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Biodiversity, farming and water quality: Promises, promises

From left to right: David Wood – ITV Political Correspondent (Chair), Tessa Munt – former MP for Wells and current Somerset County Councillor, Sir Tim Smit – Co-Founder of the Eden Project, Chris Fayers, Head of Environment at EDF Energy, Georgia Stokes – CEO of Somerset Wildlife Trust and Rebecca Pow MP, Minister for Nature Recovery and the Domestic Environment

This is the second of three features we are releasing recounting the discussion that took part live from Taunton on the 4th of March as part of our Levelling Up the Conversation series, broadcasted some of the most important issues facing the world today – the environment and biodiversity.

Over the course of an hour, a live studio audience and members of the public from around the country heard from a panel of experts on topics ranging from water pollution to sustainability and the expansion of Bristol Airport.

Thank you to the hundreds of questions from around the country who watched as Chair and ITV West Country’s Political Correspondent, David Wood put questions to panellists Rebecca Pow, Environment Minister and local MP for Taunton, former MP for Wells and Somerset County Councillor, Tessa Munt, Head of Environment at EDF Energy, Chris Fayers, Chief Executive of Somerset Wildlife Trust, Georgia Stokes and Co-Founder of the Eden Project, Sir Tim Smit.

Biodiversity

After a heated exchange on climate change and how the Government will deliver it’s targets David Wood pivoted the discussion towards biodiversity with a question from Steve Mewes at Somerset Wildlife Trust (SWT) who asked “How can we turbo-charge natural restoration so we can properly tackle the climate and ecological emergency?”, this question was put to Georgia Stokes (also of the SWT) as an expert on biodiversity. Unsurprisingly she agreed that we should turbo-charge natural restoration, stating that 41% of species in the UK are in decline, globally a million species are facing extinction and eco systems are not functioning or helping as they could with the climate emergency.

She welcomed the tools introduced by the Environment Act 2021 but stated that these tools needed to be consistently and legally applied. She went on to explain that Local Nature Recovery Strategies which are introduced in the Environment Act must be embedded in the planning system and other government policies must link up with these strategies so there are not inconsistencies. As an example she gave the Governments competing polices on peat, on the one hand investing in peat restoration and on the other allowing the continued extraction of peat which she said a recent IPCC report stated was “stupid bordering on criminal”. She stated it must stop now, though admitted that there was a consultation out on the subject.

She relayed the SWT’s calculations that delaying the banning of the retail sale of peat until 2024 which is being considered will lead to the release of 1.5 million tonnes of carbon. She implored the audience and perhaps particularly the Environment Minister sat to her left that there are “quick wins”, with the ban of peat extraction and support for people employed in the industry without blaming or vilifying them would mark significant progress.


Housing

David Wood then moved the discussion to focus more locally, asking Somerset County Councillor Tessa Munt how councils can ensure that when signing off developments the environment is a priority, and how much of a priority should it be in the midst of a housing crisis? Tessa immediately raised the issue of phosphates which links planning and the environment directly. The contamination of the Somerset Levels and other water courses with phosphates from farming and housing has led to a reduction in house building as authorities look for answers to reduce these pollutants. Councillor Munt welcomed Somerset West and Taunton Councils investment of £2million to offset phosphate discharge but lamented that this was not a sustainable solution.

In a powerful summing up she suggested that to fix this and similar problems is to “have some rules please”, rules that work, are enforced and where those who are enforcing are funded “independently”. She critiqued the planned office for Environmental Protection as “controlled by Ministers, the budget will be controlled by Ministers, the board is going to be controlled by Ministers and the rules are going to be controlled”. She made the point that the Environment Agency is in a similar position, strapped for cash and unable to enforce the principle that the “polluter pays”.

She went on to say that on housing local authorities have limited powers to ensure that planning decisions lead to home “fit for the future” and are forced to approved the “slums of tomorrow”, calling out specifically the big developers who she thinks are the problem.

Farming and food security

The next questions dealt with the new ways that farmers will run since exiting the EU and the end of the CAP with one farmer complaining of their complexity and wondering when they would find time to farm. After burnishing her farming credentials Rebecca Pow set out that farmers will be receiving the same amount of money as under the CAP but that “now they will have to do something for it”. The will be required to deliver public goods such as their soil health, managing hedgerows and farming sustainably.

Going back to peat she explained that the Government will be phasing out peat by 2024 and had set biodiversity targets for 2030. She said that these targets were hard but all of the Government policies combined were what would meet them.

“Crikey, the Common Agricultural Policy was like it was put together by mad people”

Sir Tim Smit

David Wood then asked Sir Tim whether this new way of farming was better and he said “by and large, yes”. Saying that farmers are the most important people in Britain and must be seen as stewards of the land, not just food production. He made the point that ‘clean meat’, that is meat that is grown independently of any animals, also called ‘lab grown meat’ is making rapid progress in the US and China and advances in fermentation are leading to new ways to produce dairy proteins. This rapid change he thinks will hit farmers, particularly small farmers hard and he implored people to be apolitical about the issue and grasp the opportunity that Brexit has yielded in this area. Rebecca Pow then jumped in with her account a farm that was rewetting peat, planting willows for carbon sequestration and investing in vertical farming as an example of innovation in farming she was excited about.

Water

Dragging the panel, who could have clearly discussed farming for the rest of the evening onto water issues David Wood asked a question from Harry who was watching along with the Webinar. “Practically none of our rivers are in good condition with agricultural discharge and sewage runoff being the worst offenders”, he asked Tessa Munt how we should solve these problems.

After calling out housing’s fitness for the future, Tessa Munt said we must get really muscular to solve these issues. She mentioned that farmers must spread slurry away from watercourses and maintain their soil so it does not run off, she gave the example of decreasing the cultivation of maize as to how to do this.  

Her main point however was that water companies are to blame for sewage runoff and have resources they could use to fix it.  Citing her local area in the Axe catchment she said there are 27 rivers, only one of which has a good ecological status and none of which have a good chemical status. She said that this was a disgrace, that Wessex Water was “thinking about doing something about it” but that in the last ten years before 2019 Wessex Water had paid out £110 million to their shareholders but only £9 million was spent on sewage pollution. She decried sewage ending up on the Somerset levels while shareholders are paid out from the water company as disgusting.

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River Axe. Photo Credit: Adam Cli

Final Thought

There were highs and lows from this part of the night. It seemed that everyone on the panel agreed that new targets for biodiversity, new ways of farming following Brexit and a net zero climate target were good things.

The downside was that there was not a lot of trust that targets and policy changes would be implemented in ways that would improve things. There was a feeling of people who had too often heard promises and were looking for details on exactly how these lofty goals would be implemented. Biodiversity, habitat conservation and even peat extraction, like climate change demand our attention now.

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