Claire Courtino: A Wild Belt designation can help Britain lead the world in restoring nature

24 Jun

Claire Coutinho is MP for East Surrey.

Britain has seen a 41 per cent decline in our species since 1970. In England, one in eight species are currently threatened with extinction. Simply put, wildlife habitats in this country are fewer, smaller and more distant than ever before.

This is not only a problem for biodiversity, it is also a problem in our efforts to fight climate change. When nature is working as it should, it can capture carbon, act as flood defences, and improve our air and water quality. But when nature is broken, it cannot protect us.

The Government is taking action, pledging to create a new Nature Recovery Network stretching across Britain. This will mean the creation of 500,000 hectares of wildlife-rich habitats by 2042 and a commitment to protect 30 per cent of our land overall for nature recovery by 2030.

And we are backing up our pledges with investment, investing £640 million into a Nature for Climate Fund to restore our wetlands, peatlands and woodlands.

Our historic Environment Bill also introduces a new biodiversity net gain requirement for development, creating a new sustainable funding stream for environmental improvements and making sure when homes for people are built then habitats for wildlife must be improved alongside them.

But, as things stand, while we have numerous land designations in England, none of them exist to strategically connect nature in recovery.

The Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) designation is critical for preserving individual sites which have been identified as wildlife hotspots. The National Park, Areas of Outstanding Beauty (AONB) and Green Belt designations protect landscape and amenity value but do not directly protect biodiversity value. And although we very much like to spend time in beautiful green fields, they can often be quite poor in terms of wildlife habitat.

That is why I am proposing a new designation, a Wild Belt, to plug this legal gap. A Wild Belt designation would provide long-term protection for land that is being managed for nature’s recovery, and it would help us to create connected corridors across land – making sure that wildlife and the natural environment had the space and time it needs to flourish.

The brainchild of Craig Bennett, Chief Executive of the Wildlife Trust, a Wild Belt would protect areas of land that are being managed for nature’s recovery, providing long-term protection from future development and densification.

Across the country, we can see signs of progress. Take the return of the beaver – one of the best natural flood defenders, flow regulators and flora supporters. Once native to England, we are now seeing their return after four centuries of British extinction. Stork!

And I am hopeful this year we will see a return of sand martins nesting in Surrey for the first time in 25 years thanks to the hard work of the Surrey Wildlife Trust.

Bringing back species will be a key part of helping our ecosystems function. But these examples are in a minority. Across Britain, we have seen declines in hedgehog and bees as they struggle to navigate increasingly fragmented habitats. A Wild Belt designation could put a stop to this, by creating green stepping stones for our hedgehogs and pollinator pitstops for our bees.

The benefits of a Wild Belt would also extend to our own health and wellbeing. A survey carried out at the peak of the first lockdown found that 87 per cent agreed that being in nature makes them happy. And the science is clear – having good access to nature can reduce our risk of developing obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

It makes socioeconomic sense too. Poorer households are 3.6 times less likely to live close to green spaces than richer households. By stretching round, through and between England’s town and cities, a Wild Belt would knock down barriers and level up green access.

And while making sure we can build the right homes is our moral duty to the next generation and an important part of maintaining our edge in an increasingly competitive world, a Wild Belt would help to address very real concerns across our communities about species loss and would help us to live in harmony alongside nature.

Schemes like the Trumpington Meadows development in Cambridge have synchronised both housing and biodiversity ambitions. It was once degraded agricultural land, when the housing developer and Wildlife Trust came together to build in an ecological way. It is now home to a 1,200 strong community, where 80 per cent of the land remains biodiverse space and 40 per cent of the properties are affordable housing.

And although a Wild Belt might encompass some green fields, it could also make use of forgotten land – river valleys, roadside verges, railway lines, scraps of golf courses. All of these could be rewilded, creating a network of green continuous corridors from the countryside all the way through our towns and cities.

Just as Britain has led the world in renewable energy and reducing carbon emissions, with the introduction of a Wild Belt designation we can plug a legal gap, safeguard our investments, and lead the world in restoring nature.

Claire Coutinho: In defence of this week’s race and disparities report

3 Apr

Claire Coutinho is MP for East Surrey.

Racism exists in this country; of course it does. And we must do all we can to combat it. However, if we want to close the gaps between how different ethnic minorities succeed in the UK then it is not enough to tackle racism; we must also take a clear-eyed look at why different racial outcomes happen.

The Sewell Report, from the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, provides a data-rich analysis of ethnic minority disparities in Britain today. Overall, the scorecard is unquestionably one of progress. The Equalities Minister, Kemi Badenoch, has repeatedly said that the UK is one of the best countries to be a person of colour and this is shown to be true.

The report references a study by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights in 2019 which shows the percentage of British Black respondents who reported experiencing harassment is the second-lowest in the EU, less than half that of our neighbours in Ireland.

We also have the lowest percentage of Black respondents experiencing discrimination in housing, employment, education, health services, and restaurants, shops and bars. In education, the engine house of social mobility, ethnic minorities are now achieving extraordinary success, outperforming the national average in most cases. As we rightly look at what more we can do, it is important that we celebrate where we have made progress.

The data also shows us that the drivers of racial inequalities are complex. It is not the case that all racial inequalities are driven by racism or even that racism is the biggest driver of racial inequality. It tells us that the Government is right to ditch the catch-all term ‘BAME’. Simply being ‘non-white’ is no longer a major predictor of life chances and masks completely different pictures amongst different minorities.

Even within the category ‘Asian’, one of the clumsy ‘big five’ race labels of ‘White, Black, Asian, Mixed, Other’, outcomes are massively different for Chinese, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, and Indian people. Even amongst ‘Indians’, the urban middle-class Gujaratis and rural Mirpuri will again see extremely different outcomes.

If companies are filling their ‘BAME’ quotas with Indian and Chinese graduates from high-socio economic backgrounds, we should question whether they are in fact delivering the access to opportunity they are claiming. Because the data shows, it’s not the colour of your skin that is most likely to define your life chances in today’s Britain, but your geography, socio-economic background, and family.

The report is far from universally positive. When it comes to racism, both historic and current, it does not allow us to rest on our laurels. It acknowledges repeatedly that racism is a ‘real force’ in the UK and that ‘bias, bigotry and unfairness based on race may be receding, but they still have the power to deny opportunity and painfully disrupt lives.’

From prejudices in the labour market, to biases in facial recognition technology to incidences of racial hate crimes – which have dramatically fallen but are still too high, the Commission challenges us to use all the levers at our disposal to root out racism. It particularly highlights the rise in vile online racist abuse that Thierry Henry, Alex Beresford, or indeed many of the Commissioners of this report will know only too well.

Both the Left and the Right must show leadership here. Keir Starmer’s selective perception of racism doesn’t seem to extend to condemning Labour MPs linking the Sewell Report’s Commissioners to the Klu Klux Klan, but it should. It also shows us that we still have a damaging trust deficit to tackle in our criminal justice and health systems due to ugly legacies of discrimination. It calls for today’s perceptions of racial biases to be met with robust investigations so that we can rebuild trust where it previously has been broken.

However, if not all racial inequalities are primarily caused by racism, then we also need to look carefully at the other dominant factors. Having an accurate evidence-based diagnosis matters. It is the only route which will lead us to the policies that best help those who are falling behind.

It will affect policies designed to close the attainment gap in education that exists for Black Caribbean students, but not for the Black African students that share their classroom. It will affect how we break into the ‘snowy peaks’ in the civil service, NHS, and boardrooms, despite a wealth of ethnic minority talent. It will affect how to address why the average hourly pay rate is £11.87 if you are white British and £9.62 if you are Pakistani or Bangladeshi. It will affect how we address the mortality gap that exists for Black women of all socio-economic backgrounds in maternity services but not for breast cancer.

Different disparities will require us to design different solutions depending on the evidence. Take an example in education. The two lowest performing groups are Black Caribbean students and white working class boys. If family values of education and parental income and educational achievements are the dominant factor, as the evidence suggests, then we should spend more time on strengthening families, parental engagement, and focused programmes around these particular students.

Or take a different example in health. Low vaccine take-up in the black community has partly been caused by a legacy of deep-rooted mistrust in vaccines and health services because of historic discrimination. This cannot be overcome by Government alone and indeed it has been the collaboration and hard work of community leaders which have helped to halve the rate of vaccine hesitancy in black adults – although we still have more to do.

It should be noted that all but one of the Commissioners on the Sewell Report are from ethnic minorities, with expert in the fields of health, policing, and education..To express your expert view on how to make progress in inequality should not be a matter of courage, but it has become that. We owe them a debt of gratitude because their research has given us the springboard to make a meaningful difference in people’s lives.

If we can accurately diagnose the causes of racial inequality, we can design the policies that will help bring an end to it. As Conservatives, we need to unabashedly defend an evidence-led approach on racial inequality and relentlessly focus on improving outcomes. We owe that to the people and communities in this country whose ability to succeed is defined by anything other than their own hard work and talent.

Claire Coutinho: Amidst the Great Global Data Divide, Britain must lead the charge for digital free markets

16 Oct

Claire Coutinho is MP for East Surrey.

As the world’s first industrialised nation, Britain knows the value of getting ahead of the economic curve. Access to natural resources like coal and oil have driven historic and economic revolutions, but in the future the fuel of our economy will be data.

Data flows are already estimated to be worth up to £3 trillion a year to the world’s economy. But a global divide is opening up between those leaning towards digital protectionism, like China and the EU, and those pioneering data agreements.

Where once we had the iron curtain, we now have digital drapes. We must reject this impulse and secure access to the resource that will drive our future growth. Pursuing freer digital markets can propel a great British leap forward. To achieve this, we must put ambitious digital chapters at the heart of our trading agenda.

The global data divide has been developing over many years. It sees some countries restrict the transfer of whole swathes of data, with others taking a far more open approach.

For China, its restrictions form part of its protectionist Made in China 2025 industrial strategy, as well as reinforcing its Great Firewall.

Others, such as New Zealand and Australia, have pioneered digital agreements to make it easier for their businesses to connect with new customers.

Britain is a services superpower. We are second only to the USA in our volume of exports. The sector contributes over 80 per cent of our economic output and employs 30 million people. Our data centres are world leaders, we have a global financial centre and thriving data-rich sectors like AI and fintech.

In 2018, the digital sector contributed £150 billion to the British economy, and grew at a rate almost six times faster than across the whole economy. As Britain flies the flag for free trade, ensuring the international free flow of data will be crucial to our future prosperity.

Digital Trade Agreements form the foundation of future services growth. Digital exports do not recognise geographic distance, which makes large markets on the other side of the globe even more appealing.

From facilitating e-contracts across borders, to preventing requirements for data to be stored domestically and allowing British companies to access foreign Government data, these agreements will be increasingly important for our services-driven trade. Regrettably, the global data divide is stymieing progress in international regulatory developments, leaving a void that will only become more pronounced.

Data localisation strikes at the heart of efficient business. Without locking in free dataflows, businesses in increasingly broad sectors would face the need for expensive data centres to operate abroad. In the long term, this would hit our national economy. In fact, the US Chamber of Commerce estimates that Chinese data protectionism will reduce its GDP by between 1.8 and 3.4 per cent by 2025.

As a leading digital economy with new control over its trade policy and an ambitious outlook, Britain is uniquely placed to help shape global rules in this emerging arena. A firm focus on digital trade will place Britain at the forefront in the sphere most crucial to the future success of our economy, and lock-in the digital freedoms that our businesses currently enjoy. The UK-Japan Free Trade Agreement stands us in good stead; going further than the EU-Japan deal and the Digital Economy Partership Agreement, it contains arguably the most wide-ranging and ambitious digital provisions of any agreement in the world.

Liz Truss is rightly focused on the Indo Pacific – the world’s fastest growing region. With plans to join the CPTPP, and trade negotiations underway with pioneers New Zealand, Australia and Singapore, Britain is right to side with digital free-traders. Digital Agreements in this region represent a significant opportunity for the UK, and one which we could not have pursued without leaving the EU.

The coming century will be dominated by data-dependent technology. Ensuring that our trade deals contain ambitious digital chapters will put us ahead of the economic curve, building firm foundations for future growth. Britain reaped great economic benefits from leading the first industrial revolution; we must ensure we are well placed for the next.