The new Environment Bill and what it means

Pumlumon Living Landscape project ©Peter Cairns/2020VISION

The Wildlife Trusts have long campaigned for ambitious laws for nature, and we welcome the new Environment Bill and its ambition. We hope this long-awaited Bill drives real action to tackle the nature crisis head on.

Despite successive laws which have tried to protect nature, there has been no letup in its long-term decline. As last year’s State of Nature report revealed, one in seven species in the UK are at risk of extinction and 58% of species are in decline – so the Government’s new Environment Bill must set a new, world-leading standard if we are to reverse these trends.

For years, The Wildlife Trusts have called for ambitious laws which do just that – laws that not only protect wildlife and existing wild places but deliver action that kickstarts nature’s recovery and puts back what we have already lost.

We might not get another Bill like this for decades and the Government should not miss this unique opportunity to put nature’s recovery on a strong statutory footing.

The Government says that the Bill will “better protect our natural environment for generations to come” and is a response to the growing public demand and clear scientific case for a step-change in environmental protection and recovery. The Bill does contain some welcome new measures – it allows legally binding targets for biodiversity, water, air quality, and waste to be set, establishes a new environmental watchdog to hold government to account, and introduces new laws which will help deliver a national Nature Recovery Network to reconnect habitats and give nature space to be revived.

However, to achieve a world-leading standard, we believe the Bill should be strengthened in some important areas. We might not get another Bill like this for decades and the Government should not miss this unique opportunity to put nature’s recovery on a strong statutory footing.

 

Nature Targets

The Environment Bill requires the government to set long-term, legally binding targets for improving the natural environment. Long-term targets are hugely important, as action to secure nature’s recovery is needed over a longer period than just one government’s lifetime.

But this part of the Bill needs to be strengthened in a few key areas.

Firstly, the targets must be informed by the best independent, expert advice, not left up to Ministers to decide who to seek advice from when setting targets. This ‘comply or explain’ model is similar to the advisory role that the Committee on Climate Change provides for climate targets and must be in the Bill.

Secondly, in the face of the continued, long-term decline of nature, the target setting process needs to ensure ambitious targets. Currently, the government could theoretically set only one, unambitious target each in four areas – air quality, water, biodiversity, and resources and waste. We need greater specificity on the scope of the targets as well as a clear objective that they achieve an environment that is recovering, healthy, diverse and resilient for the benefit of people and wildlife.

Lastly, the Bill must ensure that the targets drive meaningful action on the ground to help nature to recover. Currently, there is no obligation to start taking action to meet the target straight away, so real action could be delayed until it is too late. The Bill must ensure that the policies are in place to meet these targets and interim targets are made legally binding to keep the government on track.

By strengthening the Environment Bill in these areas, these new targets could help hold governments to account and provide the much-needed direction and ambition to spur action.

little owl

Russell Savory

Nature Watchdog

The Bill also introduces a new Office for Environmental Protection (OEP), which will check the Government’s progress on improving the environment and ensure compliance with environmental law. This is very welcome – nature’s recovery will be much less likely without a body to enforce protections and check the government is delivering on its promises.

But to fulfill these functions properly, the OEP needs to be fully independent from government. At the moment, the Secretary of State can make many appointments, including the chair, with very little oversight and can determine its funding. This should be changed – to ensure greater independence from government, Parliament should have a stronger role in the appointments process and the setting of the budget.

The OEP also has a limited toolbox. Its main tool for enforcement is an environmental review process, which we’re concerned is quite a weak way to enforce laws and means the OEP has limited ability to act quickly and urgently to address serious issues. The OEP cannot issue fines as a last resort, too, blunting its effectiveness in enforcing the law.

We’re advocating for stronger enforcement powers for the OEP to ensure meaningful, dissuasive and effective remedies, including the power to issue fines – just as the Court of Justice of the European Union is currently able to do.

 

Nature Recovery Network

Nature’s recovery needs real action on the ground to restore and reknit Britain’s tattered fabric of wild land and create more space for wildlife. The Environment Bill includes measures to create Local Nature Recovery Strategies (LNRSs), which could be key to achieving this by supporting the creation of a Nature Recovery Network.

These strategies would require relevant authorities to map habitats which already exist and identify opportunity areas where action needs to be taken so nature can recover. They will be an essential tool in restoring the natural environment, but the duty to use the strategies needs to be strengthened to ensure they are truly effective. There should be a much stronger requirement for all public authorities to use these strategies when making important decisions that affect nature, such as planning and spending decisions, Environmental Land Management, and biodiversity net gain.

We’re also concerned that net gain, which requires developments to more than make up for their impact on nature, will not apply to Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects such as HS2 and could be destroyed after 30 years – reversing any ecological benefits and undermining the Nature Recovery Network.

Tree bumblebee

Jon Hawkins - Surrey Hills Photography

It’s time for ambition!

With the first Environment Bill in over 20 years making its way through Parliament, the decisions made now could have implications for decades to come.

With major international conferences taking place in 2020 (such as the UN’s Climate Change Conference and Biodiversity Convention) and public concern about the environment at its highest level since 1990, now is the time to commit to real, ambitious action.

The right decisions made now can help us to reverse the massive loss of nature, tackle climate change and put us on a path to net zero carbon emissions.

The Environment Bill has the potential to be an important first step, but there is still work to do. As the Bill goes through Parliament, we want to ensure politicians of all parties work to improve it to ensure we pass a piece of world leading legislation that drives action across the globe and matches the scale of the environmental emergency we face.