Mary Creagh

Working hard for Wakefield

Speech in a debate on soil health

I believe this is the first time that the UK Parliament has ever discussed the health of our soil, which is a vital part of the nation’s ecosystems. I warmly welcome the Minister to her post—I know we will have a good discussion today—and my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell), who is the Labour Front-Bench spokesperson on this issue. I am grateful to Mr Speaker and to the House for this first ever debate, which is on the Environmental Audit Committee’s report into soil health.

I begin by thanking my Committee colleagues for their work and all the other hon. Members across the House who have a long-standing, informed interest in protecting the environment. One of the first findings of our report is that soil is a Cinderella environmental issue. It is an earthy subject; it is not clear like water, and it receives a lot less attention than air pollution, water quality and climate change. Yet whether we realise it or not, society relies on healthy soil for the food that we eat, for flood prevention and for storing carbon. The UK’s soils are only about 10,000 years old, which is one of the fascinating facts we learnt as we went through our inquiry. Soil supports 95% of the world’s food production —the other 5% is probably fish and perhaps stuff from trees, although trees grow in soil as well—so if soils start going down, human life will follow soon after.

The Government say they want our soil to be sustainably managed by 2030, but we found no evidence that they are putting in place the policies to make that happen. Although healthy soil is a vital tool in the fight against climate change, degraded soils harm the environment and can even contribute to climate change by emitting carbon into the atmosphere, so it is vital that robust mechanisms are put in place to promote soil health and reverse soil degradation. We welcome the Government’s aspiration for UK soils to be managed sustainably, but we need ambitious targets, effective policy and strong enforcement mechanisms to make sure that happens, and we did not see that action.

Let me turn first to the vexatious issue of contaminated land. This is absolutely vital if we are to have a resource-efficient country that uses everything well. That includes brownfield land, rather than taking more land from our beloved greenbelt, which, as we all know as constituency MPs, is a deeply controversial issue.​

A key area of concern was the fact that 300,000 hectares of UK soil are contaminated with toxins, including lead, nickel, tar, asbestos and radioactive substances. Those contaminated sites can be a public health risk and can even pollute our water supplies. The contamination is the result of the UK’s proud industrial heritage in areas such as mine and that of the hon. Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk). That is not a problem in areas with very high land values, where sites are mostly dealt with through the planning system, so that developers can see what the cost of remediating and cleaning the soil—washing it, which is what actually happens—will be, and they are happy to do that. That happened, for example, at London’s Olympic park: the soil was actually lifted up and washed before the development began. I am sure we are exporting that amazing technology all round the world.

In areas where land values are low, where the local authority owns the land or where rogue developers have failed to clean up before construction, local councils have a statutory duty under part 2A of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 to clean up contaminated land. However, the Government have withdrawn capital grant funding, which enables councils to do that.

Let me give an example from Wakefield of a housing estate in Ossett. It was built in the 1970s on the site of an old paintworks, when environmental regulations were much less stringent than they are today. In 2012, the council discovered that people’s back gardens were contaminated with asbestos, lead, arsenic and a derivative of coal tar, which can cause cancer. Cleaning up that toxic legacy would have cost residents £20,000 to £30,000 each, leaving their homes blighted and unsellable. Thankfully, Wakefield Council secured more than £300,000 from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in contaminated land grants to clean up the toxic mess.

However, our inquiry heard that the cut to the capital grant has severely undermined local councils’ ability to tackle the problem. It means that sites such as Sand Hill Park in Gunnislake in Cornwall, Upton Court Park in Slough and McCormack Avenue in St Helens will be left untreated. Many councils simply do not have the resources to investigate contaminated sites, and we heard that councils would be reluctant to investigate a site—rightly—knowing that they could not secure funding for remediation.

There is a real danger that contaminated sites are being left unidentified, with potential harm to public health. Ministers have been clear that relying on the planning regime alone does not solve the contaminated land problem and could exacerbate regional inequalities. There is a risk of no remediation being done, and in some cases the houses were built in Victorian times, so there is no developer to pursue. The Government have not produced an impact assessment that we have seen—I am happy if the Minister wants to correct me—on the cessation of the capital grant scheme, but it is wrong to state, as Ministers have, that contamination can be addressed through the revenue support grant. Correspondence published by my Committee from December 2013 shows the then DEFRA Minister, Lord de Mauley, saying that the Government never intended the revenue support grant to take the place of capital grant funding.

The Government have cut £17 million of funding since 2009-10, leaving just half a million pounds, with the funding essentially being phased out in 2016-17. ​Capital support grants, not revenue support grants, have financed 80% of the cost of cleaning up contaminated sites. Fewer than 2% of cases have been remediated through other public funding, suggesting that the revenue support grant has rarely been used to meet councils’ statutory responsibilities under part 2A.

Revenue support grant—the clue is in the name, is it not? It is there to help councils with their revenue needs, not these sorts of big capital needs. Some councils facing the biggest problems with contaminated sites are coping with the most severe budget cuts. Wakefield Council is cutting £27 million of spending this year. We believe it is essential that DEFRA provides a dedicated funding stream to decontaminate sites, to use brownfield properly and to have a resource-efficient approach to the planning system. It should be set at the level of the previous scheme—around £19.5 million in today’s prices.

I was concerned to learn that since the publication of our report both DEFRA and the Department for Communities and Local Government have proposed amendments to planning regulations in the Neighbourhood Planning Bill that will curtail the right of local planning authorities to attach pre-commencement planning conditions to brownfield development approvals. The requirement for these conditions to be agreed with developers in advance or be subject to appeal will prevent local authorities from ensuring that site investigation, risk assessment and clean-up works take place before development begins. Furthermore, the CL:AIRE national quality mark scheme, which aims to speed up approval for development on brownfield sites, risks negating or potentially replacing the independent, rigorous and accountable role of the local authority’s contaminated land officer. It is wrong for DEFRA to be relying on local authorities to remediate contaminated land while cutting their funding and introducing new legislative measures that reduce their ability to act effectively.

Let me turn to soil degradation, peat lands and climate change. I was unaware before this inquiry that soil is a massive natural carbon capture and storage system. We hear a lot about CCS, but we do not actually understand that the soil around us is capturing and storing carbon all the time. It stores three times as much carbon as the atmosphere, and we want it to stay there. The UK’s arable soils have seen a widespread and ongoing decline in peat soil carbon levels since the ’70s. Soil degradation increases carbon emissions and contributes to climate change. Each tonne of carbon retained in soil helps us to meet our carbon budgets and slows climate change.

At the Paris conference on climate change last year, the Government pledged to increase soil carbon levels by 0.4% a year. That is a great pledge, and we welcome the ratification today of the climate change treaty, but the Government need a plan to put that pledge into action. I would like to hear from the Minister where that plan is. Without a national soil monitoring scheme to establish a baseline for the nation’s soil, we will not know whether the target is met. The carbon content of soil is vital for growing food—95% of food, apart from fish. Soil degradation could mean that some of our most productive agricultural land, particularly in East Anglia, becomes unprofitable to farm within a generation.

The degradation and decline of peat bogs is particularly troubling, given that peat lands store about 40% of our soil carbon. The Government need to crack down on ​land use practices that degrade peat, such as the burning and draining of bogs. I welcome the Government’s commitment to publish their report on the carbon and greenhouse gas balance of low-lying peat lands in England and Wales before the end of the year. That research will fill an important knowledge gap, and the Government should use the report to accelerate and improve their peat land restoration programme.

The upcoming 25-year environment plan—we are keen to hear the latest timings for that from the Minister—should set out measurable and time-bound actions that will halt, then reverse, peat land degradation while minimising the impact on farmers. DEFRA’S single departmental plan contains £100 million for the natural environment. Will the Minister tell us how much of that money will be spent on improving soil health? I am concerned that a majority of the projects are based in upland peat land areas, whereas our report highlighted that the problem is in the lowland peat areas. They are the emissions hotspots, and that is where the Government should target their efforts.

I mentioned the need for a proper soil monitoring system. Again, because soil is earthy and dark, we do not tend to see it as something that is important to us as an ecosystem. DEFRA’s ad hoc approach to soil health surveys is inadequate. We would like the Government to introduce a rolling national monitoring scheme, very similar to the one in Wales that we heard about, to ensure that we get a rich picture of our nation’s soils. Data collection is a cornerstone of effective policy, because what gets measured gets done. Without a national soil monitoring scheme, we do not know whether our soils are getting healthier or sicker. Ad hoc studies are just not enough; one survey in eight years is not enough.

A proposal to undertake a repeat of the soil sampling carried out in 2007, which would cost just £156,000 a year, has been submitted to DEFRA since the release of our report. Is the Minister aware of that and does she have any comments about that proposal? Compared with the costs of monitoring air and water quality, this is very small beer, but it is a crucial platform for knowledge building. Soils receive nowhere near equal status with water, biodiversity and air.

The Government have suggested that we could use farmers’ own soil analysis to monitor soil health. That is fine. That approach may provide useful additional data, but it is not a solution because it would be an unrepresentative sample.

The Minister has a degree in chemistry, so she will know about the importance of representative sampling. Such an analysis would only deal with agricultural soil, but would neglect conservation land, urban and coastal land, forests and most peat lands.

Let me turn to the cross-compliance regime. The Government’s reliance on cross-compliance rules with farm payments to regulate agricultural soil health is not sufficient to meet their ambition to manage our soil sustainably by 2030. The regime is too weak. The rules are too loosely enforced and they rely only on preventing further damage to soil, rather than on promoting activity to encourage the restoration and improvement of our soils.​

Crucial elements of soil health, such as soil structure and biology, are not assessed at all in the cross-compliance regime, and there is a minimal inspection regime. Two figures really illustrate the changes in the past couple of years. In 2014, there were 478 discovered breaches of the cross-compliance soil regime but in 2015, under the new common agricultural policy rules, there were just two discovered breaches of the new conditions, both on the same farm. I am pretty certain that the only reason those breaches were discovered was because there was soil run-off, which probably went into a watercourse. It was not Government inspectors, but the Environment Agency, that saw a polluting incident in a river, allowing the breach to be discovered. In theory, an outcome-based approach is fine, but we need adequate inspection and monitoring. Rules with greater scope, force and ambition are required to meet the Government’s goal to manage soil sustainably by 2030.

I turn briefly to subsidies for maize production and anaerobic digestion. We heard that maize production, when managed incorrectly, also damages soil. This is not just a question for fans of “The Archers”, in which Adam is trying to restore the soil structure in the face of opposition from evil Rob Titchener, who is evil not just because of what he did to Helen, but because of his approach to soil monitoring and restoration. We send Adam every good wish in his low-till approach to improving the land.

Maize production can increase flood risk and contribute to soil erosion. My Committee heard evidence that up to three quarters of a field could be sealed to—or become impervious to—rainfall in maize stubble fields over the winter, which results in the soil run-off that, as I said earlier, damages rivers. There is a very simple method to avoid that, which is roughly ploughing back in the maize stubble. If the Government could think of ways to incentivise farmers to do that, we would be only too happy to hear about them. We need effective regulation of high-risk practices.

Maize produced for anaerobic digestion receives a double subsidy: first through the CAP and then from the UK’s own renewable energy incentives. That is counterproductive and has contributed to an increase in the land used for maize production. The Government’s plan to restrict the subsidy for energy generated using crop-based feedstock is a move in the right direction, but it fails to prevent maize from being grown on high-risk soils. I would be grateful if the Minister set out whether she has any specific plans on that issue.

Before I finish, I would like to say a few words about the referendum result. Some 80% of our environmental regulations are shaped by Brussels, and soil is no exception. The European Environment Agency researches trends in European soil health and looks at how cross-cutting policy objectives impact on soil management. It is not glamourous work—getting our hands dirty never is—but it is important for member states, including the UK, working towards the European Union’s target to ensure that by 2020 soil ​erosion is reduced, soil organic matter is increased and remedial work is underway on contaminated sites. It is important that we are able to meet our 0.4% target to improve soil carbon capture, as we have agreed to do in the Paris agreement. As we leave the EU, it is vital that the Government maintain that target and ensure that UK agencies take over the European Environment Agency’s vital work in this area.

Other Members wish to speak, so I will conclude by saying that soil is crucial to life on Earth. Neglecting soil health will damage our food security, increase climate change and damage public health. DEFRA’s upcoming 25-year environment plan gives us a unique opportunity to place soil protection at the heart of our environmental policy. We must stop seeing soil just as a growth medium and treat it as a precious, fragile ecosystem in its own right—it is the Cinderella of all ecosystems.

We need a joined-up soil policy between DEFRA and the Department for Communities and Local Government in relation to planning. We are pleased that the Government have acknowledged those issues, but now we await action. We want to see specific, measurable and time-limited action to protect our soil. I commend our report to the House, and I look forward to the debate and to the Minister’s response.

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