Amidst the political debate/furore/row about our future relationship with the EU, the Westminster government has snuck out an early Christmas present. Yesterday Defra published the draft Environment Bill that the Prime Minister promised earlier in the summer. The Bill sets out how the UK Government intends to fill the governance gap on our exit from the EU and secure the environmental principles in domestic legislation. Alongside these draft clauses, the government also published a range of other documents including a draft policy paper, outlining how they plan to underpin their ambition in the 25 Year Plan to leave the environment in a better state than inherited.

This matters as not only do we need to replace the powers that are currently available through our membership of the European Union, but we also need tangible proposals that bring to life the UK Government’s commitment to restore nature in a generation and to do what nature needs. 

So it’s a big ask. If drafted properly, this bill has the potential to be something truly transformative: a piece of world-leading legislation to not only prevent further declines and degradation of our natural world, but actively promote its recovery and restoration. It’s worth noting that the proposals relate to England.  The need I outline above relates to all parts of the UK, but it will be for the administrations in Scotland, Wales and (once they are up and running again) Northern Ireland to bring forward their own proposals.

I’ve blogged about our hopes for this legislation previously and in particular, our disappointment with the proposals the government consulted on in the summer. But how does the draft Bill and associated proposals stack up against our asks of securing environmental principles, setting up a robust, independent watchdog with proper enforcement powers, and securing legally binding targets for nature’s recovery?

Below, my colleague Ali Plummer provides her analysis of the package of measures published yesterday.

“Broadly, the proposals are better than those the government put out in the summer and but it still falls some way short of delivering Theresa May’s promise to improve the condition of the natural world. The proposals as they currently stand will not give us the truly transformative piece of legislation we need and reverse the catastrophic declines we are seeing in our natural world.

Principles

These proposals are still disappointing. Whilst putting important principles such as polluter pays and the precautionary principle on the face of the bill is good, the bill only proposes a very weak duty on a policy statement (which aims to put the principles into practice). For equivalence, we’d expected a much stronger duty on the principles themselves, to ensure they can provide direction and underpinning to both environmental legislation and policy. Likewise, the bill proposes that only central government should have any form of duty with regards to the principles- they should apply to all public authorities, due to their delivery and policy making roles.

Governance

In the summer, we outlined serious concerns that the proposals the government were putting forward were not nearly strong enough- basically they were proposing a written telling off as the ultimate enforcement tool that the watchdog had in its arsenal. We were also really concerned that the watchdog would not be fully independent- relying on the government for its budget, appointments and scope. Clearly this is worrying if the watchdog is to properly and effectively hold government to account. On independence, unfortunately, these plans don’t seem to have changed much and the watchdog will still be appointed by, and given its budget by Government. We will continue to push hard to ensure that when the bill is laid before Parliament, a fully independent watchdog is a key part of that legislation.

On enforcement, the new watchdog does seem to have been beefed up somewhat. It now has the ability to issue escalating notices, in particular with specific recommendations of actions that a public authority must take in order to comply with environmental legislation. And if the authority does not comply with this, the watchdog can take the authority to court via a judicial review. Whilst we have concerns about the efficacy of judicial review and we need to better understand how this enforcement will work, this is clearly an improvement from the initial proposals.

Targets

The draft bill includes clauses requiring the Government to publish nature improvement plans - placing the 25 Year Plan on a statutory footing. The bill itself currently doesn’t contain any clauses on targets but the associated policy documents make it clear that the government intends explore options including targets as part of the bill framework before it is laid before Parliament.

The recognition of the value of targets is important. However, it is vital that the government uses the next few months before they lay the bill to get this right. These targets must be progressive, ambitious and ensure that they enable actions on the ground to deliver nature’s recovery and environmental restoration. This means ensuring we restore our habitats to a good condition and reconnect our fragmented land and seascapes. It means preventing further declines of species and restoring the populations and range so our countryside, coastlines, seas and urban environments thrive with life again.

It’s up to all of us to highlight the importance of this. To ensure that the Government improves the proposals before a Bill is laid before Parliament in the spring.”

Alongside all this, Ministers are currently scrambling to prepare for a no-deal Brexit. Let me be clear: this would put our environment even further at risk and would be a disaster for all that care about our country’s nature and green spaces.

Make no mistake, no government in the UK has yet delivered an environment better than the one they have inherited. Successive governments have handed on a more degraded, more polluted and less vibrant environment than the one they received. To reach current government ambitions will require more than warm words, high hopes and tinkering around the edges of policy. It requires a bit of ambitious, brave and robust legislation. But if the UK government delivers it, they can leave a legacy to be truly proud of, and show the world how to tackle one of the most pressing issues of our times. Until then the promise of a Green Brexit remains a frustratingly elusive dream.