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Businesses need a better Environment Bill

canoe smallThis post is by Daniel Johns, head of public affairs, Anglian Water Services Ltd. It was first posted on Business Green.

We now have both the EFRA and the EAC select committee reports on the draft Environment (Principles and Governance) Bill. Both find critical weaknesses in the proposed protections for the environment outside of the structures of the European Union.  On this issue environmental organisations, parliamentarians and a range of leading business voices are entirely aligned.

In Anglian Water’s submission to the EFRA and EAC committees we said the draft clauses would at best deliver a weak imitation of the environmental regulation currently in place through the EU Commission and European Court of Justice (ECJ). It would risk continuing deterioration in the health of the natural environment when a change in trajectory is urgently required.

Our company serves the largest region in England, covering the area between the Humber and Thames estuaries and around a fifth of the English coastline. This is one of the most ecologically diverse areas in the UK, containing more than 750 Sites of Special Scientific Interest and internationally important wetland habitats such as The Wash and the Norfolk Broads. The region is critical to the UK’s agriculture and food supply, containing half of England’s grade one agricultural land and most of the remaining lowland peat. It is also has the fastest rate of housing growth outside the south east and, as the flattest, driest region in the UK, it is particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Therefore, as we play a critical role in safeguarding the country’s natural resources we have a keen interest in the development of the Environment Bill.

These are our five main responses to the draft bill:

The Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) as currently proposed would lack true independence. The OEP would struggle to exert its independence without fear of impacting future government decisions on its budgets and board appointments. Instead, the OEP, ideally with a UK-wide remit, should mirror the National Audit Office and be directly accountable to parliament.

 The duty on ministers to only ‘have regard’ for the environmental principles will make them too easy to ignore. Instead, ministers across government should be required to ‘act in accordance with’ the environmental principles when determining national policy.

The OEP will need a wider set of options and powers to take enforcement action if necessary. The possibility of seeking judicial review bears little comparison to the strength of fines and other sanctions imposed by European regulators in recent years.

Long term goals to restore and enhance our natural environment need to be stated on the face of the bill. Otherwise objectives could change every five years and possibly be weakened as each Environmental Improvement Plan is produced. Statutory long term goals in the bill, akin to the 2050 emissions target in the Climate Change Act, would help to make sure action is not postponed and the costs and impacts left for future generations to resolve.

The bill should integrate environmental improvement into the planning system. We need to create a single place based spatial planning framework that achieves social, economic and environmental objectives together in each part of the country. At present there are many single issue spatial plans for the environment (covering floods, water, nature) and these are largely separate to the main economic plans (including local development plans).

Water companies, and our customers, bear the cost burden of pollution and environmental degradation caused by others. These costs are likely to increase under the proposed approach to governance. It would be much better for every business that interacts with the natural environment, including land managers, to have a legal duty of care that is enforceable through the courts.

Anglian Water sets long term goals in a 25-year Strategic Direction Statement. As well as becoming a carbon neutral business, we are committed to working with others to significantly improve ecological quality across our catchments. We already work very closely with partners such as The Rivers Trust, the CLA and the NFU and, increasingly, are finding common cause with other big businesses in the region. But for businesses to commit to the level of strategic, long term investment in environmental improvement required, we need more than this draft bill provides.

We are one of the core sponsors of the Broadway Initiative, which is proposing a much stronger blueprint with cross sector support for the Environment Bill.  Other supporters include the CBI, IEMA, the Federation of Small Businesses, Aldersgate Group, the Home Builders Federation and the Country Land and Business Association, and Broadway works closely with the Greener UK coalition too.

In recent dialogue with ministers, Broadway supporters called for a coherent and predictable legal framework that does three things: 1) provides certainty for the green economy to innovate and invest, including in the circular economy, and in critical infrastructure sectors such as water and energy, and natural capital; 2) de-risks investment in mainstream infrastructure, ie enabling housing, transport, and manufacturing to build environmental objectives into their plans, investments and partnerships; and 3) ensures all parts of government coherently and consistently encourage environmentally-responsible practices appropriate to all types and sizes of business, including the 75 per cent of Federation of Small Business members who want to do more but often find government policies make it harder.

The government cannot claim that opinion is divided, and that businesses are somehow at odds with environmental NGOs over the bill. Just as unity across all sectors was instrumental in securing the Climate Change Act just over a decade ago, now we want a legally binding, long term framework that can lead to the genuine environmental improvement that our precious nature deserves.

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Green Alliance is a charity and independent think tank focused on ambitious leadership and increased political support for environmental solutions in the UK. This blog provides space for commentary and analysis around environmental politics and policy issues as they affect the UK. The views of external contributors do not necessarily represent those of Green Alliance.