What's happening with the Environment Bill?

Published: 27 January 2021

Last update: 27 January 2021

Blog post
This blog post is written by Matt Williams, Public Policy Officer Matt Williams Public Policy Officer
 Wild thyme flowering on heathland on Lundy Island, Devon

The Environment Bill returned to Parliament yesterday. But that return was shortlived. The Government is postponing the rest of the process by several more months – citing concerns about the Bill not completing its passage in the Lords before the end of the Session.

This is disappointing and comes in addition to a long period (more than 200 days) in 2020 when the Bill made no progress. That the Government was not willing to commit the parliamentary time needed to get this vital Bill passed by May suggests a lack of motivation to get this legislation, which enjoys broad cross-party support in principle, through Parliament.

In recent months, the Prime Minister has published a Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution, promised to protect 30 per cent of land for nature, and announced that a large proportion of the UK’s international climate finance will be used to restore nature. But actions speak louder than words. These commitments must be put into effect if the Government is to lead with credibility when it hosts the UN climate conference later this year.

Now that the UK has completely left the EU, we urgently need our own set of environmental laws and standards in order to protect and restore nature. The gap without these will be even longer if the Bill is delayed. However, perhaps this provides a useful opportunity to strengthen it as well. There are a few areas where it could still do more to put in place the rules and infrastructure we need:

1. An independent watchdog: the new Office for Environmental Protection still lacks independence over its funding and its appointments, and a new clause introduced by the Government last year means it must follow the advice of ministers on what constitutes a 'significant' matter.

2. The Government has set out very welcome goals for 30 per cent of land to be protected and managed for nature by 2030. Putting these in the Bill would help that ambition to take root, giving certainty to the private sector and civil society, all of whom will have a role to play in delivering it. As we have seen with climate change, long-term binding targets can help to provide the momentum needed for short-term action.

3. Strong, legally enforceable environmental principles: foundational principles, such as the polluter paying for environmental damage, need to be put into UK law. But at the moment the Government doesn't plan to give them the power they should have on the face of the Bill.

The National Trust is already working hard to restore nature. We have set targets to create or restore 25,000 hectares of land for nature by 2025, and to increase the number of trees on our land by 20 million by 2050. In places like the Peak District this means continuing our work to restore peatlands so as they are wetter and hold more carbon. In Devon, and elsewhere, we will be working with the Woodland Trust to restore 60 ancient woodland sites. At Chartwell we are working to restore the meadows to the splendour of Churchill's time.

Alliums in the Orchard Meadow at Chartwell
Alliums in the Orchard Meadow at Chartwell
Alliums in the Orchard Meadow at Chartwell

What’s more we know the public have a strong desire for strong protections for nature. As part of our own polling via YouGov* exploring the power of Noticing Nature  we also investigated how people felt about protection of nature. Our nationally representative survey of adults* showed that 86 per cent of the public agreed that 'it's important that there are strong laws to protect nature in the UK' and 75 per cent agreed that they '…would be very concerned if Brexit reduced protection for nature in the UK'. When we asked whether they thought their local MP was doing enough to help nature 74 per cent  believed that 'they could do more', showing that politicians have public support to do their bit and act to help nature. We want to work closely with the Government, among others, to deliver on its environmental agenda. It needs to accelerate the delivery of this to strengthen its leadership ahead of COP26 later this year.

* Total sample size was 2096 adults. The survey was carried out online and weighted to be representative of all GB adults (aged 16+).

Puffins sitting on a rock on the Farne Islands

Standing up for nature 

The places we look after are home to thousands of different species. From ancient trees to birds and butterflies, they are full of life and we're working hard to safeguard nature for years to come.