After over 200 days of absence, today the Environment Bill finally returns to Parliament. Getting the detail right over the coming months will be vital in ensuring this cornerstone of the Government’s environmental agenda really delivers the step change nature needs. Here we share some views on what needs to happen next.
With nature in rapid decline, at a time when many of us have never needed it more, the Environment Bill is a golden opportunity for the UK to rewrite the rules. The Bill essentially replaces the legislative framework lost by the UK’s exit from the European Union, but the Government can do so much more with this first opportunity in 40 years.
This Government often heralds its world leading ambitions and has said that this generation should be the first to leave the natural environment in a better state than when we inherited it. The creation of the ambitious 25 year plan for nature set the right tone, and the Environment Bill is an opportunity to put those promises to the test – for the UK to be truly ambitious in restoring nature and tackling climate change.
Sounds great, so what’s the problem?
The Bill as it originally stood needed work to strengthen some key aspects, such as the power and independence of the proposed new nature watchdog – the Office for Environmental Protection; ensuring interim environmental targets had a legal footing; and that legally-binding environment principles were carried over from EU to UK law. It was also concerning that heritage had been omitted from the Bill. Heritage and the natural environment go hand in hand, and to specifically exclude the historic environment from the Bill could lead to problems.
Now the Bill returns to Parliament with some significant changes proposed by the Government which threaten to undermine those aspects still further.
These proposals include powers for ministers to issue guidance to the new Office for Environmental Protection, and even more qualifications on when the watchdog can act. This means that the Government will be able to issue guidance on the very body designed to hold it to account on the environment – an even shorter leash than originally proposed.
The new process of Environmental Review will be undertaken with the High Court (rather than the Upper Tribunal) which may lack the capacity and the expertise to deal effectively with breaches of environmental law.
In addition, the Government is proposing new Strategies for Protected Sites and Species Conservation Strategies, which are designed to work with the new planning system to avoid the need for site-specific assessments. However, these will rely heavily on excellent monitoring and mapping of species, heritage and sites that can allow for changes over time. For this to succeed, Natural England and Local Authorities will need far greater resources than they have been given in recent years to fulfil monitoring duties and fill gaps in mapping. It is also unclear how these will interact with the Government’s ‘radical’ changes to the planning system, currently undergoing consultation.
What needs to happen next?
The Bill returns at the Committee stage, with a group of cross-party MPs considering over 60 pages of amendments over the next 5 weeks. We, together with partners in Greener UK, Wildlife and Countryside Link and the Heritage Alliance are supporting a number of amendments to strengthen the bill for nature, heritage and people.
We’ll be providing briefings to the Committee to outline our support and rationale for particular amendments. And, with our coalition partners, will continue to shine the light on areas in the Bill that the Government need to improve.
The recovery of the environment will rely on strong protections for species and habitats, an independent watchdog and ambitious targets for nature’s recovery. Grand promises mean little without the legislative framework in place to ensure they happen, now and into the future. As it stands, the Environment Bill needs some work to truly deliver a world-leading environmental framework. We hope the Government will seize this once in a generation opportunity to transform our natural and historic environment.