The Environment Bill returns for its third reading

On Wednesday 26th May, the Environment Bill returned to the House of Commons for its second day of report stage and its third reading. These are the final steps before it moves into the House of Lords and brings us closer to having this landmark legislation on the statute book.

The nature clauses of the Bill have yet to be discussed by the full House of Commons, so this is an important moment for MPs to recognise that the climate crisis cannot be solved without also tackling the ecological crisis.

Quick catch up

Last time the Bill was in Parliament, Environment Minister Rebecca Pow opened proceedings with a carry-over motion which delayed the second day of report stage until the next Parliamentary session. This was because the Bill had run out of time in the current parliamentary session and needed to be carried over to ensure progress made was not lost. MPs also debated amendments on environmental governance, the Office for Environmental Protection, waste, air, water and chemicals. No amendments were passed.

Species abundance target

Since then, a lot has changed. Earlier this month Environment Secretary George Eustice unveiled a mass of new environmental policies and projects, many of which set ambitious targets for the Government to meet. Amongst these was a commitment to provide a new legally-binding species abundance target for 2030, which will be put in place through an amendment to the Environment Bill at a later stage. This is exciting news and The Wildlife Trusts hope it delivers on the demands of the State of Nature target campaign we have been campaigning as part of.

House sparrow

©Fergus Gill/2020VISION

Local Nature Recovery Strategies

There are a number of key amendments that The Wildlife Trusts supported at report stage. These will ensure that the Bill lives up to its potential and does everything it can to put nature into recovery.

Sarah Olney’s Amendment 29 would add important measures to the Bill which would ensure that local authorities act in line with Local Nature Recovery Strategies on key decisions. Local Nature Recovery Strategies (LNRS) are plans created by local authorities that set out how they will protect and boost biodiversity in their areas. In its present state, the Environment Bill requires each local authority to prepare an LNRS – but currently local authorities must only “have regard” to their strategy and are not required to align their decision making with it.

Amendment 29 would ensure that local authorities must act in accordance with their LNRS when making key decisions, such as on planning and spending. Even the best strategy for biodiversity growth will struggle to make an impact if resource-stretched councils are not actually required to abide by it.

Habitats Regulations review

Amongst George Eustice’s announcements this month was a decision that the Habitats Regulations in England would be “re-focused” to ensure they support the Government’s ambitions for nature. Whilst this has the potential to be a positive change, it could also be cause for alarm.

That is why Caroline Lucas’ amendments to the Government’s Habitats Regulations reforms are so important. It will ensure these protections can only be strengthened, not undermined, in future – making sure that species and habitats of European importance, like otters and harbour porpoises, are not put in danger.

Politicians have tried for years to water-down the Habitats Regulations for years – even though we live in one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world. With almost half of UK wildlife in long term decline and 15% of species at risk of extinction, these regulations are more important now than ever.

The Government has pledged to pass the Environment Bill before the COP26 climate conference at the beginning of November. If it is to meet this timeline, the Bill will now be pushed through Parliament at speed – making it more important than ever that we make sure the Government are reminded how vital it is that they protect nature and wildlife.