The Environment Bill: lodestar or load of PR?

Energy & Climate Change, Management & Regulation, Natural Environment

The Environment Bill, which puts components of the government’s 25 Year Environment Plan into statute, creating an over-arching scrutiny framework for the environment and outlining commitments to areas as far ranging as biodiversity and air quality, has been a marathon undertaking, writes Alastair Chisholm.

Now in the final straight to becoming an act, it dates back to environmental campaigns during and before 2017, and the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust’s Nature’s Way report.

Nature’s Way called on government to commit to a new Environment Act. This would set clear, legally binding objectives for wildlife, water, air and natural assets. It would also establish environmental principles in law: sustainable development, polluter pays, integration, and the precautionary principle.

This is in addition to the creation of new institutions – an Environment Commission and an Office for Environmental Responsibility – delivering world-leading environmental accounting and reporting and access to environmental justice.

Fast-forward four years, and progress, has been somewhat glacial. Partly because of seismic challenges including Brexit, a general election and the Covid-19 pandemic, but also because of no lack of wrangling between government and environmentalists over how well it meets the above brief.

A solid act

The Environment Bill undoubtedly establishes institutions – the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) – duties and targets in law to secure important protections and progress across a range of environmental challenges. But questions remain over whether these are strong enough in the face of now-critical climate and nature challenges.

As it has inched its way through both houses of parliament, it’s been tweaked and refined more than many, undergoing intense scrutiny that has bolstered and refined its individual components.

A weighty piece of legislation, variously described as “landmark” and a “lodestar”, it’s approaching 300 pages in length and it’s seen 130-odd amendments tabled during its passage. Government has conceded to pressure along the way, amending and strengthening the bill as it’s brought it back to parliament at the various stages.

And the House of Lords fought hard to secure 15 cross-party amendments during report stage in September, often by narrow voting margins. These strengthened a critically important component – the independence of the OEP – a source of tension and wrangling throughout the evolution of the bill and one on which the Lords didn’t back down on.

Beyond this, they also beefed-up targets on storm overflows, placing a duty on sewerage undertakers to progressively ensure untreated sewage isn’t discharged and for government and the Environment Agency to exercise their functions to secure compliance with this duty.

Amendments also strengthened requirements on soil quality, air quality, ancient woodland, pesticides’ impacts on pollinators, and more.

Controversial loopholes letting government off the hook on having to consider environmental principles when making policy in areas relating to national security, defence and fiscal matters were also removed – no small feat.

These changes reflect the vital role the bill will play in environmental management over the next decades and our hopes of essential nature recovery and climate action.

Despite the fact the above cross-party amendments wouldn’t cripple the economy, the vast majority were still voted down by government. But the Lords haven’t given up on three of these amendments: two on the independence of the OEP and one on sewage.

Real progress

The Environment Bill is totemic of just how serious and aligned government is over the urgency of the climate and nature crises and its willingness to deliver a genuinely ambitious framework amongst the best in the world.

At a third reading in the Lords in October, Lord Goldsmith, for the government, told the house of his firm belief that the bill was “more than just a credible step in the right direction”, but “an ambitious answer to the scale of the task”.

So, has it met those ambitions? At the time of writing, whether the bill would be passed before COP26, so it could be held up as a beacon of ambition and forward thinking on the environment much in the same way as the Climate Change Act before it, hung in the balance.

Government has also continued to be unbowed in maintaining loopholes in the bill that serve defence and fiscal policy, and on not strengthening provisions on pollinators and soil. These are key issues which really speak to where levels of environmental ambition and concern really are (or not) in some quarters.

Government is also displaying a clear unwillingness to open public bodies up to full scrutiny and enforcement by the OEP. To draw parallels with existing bodies, the amendments would place the OEP on the same level of independence as the National Audit Office and Office for Budget Responsibility.

Cause for hope

And yet, there is plenty of room for hope and optimism. Whatever the detail of its final form, we will have a piece of environmental legislation which moves protections and duties forward on many fronts as envisioned in Nature’s Way.

And the protracted wrangling, willingness of stakeholders to fight tooth and nail for improvements and of the Lords to keep the pressure up means that progress on what’s set in law will be watched carefully. Moreover, where some measures have fallen out, the case will soon be built again for future bolstering of the law.

As a recent poll by The Sun showed climate change as the number one issue for voters, above the pandemic and the economy, we seem to be entering a new paradigm where public scrutiny on the environment may just keep government honest. That’s a great place to be.

Alastair Chisholm is CIWEM’s policy director

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