I had just arrived in Durham for the first day of the RSPB’s (excellent) reserves’ conference when I heard two bits of significant and related news. 

First, Defra announced more detail about the proposed Environment Bill and responses to six consultations including some firm positions on various issues including net gain and conservation covenants. 

And then, within the hour, it was confirmed that Boris Johnson was the new leader of the Conservative Party and, as of tomorrow, will be our new Prime Minister.

Inevitably, in a period of political transition there are loads of questions swirling around, but on the environment the key ones are…

…will Mr Johnson embrace the commitment made by Theresa May to ensure the UK become the first major economy to set a net zero carbon emissions target?

…will he set in motion potentially ground-breaking legislation in the draft Environment Bill?

…will he avoid a no-deal Brexit?

Mr Johnson’s views on Brexit are clear.  He has said that he will seek a new deal with the EU before the 31 October deadline and if he isn’t successful, he has pledged that the UK will leave without one.

In a previous blog, I set out why the RSPB and many other environmental NGOs believe that ‘no deal’ would be very bad news for the environment…

…future environmental standards and legislation would be at risk

…there would be a significant gap in the enforcement of environmental law across the UK

…we would be without a framework for environmental co-operation with our near neighbours thereby reducing our ability to work together on transboundary environmental issues which would be particularly problematic on the island of Ireland

…there would be further pressure to weaken domestic environmental standards (especially for farming and land use sectors) due to a sudden change in the UK’s trade arrangements.  This could lead to an increase in the UK’s global environmental footprint

In short, ‘no deal’ would create enormous environmental uncertainty and could severely compromise the UK Government’s pledge to restore the environment in a generation.

Mr Johnson has praised his party’s record on environmental improvements but the actions he takes as Prime Minister will shape the environmental record of the whole country. A commitment to include legally binding targets for nature’s recovery in the Bill, noticeably missing from Defra’s announcement yesterday, would be a great start.

And finally, here is a quick critique of the Defra proposals provided by my colleagues who have looked at the detail of yesterday’s announcements…

  1. There are some positives in these proposals – welcome detail on the Environment Bill and legislation for conservation covenants and biodiversity net gain – but key gaps remain.
  2. We now know the new Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) – to be established under the Environment Bill – will have the ability to initiate its own proceedings, take action against central Government and public bodies and have a free to use public complaints mechanism. This goes some way to addressing concerns about the enforcement powers of the OEP, but questions about its independence remain unaddressed. The Government have indicated they are considering how to reinforce the independence and accountability of the body, but we need to see those proposals urgently to have confidence in the system. There is some way to go before we can call the OEP a world-leading environmental watchdog.
  3. The Defra policy statement also sets out further detail on plans to legislate in the Environment Bill for mandatory biodiversity ‘net gain’ in future developments. The broad scope of the system is welcome, but initial proposals for 10% net gain requirement will not deliver the ambition of the 25 Year Environment Plan and is lower than several current local authority policies. It therefore risks lowering, rather than strengthening, the current standard of practice. The RSPB pushed for the scope of the net gain requirement to be broad, with limited exemptions. While only “narrow exemptions” have been proposed more detail on what these will look like is needed for us to have confidence they won’t undermine the system. There is also a welcome link made between net gain and the Local Nature Recovery Strategies which hopefully is an indication of how net gain can contribute to the national Nature Recovery Network.
  4. It is positive to see these further details outlined. They are a necessary step towards understanding how the ambitions of the 25 Year Environment Plan and Environment Bill will be delivered in practice, but big concerns remain. Further detail is critical for us to have the confidence that future environmental governance will be robust and ambitious. Crucially, without the underpinning of ambitious targets for nature’s recovery these proposals will not deliver the Government’s own commitment to position the UK as a world leader on environmental protection.

Image of a cliff edge at Eastern Moors, a joint RSPB-National Trust nature reserve, courtesy of Colin Wilkinson's image (rspb-images.com)