Wednesday, 18 December 2019
Environmental Policy: Motion [Private Members]
I move amendment No. 3:
To delete the words “immediately enact a nationwide ban on smoky coal, which has already been proven to work in many larger urban areas without legal challenge;” and insert the following: “— not introduce a nationwide smoky coal ban at this time, as to do so carries a serious risk of illegality unless the burning of peat, turf and wet wood are also included, and to instead proceed on an incremental basis and in a proportionate way;
— immediately extend the existing smoky coal ban, to thirteen towns where there are particular air quality issues because of the burning of solid fuels;”
I welcome the debate on the motion tabled by the Labour Party. It is a very important debate and deals with a range of environmental issues. This is something I take very seriously. There is no doubt that we have become much more aware of the huge damage the inadvertent consequences of some behaviour is causing to the environment. We need to look at practices in industry, farming, transport and the ordinary household if we are to correct this. That has been the fundamental thrust behind my work on climate action. We need to look at how we source our power, because that has a huge impact. We need to look at how we heat our homes and dispose of waste. We need to look at how licences issued by the EPA are observed. The motion raises several concerns in that regard.
The EPA plays a vital role, not just in overseeing regulation but in researching policy priorities. Its reports have drawn our attention to the areas where we need to act. It also supports local authorities, particularly with their responsibilities in enforcing rules against illegal dumping. I know from experience in our shared constituency that the Acting Chairman, Deputy Broughan, is very conscious of that issue. The motion is very critical of enforcement, and I recognise that it must improve. However it is only fair to say that the EPA is very active in the enforcement field. It carries out 1,500 site visits every year. It identifies non-compliance in many of those visits and has been successful in prosecuting it. The EPA takes a risk-based approach to this and has identified sites of particular consequence around which it is particularly vigilant. It seeks to encourage people to be compliant as well as simply enforcing and inspecting. The EPA has published its enforcement policy, which is of very significant assistance to people who want to be compliant but have perhaps fallen into practices leading them to non-compliance. The EPA's work is to be commended. However, I recognise the point made by Deputy Sherlock in his motion. There is significant room to improve this system. Through its research, the EPA itself points the way to those changes.
In making climate action my core project, I am addressing many of the issues raised in the motion.
We address many of the issues by changing our waste patterns. In many ways, we have very poor waste patterns in this country. Half of the material that ought to be in the brown bin finds its way into the others. Those sorts of things do damage to our soil if they end up in landfill and, as a result, we miss out on product that could be recovered in the circular economy, as is cited in many of the motions.
We are also committed to delivering 600,000 homes with heat pumps in the next ten years. A total of 500,000 homes will have improved their fabric. A million of our vehicles will be electric. They will have a very significant impact on air quality, but also on carbon emissions, which is one of our priorities.
The Deputy in his motion questions whether the targets are quantifiable. Not only have we quantified them in the plan, but we will produce a Bill of which the Deputy is supportive that will see a much better accountability framework for reporting in individual sectors and seeing exactly what is happening.
The polluter-pays principle has been raised by the Deputy. One of the things I am very pleased I persuaded the Government to introduce this year is the carbon price. Not only do we have a carbon price but a trajectory for the next ten years. That is very much signalling to people that carbon emissions do damage and we need to start to exit fossil fuels and to make other shifts. That is the polluter-pays principle being adopted, but all the proceeds are being ploughed back into helping to empower people and their communities to make the changes they need to make.
As the Deputy has recognised, I have extended the smoky coal ban to 13 additional towns on an incremental and proportionate basis. These are towns of a size where we have evidence of exceedance of the levels of air pollution. I believe there is a very strong reason to act in the public interest to protect those homes and to introduce the ban on smoky coal. However, to proceed with a nationwide ban, regardless of the circumstances, would carry a very high risk of illegality. I reassure the Deputy that it is based on advice from the Attorney General not from any individual.
The problem here is that there is a fundamental freedom to trade across borders. That is a fundamental principle of the European Union. While it is possible to introduce restrictions on the grounds of public policy, that is permissible only where they are not being arbitrarily or discriminatorily applied to one product against another. The essence of the difficulty here is that it would be very difficult to show the particulate matter content of other solid fuels is lower than that of smoky coal. That is the reality we face. If we do not proceed with the incremental, proportionate and evidence-based approach I have taken, we expose ourselves to a high risk of illegality. We have had an indication that such a ban would be challenged in the courts. The consequences of such an approach would be to expose people in rural areas to a sudden ban that would stop them burning turf and blocks of wood in their homes, which is something they have been doing for many years.