Our first blog is written by Ali Plummer, Head of External Affairs and Advocacy Programming on how important the Environmental Bill is for nature.
This week, significant amendments were made to the Environment Bill including a robust target to halt species declines by 2030, binding interim targets and improvements to the independence and enforcement powers of the Office for Environmental Protection.
The Environment Bill is a new piece of environmental legislation which sets a framework to help recover our natural world and creates a new environmental watchdog to hold the UK Government to account.
As Parliament returns after the summer recess, the Environment Bill has hit the ground running with the start of final debate and amendment in the House of Lords. The RSPB has been campaigning and working to strengthen the Bill since the UK Government produced its first policy paper in 2018. Since then, the Bill has changed a great deal and these final stages in Parliament provide our last opportunity to produce a truly world leading piece of legislation. However, as the Bill gets Royal Assent and moves onto the statute books, it will be just the start of action needed to drive the recovery of our natural world.
A world leading piece of environmental legislation
The Environment Bill is a massive piece of framework legislation, to set the vision and direction of travel by creating a framework. Under this, a great deal of detail will be needed in secondary legislation and policy. And this direction of travel is vital. Our natural world has been exploited and degraded for centuries, and recovery won’t happen overnight. A clear sense of direction is needed so that successive governments are able to pick up the mantle and continue to drive the recovery of nature; so that businesses can set in place long-term plans, assured that the rules under which they operate are clear; and communities can help shape and create wild spaces, confident that they will be enjoyed for generations to come.
For the RSPB, the species target, amended by the Government this week, is a vital part of this framing. Halting the declines of species, from skylarks to seagrass, is a critical first step in reviving our world and reversing centuries of loss. This amended target is much more legally robust, compelling the Secretary of State to set and meet a target to halt species declines by 2030.
Likewise, this week Peers strengthened the Bill again, passing an amendment to secure legally binding interim targets that governments must meet on their way to the overall, long term targets set by the Bill. Again, this continuity is important, ensuring that even as governments and ministers change, the ambition and direction of travel remains consistent.
On Wednesday, Peers turned their attention to the governance and principles parts of the Bill. An amendment passed that removed the loophole exempting the Treasury and Ministry of Defence from considering the environment when making policy. And the Office of Environmental Protection, our new environmental watchdog was also beefed up, giving it more independence from the Government over its enforcement functions and removing some unjustified restrictions on the remedies that can be granted where environmental law is not complied with.
Securing natures’ future
There are still several parts of the Bill to be considered including alarming powers that the Government have granted itself to amend the Habitats Regulations. These regulations protect our most important sites and species – securing protected reservoirs for our rich natural heritage. These sites are vital building blocks to recovering and conserving nature and the heart of the Government’s ambitions to protect 30% of land and sea by 2030. Currently these powers are very broad, meaning governments in the future could use them to undermine or weaken the regulations. It is vital that any amendment to the regulations is not used in this way, nor used as a backdoor to support unsustainable development. We’d like to see these powers tightened, ensuring that they can only be used to help realise the government’s ambition and strengthen the protection of these sites and species as a core part of recovering our natural world.
As the House of Lords finish their consideration of the Bill, it will go through “ping pong”. This is the toing and froing of the Bill between the House of Commons and the House of Lords to reconcile and agree amendments. Once agreed, this final Bill will be passed by both Houses and get Royal Assent. It's crucial that as part of this process, the gains made on the targets, governance and principles, amongst others, are defended and ultimately secured.
Additionally, there are a few additional pieces of legislation and policies required to realise the ambition of the Environment Bill. Getting these details right and the proper mechanisms in place will ultimately be what ensures the Bill is a success. For example, getting the details of new environmental land management schemes will be critical to delivery on the targets to recover nature since agriculture is the dominant land use and main driver of species declines. Farmers and agricultural land have a unique role to play in tackling the nature and climate crises and new environmental land management schemes must support a just transition to nature friendly farming practices. We must get this right to support a truly sustainable agricultural system fit to tackle the crises in front of us.
Finally, the raft of secondary legislation and policy required to flesh out the Environment Bill provisions, including the detail of targets, must continue the ambition, vision and direction needed for nature’s recovery. Whilst the Government announcement of a target to halt species’ declines is an excellent start, this is only one element of a broader set of targets needed to genuinely revive our natural world. This target needs to sit alongside targets to restore and reconnect habitats and recover the abundance and diversity of species, including those at risk of extinction.
The RSPB welcomes Defra’s ambition to put the environment at the heart of policy making, through a new set of improvement targets and a policy statement on environmental principles. Whilst this needs to be an ambition that the whole of Government, every department, gets behind it must also be matched by strong and urgent action.
We cannot overstate the challenges facing our natural world, but this is a genuine opportunity to tackle this crisis and the prize is immense - ultimately more birdsong and butterflies, woodlands and meadows, seagrass and kelp forests, cleaner, greener natural spaces for us all to enjoy. That’s a legacy I think we can all get behind.
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