Something quite momentous happened on 18 July. The prime minister announced the first dedicated environment bill for over twenty years. Have no doubt that this is as major a policy announcement as they come, although it might easily have been missed as it was tucked away in an answer to a question on air quality when Theresa May was grilled by select committee chairs on their subject areas. Luckily this tweet sealed the deal and the announcement is now common knowledge and an important platform from which to build.
For now, much of the bill’s contents remain a mystery. All we know for sure is that it will contain provisions, as required by the EU (Withdrawal) Act passed earlier this year, to set up a new green watchdog to ensure compliance with environmental law and to enshrine a set of environmental principles. The rest of its pages are yet to be scribed, though the prime minister committed to them addressing the need for new clean air laws and covering wider environmental issues. Defra is officially in scramble mode, as it tries to get the draft bill ready by Boxing Day, the hard deadline set by parliament.
Officials have plenty of summer reading to help with this task as the consultation on environmental principles and governance closed last week, with thousands of responses from organisations and members of the public keen to see the government live up to its promise of a ‘green Brexit’.
Greater ambition and urgency is needed
The Environmental Audit Committee’s report into the consultation considered a wide range of evidence; it doesn’t pull its punches and calls for greater ambition and urgency from the government.
In Greener UK’s response we highlighted the areas where the government needs to toughen its proposals, to ensure that current arrangements provided by the European Commission and courts are replicated and where it must go further to create the world leading system of environmental governance it aspires to.
These include making sure the new body is independent and not simply an arm of government unable to hold it to account for fear of having its remit or budget cut. It will need strong powers and the ability to take the government to court, and it must have discretion to investigate complaints and to intervene on climate, agriculture and planning matters where these have led to serious breaches of environmental law.
There can be no halfway measures
There can be no halfway measures on environmental principles, which must be set out in law, along with a strong duty on public bodies to apply them, and not the weak duty currently mooted in the consultation.
The inclusion of strong provisions on principles and governance will be essential if the government is to publish the ambitious bill the prime minister hinted at. But so will the inclusion of broader targets and objectives to deliver on the government’s pledge to leave the environment in a better state.
With nature in a state of freefall, many of our iconic species facing extinction and the core elements of our natural world at risk, including the air we breathe and water we depend on, only a bill which can raise the bar for the environment in the way that the Climate Change Act did for climate change will do.
We’re starting from a good place
With the leadership of the prime minister, and Captain Gove at the helm of the good ship Defra, we are starting from a good place. Both of them have repeatedly pledged that Brexit will not lead to a weakening of environmental standards and protections. Indeed, Project Green Brexit depends on these promises being borne out in reality. But not all their colleagues share their enthusiasm, with some apparently preferring a more deregulatory approach. The febrile state of our politics means that no political futures or outcomes can be guaranteed, as reshuffles, elections and even hostile takeovers never seem far away. That is why enshrining a commitment to non-regression will be critical in both the final agreement with the EU and in the forthcoming Environment Bill.
The bill and ‘no deal’ contingency plans should be fast-tracked
There must also be a greater sense of urgency from government. As some Cabinet ministers are now openly pitching that the UK crashing out with no deal is the most likely option, the Environment Bill should be fast-tracked, as should the contingency plans we will need in the event of a disastrous no deal.
But this isn’t just about the government, as a good bill a government alone cannot make. The robust, innovative legislation we crave will only come about with the help of an effective, engaged and passionate opposition, in both Houses of Parliament. During debates on the EU (Withdrawal) Bill MPs elevated the environment to an issue of active competition between parties.
Members of the House of Lords also showed their environmental pedigree, when forcing the government to rethink its ambition and timing on setting up the new green watchdog. Such a push-pull dynamic is not only healthy but an essential part of parliament’s role in testing and improving legislation. Maintaining this dynamic, along with strong support from the public and civil society, will be essential if we are to succeed in persuading a government which is shy of collective ambition to go further, faster.