Ali Plummer, Head of External Affairs and Advocacy writes again on our blog with a final update on the Environment Bill which is now an Act.
Last night the Westminster Environment Act received Royal Assent and we now have a brand new piece of legislation to govern the natural environment – the first in 20 years.
The creation and development of the Environment Bill has been a long and sometimes frustrating process which has kept the environmental NGO sector occupied for almost 5 years. What started as a narrowly focused bill to create a watchdog and import environmental principles in the aftermath of the UK’s decision to leave the EU, has ended up as an almost unrecognisable finished product of over 260 pages, with a very broad reach including specific detailed provisions for Northern Ireland and aspects relating to Wales and Scotland.
The good news
There are many hugely welcomed provisions. Not only does the Act set up a new governance and oversight body for England and Northern Ireland – the Office for Environmental Protection (the OEP), and attempt to embed environmental principles into government policy, it also contains numerous additional requirements addressing key aspects of our natural environment. From air to water, resources to biodiversity and chemicals to conservation covenants and making changes to improve existing environmental law. The Environment Act reaches into all areas of the natural environment across the UK and even includes some steps to begin to address our global footprint from imports of forest risk commodities.
One of the Act’s key strengths is the targets framework for England, requiring government to set and meet long term targets in 4 priority areas: air quality, biodiversity, water and waste, supported by interim milestones. Additionally, the Act includes a global first, a binding duty on the government to halt declines in species across England by 2030. Inclusion of this ‘Species Abundance Target’ simply wouldn’t have been achieved without the support of over 200,000 people as part of the ‘State of Nature’ campaign, which the RSPB helped to lead. Thank you to those who supported our call!
The not so good news
A question mark remains over the government’s claim that this Act is world leading. The OEP is not as independent as it should be, and although improved at the last minute, its enforcement powers still lack the sharp teeth a good watchdog requires. The impact of important environmental principles has been reduced, with Ministers only having to briefly consider them when making policy, and in the case of the Ministry of Defence and the Treasury, the principles simply do not have to be considered at all.
Whilst long term targets are legally binding for England, the interim milestones are not: governments are less likely to feel the pressure from a distant target far beyond their political horizon. In this respect, environmental targets lack the rigour of the Climate Change Act’s carbon budgets.
Ultimately, this is a framework Act with much of the detail to be filled in with additional legislation, policy and government guidance over the coming months and years. Currently it is not possible to give it a firm pass grade, but the RSPB will be keeping a close watch on the Act’s implementation – time will tell whether we can definitively call the Environment Act a world beater.
The thank you
However, in this moment, it’s worth acknowledging just how far we have come. Working with NGOs through the Greener UK and Wildlife and Countryside Link coalitions, parliamentarians across all political parties and our supporters and campaigners, the Act is undoubtedly better than it started. Thanks to all this hard work it has the potential to start tackling the crisis our natural world is facing and put our wildlife on a path to recovery.
Ali says: Thanks so much for your comment! It's true that passing the legislation is only the beginning - in a sense it’s the easiest (and by no means easy!) part and we now have to make sure that as eyes turn away from the parliamentary process, that the law is implemented in as robust and ambitious a way as possible. There are key components in this - the UK government will be consulting on the detail of the targets themselves in the New Year, bringing forward more detail on the schemes to replace the common agricultural policy and bringing forward plans to reform planning. Plus the new environmental watchdog, the OEP will be fully operational. So there is lots to input into and keep an eye on to ensure that it puts us on the path to halt declines and recover nature but it's part of the reason we were so pleased to get the species abundance target on the face of the Act. It provides a clear target for the next 8 years against which we can measure policies, to ensure that they will help (or at least not hinder us) from getting to the target. And provides a measure of certainty to businesses. The target has been set, we now need to drive and keep momentum over the next few years and we certainly see this as the beginning of the journey, not the end. And will keep working on providing evidence and solutions through our work on the ground to ensure we can meet the crisis our natural world is facing.
What an achievement ! But will this Government pay serious attention to the laws it has just made ? The record isn't good - what has happened to our SSSIs after Labours real efforts to improve them ? We don't really know because Natural England has been cut so viciously it doesn't have the staff to make the assesments. Any civil servant would tell you that a 25 year plan is mainly about doing nothing now and for each tokenistic initiative we face a mega threat like planning or the habitats directives. I'd suggest at the very least, to have the faintest chance of meeting the targets, we need compulsory 5% in-field treatements for arable - wildflowe margins, beatle banks, proven by RSPB at home farm. And we need the 500,000 hectares the Natural Capital Committee have shown makes economic sense as restored or less intensive habitat. At the moment we have 30,000 football pitches (meant to sound bi but trivial) hidden behind a belt of populist trees.
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