This week the House of Lords ended its deliberations on the Infrastructure Bill – a curious mishmash of proposed legislation addressing everything from roads to non-native species and town and country planning, and plenty of concern to environmentalists. Having debated and amended the Bill in detail over the last 5 months, the Bill was passed by the House and now heads over to the Commons, where MPs will deliberate over the amended version over the course of the next few months. You can find the Bill, and accompanying Explanatory Notes, here.
The Public Forest Estate: disposal row re-visited?
Where woods and trees are concerned, the Lords have made a number of welcome changes to the Bill. The most important of these is a clarification that the clause allowing for transfer of so-called ‘surplus’ government-held land to the Homes and Communities Agency (for possible onward sell-off) will not apply to the Public Forest Estate. This commitment and clarifying amendment, which followed a recent Written Ministerial Statement from Housing and Planning Minister Brandon Lewis, is welcome. It reflects lobbying by the Woodland Trust and a whole range of groups to amend the Bill in this way.
However, and as Baroness Royall, the Shadow Leader of the House of Lords, articulated during Wednesday’s ‘Third Reading’ debate, such clarifications would not have been necessary had the Government not reneged on its promise to bring forward legislation for the PFE in a Forestry Bill in the first place. It’s clear that these clarifications are in no way a substitute for such a Bill, which we are lobbying all parties hard to bring forward as soon as possible after the election.
Quoting from a briefing from the Woodland Trust ahead of the debate, Baroness Royall told the House:
“We hope that the Third Reading debate, any subsequent further amendment—and scrutiny in the Commons—will ensure that protection is as strong as possible. Whatever the outcome of the Bill’s passage, however, it has to be said that this is a row of the Government’s own making through not bringing forward a Forestry Bill as promised. Indeed, this assurance within the Infrastructure Bill cannot be deemed a substitute for the bringing forward of legislation for the Public Forest Estate; a specific Forestry Bill is still needed to settle the future of the PFE and for the avoidance of any future doubt or confusion as to its status. We want to see that legislation brought forward at the earliest opportunity after the election”.
Other welcome amendments to the Bill include a specification that the Highways Agency – which under the Bill will become a government-owned company tasked with managing and operating England’s motorway and strategic road network – will be obliged to “have regard to the effect of the exercise of” its functions on the environment. Likewise, the draft licence for this strategic highways company, as separate to the Bill itself, also now makes welcome reference to the environment, reflecting some of our further recent work at Whitehall – though there is still work to do on this.
So it’s fair to say that from the perspective of safeguarding the Public Forest Estate, and the environment more generally, the Infrastructure Bill has emerged from its progress through the House of Lords in better shape than when it first went in.
But it’s far from bells and roses. There remain some important issues with the Bill, which will now fall to MPs in the House of Commons to address.
Issues to watch
First of all, there are questions over the watchdog and the monitor that will be appointed to oversee the strategic highways company, such as how these will hold the body to account regarding any obligations towards the environment; the role of the Government in the running of the company and therefore of parliament and the public; and the role of local authorities, Network Rail and others to integrate the planning and management of local road networks, and associated concerns about the Government’s ability to lead a truly strategic transport policy that respects the natural environment.
We also have reservations about the Government’s commitment to the eradication and control of invasive non-native species (INNS), which are among the biggest global threats to biodiversity, as well as having serious negative consequences for ecosystem services, the economy and public health. The Infrastructure Bill sets out welcome proposed species control provisions, and the Lords made welcome amendments to the designation of species clauses, but here at the Woodland Trust we would like to see environmental authorities given sufficient funding to carry out these provisions at a time when many environmental authority budgets are already stretched.
Finally (for now), we also remain anxious to ensure that the proposed changes to the mainstream planning system within the Bill, concerning procedures associated with discharging planning conditions, are not carried out at the expense of the natural environment. You can read more of the detail about this issue here.
Now that the Bill has passed through the House of Lords, it now passes to the House of Commons, where MPs will begin by debating its principles at ‘Second Reading’ (in December or early January), commencing more detailed scrutiny at Committee Stage (late Jan), Report Stage, and finally a Third Reading (Feb?). Final amendments are then considered by both the Lords and the Commons (estimated to be in early March), before the Bill is presented for Royal Assent.
As the Bill enters its Commons phase we’ll be busy engaging MPs, particularly those on the Bill Committee, to ensure it – and also its accompanying documents – pays sufficient regard to the potential impact on our country’s precious woods and trees. Watch this space.
Lorraine Mullally – Lead Government Affairs Officer