It’s election day across England, Wales and Scotland today.  Don’t forget to vote!  I hope that you are thinking about nature when you cast your vote and then hold your elected representatives to account for the promises made. 

Tomorrow, purdah will end, and politicians can get back to the business of governing and we hope making things better for people and wildlife.

Next week, the Queen will deliver a speech to Parliament outlining the UK Government’s legislative priorities for the next session of Parliament. She will describe the challenges faced by the country and the new legislation that Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Government intend to enact in response. Understandably, we can expect the recovery from Covid-19 to feature heavily, but what of those other challenges faced by the UK and the planet as a whole? What interventions will Government make to tackle the nature and climate emergency? One obvious lever for the Government to pull is the Environment Bill, a piece of legislation that has been plagued by delays ever since being conceived more than three years ago.  Currently paused at Commons Report Stage, this Bill must feature prominently in the Queen’s Speech and the Government must send a clear signal that it remains central to government promises to restore nature in a generation.

As I have written before, this Bill is incredibly important, and it is as long as it is technical. This means it requires a great deal of scrutiny – which takes time to do well.  There are also elements of the Bill which need to be approved and enacted before England and Northern Ireland can be said to benefit from full and proper environmental governance, so time is of the essence. On a practical level this means the Environment Bill must be reintroduced the week before the Parliamentary break at the end of May, otherwise there just won’t be enough time for it to pass before the global biodiversity and climate summits still schedules for this autumn.  This matters because we need to get on and implement the new laws and the UK Government will want to demonstrate that it is practicing what it is preaching through its leadership and ambition on the global stage.  I really hope to see a sense of urgency around this and for commitments to be made for the Bill to return to Parliament early in the new session.

With that said, in our urgency to pass this legislation we must not lose sight of its weaknesses. The Bill as it stands is far from adequate to reverse the downward trend in nature’s fortunes so we hope and expect the Government to have used it’s time wisely during this period of delay to make the improvements that we as a sector have long called for. It’s vital that the Bill sets the right ambition, establishes the right legal protections backed up by the right independent review and, when necessary, enforcement powers and introduces new tools to help deliver the UK Government’s pledge to restore nature in a generation.

I have set these priorities out a number of times on this blog but without these changes this Bill cannot deliver the outcomes which nature needs and which the Government tells us it wants to see, so they are worth revisiting.

For England and Northern Ireland, an improved Environment Bill must…

…establish the Environmental Principles on a firm legal footing

…strengthen the independence and powers of the new Office for Environmental Protection.

For England, an improved Environment Bill must…

…set a target to reverse the declines in the State of Nature by 2030 – as supported by >140,000 people through the Wildlife and Countryside Link campaign

…deliver a robust, transparent and ambitious target setting framework, with legally binding interim targets.

…strengthen plans to deliver new green spaces and wildlife sites as part of development proposals, including for major infrastructure projects like HS2 and the Ox-Cam Arc.

…introduce a duty for public bodies to act in accordance with Local Nature Recovery Strategies.

As the environment is a devolved issue, similar measures to reverse the declines in the state of nature and create robust and ambitious target setting frameworks 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. We need a clear signal from the UK Government in next week’s Queens Speech that it understands this urgency. 

*image of gannet on at RSPB Bempton by Katie Nethercoat (rspb-images.com)

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