This week, we completed a review of our advocacy priorities in light of the Covid-19 pandemic.  While we are clearly stepping up our calls for nature to be at the heart of the economic recovery (more on this later in the week), we are also determined to finish what we started in calling for an ambitious global deal for nature, reform to our food and farming system and new laws to drive nature’s recovery across the UK.

Talks on the global deal have clearly slowed but there are signs that things are moving at home.  As most MPs return to Westminster, the legislative machine should to start cranking through the gears.  The UK Parliament has rightly been focused on passing Covid-19 emergency legislation, scrutinising the UK Government’s pandemic management and crucially looking after the health of those that work on the parliamentary estate.  But as measures ease, Parliament has begun to turn its attention back to the vital job of debating Bills and passing laws.

A stack of nature-relevant Bills were put on ice during lockdown but some are beginning to return.  For example, the Agriculture Bill had its Second Reading in the House of Lords yesterday and you can see what we have been calling for in partnership with other NGOs here

The Environment Bill stalled at the Committee stage in the House of Commons in March.  It’s hard to overstate the significance of this legislation.  We have, for nearly a decade, called for legislation to drive nature’s recovery and Brexit has made this more important.  It’s vital that the Bill sets the right ambition, establishes the right legal protections backed up by the right enforcement powers and introduces new tools to help deliver the UK Government’s pledge to restore nature in a generation. 

Choughs on a Cornish cliff courtesy of Phil Taylor (rspb-images.com) 

Unsurprisingly for a Bill with such lofty aims, it is big and technical. It’s also a flagship bill of the UK Government’s agenda, so it requires a great deal of scrutiny and, yes, scrutiny takes time.  There are also elements of the Bill which need to be enacted before the end of the Brexit implementation period on 31 December this year – so time is of the essence.  We know that the Defra team is rightly keen for the Bill to return as quickly as possible but even if it were to return tomorrow, it would still be a tight to get it through both Houses.  

This Bill is too important to rush, so the sooner it returns the better.  And it must then be strengthened.  That’s why we need leadership from all political parties.

Last week members of the Conservative Environment Network called for ambition in the Bill and we look forward to working with them to take this message to Defra Ministers.  But it’s not just the Government benches that need to show ambition. This Bill must be a priority for the opposition too.  We recently heard from Luke Pollard, Labour’s Shadow Environment Secretary about his priorities in the role. With a focus on food, farming and fishing his list was a good start, but without any mention of the Environment Bill or nature it was disappointingly incomplete.  The same can be said of the Liberal Democrat whose leadership hopefuls have so far been relatively silent on their plans to tackle the nature crisis.  

This should be fertile ground for all politicians to compete for the best ideas because the Bill just isn’t anywhere near strong enough yet.  So, when the Bill returns, we (with our colleagues in Greener UK) will be reminding members of the Bill Committee to use the time well and seek improvements in some key areas.  They must:

  • Include a robust, transparent and ambitious target setting framework. The committee has already debated this part of the Bill but it is important, so it bears repeating.
  • Strengthen the independence and powers of the new Office for Environmental Protection including greater Parliamentary involvement in its Board appointments and budget.
  • Strengthen plans to deliver new green spaces and wildlife sites as part of development proposals, so these new spaces are protected permanently.
  • Ensure infrastructure projects deliver overall benefits for nature. Our biggest infrastructure projects and all large-scale developments should be part of plans to deliver biodiversity gains.
  • Don't let local nature recovery plans gather dust on the shelf. Once written the duty to use these plans these must be even stronger to guarantee nationwide action.

As the environment is a devolved issues, similar measures will be required in parliaments across the UK.  But at Westminster, the Environment Bill is a once in a generation opportunity to get it right and to help kick-start nature’s recovery.  And we need your help to make sure politicians use their voice for nature. 

If you would like to help, please do ask your MP to make the Environment Bill stronger for nature. You can find out how to do this by visiting our campaign pages of our website here.

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