A transformative Environment Bill edges closer

bullfinch smallThis blog was first posted on Business Green.

Amidst a flurry of ‘end of term’ announcements, and on what could be his last day in office, Environment Secretary Michael Gove yesterday set out the government’s ambitions for the full Environment Bill.

That ambition is now clear. The government sees the Environment Bill as playing a central role in urgently addressing the environmental crisis, and as a significant commitment to protecting and improving the environment for future generations.

Defra’s growing ambition for the bill has not always been matched by that of its sister departments. Yesterday it seems a rash of collective agreement broke out across the government with a number of ‘firm positions’ published in a summer policy statement, ending months of speculation about the content of the bill.

Michael Gove has long claimed that the measures in the Environment Bill will position the UK as a world leader, particularly through a pioneering green governance system, including a new independent watchdog.

Yesterday’s announcements are welcome steps in this quest, but some critical gaps need to be filled before this mantle can truly be claimed.

Positive steps…
The government confirmed that the new green watchdog, the Office for Environment Protection, will be able to undertake its own investigations, which Greener UK argued for in evidence to parliament earlier this year. This is in keeping with the majority of ombudsman schemes, but had been omitted from the draft bill.

Members of the public will be able to access a free-to-use complaints system on potential breaches of environmental law and the watchdog will be able to take central government and public bodies to court for any failure to abide by that law. Yet details of this legal mechanism are still scant, and the watchdog must be given the ability to issue binding notices and review more incisively the actions of public authorities.

The bill will also give the government legal powers to set more resource efficient product design standards, which is vital for durability and repairability, and to ensure that producers are accountable for 100 per cent of the costs of disposing of the products, and packaging, they put on the market.

There will also be a new system of spatial mapping, essential to ensuring a strategic and long term approach to environmental planning. At its heart will be a new framework for Local Nature Recovery Strategies, to help support the Nature Recovery Network and direct investment in the environment and green infrastructure more effectively.

…but critical gaps remain
These are all important commitments and provide a sound baseline for the next government. But some critical gaps remain, each of which has attracted strong public and parliamentary scrutiny.

The independence of the new watchdog remains at risk. Michael Gove said last week in his Kew speech that he wanted to see “a truly independent governance structure” for the watchdog, citing the obvious merit that any organisation that is designed to hold the government to account is independent of ministerial interference. But there are significant questions about the body’s independence, including whether ministers will seek to retain full control over its funding and appointments (as indicated in the draft bill). Parliament is likely to seize upon continued government intransigence in this area with vigour so it would be wise for bill managers and whips to get ahead.

Similarly, the continued exclusion of climate laws from the watchdog’s remit is truly baffling. The Environmental Audit Committee and the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee recognised this as a flaw of the draft bill. Michael Gove found the case for the watchdog to enforce climate laws compelling. It seems this view is not shared elsewhere in government, risking the government being seen as ‘climate blind’ by the growing number of people calling on politicians to address the environmental emergency. Ahead of the UK hosting the COP26 summit, this would not be a good start for the new ministerial team anxious to demonstrate their climate credentials.

Finally, to address the environmental crisis over the long term, a clear set of objectives are needed on the face of the bill that commit to improving the state of the environment. These should be reinforced by ambitious, legally binding targets to drive improvements in important areas, such as air and water quality, biodiversity and resource efficiency.

Without this framework, the bill lacks a heart and cannot deliver the transformative improvements the government has acknowledged are necessary to reverse the unprecedente decline in our natural environment.

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