Our case officer Nicola Hodgson is keeping a close watch on the Environment Bill. This was introduced to parliament on 30 January 2020 with second reading on 26 February. The public-bill committee’s scrutiny was cut short by the covid-19 crisis, and the committee was expected to report to parliament by the end of June, but this has been postponed to September.
The government’s ambition, in its 25-year environment plan, is to leave the environment in a better state than it found it. The Tories’ 2019 manifesto pledge, to ‘protect and restore our natural environment after leaving the European Union’ (EU), can only be achieved by a robust bill with enforceable targets. Sadly, the bill does not meet this test.
The policy statement accompanying the bill proclaims that it is ‘part of a wider response to the clear and scientific case, and growing public demand for a step-change in environmental protection and recovery’.
A large proportion of existing UK environmental law and policy derives from the EU, with its implementation largely monitored and enforced by EU institutions such as the European Commission. The bill therefore includes a post-Brexit set of environmental principles. It amends existing environmental legislation and introduces new measures in a range of environmental policy areas within the UK, but much of it applies to England only, which is a serious failing.
The bill has a vast remit. Among other things it provides for targets, plans and policies to improve the natural environment. It sets standards for environmental protection, covering nature and biodiversity; the creation of conservation covenants; and the regulation of chemicals for instance. Importantly, it establishes an environmental watchdog, the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP).
The government claims that the measures in the bill, including the framework to set legally-binding targets and the oversight provided by the OEP, will ensure that we shall not be worse off when we leave the EU. While the bill is welcome and crucial legislation, it needs significant amendment before it can guarantee that the UK will not fall below current standards, let alone improve on them.
In order for the bill to succeed it will require a significant increase in resources for local government and agencies such as Natural England and the Environment Agency, and effective support for the OEP so it can do its vital job. There is no indication that these are forthcoming.
The measures in the bill mandating net gain of biodiversity in new building projects could be undermined if developers rely only on generalised assumptions about the value of different habitats. There should be stronger safeguards to ensure that net gain is part of a plan to restore nature and that newly-created habitats are protected.
We have urged the government, in delivering its 25-year environment plan, to go further and require environmental as well as biodiversity net gain in order to secure the public benefits of health and well-being, for instance by creating new access opportunities such as village greens.
We shall continue to work with and support Wildlife and Countryside Link and Greener UK on amendments and briefings to MPs and peers during the bill’s passage through parliament. We are not however optimistic that it will make the difference that is needed to fulfil the manifesto’s vacuous pledge.