The Environment Bill: strong ambitions, but the get out clauses need to go

hen harrier 1Yesterday, the government published draft clauses which will form the backbone of the first environment bill for twenty years. This is, without doubt, a historic moment and a chance for the government to deliver its commitment to leave the environment in a better state for future generations.

It plans to do this by creating a pioneering new system of green governance, underpinned by environmental principles, overseen and enforced by a world leading green governance body, the Office for Environmental Protection.

This is a great start. At first glance it’s clear that the government has strong ambitions which we must assume are now shared across Whitehall, despite earlier reports that some parts of government did not initially share Mr Gove’s green ambitions.

Ambition alone won’t solve the challenges
But any system is only as good as its component parts and while the government has set out a laudable path for ambition, there is still a long way to go to embed this in law and to deliver the step change that people and the environment need. The environment is in crisis and the systems meant to protect it are under-funded and weak, so ambition alone will not solve these challenges.

At the heart of the bill is the new Office for Environmental Protection, which will provide advice to government, oversee plans for environmental improvement and respond to complaints from the public when authorities fall foul of environmental law.

Its main function will be to hold government and public authorities to account where there are systemic or serious breaches of the law. In its toolkit is the power to take the government to court, which is welcome, but isn’t yet a faithful replication of the current role played by the European Court and Commission.

It will also have no power to issue fines, which is an omission. The threat of fines has a powerful deterrent effect. We are concerned that legal action alone will not provide the framework for deterrence that the current threat of infractions does.

The mirage of independence
But the most alarming aspect is that this body will be, in essence, a creature of government. The government says it will be independent, but just saying something is independent is no guarantee. And when you delve into the small print of the draft bill it is clear that independence is little more than a mirage, with the body’s finances and members being appointed and controlled by the government. This must change as, without meaningful independence, the body will be hampered from doing its job and, without an effective regulator, our environmental protections after Brexit will be weaker.

Too many get out clauses
Government policy will be underpinned by a guiding set of environmental principles such as the need to act with precaution and that the polluter should pay. This is welcome but there are too many get out clauses in how these principles will be applied: they won’t apply to any public spending decision or “any other matter” specified by government, which is, as Caroline Lucas says “a truly absurd caveat to vital rules protecting our oceans, wildlife and animals”. And the draft bill offers only the weak requirement that ministers should “have regard to” a policy statement on the principles, which is yet to be written.

Alongside the draft bill, the government has published a policy paper which hints at the wider ambition for the rest of the bill process. The promise of further action to tackle biodiversity loss, improve air and water quality and cut down resource use and waste is a tantalising glimpse of what might be won. But there is no commitment to the legal targets necessary to drive and measure progress, only to exploring options for including targets in the new framework.

The government has not yet set out how it will secure nature’s recovery. A nature recovery network could help bring wildlife back to every neighbourhood; this opportunity to reconnect people with nature must be seized.

Overall, therefore, while there is much to welcome in yesterday’s announcement, there is still a lot to do to get the bill up to scratch. Greener UK stands ready to help the government make changes to ensure that the ambition becomes a reality and that environmental protections are ultimately improved, not weakened.

[Photo taken by Andreas Trepte, www.photo-natur.net

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