed to tackle UK problems but also European measures and international agreements and protocols. We did not want to develop a series of prescriptions for a highly diverse world where our influence is small. Finally, we chose the areas of energy, transport, land use and waste disposal as being representative of the areas of concern. We hoped to see how government policy was seeking to address problems in those areas. Even in those areas our analyses were not exhaustive, but they acted as effective indicators of the extent of government action and their general approach to sustainable development. Despite these restrictions the field of our inquiry was large and diverse and we received a great deal of thoughtful and useful evidence from a wide range of organisations and government departments. We are grateful for that and for the large amount of oral evidence we also received.
§ The period of our inquiry was one of measured development in government policy in a number of areas, notably the issue of revised planning policy guidance notes emphasising sustainable development; changes in the policy for new roads; the landfill levy; strategic policies for air quality management; the draft waste strategy for England and Wales; the designation of further environmentally sensitive areas; the new habitat schemes; the organic aid schemes; more nitrate sensitive areas; and the countryside access scheme. Those changes were widely welcomed but their practical effect was often that earlier evidence was overtaken.
§ Government are to be congratulated on the steady elaboration of their policies in a number of areas: our report identifies some of them. Not surprisingly, given the complex nature of many of the policy areas and of inter-departmental relationships, the degree of initiative has been variable with some departments evincing more enthusiasm than others. We mention areas where we consider that more purposeful action is required, and I shall touch on some of them.
§ Generally speaking, we believe that Government should be more active in setting and publishing targets. We distinguish between imperative and indicative targets. The attitude of departments varied, with some reluctant to set targets which might then become expectations. But all government policies have, or should have, implicit targets. For how else would it be possible to promote a policy? Why then should they not 1199 be disclosed? It is true that targets may require frequent changes to meet changing circumstances, but the need to explain the need for changes is an essential part of the management of any process and should benefit policy makers and the public alike. We did not accept the reservations of the Department of Transport and MAFF in that respect. We noted, for example, that there are as yet no targets for an increase in "green" modes of transport or for reductions in the use of pesticides. The Government's response shows a welcome willingness to adapt a little in this area, and I shall touch on that, possibly at the end of the debate.
§ Progress towards targets for the reduction of CO2 to meet the climate change programme has been made despite the failure to pursue successfully two major policy measures—the second increase in VAT on domestic fuel and the funding of the Energy Saving Trust. Those failures were offset by unforseen features—the economic recession, the greatly increased use of gas in electricity generation, and the improved performance of the nuclear power industry.
§ That fortunate conjunction of events seems to have removed some of the determination to pursue declared policy measures, and we deplore the resulting failure to resolve inter-departmental disagreements and to secure proper funding of the Energy Saving Trust, which offers attractive environmental and economic gains to the nation. We hope that a more robust approach to this problem will be adopted by Government, and we welcome as a first step the provision of £25 million per annum from April 1996 to help maintain some activities in this important and rewarding area.
§ Many problems in policymaking stem from the fragile nature of the scientific understanding of the physical processes involved. We give some examples where decisions have been made on uncertain data and are arguably wrong. The nature of the problems are such that sometimes decisions will have to be made without solid scientific support. We suggest that such decisions should be informed by the ease of their reversibility and advocate the allocation of more efforts to research in those areas in order to avoid undue scope for essentially political decisions. This is a difficult area where pressing decisions will not wait for scientific certainty and where great care must be used to balance the conflicting needs of environmental protection, the costs of the measures proposed and the need to preserve international competitiveness.
§ It seems obvious that environmental policies should be informed by considerations of costs and benefits, although some organisations suggested an unquestioned imperative for environmental action, a view we did not accept. The quality of such information on costs and benefits is poor. That is hardly surprising given the difficulty of quantifying many of the benefits as a result of their intangible nature and because of uncertainties about future alternative technologies. We believe that more work needs to be done in this area so that cost benefit assessments may at times usefully inform policy priorities. But at root we are sceptical about the likely robustness of the outcome in terms of support for policy decisions. Once again, as in the case of scientific 1200 uncertainty, judgment will necessarily play a major part in policy formation, and open explanation of policy decisions, with their unavoidable uncertainties, will be essential in order to command public support.
§ In circumstances of uncertainty it is perhaps natural to invoke the precautionary principle, but it has to be recognised that incurring additional costs on the basis of inadequate information is a course to be adopted only when the potential damage to the environment is of sufficient magnitude to justify the likely costs. Such decisions necessarily rest on political and ethical considerations, and judgments are likely to change with the times. Therefore, we warn against actions which may be difficult or impossible to reverse.
§ The Government place great emphasis on economic instruments as agents for environmental improvements. In general we support that view on the grounds of their flexibility and effectiveness. In our view, the Government are to be congratulated on their insistence that wherever possible the costs and benefits of policy initiatives must be quantified before they are agreed. One important area where that does not seem to have been done is the potential use of natural gas fuelled vehicles in urban areas where the environmental advantages are substantial. We recommend that the Government adjust the tax regime to reflect this and to bring the UK into closer accord with other countries.
§ However, there are areas where regulation must be an important tool, and we note that most government measures to date have in fact been regulatory. Nevertheless, we support the use of economic instruments and their use to further both national and local environmental objectives. We identify in our report the circumstances in which an economic instrument or a regulation would appear to be the more appropriate policy measure. We also advocate the transfer of taxation from labour to resources in environmental matters, and we welcome the landfill tax as a step in that direction.
§ The landfill tax is remarkable in that it is a rare example of hypothecated taxation, the proceeds in this case being earmarked to reduce labour costs. We believe that in the field of sustainable development, where the need to engage the enthusiastic support of the consuming public is so important, there may be a need for extension of the principle of hypothecation. Taxes on city access for vehicles and the resulting need for improved public transport systems may be one example of such an opportunity.
§ The Government published their response to our report on 12th October. In general, they welcomed the report and are proposing a much wider use of targets. The broader definition of the role of the green Ministers is also to be welcomed. But, partly perhaps because of the speed with which the response was prepared, many of the recommendations of the report have either been passed over or peremptorily dismissed.
§ Thus, for example, the Government resist any changes to the UK overall CO2 reduction targets despite the opportunities which they recognise are being foregone because of barriers to investment in cost-effective energy saving measures. The commitment to £25 million per annum support for the Energy Saving 1201 Trust which I mentioned earlier is a late and inadequate response to a problem which arose from government muddle.
§ I hope that time will enable a more constructive view to be taken of these and other topics, and I shall return to the subject after having had the benefit of hearing noble Lords' contributions to the debate.
§ I have taken enough time to describe some of the objectives of the committee in this inquiry. I look forward to hearing the views of noble Lords, many of whom have a deep knowledge of the issues we identified. I hope that our report and this debate will form a useful contribution to a process which is of the utmost importance to future generations. I beg to move.
§ Moved, That this House take note of the Report of the Select Committee on Sustainable Development (HL Paper 72).—(Lord Tombs.)
§ 3.50 p.m.
§ Viscount Blakenham
My Lords, I start by congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Tombs, on his chairmanship of the committee. He chaired it with immense clarity and determination; it was a pleasure to be on it. I wish to declare an interest as past chairman of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and a current vice-chairman; and as a past member of the Nature Conservancy Council.
The report covers a vast area and, I am glad to say, has been broadly welcomed by both environmental organisations and the Government. The problem for the country—I use the word "country" on purpose because not only the Government but all of us have to be involved—is to develop and support policies which protect and enhance the environment for the benefit of future generations without unnecessarily damaging economic development.
First, as regards co-operation between government departments and targets, we are fortunate to have an enlightened Secretary of State for the Environment who has also been at the Ministry for Agriculture. He is leading the way in setting targets and objectives and pushing for greater co-ordination between departments. The Department of Transport and MAFF, as the noble Lord said, are slower on setting targets. The Government have welcomed the Select Committee's distinction between "imperative" and "indicative" targets. But there is a danger that indicative targets will not be taken seriously enough and it is important to know how the Government will ensure that all such indicative targets are taken as seriously as they should be by all government departments.
It is clear that green Ministers' activities should extend beyond departmental housekeeping. It emerged from the evidence that greater co-operation was even needed between the Department of the Environment and MAFF since, surprisingly, the latter quite recently reduced the grants on the disposal of farm waste installations without consulting the Department of the Environment.
As regards the common agricultural policy, there is a growing consensus that the current CAP arrangements are not sustainable and that, progressively, agricultural 1202 payments should be tied to environmental and social benefits. Agri-environment schemes still account for only 5 per cent. of CAP expenditure in the UK.
It is quite clear that the dramatic decline in farmland birds is a warning signal and that our agricultural practices have been extremely damaging to wildlife. Perhaps the first warning that we had was the decline of grey partridges. But since then skylarks and now thrushes—although the thrush is a garden bird, it depends on farmland habitats—have declined dramatically.
Finally, the revision of the path of wealth creation is referred to in the report. It is no easy matter. A recent World Bank report on the wealth of individual nations makes interesting reading. It decided that the Americans and the Japanese were not, after all, the wealthiest nations in the world but rather the Australians and the Canadians. It came to that conclusion because that body believed that the traditional measure of gross domestic product was not the only factor to be taken into account. National resources, a protected environment and, perhaps as important as any, education, needed to be considered in the equation. I believe that we should consider that route more clearly in the future.
Regulation and the market economy are no longer enough. Setting targets, long-term fiscal objectives, education, building consensus and trust, and shared values are all needed if sustainable development is to become a reality in this country.
§ 3.55 p.m.
§ Lord Desai
My Lords, as someone who is not a member of the committee, I have the pleasant duty of congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Tombs, and his committee on a fine report. As the noble Lord, Lord Tombs, said in his introduction, and as the report makes clear, it is a complicated matter in which both uncertainty of a scientific nature and the diversity of tastes and preferences, with unknown tastes and preferences of future generations, combine to complicate the judgment that we need to make about matters of sustainable development.
In my brief remarks I wish to bring out what I regard as the contribution and limitations that economic calculation can bring to the problem. The report has struck a good balance, but perhaps I may be allowed to indicate the sharp dilemmas that we face.
For a large part, it is possible to argue that an environmentally responsible policy, a policy of sustainable development, will be economically efficient: that there is complementarity between economics and the environment. To the extent that that is so, there is no conflict. However, inertia means that in adopting any environmentally efficient policy there is bound to be resistance. If we move to a more energy-efficient public transport network, it will clearly hurt some interests which are involved with less efficient forms of transport—for example, the private motor car. One might say that overall the country will benefit. However, interests which will be hurt will be bound to resist. Therefore, even when there is complementarity between economic efficiency and the environment, a judgment has to be made on how to balance the losses suffered by 1203 existing activities and the benefits that will result from a change of policy. That is an easier path that we face. There is no question but that economics make a substantial contribution.
On other issues there is a conflict between what a growth-oriented economic policy and an environmentally responsible policy would recommend. One of the most difficult problems is that we do not know what future generations will want. Therefore, we have to make our decisions on behalf of future generations.
I believe that the precautionary principle which has been highlighted by the committee is right: if in doubt seek to do as little damage as possible; and if you can do some good that will be good too. The precautionary principle is most important when there is conflict between economic and environmental policies.
However, the most peculiar problems occur regarding matters where the economic issue is absolutely no help. Not only is scientific uncertainty a problem but there is no way of putting a value on certain environmental issues. There is no point in pretending that one can have prices, shadow prices or contingent values, for endangered species. One can pretend that there is a price, and therefore one can compensate for the loss. But that is to pretend that we know more than we do.
The committee's recommendations are important. To talk about the notion of capital—whether or not natural capital—in an aggregate way is an obstacle to good judgment in these matters. The notion of natural capital, or aggregate capital, puts prices on individual species and on individual resources. It is implicitly saying, "We can substitute one for another". There comes a time in certain cases of endangered species or biodiversity when substitution is neither possible nor desirable. And if substitution is neither possible nor desirable, we have a responsibility to set strict physical targets which should be regarded as inviolable. We should pursue policies in which certain kinds of biodiversity losses are not at all contemplated. That is a difficult objective, but not to do so would be irresponsible. We owe it to future generations and to nature as such to maintain sustainable development.
Let me add very briefly that I like very much the report's approach in saying that in some areas prices will work and in others regulation is a better choice. There is not much to add in that respect. Although the Government prefer market-oriented policies, they also use regulation quite a bit, and therefore the more explicitly they acknowledge the contribution of regulation, the better off we all are. In that respect, the report is welcome.
I like most about the report its recommendation that the burden of taxation should be shifted from taxation on labour and capital to taxation on resource consumption. It has always astonished me that even those who claim to be against income tax want to fiddle only at the margin. Even the most radical of Members in the Party opposite has not yet contemplated abolition of income tax and the complete removal of national insurance contributions or the abolition of corporation tax. We are in fact taxing work via labour and capital. 1204 We are subsidising consumption and waste of resources, and have done so for a number of years. The time has come for a responsible and radical alternative. The first step should be a shift from income to expenditure tax. We should try to remove taxation from labour as far as possible, and tax the consumption of renewable resources, and even more of non-renewable resources.
It is possible to present a feasible alternative fiscal policy to do that. We could move from the current system, which will be very harmful not only in terms of the environment but in terms of British competitiveness, to a policy by which we tax consumption, guard savings and improve the conservation of natural resources. Those are implications which I hope the Government will draw out and work further upon. Once again, I welcome the report.
§ 4.3 p.m.
§ Lord Beaumont of Whitley
My Lords, as very often when I speak after the noble Lord, Lord Desai, I am able to agree with practically everything that he said. He cast a very useful light as someone who was not a member of the committee but whom it would have been very nice to have working on our report.
I begin by apologising to the House for not being able to stay to the end of the debate. I have a previous engagement which I cannot break. Whenever I hear that statement made by a noble Lord I always mutter to myself, "What does he have to say that is so important that he has to keep his name on the list of speakers?". Like many other noble Lords, I should find it difficult to answer that question. I kept my name on the list because I wear two hats in this debate. I was a member of the committee. I enjoyed it very much and learnt a great deal. I am the spokesman for my party on this particular subject. I also have another excuse. This is the first time that I have had to make such a statement for over 15 years. That is more than a great many other noble Lords can say. The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, will wind up from these Benches.
I have written and thought about this subject for the past 25 years, since I was first secretary general of the Green Alliance. In spite of that, I find committees like this one and the documents that they produce very difficult. I tend to get lost. I was very grateful for the guidance of the chairman, who did a very good job, and to colleagues on the committee. We were all extraordinarily grateful for the work of our Clerk and our expert advisers. I still find that much of what is said in the report, much of its "thickness", is taken up with matters that seem slightly to lose track of the main problem. That is absolutely understandable. As the noble Lord, Lord Tombs, said, we have to limit the timescale with which we deal. But I feel that so few people have taken on board the fact that the Rio declaration will lead to a complete paradigm change in our civilization. For example, the present Minister for the Environment is extremely good. He is very good indeed at looking after the environment. I pay considerable tribute to him and his department, and to the civil servant who is the progress chaser for the Government on this particular matter. 1205 However, on matters of ecology the Minister is a non-starter. He believes that economic growth can continue in the developed countries alongside sustainable development. There comes a time when you have to cease growing upwards in that way. You either grow sideways—which a number of us unfortunately do!—or you grow in maturity, which a lot of us hope to do. It is a reasonable change, and it is not to be sneered at. We are not to think it absolutely terrible that we cannot continue to grow from six foot, to seven foot, to eight foot. The world, and the developed countries in particular, cannot go on growing economically in the way that they have—not in quantitative terms, although they can in qualitative terms.
In the developing countries, detritus exceeds our means of disposing of it. In ecological jargon, the capacity of our sinks is shrinking, and we have to realise that even our sources are finite. It is important that we learn to measure growth properly. The noble Viscount, Lord Blakenham, referred to the whole question of the measurement of GNP and measuring the economic growth of the world by other standards. They involve satisfaction, and enable us to realise the concept of net growth as opposed to lumping everything together, including dealing with the sinks as part of the growth.
By almost any of the indicators produced over the years in a number of countries and by a number of bodies to measure economic growth, growth in the West has stopped. It stopped several years ago and shows no sign of continuing. That does not mean that our ways of life cannot be much better and much richer. It does, however, mean that we have to start thinking in a new way.
After a year on your Lordships' committee, and from reading the government response to our report, my impression is that, although they began in a very good way after Rio—I was very impressed with the Government's response to Rio—there is some "bogging down" at the moment. The first energy seems to have disappeared and there needs to be a whole new attack.
I want to pick out a couple of points on the main topics of the report. The first concerns taxes. I certainly agree with the noble Lord, Lord Desai, that we need to move over from taxes on work and income to taxes on resources. That is an issue that has been looked at not only by academics such as the noble Lord but also in policy-making processes of my own party in which I have been involved. That is a path we must take.
With regard to the immediate things that need to be done, we believe it important that the Government should have introduced a small-scale landfill tax and have begun raising petrol tax by 5 per cent. a year above inflation. Probably one of the ways in which that ought to be dealt with so that it does not hit the poor too hard—that is a very important matter—is by adjusting VED to favour smaller, more fuel efficient vehicles. We feel that we must go for a reduction in traffic, though I must confess that we are rather like the Government in this. I have read the Government's response to this report and they say, "Yes, it is a good thing to reduce traffic. Does any one have any idea how to do it?". It is true that that is one of the most intractable of problems.
1206 The noble Lord, Lord Tombs, spoke about the Treasury and, when the Treasury was finally persuaded to come to see the committee, the encouraging responses that it gave. But looking at the Government's responses, I am not so cheerful. I suspect that this is an area where we have to attack the Treasury's main bastion of hypothecation. I believe that there is a need and an ability to have—if I may use a phrase recently used by Mr. Ashdown—hypothecation at the margins of taxation.
The taxpayer does not like paying taxes. He never has done. That is nothing new at all. For various reasons the climate is such that taxation now has a very ugly name indeed. But, if one is able to tell people where the taxes are going and that they are not just going into the enormous maw of the Treasury, which will spend them exactly how it wishes, I believe that there will be far less resistance to taxes. That is a way forward in raising the taxes that will be necessary.
A recent survey of the background influences on leading members of my party, which was carried out in order to parallel one previously done for the other parties, showed that the main influence in their early lives was John Stuart Mill. The second place was occupied by a rather interesting trio: the Bible; Keynes; and Schumacher. They are all among my reading and have influenced me. I believe that there is a need for the whole of the political establishment, among others, to become involved in the deep green background. Those named in our polls, for instance, who were not named by either of the other parties were James Robertson and Herman Daly, who will be well-known to those of your Lordships who are contributing to this debate. All parties are striving for "the greenmantle" but we have to do our homework very seriously in order to achieve it. I suspect that my party is being slightly rewarded, though not I hope by a cavalry charge into Erzerum.
I was honoured to be on such a distinguished committee. I pay tribute to our immensely talented chairman. I suggest that it produced a truly workmanlike report which, now wearing my Liberal Democrat spokesman's hat, I heartily welcome. I also welcome the Government's general response and look forward to my colleagues' detailed criticisms of it. I hope that the Government will get a second wind in this matter and again address most urgently what is by far the most important subject of our time.
§ 4.15 p.m.
§ The Lord Bishop of Oxford
My Lords, I very much welcome the Select Committee's report for its very thorough examination of where we are as a country in developing policies of sustainable development and I appreciate its introduction by the noble Lord, Lora Tombs. In particular, I welcome the report's constructive tone and its willingness to recognise areas where the Government have made significant progress. In that regard, I also welcome the Government's response, which seems to me again to be very constructive. It reveals a commitment to take environmental considerations with increasing seriousness.
1207 I want to focus only on Chapter 6 of the committee's report which deals with the integration mechanisms. Before doing so, perhaps I may make a general point and note briefly the profound underlying importance of those concerns, as the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, also just indicated.
The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote:What would the world be, once bereft Of wet and wilderness? Let them be left, O, let them be left, wildness and wet; Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.Yet why should we leave the marshes and the deserts? I believe that there is a limit to what we can provide in the way of convincing utilitarian or economic arguments, as the noble Lord, Lord Desai, as an economist, brought out so clearly this afternoon. When a million species have perished, and a million remain, why should we be concerned to preserve a particular insect or flower? In the end, no purely utilitarian answer is adequate. We come up against the value of creation in itself, for itself, in all its variety and richness.
The same questions may be asked about our concern for generations yet unborn—that they may be able to enjoy nature as we do and have the use of non-renewable resources. Again we stub—not our toes—our mind and spirit against the sheer precious fact of the earth's existence and continuing life. Concern about the environment is not just a passing fashion. It reflects an inchoate but deeply felt response to life itself, in which life is affirmed for its own sake and in which nature is experienced as refreshing and life giving. That is why this subject will continue to touch a vital nerve in the country as a whole.
The Government have said:The United Kingdom is determined to make sustainable development the touchstone of its policies".Despite that, the Government's own figures show that in some respects the state of the United Kingdom's environment is deteriorating. No doubt other noble Lords will bring that point to the attention of the House. In addition, indicators developed by voluntary environmental bodies also show negative trends for many highly valued aspects of the United Kingdom's environment, including declining populations of wild birds, loss of hedgerows, reductions in fish stocks and deteriorating local air quality.
Some of that deterioration is the result of policies originating in departments other than the Department of the Environment and beyond the control of the DoE. For example, transport policies that emphasised road building and facilitated the growth of private car transport over that of mass transport had significant environmental impact. That highlights the crucial importance of the policies of different departments being co-ordinated from the point of view of their effect on the environment. The Government are committed to that co-ordination through their integration mechanisms; for example, through the retention of a Cabinet sub-committee for the environment and the designation in every department of a "green" Minister. However, 1208 Chapter 6 of the Select Committee's report indicates that those mechanisms are not yet as effective as they might be and the Government's response needs probing.
In 1992 the second anniversary report of the 1990 White Paper said,The latest version of 'questions and procedures for ministers' makes clear that papers for the Cabinet and ministerial committees should, wherever appropriate, cover any significant costs and benefits to the environment".But the Select Committee notes that that strategy,fails to indicate who determines whether it is 'appropriate' for environmental costs and benefits to be examined in any particular paper, and who should assess the net environmental costs that might arise".The Government's response to the committee's report does not answer that point. It remains impossible to determine whether papers for Cabinet have or have not carried environmental statements or to form any judgment about the quality of those statements. There is, of course, the difficulty of releasing Cabinet papers; nevertheless, I believe that some effort should be made to demonstrate publicly that the procedures are being followed.
On another point, the Select Committee is not confident about the present role of the so-called "green Ministers". Indeed, strong words are used. Because of that there is a,serious risk of undermining confidence in the mechanisms as a whole and in the priority given to sustainable development at the heart of Government".What is at stake is that green Ministers have so far been preoccupied with green housekeeping; that is, issues of energy efficiency and of purchasing green products within their departments. Those topics are crucial. Nevertheless, the aspirations of most environmental groups are that green Ministers will be instrumental in looking at all their departmental policies and activities from an environmental perspective.
The Government's response offers some reassuring words in that regard, stating:Given the progress that has been made on green housekeeping, the Government agrees that the time is ripe for meetings of green ministers to broaden the range of issues they discuss".That is much to be welcomed. But that broadening of issues under discussion needs to be linked with other improvements that can and must be made to improve the effectiveness of those mechanisms. For example, it would be good to have published reports from the green Ministers in order to see how each interprets his or her responsibilities; what activities of environmental relevance are being undertaken and an overall assessment of the department's environmental performance. At the moment departmental annual reports are, by and large, not detailed enough in relation to the relevance of the environment to the department's activities.
The Government set out in two reports a methodology by which the environmental consequences of policies might be assessed. They gave a series of case studies from a range of departments showing how the appropriate methodology had been used. Nevertheless, despite the published guidance, there has been no environmental appraisal of key areas of policy such as rail privatisation, Sunday shopping or Post Office 1209 privatisation, when that was an option. The effectiveness of the guidance on policy appraisal needs to be evaluated and suggestions from within government as to how its use could be increased are urgently needed. We therefore welcome the Government's assurance that an evaluation of experience with the guidance will be commissioned shortly.
The guidance on the environmental assessment policies is of particular importance because of the potential to influence both new and existing policies. Some of the conflicts we are presently seeing between environmental and other policy goals could be avoided if all policies, not just a select few, were assessed at an early stage for possible environmental implications, and if appropriate mechanisms were in place for inter-departmental co-operation and decision making. The noble Viscount, Lord Blakenham, gave us an example of one recent failure in inter-departmental consultation.
The Government have willed the end—sustainable development—and many of the means to achieve it. But one of the means—that of ensuring that the environmental impact of the policies of specific departments are properly evaluated and taken into account in order that there might be consistency in giving environmental considerations proper priority—needs further examination in some of the ways I have tried to suggest. In the end, implementing the policy cannot be separated from having the right political mechanisms for ensuring that it is implemented.
§ 4.25 p.m.
§ Lord Porter of Luddenham
My Lords, I too thank my noble friend Lord Tombs and his committee for their thorough examination of the strategy for sustainable development and for the realistic recommendations of their report.
The strategist's job has to be based in the first place on knowledge, often scientific knowledge, even though that is often incomplete and uncertain. That is especially so in complex environmental matters such as those involving the stratospheric ozone layer and the greenhouse effect. The former of those—the so-called ozone hole in Antarctica—can now be attributed with reasonable certainty, at least in part, to increased levels of chlorine derived from chlorofluorocarbons, and the evidence is considered secure enough to justify their complete replacement internationally, even at considerable expense.
The greenhouse effect is less well established. Absorption of the solar radiation by carbon dioxide leading to atmospheric warming is fairly well understood; but the effect of that on climate cannot be established convincingly owing to the many other complex factors involved. It is a truism that if we cannot predict tomorrow's weather, we cannot have much faith in predictions for next year, let alone the next century.
An obvious strategy in cases like that, which is fully discussed in the report, is based on the precautionary principle, "If you don't know the facts, play it safe". That was referred to also by my noble friend Lord Tombs and the noble Lord, Lord Desai. The committee gives qualified support to the use of that principle in 1210 efforts to strike a balance between wealth creation and environmental protection. In paragraph 8.7 it recommends that,when the risks of irreversible damage are high, and the costs of action low, the precautionary principle justifies a decisive response. Otherwise, it may be wise to promote more research rather than take premature action.I strongly support that strategy, provided the research is aimed at improving understanding rather than short-term fixes. The Government's recent drives towards short-term, wealth-creating research rather than basic research aimed at a real understanding, is the opposite of what is needed to uphold the precautionary principle.
I hope your Lordships will allow me to tell a cautionary tale from my own research. Nearly 50 years ago I discovered a simple molecule. It consisted of two atoms, one of chlorine and one of oxygen. It was called chloric oxide (CLO). I carried out a full study of its properties although it only lasted for around one-thousandth of a second; it was interesting but quite useless. What was needed now was a problem.
In 1970 an Englishman, James Lovelock, noted that the new chlorine compounds being manufactured for refrigerators and aerosols—the well-known CFCs—had pervaded the whole troposphere, though he saw no cause for concern. However, Professor Rowland in California began to ask where all this chlorine was going and predicted that it would be transported—because CFCs were so stable in sunlight—to the stratosphere, where it would have catastrophic effects on the ozone layer. Rowland was derided by many in the chemical industry as a crank. However, he held his ground, and was proved to be right in 1987 when the Royal Society base in Halley Bay reported that 95 per cent. of the ozone in the stratosphere at altitudes between 14 and 23 kilometres had disappeared in two months during the Antarctic spring.
Evidence for the implication of chlorine and CLO in this change was provided by a large airborne American campaign which overflew Antarctica in 1987. The results were very convincing: the unstable CLO molecules appeared rapidly and abundantly in late August, followed by a dramatic fall in ozone. The consequence was immediate international concern—which is not unusual—and also—what is unusual—a rapid implementation of world-wide agreements to outlaw chlorine from entering the atmosphere and the stratosphere. Last week Rowland was awarded a Nobel prize for his work.
This little parable illustrates how the knowledge on which strategy has to be based is often acquired by chance from many quarters and over long periods of time, especially in matters of geological or meteorological change. In the words of paragraph 2.17 of the committee's report:The continuing uncertainties and gaps in our knowledge should be seen as spurs to the reduction of scientific uncertainty. They call for the strongest possible support for research into many areas of public concern, and caution against a failure to take fully into account the likely progress that scientific and technical advances may offer in the search for sustainable development.The report warns against the deliberate or inadvertent devaluation of the precautionary principle. If the precautions taken or advocated on environmental 1211 grounds have no serious economic costs or, on the contrary, have economic or other advantages, then it is unnecessary and even irrelevant to invoke the precautionary principle at all. Thus the promotion of energy economies will reduce the emissions of carbon dioxide and might therefore diminish climate change, but they will surely reduce the demand put upon limited energy resources of the world and are therefore to be encouraged anyway. In the opinion of the committee (at paragraph 4.65):in the context of the CCP, the present heavy reliance of Government upon measures to promote improved energy efficiency are well judged.When there are heavy costs of implementing precautionary measures, a cost-benefit analysis will be appropriate, provided the facts are understood well enough to estimate costs and benefits. If, as is so often the case, the facts are not known, it would appear reasonable to err on the side of caution—but not too far. Safety has become something of a fetish in chemical research and teaching, so that it is virtually forbidden to carry out the simplest experiments and demonstrations from which my generation of chemists learnt their skills and derived much enjoyment. Today it seems to be more permissible to show schoolchildren the apparatus for avoiding conception than, for example, the apparatus for preventing fire and explosion. My Lords, precautions can be bad for you—they should be used with discretion.
§ 4.35 p.m.
§ Viscount Caldecote
My Lords, we are all grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Tombs, and his committee for a most excellent report on this subject, which is as important and wide-ranging as it is difficult. It is most refreshing that so many of its recommendations are clear and firm. The committee wisely decided to exclude some important issues, such as fish stocks at sea and river pollution. I look forward to the further report from the Select Committee on Science and Technology on those subjects. The committee also wisely decided to concentrate on four main policy issues, on which I should like to make a few comments in a moment.
There are two serious obstacles to pursuing the best policy for sustainable development. The first is regulations. Many restrictions are sometimes necessary if we are to achieve the results we want and the results, even in best practice, are long term. Neither of those is a vote catcher. Secondly, as the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, said, sustainable development implies sustainable growth: perhaps they are synonymous. With existing knowledge, indefinite growth world wide is incompatible with conservation of natural resources in the long term, and even to maintain the status quo in the long term requires much more efficient and economic use of natural resources. Hence the vital importance of improving recycling techniques and of encouraging their application through appropriate incentives.
The committee rightly supports the setting up of targets for recycling, and indeed on other issues too. The Government response emphasises the need to involve business in target setting. That is right too, but we must 1212 accept that few targets will be met without adequate incentives and sometimes, as I have indicated, regulation. As is indicated in paragraph 4.35 of the report, Treasury opposition to incentives must be overcome; otherwise we shall be left to rely entirely on regulations, and there will always be opposition to more regulation.
On atmospheric pollution, the committee concentrated on the emission of gases, but a recent report from the World Health Organisation indicates that there are equally serious—perhaps more serious—problems of particle emissions. These, I understand, come mainly from vehicle exhausts. I hope that my noble friend who is replying to the debate will say what action Her Majesty's Government intend to take in relation to this problem. It is closely related of course to transport policy, to which I should like to refer in a moment.
On the management of rural land, I welcome the committee's endorsement of proposals outlined in Biodiversity: the UK Action Plan (Cm 2428) which is referred to at paragraph 3.44 onwards of the report. However, we need to put much greater emphasis on protecting SSSIs from the effects of pressure for more roads and other damaging developments, and, as has already been said, we also need to reform the CAP, ultimately so as to get rid of the absurd existence of set-aside, combined with the use of dangerous chemicals, to increase output elsewhere.
Less than 1 per cent. of the United Kingdom's land surface contains critical habitats which support a vast number of valuable plants and wildlife. These include wet grasslands, reed beds, Caledonian pine forests and lowland heaths. I would ask my noble friend whether the Government will set clear targets for road building which are consistent with protecting these habitats in line with the United Kingdom's commitment to the Biodiversity Convention and the Biodiversity Action Plan. There will be an opportunity to carry forward this policy when issuing ministerial guidance to the two new environmental agencies which were set up under the 1995 Environment Act. I understand that that guidance will be laid before Parliament next spring. Can my noble friend the Minister give us an assurance that this guidance will include requirements for those agencies to set and achieve clear biodiversity targets?
Turning now to transport issues, in paragraph 3.20 the committee's report says:the Committee believes that too little progress has been made in establishing targets towards sustainable development in transport".I strongly endorse that view. But those targets must be set in the context of an overall transport policy to make the optimum use of and to have optimum co-operation between all forms of transport, including transport on rivers, which is widely neglected. As an example of the results of having no overall transport policy, the case of Westminster City Council and its recent decision on waste transport and disposal is relevant. The contract was put out to competitive tender. The waste was previously carried by barge down the Thames; but, mainly for reasons of greater expense of this method, the contract was given to a firm to transport the waste 1213 by lorry through the streets. That adds to pollution and traffic congestion—both wholly undesirable from the environmental aspect.
In that example, as in so many others, the fact is that no credit is given to the value of the benefit to the environment. When taking decisions where there is conflict between immediate obvious cost-saving and long-term benefit to sustainable development, there is an urgent need for some way to ensure that a comparison between alternative methods takes fully into account a quantified long-term value of the most environmentally friendly solution. As the noble Lord, Lord Desai, said, this is a very difficult issue. He seemed to think that the problem is impossible to solve but I think that that is rather defeatist. We must try as hard as we can to achieve such quantification. Failure to do that will result in continued unconstructive arguments between quantified short-term costs and apparently emotional long-term values.
Many of the problems of sustainable development are akin to those of government expenditure. As Sir Winston Churchill said, everyone is in favour of economy in principle but expenditure in detail. We are all in favour of protecting the environment in principle, but damaging it when that seems desirable in particular cases. To achieve the optimum level of sustainable development is a huge and difficult problem. In seeking to solve it, we must always remember that continuing damage to the environment is irreversible, as when a species of animal or plant life becomes extinct. And just as anyone would give all his or her savings or more to bring back a seriously ill wife, husband or child to good health, so we must be prepared to pay in terms of present standards of living to preserve the environment for generations to come.
I warmly welcome the report as a valuable contribution to debate and progress on this important issue of sustainable development.
§ 4.43 p.m.
§ Baroness Hilton of Eggardon
My Lords, I, too, welcome this report and its careful analysis of sustainable development. My chief reservation is that implicit in the phrase is an assumption that sustainability is about not making things worse and about preserving what we have in the way of a natural environment while development is about developing the economy. I do not believe that perpetual development is possible, a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, and the noble Viscount, Lord Caldecote. It would be safer to reverse this conceptualisation and to think about sustaining our present level of economic activity while developing and improving our environment. That would require a considerable change in philosophy as well as of government policy.
Environmental protection has a long history in this country. For example, in the 19th century, Engels thought that one of the worst consequences of capitalism was its tendency to lead to over-exploitation of the earth, the destruction of forests and soil erosion. The noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, referred to John Stuart Mill who in 1848 doubted whether there would be much satisfaction in contemplating the world with nothing left 1214 to the spontaneous activity of nature—every foot of land brought into cultivation; all quadrupeds or birds, which are not domesticated for man's use, exterminated; and every hedgerow or superfluous tree rooted out.
There was in this country very much earlier concern for the environment. As early as 1285 there was a commission of inquiry into air pollution in London. In the early Tudor period there was legislation to prevent coppices being converted into pasture land and to prevent timber trees being used by the Sussex iron industry. Echoes of current disputes are rife throughout history. In 1577 it was said that foxes would have been,utterly destroyed…many years gone",if gentlemen had not protected them,to hunt and have pastime with".That debate is currently going on in the House.
Concern for the environment has thus existed in this country for many centuries. What is different today is the pace of change and public awareness of environmental issues. Within our lifetime, as the noble Viscount, Lord Blakenham, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford said, there has been a catastrophic decline in common birds—thrushes and larks—and in habitats such as ponds and hedgerows. Our landscape has become increasingly tailored and lacking in variety. This decline in habitats and landscape has been matched by growing concern among the public not just on the grounds of aesthetics and the appearance of the landscape but also on the ground of health.
I welcome the report on sustainable development and the apparent commitment of the Government to setting targets and strategies. However, it is disappointing that in this increasingly critical situation they are not prepared to go much beyond European environmental legislation to preserve and enhance the environment in this country. Much more, I believe, needs to be done to develop a coherent strategy which includes incentives as well as regulations so that the richness of our habitats may be restored and we may achieve pollution free-air, earth and water. It is not just the aesthetics of landscape and the health of the nation that are important. The greatest loss, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford said, is that, as the pace of change quickens, as farming becomes agri-business, and as wilderness and nature are tamed and tidied, there is a serious diminution in the richness and complexity of life. Those are such important elements which stimulate and enrich the human mind.
§ 4.47 p.m.
§ Baroness Platt of Writtle
My Lords, I read the committee's report during the long hot days this summer when global warming seemed imminent. I have lived long enough, however, to know that English summers are infinitely variable and we may yet experience again several cold summers in a row.
I congratulate, as so many other noble Lords have done, the noble Lord, Lord Tombs, and the committee on their hard work in studying the multiplicity of reports from the UK government, the European Union and the overarching worldwide conference held in Rio. I agree with the majority of the committee's conclusions, 1215 including its conclusion on the need to strike a balance between wealth creation and environmental protection, which it recognised is very difficult, and the need to set flexible targets in a variety of fields.
I also agree with the committee's recommendation for a balance between economic and regulatory approaches—in all these areas there will be many different strongly held views—and on the need for informed public discussion. I agree with the committee that the discussion must he on the basis of sound scientific knowledge and therefore, as it, too, concludes, there is a great need for good environmental education and a rising awareness of the problems in a cool and calculating manner, as the Government recognise in their recently published response to the committee's report.
I should like to concentrate particularly on the importance of changing the lifestyles and attitudes of consumers and citizens worldwide in both the developed and developing worlds. Our problems are different and will remain so for decades. Nevertheless, we are all living on the same planet and we are dependent on each other. I agree with the committee on the importance of energy saving, which can often save money and not entail extra costs.
When I was chairman of finance of Essex County Council we put in hand an important energy saving initiative. We told the county architect that he could put in hand any capital projects designed to save energy which had a pay-back period of less than three years. We put energy saving on the school curriculum. There is no one better for saving energy than an eight year-old children saying, "Shut the window and turn the thermostat down".
We made a film for the training of caretakers in the better control of boilers and co-operated with Cranfield University in developing a method of computerised control. As a result, over a 10-year period, we saved £33 million gross, £26 million net. As well as saving energy, it also saved money, which could be spent more usefully on teachers and books. That story illustrates clearly how a technological approach helps the environment. More recently, Essex County Council has also calculated that 63,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide per annum were not emitted into the atmosphere.
Those vast savings were made possible by the flexibility of our financial rules, which allowed investment and subsequent savings to be spread over several years. Now I believe that the campaign continues on a five-year pay-back period. I have always felt that Treasury policy is far too much based on yearly budgets with a sharp cut-off date at the end of each financial year. I believe that in all policies to do with the environment, and indeed in wealth creation, time scales of five years to 10 years should be built in to control of investment policy to allow capital to be spent in the early years resulting in revenue savings in future years, achieving perhaps a final net zero sum, or at worst, very low net cost.
In this House some years ago there was considerable investment in energy-saving lightbulbs, so that now we reap the annual reward of very much lower lighting 1216 costs. I believe that individuals should be encouraged to invest in this way at home, and also to insulate their homes better. Government grants are offered for that purpose. Perhaps VAT might be reduced on certain items that clearly reduce energy use, which might encourage individual citizens to join the partnership in energy saving. It is only at the mass level that mass savings can be made.
That is even more true worldwide. I was pleased to read of the international assistance in energy saving given by the UK ODA to the developing world, especially in terms of increased use of solar energy; one of the few resources with which the developing countries are plentifully endowed. The ODA also concentrates on providing more efficient cooking stoves in partnership with charities such as Intermediate Technology. The traditional way of cooking in the developing world uses three stones, with a substantial amount of heat going out between those stones. Intermediate Technology has organised the making locally in Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe of ceramic stoves from clay quite cheaply. They enclose the fire and conserve the heat so that less firewood has to be collected.
I also saw a film about an Indian engineer who slurried cow turds to make natural gas, which was piped to the village. He consulted the women beforehand with the result that all but one were delighted to use the new two-burner gas stoves. Two burners were a tremendous step forward in family cooking and once again they were enclosed to save the heat. Fascinatingly, the left-over slurry made a far better fertiliser so he metaphorically killed two birds with one stone. That was real, sustainable development. These sorts of initiatives save women hours of drudgery in collecting wood and reduce deforestation, so they are worth very strong encouragement.
I hope very much these low-technology solutions to local problems will continue to be encouraged worldwide. They save resources and improve the quality of life in so many different ways. I hope too in the future that the World Bank will invest more money in research leading to initiatives of this kind, so that fossil fuels and trees will be saved in the developing world and their people will, at the same time, enjoy a better quality of life.
The CBI in our own country has produced an interesting report, which I recommend to your Lordships. It is called Environmental Costs, clearly stating that Britain needs a high-quality environment, a safety culture and a successful economy if the aspirations of its citizens are to be met. As it says, only a competitive Britain will have the resources to achieve society's objectives. It goes on to show that where the right action is taken, applying the best technology, care of the environment is good for business and business is good for the environment and the underlying principle of sustainable development.
The report emphasises the importance of board level leadership and of integrating environmental matters fully into business strategies right from the start, not bolted on at the end. The report is illustrated with many strategies already adopted by businesses that have 1217 proved successful. That is why I recommend the report. I do not have the time to describe them all but I shall mention just one. Pilkington, after six years of R&D, created Pilkington K, an energy-saving glass which gives the same thermal insulation as a nine-inch brick wall, while letting light in, just like ordinary glass. It estimates that if all single-glazed homes in the United Kingdom were double glazed with K glass there would be an energy saving of £1,000 million per year and a consequent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions of 11 million tonnes. That product is a commercial success, gaining 80 per cent. of the UK market since its launch and substantial export sales. That is the application of high technology at its best.
The CBI has produced a forward-looking document and it is no use pretending that all firms are adopting those sorts of strategies at present. However, it represents a step in the right direction by a powerful national body, and there is no doubt in my mind that the dissemination of good practice is one of the best ways of encouraging other firms to follow suit in technology application. We still, however, have a long way to go in implementing those kinds of strategies and they need to be translated into ongoing day-to-day tactics by all involved.
In this context I hope that the Government will reconsider their response and implement the committee's recommendations by cutting drastically the tax on natural gas vehicles as a road fuel, as has been done by other European member states and by Canada. That would constitute a major step forward in combating urban air pollution, as the noble Lord, Lord Tombs, emphasised earlier.
In the past, we relied on the knowledge that the universe is infinite and because it seems so large in relation to an individual human being, we viewed our own world in the same way. That view is now totally out of date. I am glad that the Government substantially agree with the committee's report and therefore I hope that they will continue to pursue energetically their programme of integrated sustainable development. That would have to include investing some public money in long-term energy saving and environmental projects. However, if industry, education, voluntary non-governmental organisations and ordinary citizens, all co-operate in partnership, there will be both environmental and financial returns of a positive nature in the future. This is an urgent matter and procrastination is just not a possible alternative. Priorities and targets need to be set, monitored and achieved as soon as possible, as the Government and the committee agreed.
§ 4.59 p.m.
§ Lord Dixon-Smith
My Lords, I regret that I have to begin by asking for the tolerance of the House because I shall be obliged to leave before the end of this most interesting and important debate. Hansard, unfortunately, will not provide me with the feel for the discussion which my complete attendance would have secured. I can only proffer your Lordships my deep apologies.
1218 Next, I must express my gratitude to the chairman of the Select Committee and, indeed, to all its members because they so kindly tolerated my presence among them at so many of their sessions when they were gathering evidence. I found the whole exercise fascinating. My only regret is that the amount of paper that it generated was almost an environmental offence in itself.
It is better to travel hopefully than to arrive, and so I have to say that I do not regret the fact that the Select Committee was unable to find and agree an absolute meaning for the phrase "sustainable development". Indeed, I wish that we could use other words because "sustainable development" is, if it is anything, a political concept and as such will have different meanings to different peoples depending on their circumstances. As the noble Lord, Lord Tombs, suggested in his opening speech, the phrase will have different international interpretations. Worse still, its meaning may well change as circumstances change. Certainly, it will be interpreted differently across the face of the planet. "An examination of policies and actions of the British peoples to reduce damage to the environment" is perhaps a better description of the content of the report although it does nothing to alter its quality. However, that description is both precise and easily understood.
The Select Committee was asked to work on a limited time scale and wisely restricted itself to consideration of matters which are under exclusive national control. It resisted the Syren temptation to divert its attention to considering the international problems caused by population growth. I do not intend to dwell on those matters, but some mention of the context in which the report was written is required.
By the end of the first quarter of the next century—the timetable which the Select Committee set itself—if present trends continue, the global population is expected to increase by between 40 and 50 per cent. I should add that that is the time at which my grandchildren will be expecting to bring up their families, so the timescale is relatively short. That population increase will be unevenly spread. The developed world generally has more static numbers. However, the point to note is that that rapid increase will have the most profound strategic effect on all commodities, a point to which I shall return.
The next point that I wish to note is that the pace of development in the less developed world will accelerate as those countries attempt to deal with the consequences of demographic change as well as take advantage of improving their living conditions in the light of modern knowledge. I am not aware that anyone has tried to plot a relationship between a society's degree of development and the atmospheric emissions of that society, but I suspect that such a relationship exists. I shall use just one figure to illustrate the point. According, to the World Resources Institute, which is based in Washington, per capita emissions from the United States are almost nine times per capita emissions from China. We know that the Chinese are developing rapidly in their haste to catch up and that many other countries are doing the same. We must assume, therefore, that their per capita emissions will be likely to increase also.
1219 We have a dual pressure, therefore, which will artificially increase the global volume of emissions (both gas and particulates) as a result of human activity, with a consequent increase in the potential greenhouse effect—if that is proven to exist. While preparing this speech, I saw a report which indicated that experts now agree that the global climate is in fact changing as a result of industrial development.
I make no more of that except to observe that, as a consequence, we need new technologies—and we need them fast. In particular, we need technologies to provide energy sources that do not involve the combustion of carbon. Not only will that make possible a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions, but, because of the impurities inherent in all carbon-based fuels, there will also be a reduction in many other noxious gas and particle emissions. That problem is now so urgent that major research resources should be devoted to its solution even if, as a consequence, other avenues of research have to be restricted for a time.
I must add that that should not be interpreted as a plea for any expansion of nuclear power generation—far from it. The long-term problems of that industry are well known and the Government have rightly concluded that the expansion of that industry cannot be justified at this time. In any event, other avenues exist with less harmful implications, particularly in the field of fuel-cells.
I turn now to agriculture, the other industry that will be placed under enormous pressure. It is good to see that the report is generally complimentary about developments in the industry in recent years. Farming is unique, I think, in undertaking its manufacturing process out in the open where it is fully exposed to the public gaze. As a result, farmers are accustomed to everybody knowing their business and are increasingly accustomed to everybody telling them what they should and should not do. When that advice is well informed, it is welcomed, but some of what is said nowadays in certain quarters is beginning to look a little dated.
It is popular to portray the industry as growing fat producing unwanted surpluses. That portrayal really is dated. I have been examining the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation's statistics for global wheat and coarse grain production and consumption over the past five years. I shall not quote the figures since they seem to undergo constant adjustment in the light of more updated information. However, what they do reveal is that over that period, production and utilisation more or less balance; the total difference over the five-year period being less than the seasonal variation from year to year. That is not the production of unwanted surpluses. Further, if we consider the European situation, we must note that the intervention stores that caused so much concern when they were full in the past are now empty. That has been finally achieved over the past few months without the need for export subsidy as grains are now traded on the world market at prices above the European intervention prices. I am told that the beef mountain will be cleared by the end of the year and that the butter mountain is greatly diminished.
1220 Assuming that society is even to stand still from a nutritional point of view, if the predicted population growth occurs, consistent steady increases in farm output will be required. I will not divert into the economic and political problems which may arise in solving distributional problems, great though they are. I merely remind the House that it is said that farming works in the natural environment. And nature is a wonderful thing. Technological development has imposed its own pressures; pressures that interestingly are paralleled in the medical field. Crops bred for disease resistance find that after a time the disease changes its nature and immunity diminishes. Materials developed to control pests, weeds and diseases become superseded for the same reasons. We are on a treadmill in order to stand still let alone to move forwards.
My purpose in mentioning that is not to remind the House of the biblical seven fat years and seven lean years; it is rather that these facts support my argument that society requires and will continue to require continuous technological development of all kinds if it is to meet the urgent needs of its peoples and at the same time conserve a beautiful environment and have sustainable development. I could develop the agricultural argument in much greater detail but I will not trouble your Lordships' patience at this time.
The Select Committee has undertaken a tremendous study within the refined terms of reference that it was set. While what is revealed in the report will undoubtedly not satisfy everyone, it is a cause for optimism that so much is being done. I have set out to show that there is another side to the coin of sustainable development; one where technological development is both the hope and the opportunity for the future. I am grateful to the House for its attention.
§ 5.12 p.m.
§ Lord Barber of Tewkesbury
My Lords, as a member of the Select Committee I, too, wish to pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Tombs. I hope that he will not take offence—I mean it as a compliment—if I say that I regarded his chairmanship of that committee as a kind of gracious ruthlessness which lasted for more than 15 months. Without chairmanship of that quality I have no doubt that we should be wrangling happily or unhappily upstairs to this day.
I must declare an interest in commercial farming. Furthermore, I was reminded by the noble Viscount, Lord Blakenham, that I too must declare that I was once chairman of the council of the governing body of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. I had forgotten about that. Rather than making a generalised offering on the report, I wish to concentrate on a matter which is dear to my heart and about which I believe we have balanced perspectives.
First, I wish to make a general point. I was disappointed by the notice which the report received in some parts of the specialist press. I got something in the agricultural press by bullying a journalist who owed me a good turn to put something in. However, my sorrow is that the massive volumes of written and oral evidence are a unique archive. Certainly as regards agriculture and land-based industries, I know of no other archive 1221 that is so valuable. It would be a great pity if we could not gamer together enough publicity to ensure that volumes are available in every library and institution where agriculture and land-based industries are taught.
Agriculture is such a complex, technical and economic industry that the complexities dim the light of those seeking sustainable enlightenment. I wish to draw together some of the strands of evidence which came to us and which otherwise might be lost. Some of the evidence was certainly worthy of being read and re-read a dozen times. In searching for sustainability, the starting point must be our soils about which we had very interesting evidence. And the first issue must be to recognise the immense complexities of the subject, those few centimetres of the earth's crust on which we all depend, and to note the influence which polemical arguments, often dubiously based but skilfully presented, have had on public opinion.
Although it takes about a thousand years to form a centimetre of soil from weathering rock, circumstances can change in a remarkably short space of time. When the Strutt Committee reported on soils some 25 years ago in 1970, its main conclusions were that the major farmland soil problems related to compaction by machinery, poor drainage and acidity through failure to apply lime. All those matters could be put right with little difficultly. On soil degradation in the form of erosion, deteriorating soil structure and decline in organic matter levels there was much less comment. But over this 25 year period, when soil productivity has flourished with wheat yields virtually doubling, cropping sequences and husbandry practices have changed and there is now disquiet—and argument—about decline in soil quality. The pregnant questions are by how much and what proportion of the decline is judged to be irreversible.
Professor Peter Bullock, an internationally known soil scientist, with whom I spent much informative time on the campus at Silsoe, gave evidence to us. He believes that 10 per cent. of our soils may have suffered irreversible decline. But this proportion naturally includes the organic soils like the farmland fens where we would have to withdraw from farming altogether and flood them with water if they were to be conserved. Moving from the current high value crop production to some sort of rotation including grass would merely postpone the decline, for these soils start to go as soon as they are exposed to the atmosphere. And below them are often mineral soils of lower but still reasonable quality which will be cultivated.
On other soil erosion, Professor Bullock told us that up to 75 per cent. of the damage could be stopped by modest changes in husbandry by, for example, ploughing across the contour rather than down the slope. Again, as a caveat, it must be recognised that much erosion is on an individual field scale or in parts of fields. It would be absurdly irresponsible to minimise soil deterioration in the UK, but the expert evidence presented to the Select Committee was hardly on the dramatic scale so often suggested by non-scientists writing for the newspapers. There is a problem of 1222 indeterminate scale which has to be addressed by further research and a widening of perception by farmers on what needs to be done.
An agronomist's view came from Mr. John North who told us:However, it is impossible to quantify the scale and extent of overall levels of change in relation to soils, in part due to the absence of rigorous methodology, robust data and a lack of understanding of the many interactions involved".He then went on to suggest that while there is agreement that the texture of the soil is important there is, even now, continuing disagreement of the importance of many aspects of farming systems and production practices in relation to risk of damage to the soil and the long-term effects on soil fertility. The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution is investigating soils and its report is anticipated by the end of this year. There will be a lot more grist to the soil's mill when that arrives.
Soil health is but one component in the search for sustainability of farm systems. Agrochemicals—that is pesticides and fertilisers—are being examined on the basis of the fewer the better. Fertilisers are being examined because of potential pollution and the use of fossil fuel in their manufacture. Pesticides—that most pejorative word in the conservation vocabulary—are being examined for their suspected health hazards and effect on ecosystems.
Achieving a sensible balanced view in this whole field is not easy. The scars of the organochlorines—aldrin, dieldrin and heptaclor—and their disastrous effects on wildlife still linger in the memory. And organophosphate sheep dips are the subject of much debate in your Lordships' House. But perhaps I may quote two experts who work with crop pesticides: Richard Bromilow and Peter Nicholls of Rothamstead, that major seat of farming experience. They say:The effects of pesticides on the microbial populations in soil are only transient, and long-term field trials have failed to find any deleterious effects on soil fertility following repeated applications of pesticides. On the available evidence, we believe that the present use of modern pesticides in the UK will not lead to the accumulation of hazardous residues in soils, nor to deleterious effects on either crop growth or the wider environment".As to water pollution, I was extremely impressed by a recent NRA report which tells us that non-agricultural pesticides may be the main threat to groundwater quality.
One wonders whether there would have been more balanced thinking about pesticides if they had been called plant and animal health products. Let us not forget, for example, that fungicides are often essential for maintaining quality in cereals; and without quality we shall not get very far in the ever-more competitive conditions to come. Producing a large heap of grain of unknown quality and then looking for a buyer are for days long gone. But the main issue is surely this: we must not allow objectivity to be eroded by populist pressures as we move towards lower pesticides use. On the way are spectacular achievements in genetic engineering which will introduce disease resistant genes into plant breeding and in consequence make us less dependent on pesticides, and, incidentally will allow products to be tailored for specific market requirements.
1223 Equally spectacular are the achievements already with us in the form of satellite mapping of our farms to enable far more precise applications and therefore reductions of agrochemicals. It would be bad judgment indeed, and it would be bad for the long-term competitiveness of the farming industry if we were pushed too quickly down the road to restrictions on pesticides use which were based on guesswork and misplaced anxiety.
It will be interesting to hear more from the Government on the development of a pesticides index which is an eminently sensible step forward. In their response to the report, the Government have accepted the desirability of targets but point to the difficulty of devising a comprehensive set which takes account of farming and environmental diversity problems. That is surely fair comment but the report argues for targets wherever they can be practical because nothing crystallises the mind as much as a background figure to influence thinking and planning. Extreme vagueness, if replaced by a target, however loose and flexible, moves action a step forward where little or no movement was previously discernible.
All of that brings me to farming systems. What are the factors here concerned with sustainability? Can it be agreed that there are four main components of environmentally responsible agriculture: care of the soil; careful use of inputs to avoid harmful degrees of pollution; provision and management of wildlife habitats wherever practical—green farm furniture if you like; and the tailoring of farming systems to be sustainable and to promote bio-diversity?
Although there can be argument about the first three, the issues are clearly defined, as I have tried to do in an inevitably superficial way. It is the fourth component of farming systems with which I and many others have difficulty; and it is in that sphere where there is the greatest confusion on the part of those who are not, either directly or indirectly, involved in the industry who see putting the clock back to universal mixed farming, longer rotations, more extensive farming and perhaps even a hint of organic husbandry as the only keys to sustainability. Those arguments are questionable and often in direct conflict with having a UK farming industry which is internationally competitive and looks to the future with confidence.
Many environmental "good things", a whole comprehensive range of them, can be superimposed on an efficient commercial system. New habitats can be woven into the fabric of high-class arable farming and green fingers of one sort or another of better hedgerow management, headland strips to provide the weedseed and the invertebrate feedstock for the corn buntings and tree sparrows and the rest, as well as more recently, the opportunity to use set-aside for better purposes. What can be referred to as a nice green shagginess can be draped over an efficient system without diluting its profitability—a proper and sensible integration of the two objectives. But tinkering with successfully evolved farming systems is an altogether different matter.
1224 What will be found is that most successful entrepreneurs do their utmost to squeeze down their inputs whilst maximising their outputs. To do otherwise is to court extra unnecessary risk. I feel particularly grateful to a scientist, Professor Ben Miflin, Director of the Arable Crops Research Institute, for advising the Select Committee about the LIFE programme—that is, the Less Intensive Farming and Environment programme—at Long Ashton Research Station. Contrary to all the premature claims being made as to its success of lowering inputs while maintaining profits, Professor Miflin sought to refer to the experiment as "promising". But the risks and management costs had not yet been built into the figures. Professor Miflin said:We have to bear in mind that for the individual farmer it is consistency of performance that is extremely important. He cannot afford to take major risks in any one year otherwise he is out of business.How refreshing to hear such wisdom coming from such an expert source—that the LIFE programme and other less intensive work takes on board additional risks to conventional systems, that bear economic penalties.
There is a final point in that connection which must be recognised. Precision in the food production process is a commercial element which has been pursued with considerable success during the past 30 years. It will become yet more important as CAP support drains away and market forces bite. And you lose precision, for example, if your take pigs out of doors; replace pesticides with more hit-and-miss biological controls; and when you start muddling with lowering inputs below good housekeeping practice. Those are matters often totally ignored when we pursue the sustainability concept.
So, for the industry, the message of this report will be that the move to sustainability needs to be a series of steps based on scientific data of proved worth. That general message is contained in paragraph 8.7 of the conclusions of the report. The noble Lord, Lord Porter of Luddenham, mentioned this but perhaps I may repeat it because it is so important. In my mind, it encapsulates very roughly the general feeling that we all had when we came to the end of our 15 months' stint. The report states:Given the uncertainties, the difficulties for Governments in trying to strike a balance between wealth creation and environmental protection should not be under-estimated. Clearly, when the risks of irreversible damage are high, and the costs of action low, the precautionary principle justifies a decisive response. Otherwise, it may be wise to promote more research rather than to take premature action".Those words have a particular relevance to the agricultural industry, for I am quite sure that advancing technology is going to provide for sustainable advance on a step-by-step basis.
I conclude with two further quotes from the evidence, quotes which in themselves are almost worthy of their own debate. First, the National Farmers Union said:We view sustainability as a conceptual approach rather than a firmly defined goal".And Professor John Marsh of the University of Reading said: 1225Intensive production is not necessarily less sustainable than extensive production … at a global level the solution to sustainable development cannot lie in seeking more extensive agricultural systems but must involve making intensive systems more sustainable".I thought that those were profound thoughts indeed.
§ 5.27 p.m.
§ Lord Norrie
My Lords, I too congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Tombs, and the committee on their report, which has tackled the issue of sustainable development in great depth and with due care. There are concerns raised by non-governmental organisations expert in this field, and I should like to highlight some of these this afternoon.
In my view, one of the most important aspects of the report is its recognition of the finite character of the environment. I agree with my noble friend Lord Caldecote that if we use up finite resources today, or damage them irreparably, they will not be available for future generations to use or enjoy.
In that connection, I should like to make three points. First, land is a finite resource yet it is not dealt with directly in the report. I believe that it needs careful consideration, both by this House and by the Government. Mark Twain (I think it was) put it in a nutshell when he said, "they ain't making it any more". We have a finite stock of land and we should be guarding it with the greatest care. And yet, according to research by CPRE, we are still losing land at a rate of over 12,000 hectares per year.
Under the heading of Targets and Rural Land Use, I add another issue—the loss of rural land to urban development. When we lose rural land, we lose the capacity to produce food, we lose natural habitats, we lose opportunities for rural recreation and we lose precious landscapes. I firmly believe that we need to give urgent priority to this problem.
Secondly, the committee recognises the important role of designations in reducing the impact of development on vulnerable or valued environments. Indeed, it has been a long-held principle that national parks should be protected from major and damaging development, and it is on this subject that I should like to concentrate for a few minutes.
I should be grateful if the Minister can provide an assurance that the major development test contained in the planning policy guidance will be rigorously applied to all proposed developments including those which are not subject to town and country planning regulations. I also hope that the Government will encourage developers to place greater emphasis on examining alternatives as part of the environmental assessment of development proposals in national parks.
The 10 national parks represent 10 per cent. of the land surface of England and Wales and attract over 100 million visitors a year. Their designation is important not only as a means of protecting beautiful areas from damaging developments, but because they are central to the environmental health of the nation as a whole.
The two purposes for which national parks are designated are to conserve and enhance the scenic beauty, natural systems and land forms, wildlife and 1226 cultural heritage and to promote the understanding and enjoyment of the parks. Both purposes are consistent with the principles of sustainable development.
Because they have a history of some 40 years' practice in the area, national parks are blueprints—or, perhaps, I should say greenprints—for the wider countryside whereby established good practice can be replicated in other areas. I was very pleased to see that the Government recognised that point in the recent Rural White Paper.
As the committee is eager to advance the principle of setting targets, perhaps my noble friend the Minister can tell me what targets he has in mind for the national parks. I should very much welcome an overall target to protect and enhance their environmental quality. Equally, the committee recommends the integration of environmental objectives across all government departments. That point was alluded to by my noble friend Lord Blakenham, and indeed by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford. It echoes the principle of green Ministers and reflects the duty which the Environment Act places on public bodies to have regard to national park purposes.
Protecting national parks is not only the job of the national park authorities. Although the Minister may not be able to provide an answer this afternoon, I should be grateful if he would write to me, clarifying how he intends to ensure that that duty is discharged in departments other than his own.
I have outlined some of the major policy concerns that need to be addressed at the national level. However, without work on the ground, we shall not be able to make sustainable development a reality for ordinary people. That is my third point. The British Trust for Conservation Volunteers (BTCV), which involves over 100,000 volunteers in practical conservation work in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, has given me an insight into the solution.
A recent project shared with a metropolitan council in Huddersfield focused on the issues of an inner-city urban area where there was high unemployment, poverty and social problems. BTCV began its work by liaising with the local populations to put forward their aspirations. Soon many local people of all ages and backgrounds were taking part in drafting management plans to deal with environmental problems for those particular areas.
Many of the people involved in the project had not previously undertaken practical conservation work. Yet virtually everyone was keen to learn and take part once they recognised the value of the project. This type of work demonstrates the need for a partnership approach among government, local communities and the voluntary sector. That is the essence of sustainable development working effectively at local level.
In conclusion, I believe that we must recognise land and landscape as finite. We must ensure that there are adequate laws to protect our finest landscapes, and we must support local partnerships which include all sections of the community so that wider participation in practical conservation work is encouraged.
§ 5.33 p.m.
§ Baroness Nicol
My Lords, when we began this exercise I felt rather despondent because it seemed to me that not only did the committee have an impossible task, but also that no chairman would ever be able to keep us to the point. However, I was wrong on both counts. I believe that the report is most useful. The noble Lord, Lord Barber, described the chairman of the committee as a ruthless dictator, or something like that. Although I agree with the description, I must say that the noble Lord managed very well to keep us under control.
We decided at the very beginning that we must limit the range of our examinations. I believe that that decision was both practical and wise because it would have been impossible to deal with the whole range in any depth. I believe that the result justifies that decision. I hope that the task which we have begun will be carried forward by bodies with a longer life expectancy than we had.
The committee was also aware that, although the achievement of sustainable development remains an essential aim, the background of scientific and other information is constantly changing so that the provision of advice to Her Majesty's Government must be a continuing exercise. The 1990s have seen a growth in the number of "green" official bodies, presumably intended to deal with that need. As we have heard from other speakers, there is a designated "green" Minister in each major government department who is charged with ensuring that environmental considerations are integrated into the policies and strategy of that department. That sounds a very important task.
However, as the right reverend Prelate, and others, pointed out, it was difficult for us to discover whether the system actually worked other than on a housekeeping basis. Certainly there was very little indication of strategic meetings. I was, therefore, relieved to read in the Government's response to our report that the activities of those green Ministers are to be widened. Other new bodies—and there are many of them—seem more positive. I refer to the establishment of the Round Table on Sustainable Development, the Panel on Sustainable Development, the Advisory Committee on Business and the Environment, the Biodiversity Action Group, the Scottish Advisory Group on Sustainable Development, the Central and Local Government Advisory Group and there are many more. Indeed, the list is far too long for me to mention all of them. There are also a number of countryside advisory groups set up by the Department of the Environment and by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.
Local government, too, has responded well to the challenge. At the time of the Select Committee's investigations some 200 local authorities had already begun to implement their plans for local Agenda 21. I understand that, since then, many more have come on stream. I believe that local authorities are an essential interface between central government and people. Without their involvement the educational task would be more difficult. It is encouraging that even though 1228 most local authorities are under financial stress many have produced, and are actually implementing, plans to support the Rio commitment.
With so many separate initiatives in progress it is vitally important that co-ordination of effort is seen as a high priority by the Government and is carried out at the highest level. The public are concerned about environmental issues and that is shown in survey after survey; indeed, the results always show that the environment comes second, perhaps sometimes third, to the very vital needs of a job and somewhere to live. Therefore, when all the verbiage from those many bodies is examined, I believe that the public will expect something positive to emerge as a result.
It is also important that an organisation once in place can rely on continued support, both financial and political, in carrying out its task. I am thinking in particular of the Energy Saving Trust, mentioned by our chairman in his opening remarks, which has been through a very frustrating period of underfunding. Although I welcome the Government's assurance in paragraph 88 of their response which suggests that the immediate difficulties have been resolved, it seems to me that it is only those difficulties that have been resolved, and the funding is not very accurate. I do not wish to suggest that an organisation or initiative once started must go on for ever, but while it exists it should function and not be merely a cosmetic exercise.
There was general agreement from witnesses that the need to involve and educate all citizens, regardless of age, on the elements of environmental protection is fundamental to the success of the Government's declared aims. The Secretary of State for the Environment, Mr. Gummer, has been particularly strong on that point, not only in his evidence to the Select Committee but also in many utterances made throughout the country since he came to office. I commend him for that. The committee agreed with him. It is worth looking at what arrangements are in place to achieve this objective.
Much work is being done by voluntary bodies. The noble Lord, Lord Norrie, gave us some examples. We owe a great deal to them for the effort they have put into environmental education long before there was any official approval, let alone support, for their exertions. I cannot list all of the bodies but those I have most admired include the RSPB, the National Trust, the CPRE, the Royal Society for Nature Conservation, which I believe is now called the wildlife trusts, the Green Alliance, and there are many more. The statutory bodies such as the Countryside Commission and the three nature conservancy bodies in England, Scotland and Wales have also contributed directly and indirectly to raising the awareness of the general public to the importance of sustaining their natural environment. Bodies such as Waste Watch, which provides invaluable advice to the public and to local government on waste reduction and recycling, are all part of an impressive network of expertise which until now has perhaps been undervalued in official circles.
We recently debated at some length the future of our national parks. As the noble Lord, Lord Norrie, pointed out, they provide an example of practical environmental 1229 education. Literally millions of visitors each year learn at first hand the value of conserving our natural heritage from generation to generation. The National Parks Review Panel stated:we regard it as important for all 60 million residents of the UK to have the opportunity to understand and appreciate the nature and character of the national parks and the role they can play in wider issues of environmental awareness".That is an extremely important statement.
Bodies such as the RSPB have accumulated valuable scientific evidence in the battle to maintain biodiversity in the UK. The committee was convinced, and has said, that the maintenance of biodiversity is an essential element in sustainable development and, at paragraph 8.19 of the report, suggests that targets are a realistic way forward for habitats and species. In spite of the difficulties that may seem to arise in setting targets for habitats and species many of us believe it is possible and believe that they should be set.
To sum up, my message to the Government is that there is a wealth of information and expertise available to them already and the new organisations are adding to this store—I am afraid!—on a daily basis. However, all will be wasted if there is not a will in government to co-ordinate the efforts, to disseminate information where it is needed and to legislate if need be. Every citizen must be involved in the task of ensuring that future generations are not deprived of the opportunities for enjoyment of our world which are still available to this generation. I welcome the positive statements in the Government's official response but the test will be whether the momentum can be continued even when the spotlight has turned elsewhere, as in politics it inevitably will. This is one subject which must not be allowed to fade if it becomes politically less fashionable or, as the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, said, the Government run out of energy. I commend the report to the House and I hope it will not be lost sight of.
§ 5.43 p.m.
My Lords, I welcome the report of the committee. Sustainable development is one of those nebulous concepts: everyone thinks that they know what they mean by it but no one can quite accurately define what they mean. However, we seem to agree that as a concept it must underpin decision making. There are obvious limits to the amount of damage the environment can take and those limits should not be breached. We must learn to tread more carefully on our precious resources.
The committee recommended that the concept of carrying capacity should be integrated into policy making. I should like to make a few observations of my own on this point. It is well known that some developments exceed the carrying capacity of the environment. That is unacceptable. It flies in the face of the principles of sustainable development. I would argue that nowhere is the concept of carrying capacity more important than in our national parks yet they are under greater pressure than many other areas.
I am particularly concerned about the often irreversible damage that is done by minerals developments in the parks. The committee notes the 1230 government target of increasing the use of mineral and construction wastes as aggregates, thereby reducing dependence on land-won aggregates from 83 per cent. to 68 per cent. by the year 2006. I very much support this target as a step in the right direction. By recycling mineral and construction waste, the demand on primary minerals is reduced. Other ways of managing demand are by being economical in our use of minerals and by redefining the requirements which give rise to the demand for minerals. One way of doing this is by questioning whether we really need a new development.
We can also reduce the impact on national parks by avoiding sources that are particularly environmentally sensitive; for example, by encouraging commitments to avoid the use of national parks for products for many major construction projects and industrial applications. Carrying capacity can be protected by the imposition of regulations. Although I am well aware that it is this Government's policy to deregulate where possible, the committee has recognised that there is still a need for some regulation in order to protect the environment. I was pleased to hear the noble Lord, Lord Tombs, underline that statement in his opening remarks.
I welcomed the inclusion of legislation on old mineral permissions as part of the Environment Bill which we debated earlier this year. In a number of debates I highlighted the damage that was caused by minerals workings, particularly those in national parks. Minerals extraction, by its very nature, is unsustainable. Minerals cannot be recreated, neither can the local distinctiveness of a landscape. The landscapes of our national parks are a particularly valuable asset which should not be depleted. I have mentioned that minerals can be recycled, for example as roadstone. However, national park landscapes cannot be recycled: once destroyed, they are lost for ever.
In the light of the recommendations of the committee and recent legislation on old permissions, I should like to bring to the attention of the House the concerns that still exist regarding old mineral permissions and use as an example the current situation in the Dartmoor National Park involving the winning of china clay. The present regime, facilitated by lax environmental conditions on the planning permissions and the inability of the park authority to impose additional conditions, has led to an unacceptable situation. I ask your Lordships to bear in mind that in Minerals Planning Guidance 14, paragraph 133 states:The industry now produces in the order of 25 million tonnes of waste each year, most of which is tipped outside the limits of the pits".In my example operators are opening up new workings as the present workings have reached a sufficient depth to be unviable in present economic circumstances. It would seem straightforward that these old workings should be closed, and the pits used to dispose of waste from the new workings. However, operators will not do this as it will "sterilise" the old workings should it become economic once more to use them. I find this unacceptable as the natural capital of a national park, one of our finest landscapes, is being permanently eroded.
1231 If we are truly to embrace the concept of sustainable development, national parks should be the last places where we allow such damaging mineral working. I was encouraged by inclusion of minerals provisions in the Environment Act but I am now concerned that the guidance does not have the necessary teeth. Planning authorities will find it difficult to impose meaningful conditions on operators of sites because their asset value might be affected, thus making the authority liable for compensation. Despite the new legislation the problem of vulnerable sites being worked, which today would stand no chance of receiving planning permission, still exists.
It is all very well to talk about and agree wide-ranging concepts such as sustainable development, but if we do not achieve change on the ground in national parks all of the discussion will be for nothing. I should like to see the Minister undertake to create a special planning regime in order to minimise the damage caused by china clay extraction in national parks.
I should also like the Minister to use the opportunity of the revision of Minerals Planning Guidance 1, General Considerations in the Development Plan System (the key statement of government policy on minerals planning) to ensure that the principle of environmental sustainability is followed. That will benefit the countryside in its widest sense, including the protection of non-critical assets—the general countryside—as well as critical assets, such as the national parks. The revised MPG should not lag behind both local practice and national environmental policy. It must incorporate the principles of environmental capacity and seek to work within them. Strategic environmental assessment has a role to play in achieving the sustainable development goal.
I have already welcomed the targets for the use of recycled materials instead of primary aggregates. It is important that the revised MPG1 provides guidance on appropriate development plan policies and planning conditions which will help to meet them.
The revision of MPG1 presents the opportunity to strengthen policies relating to national parks, where minerals extractions should only be permitted where a national need has been established and there are no alternative locations or other means of achieving the same benefits. That would encourage me to believe that the Government are committed to sustainable development and are taking practical measures in order to achieve it.
§ 5.51 p.m.
§ Lord Jenkin of Roding
My Lords, I must begin with a profound apology for the fact that it was impossible for me to be in the House to hear the greater part of the debate. As soon as I was informed that this was the date for the debate I indicated to the noble Lord, Lord Tombs, that I would inevitably be late. I am particularly sorry that I did not hear his speech opening the debate. I promise all those whose speeches I did not hear that I shall read them extremely carefully. I took part in the committee, which is the only Select Committee in either House on which I have served, and I did not wish to 1232 miss the opportunity of saying a few words in the debate. However, because I have not heard the rest of the debate I shall be brief. I hope that I shall not duplicate what others have said.
In paying tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Tombs, I know that I speak for everyone. He was a masterly chairman, who kept us firmly in order so that we only ran about six months over time.
I want to make only three short points. I was not alone in the Committee in being agreeably impressed by the rapid progress that has been made in recent years in developing environmental policy. Perhaps more than any other member of the Committee, I was in a position to compare the Department of the Environment when I left it in 1985 and the reports and evidence from the department presented to us in 1994 and 1995. It is right to mark the contrast and the real progress that has been made.
It is also right to record that perhaps the most notable milestone on that remarkable progress was the publication by my right honourable friend Mr. Christopher Patten of the first of the main reports, Our Common Inheritance. When in 1984, my right honourable friend Michael Jopling, who was Minister of Agriculture, and I embarked on a new policy for the Norfolk Broads in which both the Department of the Environment and the Ministry for Agriculture participated, that was regarded as a notable first. What a long way we have come since then! Ten years ago it would have been inconceivable that we should have heard evidence from a large number of active and committed NGOs which was so full of compliments and praise for what had happened. Of course they were not pleased with everything, but there has been a great change.
There have been two consequences. The first is that, happily, there is now much more common ground on such subjects as atmospheric pollution, the maintenance of biodiversity and the preservation of habitats. I believe that to be wholly to the good. The more common ground we can find the better.
The second consequence, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, adverted a moment ago, is that some of the steam has gone out of the issue. There is no doubt about that. One of the consequences of the Earth Summit in Rio and the commitments that governments across the world made on that occasion was that the public began to recognise that their concerns were being addressed, and they have turned their attention to other issues. The danger is that we lapse into complacency. My right honourable friend John Gummer is perhaps the most positive and energetic Secretary of State in pursuance of environmental improvement that we have had for some time. However, his enthusiasm is not always matched by equal enthusiasm among colleagues from other departments.
That brings me to my second point. Because departments have different perspectives and priorities there can be and undoubtedly are conflicts of policy, with different policies pushing in opposite directions. Early in our deliberations the committee exposed one such conflict. In energy policy, with its emphasis on the regulatory process and pressures of competition, the 1233 objective is clearly to push prices down. Indeed, much capital has been made of the fact that both electricity and gas prices are now very much lower in real terms than they were. It is regarded as a measure of success for that policy that they should be. Yet, in relation to environment policy it is recognised that achieving policy targets, particularly on carbon dioxide but also on sulphur dioxide and NOx, requires reduced consumption. The most effective instrument for reducing consumption is undoubtedly higher prices.
The committee reported at paragraph 4.41 of the Report:Tension can exist between competition policy and environmental policy, and, where this is the case, greater reliance may have to be placed on regulations to achieve adequate progress. The 1994 Energy Report … noted that increased competition in the energy market would tend to drive down prices, raise consumption and thereby adversely affect the environment. Such circumstances call as much for a review of the regulatory options available to protect the environment, as for a reconsideration of whether 'the balance of energy prices is correct'".I have to say to my noble friend that the Government's response was rather bland. Paragraph 54 states that the Government do not believe that there is in general any conflict between their environmental objectives and their objective of promoting competition, or that that necessarily implies that greater regulation may be necessary.
I do not understand that. It was the Minister's own official, Mr. Hobson, who, when asked about that, said (in answer to Question 210 on page 48 of the evidence):I think there are several different policies operating here and very often Government policies do not always run in the same direction".That was a very frank admission. Therefore, it is difficult to take at face value the statement that in general there is no conflict. In fact there were several examples of conflict. That is why we spent a good deal of time talking about the machinery in government for resolving such conflicts. We must all agree, and the committee placed great emphasis on the need for cost-effective measures to reduce consumption: more insulation, power efficiency, and so on. However, price is a crucial incentive. We stressed that point at paragraph 4.37 of our report, which I am sure has already been mentioned.
Witnesses pointed to the Government's efforts to increase VAT on fuel, on which they were defeated in another place. However, that still leaves an unacceptable situation where VAT is 17.5 per cent. on energy-saving materials and equipment and only 8 per cent. on energy consumption. On any rational view, that cannot be right.
My third point relates to the role of the Treasury on which, I am sure, a great deal has been said. My only excuse for adding a few words is that I believe I was the only member of the committee who has been both a Treasury and an Environment Minister. Therefore to some extent I saw the issues from both sides.
We were grateful to the Chancellor of the Exchequer for allowing us to hear from Treasury witnesses. I have to say that Mrs. Anthea Case (my first-ever private secretary) and her colleagues proved very helpful. Indeed, I was particularly sorry not to be present on that occasion because I had much wanted to hear what they said. However, I read the exchanges with fascination. I 1234 am sure that other noble Lords have covered many of the aspects, but perhaps I may refer to two passages from the Treasury evidence. On almost the last day of evidence, Treasury witnesses gave evidence to the committee. At question 1929 Mrs. Case was asked by my noble friend Lord Skidelsky whether specific considerations applied to environmental taxes such as the difficulties which are faced in seeking to quantify externalities. He asked whether that was a specific difficulty. Mrs. Case replied:Yes, it is. There is a challenge in terms of whatever tax one is talking about in devising measures which are robust, soundly-based and workable".She later stated:We are treading in newer territory than some other areas of the tax system".Indeed, she was very frank on that.
That brings me to my last point. We make the point clearly in the report. The Treasury must seek to become more proactive in this matter and less reactive to other departments. The Select Committee recognised a greater role for economic instruments. That is in many cases central to the Treasury's function within the Government but as yet it had to confess that it had not made much progress. We asked the Treasury to do more.
I am not alone in feeling that the two-sentence response which we received from the Minister on this issue was perhaps a little less than adequate. After reporting the committee's recommendations, at paragraph 90 of the response, it stated:This is already happening. Examples include the wide cooperation among Departments on economic instruments such as the landfill tax".We spent a good deal of time on the landfill tax. It was very nearly the only initiative that the Treasury can be said to have taken in this field. Yet there are many more areas in which the Treasury could act.
I conclude by referring to one such area. I refer to natural gas for powering road vehicles. My noble friend Lord Brabazon of Tara has led a valiant fight on that issue. I thought that the Treasury rebuttal of the case for a significant reduction for the duty on natural gas was, to say the least, unconvincing. I had originally written "sophistry", but thought that that might be a little unkind and crossed it out.
I understand the anxieties of Treasury Ministers because I have been a Treasury Minister. There is anxiety not to anticipate Budget decisions and concern to have a free hand when fixing taxation. However, the public anxiety regarding atmospheric pollution from vehicles is now intense. I believe that a great deal more weight needs to be attached to that anxiety. I believe that natural gas could make a material contribution over the years to the reduction of that pollution. That is one of the most important of our recommendations. I hope that it will be heeded. I recognise the difficulties for my noble friend on the Front Bench in saying much about the issue tonight. But I hope that he will convey to his right honourable friend in the Treasury that there was much strong feeling among the committee on that.
Finally, we were well served by our advisers. I should like to join others in thanking them very much.
§ 6.5 p.m.
§ Lord Chorley
My Lords, I believe that I am the last Member of your Lordships' Select Committee to speak tonight. I add my thanks to my noble friend Lord Tombs. He has been described as being a bit of a tyrant. All I can say is that he was a delightful tyrant. I add my thanks, too, to our Clerk and our two specialist advisers without whom I am not sure we could have produced our report. It was a big and lengthy exercise with a mass of evidence. I measured that evidence by weight—a total of 5 pounds but 5 pounds of good value.
Our chairman gave us a masterly tour today of the issues which arose in our assessment of the Government's performance. The record is patchy with some notable weak points. However, taken as a whole, it is, I believe, not too bad. The noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, put it well when he asked: who would have thought 10 years ago that we would have been having this detailed discussion? Certainly, no one can doubt the enthusiasm, understanding and commitment of our Secretary of State. One only wishes that one could say the same in each of those respects about the Treasury.
Sustainable development has become the slogan of the decade. All this struck me with increasing force as we took evidence. But the more you delve into what it really means—there are at least 50 definitions advanced—as one distinguished economist said, the more it falls apart in your hands. Sustainable development has been described as a "convoy of ideas". I suggest that that is apt because convoys tend to consist of a rather ill-assorted collection of vessels.
That brings me to my first point. The enthusiasts include in the convoy factors which have nothing to do with the common sense meaning of the word "sustainable". For example, what does the destruction of that fine piece of landscape, Twyford Down, have to do with sustainability? And please do not let us obfuscate the issue by using high-flown phrases such as natural capital or critical capital. Vandalism is vandalism whether it is by a government agency or anyone else.
Nor should we kid ourselves—and here I so thoroughly agree with the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Desai, who, sadly, is not in his place—that we can somehow quantify in a scientific sense how much a Twyford Down or a Stonehenge is worth. I admire the temerity of those economists who believe that these matters can be quantified and the quite extraordinary ingenuity of their attempts to do so. I believe that it was Oscar Wilde who described a cynic as one who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. If he had been alive today, he might well have addressed his remarks to the Highways Agency or the Treasury.
In short, let us restrict the use of the term "sustainable development" to matters which are based on science—pollution and resource-type issues—and let us deal with ethical and aesthetic issues separately. Let us recognise, as does our report, that there are limits to the value of cost benefit analyses, some aspects of which are beyond technical refinement.
My second anxiety is that even when the concept of sustainable development is used in an appropriate context, the green lobby, or some elements of it, tend to 1236 abuse it by wild generalisations, poor science and sloppy economics—in other words, the tendency of all fashions to exaggerate. At the risk of being politically incorrect, I find myself, somewhat to my surprise, much in sympathy with some of the recent broadsides delivered by Richard North and Professor Wilfrid Beckerman. All that would not matter too much were it not for the fact that this tendency to exaggerate and to reach wildly generalised conclusions plays into the hands of the real philistines.
I like to think that our report is by contrast a model of balance and restraint so that where we are critical the Government should sit up and take notice. What, then, should we make of the Government's response? It seems to me that the response can be welcomed in those policy areas which are primarily the responsibility of the Department of the Environment, but that the further one gets from the DoE, and perhaps also from MAFF, the less satisfactory is the response. My noble friend Lord Tombs referred to the DTI's attitude towards funding the Energy Saving Trust. There is the attitude of the Department of Transport to transport targets, which can most simply be described as one of mañana. There is also the negative response, referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, presumably the hand of the Treasury, in the case for reduced rate VAT on energy efficiency. The Treasury seems unaware of the possibilities under the sixth VAT directive. The noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, referred to other instances where the Treasury has been, to put it charitably, pretty off-hand in its response. I shall not repeat them. My noble friend Lord Porter spoke with authority on the need for policy decisions to be based on good science. One might also add good economics. All this is pertinent, as we note at paragraph 2.23, when it comes to involving that much abused notion, the precautionary principle. As the noble Lord noted, the Government failed to respond on that.
Nor have the Government shown much recognition of the need to be particularly careful when proposed actions give rise to irreversible changes. Sometimes the results of actions which turn out to be damaging can be reversed or repaired. For example, one of the things which strikes me forcefully is how extraordinarily resilient living nature is to much of what we inflict on it. The results are often reversible. But when you have the physical and permanent destruction of a fine landscape—again I cite Twyford Down as a good example—it is gone for good; it is lost to future generations simply because we, today's generation, are selfish. If an action is likely to result in irreversible damage, we need to be extremely careful.
Many of these points are well illustrated in the fascinating oral and written evidence on soil conservation. I prefer the word "conservation" to "sustainability". The noble Lord, Lord Barber, spoke at some length and with far more authority than I could on the subject of soil. I shall try not to repeat points he made. I approach the subject from a slightly different angle and reach a different set of conclusions, not so different that I disagree with him—I totally agree with his remarks—but in the sense that the difficulty of the subject is apparent.
1237 Soils are fairly resilient to the pressures that are heaped upon them. The noble Lord, Lord Barber, referred to the Fens, some of which are being destroyed. Fenland soils will have gone in 100 years from now. That is not exactly an example of good stewardship.
The noble Lord mentioned soil erosion. It usually happens through arable farming in inappropriate places or through using inappropriate methods, for example, in the thin soils of the Sussex Downs. The noble Lord quoted Professor Bullock, and I shall not repeat the quotation. On the other hand, the damage from soil compaction is reasonably reversible, as is the loss of organic matter, usually brought about by changing from a grazing regime to arable cultivation. Here, the Strutt Report has done,a great deal of good in making farmers aware".I have only scratched the surface of the illuminating discussion we had with the professor and others. Overall one has the impression, as with so many environmental problems, of a rather patchy situation, of one where it is very dangerous to generalise, where there is nothing too disastrous perhaps but where it would make eminent good sense to keep up the pressure to improve our national husbandry of this capital asset. I am bound to say that the White Paper strikes me as rather complacent. It is, according to Professor Bullock, a considerable toning down of the original draft, the suggestion being that as a whole range of things are being done, we do not need to worry further about it, do we?
The White Paper reveals the tendency of MAFF first to look at problems on a generalised macro level rather on a detailed farm basis. Examples such as the extremely successful countryside stewardship scheme initiated by the Countryside Commission and the imaginative Tyr Cymen scheme of the Countryside Council for Wales strike me as being the sensible way forward. I am delighted to read in the rural White Paper that the countryside stewardship scheme will be enlarged. Secondly, there is the need for a more constructive use of set-aside, for example, by ring fencing vulnerable soils.
Finally, it is fashionable in some quarters to inveigh against economic growth, as the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, did at some length and, by extension, against new technologies and products. But surely this is to wildly generalise. In a wider sense, I firmly believe that it is our technology base and our capacity to innovate which, properly used, enable us to protect our environment. A strong and dynamic economy enables us to afford our so-called quality of life, within which the environment plays such an important part.
§ 6.15 p.m.
The Earl of Clanwilliam
My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Tombs, and to the committee for an excellent report. The committee recognised the good work already done by the Government, and I add my congratulations for the work on ESAs; the stewardship campaign; the national forest to come and the 12 regional forests; and, more recently, the White Paper on rural development, as well as the 1238 continuing work being one throughout the vast field of cleaning up the environment—which is what we are all about.
Naturally, a great deal of the debate concerned the atmosphere and pollution. I echo the words of the noble Lords, Lord Tombs and Lord Chorley, and of my noble friend Lord Jenkin. It is perfectly obvious to any clear thinking person that the use of natural gas in public service transport in our inner cities would enormously reduce pollution. To say more would be to repeat points already made.
The committee refers to the Action Plan on Biodiversity. The report states that some of the targets, as the noble Lord, Lord Tombs, mentioned, were quite precise and others merely exhortatory; for example, to support organic farming. As the House will understand, that is my subject in this "debate.
There has been a considerable problem over the definition of what is sustainable. I refer to the statement by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council mentioned in paragraph 2.6. As a means of defining activities that are unsustainable, it cited:the overproduction of some foods in the EU; prolonged use of chemicals for crop protection and control of animal disease, leading to resistance among pests and pathogens and harmful effects on non-target organisms; poorly controlled use of fertilisers, leading to pollution of water and soils".All those factors are very important, certainly in the organic world. That statement seems to say it all. It is the reason why the organic farmer exists. He does not claim to be any better than his intensive farming colleague, only different. He should have the opportunity to compete and let the public choose.
One of the Government's commitments is towards cross-compliance, which, it appears, was not well received in the farming community generally, but is of course the basis of the organic aid scheme; namely, support is dependent upon specific compliance with a strict sense of farming precepts. The committee (in paragraph 4.5) harbours reservations in this respect because it prefers,the principle of transparency and the identification of specific environmental benefits".Surely that is what organic farmers deliver.
I shall talk to some extent about organic farming. I do not suggest that the whole of British farming should be organic, only that some 5 per cent. or 10 per cent. of it should be allowed to operate.
Paragraph 5.5 refers to a government research project of some £32 million on ways to reduce chemical input. The Government could easily have saved a lot of money by consulting the Soil Association. There is a further £10 million for research into soils and their degradation. Once again they could refer themselves either to the Henry Doubleday or the Elm Farm Research Associations. Those organisations could use such research funds with great facility to promote their own activities and make the case that the Government make.
The argument that we present for organic farming rests on the importance of quality. I should like to give some examples of bad quality which come from bad farming. The first is soil degradation. That has been spoken about already. It is a vital matter which was 1239 ignored in the transition from what was extensive wartime and post-wartime farming into a sudden urge to increase yield at all costs. Certainly that attitude is receding now, which is a good thing. But it is certainly a serious matter.
Your Lordships may have noticed the recent announcement from the Agrochemical Division of Zeneca that it has increased its turnover by 13 per cent. to £1,300 million. That is about £25 for every acre of farmland in the United Kingdom. No doubt that has all been achieved by the successful acquisition of increased market share; otherwise it does not say a great deal for our efforts through the CAP to reduce intensive input. Time was when the chicken was an expensive delicacy and the calories were derived mostly from protein. Today the broiler chicken provides some 3,300 calories of which 2,700 come from fat and only 600 from protein. No wonder such chickens are cheap. They are not particularly healthy either. Nevertheless, they are a vital part of the fast food syndrome and contribute nothing to the health of the nation.
Your Lordships may also have noticed those prestigious sandwiches which had to be withdrawn—admittedly, only temporarily—owing to attacks from the dreaded salmonella. The good news is that they have caught the eggs. The bad news is that the chickens will come home to roost in the fast food chain.
There has also been the bizarre activity, now fortunately at an end, by which cattle were being fed animal protein. My right honourable friend the Minister, Mr. Gummer, in his memorial speech to the Soil Association the other day, said that he was having some trouble with the Danes, who were trying to feed their dairy cattle with fish meal. "Have you ever seen a cow go fishing?" he asked, to some considerable enjoyment. Perhaps I may add that it was an excellent and important speech and I hope that he will forgive me for quoting only the most lighthearted phrase.
Those are all instances of events that just do not happen where organic farming and organically grown produce exist. They just do not happen. Organophosphates are not used. I know that the Ministry is in touch with the three organisations that I mentioned before: the Soil Association; Elm Farm and HDRA. I ask that some of the research funds be directed at them. Indeed, as mentioned on page 62 of the report at paragraph 6.39 there is a need for proof of the benefits of extensive farming. We all agree about that. After all, the CAP, which we are all—at least some of us anyway—so busy trying to reform, was invented to protect the French extensive farmer. Is it not ironic that half our CAP payments go to protect those very French extensive farmers and the other half comes back to help our intensive farmers drill chemicals into their weakening soil, not without the determined help of the agrochemical industry, as I just mentioned.
At the last count, some £111 million were directed at extensification through ESAs, the stewardship campaign and the organic aid scheme. The ESAs and the stewardship campaign have been brilliant. They are remarkable and have had an enormous success. I do not detract from their reputations for one minute. Where £63 1240 million went to them, £1 million went to the organic aid scheme. Such a derisory amount is a measure of the Treasury's view, which I find hard to describe politely, as do potential converts to organic farming who have rejected the offer, as the take-up indicates. As for the proposed doubling to 100,000 hectares, there has been an increase of 3,000 hectares in England, 534 in Wales and 15,800 in blessed, far-sighted Scotland. The Northern Irish have yet even to notice the opportunity. But then, we know that they have other problems with their neighbour's CAP revenues to consider.
The organic farmer has a case to prove, but it is being presented to him as a negative question. The evidence about the quality of organically grown food is clearly believed by the public; and not surprisingly when they are told by the Government that their supermarket vegetables are suspect—from an overdose of organophosphate. But people can have no genuine access to organic food until the acreage under cultivation reaches that critical mass—perhaps half a million hectares—which will allow joint marketing of produce in sufficient quantity and regularity of supply which would induce the modern retailer to stock it. Once that has been achieved, there will be many more pleasant parts of rural England producing nutritious food from land which is being used with more compassion and which is self-sustainable.
§ 6.26 p.m.
§ Baroness Hamwee
My Lords, I join with other noble Lords in welcoming the report and congratulating the committee, in particular the chairman. From the comments of his colleagues today it sounds as though he gave very valuable lessons in benevolent dictatorship as well as environmental issues.
This Government are very good at setting targets. One has only to think of performance indicators and the charter mark. That is why there has inevitably been particular interest in the committee's approach to targets and the Government's response. I share the sentiments of my noble friend Lord Beaumont of Whitley: the Government, having made what he described as a good start, perhaps need a second wind. There is something in the tone of the response which is not perhaps as enthusiastic as it might be. It seems to accept the notion of targets without the detail that one might expect, though I accept that the Government produced their response in a very short period.
The noble Lord, Lord Jenkin of Roding, said that steam seems to have gone out of the public's demands. Perhaps it is because they feel that Rio has solved everything. My reaction to that, to quote from the other side of the Atlantic, is "It's probably the economy, stoopid!" It is that which is taking up the whole of people's attention and environmental concerns have dropped down the agenda somewhat, in the way described by the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol.
I also share the concern of the noble Viscount, Lord Blakenham, that indicative targets might not be taken sufficiently seriously. I am interested in the distinction between indicative and imperative targets. I welcome the advice of the noble Lord, Lord Tombs, with regard 1241 to targets. There is enormous scope for concentration on research in order to reduce the scope for politicising around the area.
The noble Lord, Lord Desai, said that the Government like the market but use the regulations rather more than they sometimes admit. He is right to warn us that we must not pretend to know more than we do and therefore we must apply the precautionary principle. That is where there is a place for regulation. Regulation is a stick. But this whole subject, as many noble Lords said, is very much a subject for carrots as well as sticks. Tax is one of the sticks but it is also the price that one has to pay for a civilised society. As several noble Lords said, it is quite odd that we tend to tax what we want more of—namely, work—and not what we want to reduce—namely, resource consumption.
"No taxation without explanation" is a useful maxim and hypothecation is a useful extension of it. So the landfill tax and the small amount of hypothecation in that tax naturally and rightly attracted attention. How can we expect the taxpayer to pay willingly without transparency and without understanding the reason for taxation? I was struck by the phrase used by the noble Lord, Lord Tombs, in relation to the landfill tax; that is, that it should,engage the enthusiastic support of the consuming public".I welcomed the committee's comments on the possible roles of the Treasury, to which the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin of Roding, drew our attention. The noble Lord, Lord Chorley, gave a choice selection of examples of the different attitudes of different government departments to the issue of the environment. Your Lordships have frequently talked in other debates of the "dead hand of the Treasury". I support every encouragement to the Treasury to lead the way and not to act as a "dead hand". It would be a good thing for the Treasury to be proactive.
As well as understanding, one needs information—indeed, one needs information in order to understand. One cannot over-estimate the importance of information. I find the whole subject of the environment and ecological considerations difficult. It is a scientific and technical subject. Clarity is therefore important. Apart from anything else, clarity leads to real choice. One example is the labelling of products: the more information one has as to what the product contains and what its effect may be, the more choice one has, and therefore the less need for regulation by a government taking decisions on behalf of consumers. I am sure that this Government agree that it is far better for consumers to make their own decisions.
The environment is a difficult subject. There is perhaps more of a place in it for psychologists than for scientists. The noble Baroness, Lady Platt, spoke vividly of low-tech solutions and the changes taking place in people's lives. Making the subject come alive for people is perhaps one of our responsibilities. The noble Lord, Lord Porter of Luddenham, referred to the ozone layer. The question of the effect of chlorine on the environment caught the public's imagination a few years ago. If we can expand on that example, it will be a real advance.
1242 Reports such as this often seem remote from individual lives. I wondered about one development which greatly affects people's lives; that is, the whole question of information technology. I do not believe that there is any reference in the Government's response to how the development of technology will affect the need and the desire for travel. I say that not myself being a "surfer" and being unable to take advantage of computers as much as I would like.
I took on board the comments made by the right Reverend Prelate in relation to information. Information gives one the ability critically to assess one's actions. The right reverend Prelate spoke of our inability to assess what Cabinet committees are doing. He spoke of green Ministers being concerned rather more with green housekeeping than wider issues.
"Environmental assessment" has become an old-fashioned phrase. I hope that is because it is second nature. It should be second nature but not so routine that one fails to see the wood for the trees or to recognise developing knowledge. It is important that government agencies, government at all levels and anyone who does anything which may affect the environment, should stand back and ask what the effect would be of what we are proposing. In that connection, there may be a role for the National Audit Office in drawing our attention to the benefits of such assessment.
I realised, as I made that note during the course of the debate, that I was writing on the back of a copy of my party's manifesto for the local elections in 1994 and that I was actually writing on the back of one section on ecology. It is not my borough which can claim, as we said on this piece of paper, that many local authorities are setting examples,by looking at the environmental impact of every decision to be taken by every Council committee".The noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, referred to the important developments being made by local authorities under the heading of local Agenda 21 projects. As knowledge develops, so do our aspirations. The noble Viscount, Lord Blakenham, referred to the World Bank using other indicators than merely narrow economic ones. Alternative indicators which better reflect the performance of the economy as it affects the long-term welfare of citizens are important. I support the call made by the noble Baroness, Lady Platt, for the World Bank to invest more in research.
Returning to targets, the noble Baroness referred to the report in which the CBI said:The Government need to provide a more supportive framework of relevant, achievable and enforceable policies where the benefits outweigh the costs of action".I was struck during the debate by the commonality of aspiration and language. But we all know that fine words are not enough. As both the right reverend Prelate and the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, said, the politician's job is to will the means; if need be, to legislate; and, certainly, to lead in setting the goals. The noble Lord, Lord Desai, said that we do not know the preferences of future generations but we do know that children now feel that their elders are too shortsighted and unambitious in this area. They 1243 recognise that targets need constant review and constant rolling forward. I claim no originality for the thought: man's reach really should exceed his grasp.
§ 6.37 p.m.
§ Lord Clinton-Davis
My Lords, first, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Tombs, and his committee on undertaking an incredible task. I believe it was an "impossible" task, and I use that word advisedly. They contributed in many ways to our understanding of a number of different issues—just count them—raised in this debate over the past three hours. The task that this House imposed on the committee was too wide-ranging and, without in any sense devaluing what has been achieved, covered areas which need to be compartmentalised.
There is an inter-relationship between the topics specifically alighted upon—energy, transport, land use, waste disposal and so forth. There are many others. Tourism is a particularly important area of environmental damage and increasing regard is being paid to what is called "sustainable tourism". A great deal of work has been and needs to be done in that direction.
I culled out of the report a number of important themes, as did the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, who has just spoken. I hope that in future we shall concentrate on compartmentalised areas and seek to ensure that we address the over-arching theme that involves them all.
The noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, whose speech was commented upon by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, said that the steam seems to have gone out of public demand. That point was also touched on by my noble friend Lady Nicol. I wonder whether it is true. After all, concern about pollution in our towns and cities has not abated. I wonder whether it is true when one thinks of the conference that has been taking place in Eastbourne attended by young children who are desperately concerned, and rightly so, about environmental issues above all others. There is a distinction to be drawn with acute crises such as Chernobyl, the Bhopal fire and shipping disasters which lead to pollution and, more importantly, loss of life on a substantial scale. These things inevitably create deep and immediate concern about environmental issues, and the Government are asked to take instant measures, whether in an international forum or nationally.
The chronic crisis is not so noticeable and not so much commented upon in the press, although that is not always the situation, as we have seen in respect of the very great concern over asthmatic conditions, touched upon in the report of the World Health Organisation, diesel particulates being one of the main contributing factors in such cases.
I join with those noble Lords who have called for the wider dissemination of information on environmental issues. It was the whole purpose of the European Year of the Environment back in 1986–87. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, had something to do with that at the time; I certainly had in a European context. The whole basis of the environmental agency which has been established is to ensure that there is a wider 1244 dissemination of available data and information at scientific level and also at popular level. So it remains to be seen whether or not the noble Lord is right: I believe not.
The Treasury has come in for a certain amount of stick, which is not unusual in these debates. I am reminded of what Winston Churchill once said. He likened the Treasury to an inverted Micawber waiting for something to turn down. A number of your Lordships feel that that is the case in relation to many of the things the Department of the Environment would wish to undertake. If I have time, I may come back to that subject later.
The report states:The country has a long way to go in implementing policies that would take it to a style of development which could be regarded as sustainable".That is a very potent message—more potent, I think, than trying to ascertain the best possible definition of "sustainable development". The committee spent a certain amount of time on that—I do not know how much—and found it very difficult to come to a satisfactory definition of what is an elusive issue. However, the committee certainly did its best. I was struck by paragraph 2.10. I think it was too easy for the Select Committee to draw a distinction between,major life or planet threatening concerns…which merit imperative action, and…more modest or local concerns which may be capable of negotiated trade-offs".I do not really know what that means. I believe there are substantial links between the two elements, the major life or planet threatening concerns and local concerns, particularly the contribution of road transport pollution to the greenhouse effect. What are these "local trade-offs" that can be negotiated? Does it make sense to demote local issues in the eyes of the public? Who is actually given the task of categorising these issues in the way the Select Committee suggests?
On policy integration, I very much support most of what the Select Committee's report says. This element was emphasised in Article 130R(2) of the Single European Act, for which I had some responsibility as regards the environment chapter. It was reinforced by Maastricht, which required environmental protection policies to be integrated into the determination and implementation of all European Union policies. This was tremendously important. It showed that the Community, as it was, now the European Union, was putting environmental concerns in a central position. Just as in the Commission's legislative proposals there has been for years an assessment of the effect on small and medium-sized enterprises, so I believe environmental considerations should be similarly assessed in our national policies.
In each government department there is supposed to be a "green" Minister addressing these concerns, but I wonder whether they are actually environmental watchdogs or guardians of the departmental interests against the undue intrusion of environmental concerns. I do not believe that the committee take the view that what has been established is anything like strong enough to protect environmental interests. 1245 Powerful criticisms have emerged, particularly in paragraph 6.9 of the report, and I believe that the Government's response is unconvincing. The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, referred to it, I think, as "bland". The paragraph suggests reasonable satisfaction with what has been developed. I do not know how that can be so. There is too much secrecy about the development of environmental policy, and indeed about other policies. That is evidenced by the fact that the parliamentary commissioner forced the Government to release details of committees which had been set up to advise on environmental standards and which they preferred to keep quiet about. It is important to know who sits on these committees. Why did the Government behave furtively about it? It is very important to know what goes on in these committees. Why should the representatives on the committees appear, from the information we are beginning to get, to be mainly from industry? There are others with an interest in environmental policy. I am not in any sense debasing the interests of industrialists; they have a major role to play.
The question of scientific uncertainty figures quite substantially in the report. I very much welcome the comments made. Of course, in so many areas it is impossible to arrive at a situation of scientific certainty. In the past we justified inertia all too often on the basis that the scientific facts were not sufficiently well known. I remember the whole issue of pollution from a large combustion plant. It was denied over and over again that this large plant in Britain was damaging forests in Germany and lakes in Scandinavia. It was sometimes said that the matter was de minimis. It was not; it emerged that the plant was a powerful contributing factor. It is right therefore that we should act on the basis of the precautionary principle. You cannot wait until you know everything before you take decisions. We have to act on the balance of probabilities, not on proving something beyond reasonable doubt.
Of course, conflicts of policy can arise. The report is absolutely right when it says that sometimes you have to make political decisions rather than scientific ones. Perhaps I may give an example, which is not all that well known. When problems arose with the level of radioactivity in foodstuffs following Chernobyl, the European Community, as it then was, immediately put in place a fairly arbitrary set of rules to deal with the situation. Those rules either had to be validated or something put in their place on a more certain basis. The nuclear powers—if you like, Britain, France and Spain—wanted rigid rules. The others wanted a much more liberal regime. It was not possible to bridge the gap. I remember being approached by the permanent representative of the United Kingdom, who said, "We don't like what you're doing"—I was proposing a solution halfway between the two warring camps—"because it is not scientific". I said, "You say that your proposed regime is scientific. The Germans are saying that their liberal regime is scientific. How do we arrive at a decision?" For four weeks no legal protection was afforded the people of Europe. There was a void. Eventually, something very much like the Commission's proposals were accepted. It was not a scientific solution; it was a political one. That is not altogether desirable but it is that which the committee has recognised.
1246 The committee warns against the deliberate or inadvertent devaluation of the precautionary principle. That is absolutely right. My noble friend Lord Desai commented emphatically on a conclusion reached in paragraph 4.36, which says:The Treasury should be actively looking for ways to shift the burden of taxation onto pollution and the use of resources, and away from income and capital".My noble friend has long supported that principle. I am glad that it is underlined in the report.
Should we have confidence that the Government have learnt from their past mistakes in relation to the protection of our environment and environmental interests? One looks back to the case of North Sea oil and the squandering of the windfall this country had, all to pay for tax cuts which the Government made in relation to the general election at that time. Oil was being pumped out as rapidly as possible; there was no attempt made to husband our resources. It was a mistake for which we are paying today.
That brings me to a point made emphatically in the report and touched on by the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin. Paragraph 4.41 states that,increased competition in the energy market will tend to drive down prices, raise consumption and thereby adversely affect the environment".That point has not been satisfactorily responded to by the Government.
I wish to say a few words about transport, which is not sufficiently dealt with in the report. Some time ago we debated a report on sustainable mobility. Its conclusions are not touched on in any major way in the Select Committee's report. I shall not go through all the conclusions but the report said:Investment in public transport must be increased, and greater priority should be given to public transport in allocation of road space".That committee based its conclusion on environmental considerations as much as anything else. It said:Investment in rail services must be increased … There should be no major expansion of urban road capacity … We support the principles of favouring land-use development which reduces reliance on private road transport".It added:The Government should produce a coherent statement of transport policy for all modes including objectives, funding arrangements and practical implementation".All those factors were bearing on the issue of sustainable mobility. In other words, environmental considerations were not playing a sufficient part in the Government's transport policy.
The noble Viscount, Lord Caldecote, called for an integrated transport policy—a complementary role for the different modes of transport. I have been asking for that in this House for the past five years or more. It has been asked for in another place by my colleagues there. I am glad that the noble Viscount should have alighted on that very important issue. What are the Government's overarching national objectives for transport policy, particularly in relation to the environmental considerations which we are now debating?
We have to move away from an approach to transport policy which seeks to balance the competing perspectives of the economy, the environment and 1247 freedom of choice. That has resulted in trade-offs and compromises. Our aim should be to integrate environmental, economic and social considerations into transport policy. That is the view of the Labour Party. I shall be very interested to hear in that context the view of the Government.
This has been an interesting debate but at the end of the day we should ask ourselves this question. Does the Department of the Environment, accepting that the present Secretary of State has made much more progress than many of his predecessors—I shall not say all of them because that would be grossly unfair to the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin—have more real power than a decade ago? Or does that real power still reside in the economic departments and in the Treasury? I hope to see the Department of the Environment, particularly as the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, is a Minister there, being given far more power because I have some trust in his good sense and certainly in his sense of humour. I fear, however, that that is unlikely to happen under the present regime.
Although I have criticised the report it is valuable in many respects. I certainly believe that the noble Lord who chaired the committee did a magnificent job.
§ 6.59 p.m.
The Minister of State, Department of the Environment (Earl Ferrers)
My Lords, we have certainly had an exceedingly interesting debate on what is a vast subject and to me, a very complicated one. I would like to add my congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Tombs, and his colleagues on the Select Committee on the magnificent job of work they did. I shall not fall to the blandishments of the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, at this juncture and give a dissertation on the Government's proposals for an integrated transport policy because that might be more appropriately left to another day. I believe that he was slightly unfair when he complained about government secrecy. The fact is that the Government are constantly consulting a wide range of interested parties on policy, such as industry, consumer groups, environment groups, farmers and so on. They have held 30 consultative meetings on the sustainable development strategy, so I do not believe that there is too much secrecy there.
I have a certain sympathy with my noble friend Lord Dixon-Smith who finds "sustainable development" a curious expression. I find that it needs minor exertion of the mental processes to realise exactly what it does mean. It really means development that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. That was a point about which the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, was concerned. As the noble Lord, Lord Desai, said, we do not know what future generations will want and that is perfectly true. But we have to try not to wreck the environment for them when their turn comes.
Sustainable development seeks to reconcile the needs of economic development with the need to protect the environment. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford, in a most erudite speech, was right when he said that there was concern for the environment and that 1248 that will not go away. He said that people valued creation in all its beauty and variety. I believe that the right reverend Prelate was right. I believe he also said that sustainable development brings the policies for the protection of the environment right into the heart of everything that the Government do so that we can try to ensure that economic development and environmental protection go together hand in hand. They ought to be in harmony. Over-emphasis of either one not only diminishes the other, but the whole suffers.
The Government's document on sustainable development ran to almost 300 pages. For the committee to have tried to review all that would have been a tremendous task and would have run the risk either of great delay or of over-simplification. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Tombs, on having avoided both those pitfalls. The Select Committee's report concentrated on how to implement the policy and it took a few of the most important policy areas in order to illustrate developments.
The noble Lord, Lord Tombs, warmed my heart when he said twice that he congratulated the Government. I thought of the vicar who, before the collection was taken, said, "All contributions are gratefully received". The report will certainly help us in government to crystallise our thoughts as we and others move towards a judgment in 1997—five years after Rio—of the effectiveness of our programme.
The noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, hoped that Her Majesty's Government would get a second wind over this as it is so important. I agree with him that it is important, but I am not sure that we need a second wind because the first one is doing pretty well already. Sustainable development concerns us all. It is not enough for the Government, or if I may say so with respect, even this House or another place, to ponder the issues, to initiate policies or to pass new laws, important though all those things are. What we have to do is to engage the whole nation: to change the styles of people's lives. A number of your Lordships are fully engaged in this, through the Government Panel, the Round Table and Going for Green.
We all need to review how we live so that we can, in the words of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, stop cheating on our children. That can be done, for instance, by using energy more efficiently; by cutting down on vehicle pollution and waste; or by just being more environmentally friendly shoppers.
The committee has recommended that, if we are to make real progress towards sustainable development, the Government need to set a range of challenging targets, but targets which must be realistic. If targets are to be of practical use, they really have to be supported by scientific analysis and by an assessment of what they will cost and what benefits they will bring, including the cost and benefits to the environment.
Most of the targets which we have already set are described by the noble Lord, Lord Tombs, as "imperative" or "firm" targets. They are intended to be legally binding. Many of these result from agreements at international level. It is essential that these kinds of targets should be properly enforced and properly 1249 monitored, both at home and abroad, in order to secure the benefit to the environment which was expected of them and in order to ensure that they do not distort competitiveness.
There can, of course, be a value in setting targets which are not legally binding in this way. They are sometimes called "indicative" targets. They serve a useful purpose where, for example, the goals are fairly long term and where they may need to be reviewed or adjusted; or, for instance, where the issues are too complicated to be reflected in a single target, but where they might be better expressed in a broad manner. Again, they can be useful when action cannot be taken by the Government alone, but where a co-operative and voluntary effort is required.
A good example of that might be the Government's wish to see a doubling of woodland in England over the next half century. We included that, which is an indicative target, in the rural White Paper which we published on 17th October. It should be achievable, given the present incentives and the changes which we wish to see in the common agricultural policy, but it stands to be adjusted in the light of changing circumstances.
We intend to bear in mind the value of both kinds of target as the years go by and as we negotiate agreements internationally. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford was keen to have targets for departments to adhere to. I can see his reasoning, but it might well be phenomenally difficult to put in place. He was concerned that ministerial papers for the Cabinet and its committees should include an assessment of any significant environmental costs and benefits. He wondered who determined what was appropriate and who assessed the net environmental cost.
The answer is that in the first instance the Minister and his department whose papers are under discussion, are responsible. Other departments have the opportunity to comment, including my own. Environment ministers will be present in Cabinet or committee. I am not aware of any serious difficulties here, but we shall certainly keep the system under review. A departmental group of economists is about to review the detailed application.
The noble Lord, Lord Chorley, was concerned about the limits to cost-benefit analysis. Some of the things that we value most cannot be priced. I agree with the noble Lord so much over that. I remember my father saying that the greatest values in life were truth, beauty and goodness. I value those because none of them can be tabulated or quantified, but they are important. It is vital to ensure that these matters are considered carefully in any environmental assessment and weighed in the balance even when they are unquantifiable.
Perhaps I may refer to the item which has been referred to by a number of noble Lords; namely, transport policies. They are already strongly influenced by the need to meet national targets for reducing various emissions. The Department of Transport has recently encouraged local authorities to adopt targets which will suit their own local transport strategies, and many authorities are making good progress in that direction.
1250 The Government's mind is open on the case for adopting new types of transport targets, perhaps at a national level. We invited views on this in the recent consultation paper called Transport: The Way Ahead. Any new targets, though, should be carefully chosen to ensure that they are aimed correctly. They should be achievable and people should be made fully aware of the costs of meeting them.
The noble Lord, Lord Tombs, wanted to see encouragement of gas-fuelled engines, as did my noble friends, Lady Platt and Lord Jenkin. I have seen a gas-fuelled bus and one with a diesel engine fitted with a particle trap. To a simple layman both those things impressed me enormously. However, when my noble friends go on and ask, "What about lowering the tax?" I am bound to give them the answer which I know they will expect, which is that I cannot anticipate the Budget, but I understand what they mean.
My noble friend Lord Caldecote asked what action would be taken on particles. There is considerable scientific concern about the health effects of particles and we have asked several of the advisory groups to study the matter. Those groups are the Expert Panel on Air Quality Standards, the Committee on Medical Effects of Air Pollution and the Quality of Urban Air Review Group. Their reports on various aspects of particle pollution will be published shortly and the Government will produce their national air strategy for consultation before the end of the year. That will set out our plans for tackling all air pollution in this country, including from particles.
My noble friend Lord Caldecote was concerned about vehicle emission standards. The fact is that vehicle emission standards were tightened in 1993 and further tougher limits will apply from 1996. The Government's air quality strategy includes serious measures to control transport emissions. The recommendations from the expert panels on air quality standards will be published shortly. The views of your Lordships' Select Committee on targets are a particularly valuable contribution to the debate on transport. We have said that we shall produce a further report after we have been able to absorb all the views expressed.
The Select Committee made a number of comments on agriculture. I was glad that it recognised the Government's continued desire to reform the common agricultural policy. Indeed, my noble friend Lord Blakenham said that he thought that the common agricultural policy was not sustainable in its present form and that more emphasis should be placed on the environment.
My noble friend also mentioned grants with regard to waste handling facilities. Such grants are no longer available on a country-wide basis, but the Government are committed to making grants available in the nitrate-vulnerable zones once they have been designated. In addition, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is spending £3.2 million in 1995–96 on research and development into ways of dealing with farm wastes.
The noble Lord, Lord Barber of Tewkesbury, was also concerned about the work of developing indices of pesticide use to measure the environmental risk.
1251 Obviously, policies on agricultural inputs must be soundly based and must not oversimplify what are very complex matters. The Government's policy is to limit the amount of pesticide use to the minimum necessary for the effective control of pests, compatible with the protection of human health and the environment. The indices will enable long-term trends to be monitored and will allow comparisons to be made between different agricultural practices.
My noble friend Lord Clanwilliam was concerned about the organic aid scheme and said that it was inadequate when compared with the schemes for environmentally sensitive areas and the Countryside Stewardship Scheme. The organic aid scheme should not be compared with other environmental schemes as though it is an alternative. For many farmers, it provides an additional payment on top of other environmental aids. In addition, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food spends about £1 million every year on research and development into the economic aspects of organic farming.
My noble friend Lord Addison referred to problems with the extraction of minerals, especially in national parks. I agree that there is a serious problem which goes to the root of sustainable development. There are new provisions in the Environment Act and I think that we should give them time to work. Agriculture's relationship with the environment is peculiarly complex and it is not easy to reduce that complexity to a simple set of basic targets and indicators. However, the work that is currently being undertaken on indicators of sustainable development should help to illuminate the possibilities and problems. We shall consider the issue further when we come to the 1996 White Paper on sustainable development and the environment.
The noble Lord, Lord Barber, was concerned about the quality of agricultural soil. The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution is just coming to the end of a two-year study on soil. We should await its report before coming to too many conclusions. The commission comprises scientists, economists, business and farming interests and others. It took evidence in public from a wide range of experts. Its report is expected to be published in the new year and the Government will respond to it publicly.
My noble friend Lord Norrie asked some questions about planning. The Government's planning policy on major developments in the national parks is clearly set out in paragraph 3.6 of planning policy guidance note No. 7. Guidance on the application of that principle will be set out in the forthcoming guidance circular on the operations of the new national park authorities. All proposals for major developments in national parks should be tested against the criteria of need and whether there are suitable alternatives. Those proposing major developments will have to demonstrate clearly why they consider that the development is appropriate for a national park, commensurate with the established guidance. My noble friend also asked about targets and national parks. The parks will be required to demonstrate their performance against various targets relating to their several functions as part of the normal 1252 process of bidding for funds and reporting progress. I should like to take up my noble friend's invitation to write to him on the point about the duties of public bodies.
The Select Committee stressed the need for the proper integration of economic and environmental policies and asked for a restatement of how at present we set out to achieve that. Our response did that. We also agreed in our response that, given the progress that has been achieved on green housekeeping, the time is right for meetings of green Ministers to take on a wider range of issues which they can discuss. Green Ministers will also keep under review the opportunities to publish further information about their collective work.
The Select Committee also recommended that the Government should pursue the wider use of economic instruments which are designed to give business and others financial incentives to help to protect the environment. The Select Committee's suggestion is welcome because economic instruments can often be more sensitive than regulations. But regulation and voluntary action both have a part to play too. The important thing is that we should seek the best possible mixture of the three different approaches.
The noble Lords, Lord Porter and Lord Barber, referred to the precautionary principle, which is widely quoted in international discussions and agreements. The Select Committee's report cautioned against devaluation of the precautionary principle. The Select Committee thought that it had occurred in the Government's climate change programme and said that, as energy efficiency measures pay for themselves, why should they be described as precautionary action? The Government find that interpretation too narrow. Energy efficiency measures are both precautionary action and self-interested. Other countries take the same view. Pointing to the financial advantages certainly helps to promote energy efficiency.
The Select Committee criticised the slow pace of change. In fact, there is now a growing list of examples of the practical and successful use of those economic instruments. Probably the first and best-known example was the preferential tax treatment which was given to unleaded petrol. That has contributed towards a major reduction in lead in the air. We also introduced the system of increasing the duty on fuel by 5 per cent. above the rate of inflation each year and, of course, we announced proposals for the landfill tax which, incidentally, is now at an advanced stage of preparation.
The noble Lords, Lord Desai and Lord Beaumont, wanted to move from taxes on income to taxes on resources. As the noble Lord, Lord Desai, knows only too well, that is a big subject so perhaps I may excuse myself from commenting on it at this juncture.
The landfill tax marks something of a departure in both environmental and fiscal policy. It is the first use of a new tax in the United Kingdom which is designed to help achieve an environmental objective, and it reflects the Government's intention to use taxation to help to protect the environment. The landfill tax is a recognition of the fact that taxation systems can be used 1253 to promote activities which are better for the environment, while reducing taxes which damage economic activity.
We would like to move further in that direction. But, introducing more market-based approaches is much more complex than some people might realise. It is not only important to get the technical aspects right. We also need to establish the effect which a new economic instrument would have upon the market, and how it would interact with environmental regulations.
Some of your Lordships referred to the Treasury, saying that it is responsible for the slow pace of change. Kicking the Treasury is usually considered to be good sport, if for no other reason than that one is not likely to find many people who take the opposite view. But occasionally it can be unfair. My right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer said only in the last Budget:I want to raise tax on polluters to make further cuts in the tax on jobs".—[Official Report, Commons, 29/11/94; col. 1098.]I agree with the committee that there will always remain an important role for regulation which can never be replaced by just market-based approaches. This includes cases where regulations are needed to prevent unacceptable health risks or where they are needed in order to protect vital environmental resources. There will also be cases where much can be achieved through voluntary actions by firms, the public sector, voluntary groups and individuals.
I was deeply impressed by the noble Lord, Lord Porter of Luddenham, who said that he had discovered a molecule, even though it lasted for only one-thousandth of a second. I have never met anyone who has discovered a molecule. In my churlish way, I wondered how, if it was there for only one-thousandth of a second, he knew that it existed. I am sure that he had a good scientific instrument which told him that.
The committee recommended that government should take the lead in helping to get public awareness about environmental issues translated into action. I believe that the committee is right and the Government are prepared to do that. A number of important things have already been done. One particularly important achievement is that part of the sustainable development strategy which is specifically aimed at involving ordinary citizens; that which we called Going For Green. It started about a year ago and it has concentrated on making people more aware of how they themselves can contribute to a better environment. That includes ensuring that pupils grow up with a proper understanding of the issues which will affect their future.
Sustainable development is a fast-moving sea and many things are happening. The noble Baroness, Lady Hilton, said that we should carry out our obligations beyond Europe. We agree and we are doing that. At the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 we signed up to Agenda 21, which was a global programme of action for sustainable development. That recognises the inter-dependence of nations and the need for international co-operation. The United Kingdom has taken a lead in following up the Rio Summit and has used its influence to promote 1254 co-operation and progress between developing and developed countries on very important environmental issues, such as the ozone layer.
My right honourable friends the Secretary of State for the Environment and the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, launched a rural White Paper last week. It sets out a new vision for the future of our countryside and it explains how sustainable development can be put into practice in rural areas, building on the strengths of the countryside and those who live and work there. Research is also underway to investigate and to produce a good practice guide on sustainable development for local planning authorities in England. That will be published in early 1997.
The preparation of our air quality strategy is well advanced and we intend to publish it for consultation within the next few months. Improving air quality is a major environmental objective and one where we agree that targets can lend a clear sense of direction. We also intend to publish the waste strategy for England and Wales before the end of the year.
We shall consider what has been said by so many people and we also wish to consider the points that your Lordships have made today. We hope to go to consultation shortly, as the Environment Act requires, on a further text of a draft order which will be laid before your Lordships and another place early next year.
This has been—certainly for me—a fascinating debate, providing perceptions on a number of issues for which I have, with a certain amount of temerity, found myself taking on some form of ministerial responsibility. It has raised questions of both principle and practicality. As I said at the beginning, sustainable development covers a very wide canvas. It is at the heart of government policy. It has a long-term perspective and it involves all sections of society. I can assure your Lordships that I have listened with interest to your contributions on this far from easy subject. We shall certainly take note of what your Lordships have said both tonight and in the Select Committee report.
§ 7.24 p.m.
§ Lord Tombs
My Lords, we have had a comprehensive and rewarding debate during which many points of importance have been made. I am sure that the House will be delighted to hear that I have no intention of revisiting them. Hansard will provide an invaluable supplement to the committee's report.
It seemed to me that two general topics cropped up during the debate, neither of which were addressed in the report. The first was the need for more urgency; what one might term the "near-Apocalyptic approach". The second was the loss of momentum in the UK as well as elsewhere. I wish to take just a couple of minutes to discuss those two topics.
When considering the urgency and becoming desperate about the state of the environment it is good to look back at history; to look, for example, at the Reverend Malthus who last century predicted doom and starvation and almost the end of the planet. It is also good to look back 50 years at the achievements of technology and the wide variety of topics. Good 1255 examples, which I jotted down, are energy, medicine, communications and agriculture. Looking back at the progress made in those four areas during the past 50 years, in my judgment there is no need to be worried about the next 50 years.
Society will not be changed; it will not be revolutionised in its attitudes or values overnight. Therefore, we are in for a long haul, assisted by faith in technology.
As regards the loss of momentum, which I confess I can see some arguments for, enthusiasms come and go and perhaps in some cases sustainable development is the victim of its own success. But I am convinced that there is a "no slowing" by the Department of the Environment, although I have to say that the Government response could be seen as supporting the proposition.
In co-ordinating the policies and actions of a dozen departments, the task of the Department of the Environment, to which it brings great energy and stamina, is unenviable. Naturally enough, the commitment of individual departments varies enormously, and in the report we drew attention to some laggards. As has been said today, and as we stated, the Treasury deserves special mention in that respect.
How do we maintain the momentum that we have achieved during the past 10 years? I should like the Government to consider an annual report and debate in which the report is made by the lead department—that is, the Department of the Environment—and progress is reviewed during the year. Failing that, I suggest to the appropriate authorities regular reviews by Select Committees. One or other of those mechanisms is needed because the whole effort is essentially inter-departmental. A lead department, however good, cannot bridge those gaps without some support from outside.
I and my colleagues are gladdened by the widespread acceptance of the arguments and conclusions of the report. I personally was grateful for the opportunity of chairing the committee on such a fascinating topic and being with colleagues who were well informed, good humoured, hardworking and, as you have heard from their comments on the chairman, very tolerant.
§ On Question, Motion agreed to.