The new government has the chance to make the Environment Bill a game-changer
The Environment Bill, published at the end of October, has given us a glimpse of what environmental regulation could look like after Brexit. Positioned as a “huge star” of the government’s legislation programme, the bill got off to a promising start. But it, like all other bills in train, will fall due to a general election being called. Its fate now lies in the hands of a new government.
As it stands, this important and much needed legislation is an improvement on the draft bill that was published in December 2018. It includes a framework to set legally binding targets in four key areas – air, water, biodiversity and waste – and puts climate law on an equal footing with the rest of environmental law. Before falling, it was debated by MPs. There was cross-party support for both the principle of the bill and the need for it to be strengthened, with many of the points made in Greener UK’s and Wildlife and Countryside Link’s joint briefing for MPs featuring in the debate.
There was strong support for making the new green watchdog, the Office for Environmental Protection, properly independent, for strengthening the legal foundations for targets and environmental principles and for putting a binding commitment to maintaining environmental standards in law.
High standards and an ambitious Environment Bill also lead Greener UK’s 2019 manifesto asks. With the bill unlikely to reappear much, if it all, before Christmas, politicians and policy makers have been given valuable extra time to reflect on whether this bill is tough enough to address the environmental crisis.
Five questions that must be answered before the bill returns:
1. Will political ambition be translated into rock solid laws that stand the test of time?
There is no shortage of political support for the bill. The minister, Rebecca Pow, said that she considered this “a landmark bill that will transform our approach to protecting and enhancing our precious environment”. Lib Dem environment spokesperson Wera Hobhouse welcomed this “long overdue” legislation. Shadow secretary of state for the environment, Sue Hayman, called the bill “a move in the right direction” although did not feel that its measures were sufficient, considering the scale of the environmental and climate crisis. The challenge for all politicians is to consider how to cement their warm words into law.
2. How will governments across the UK use this extra time to seek solutions that work in harmony?
The UK’s governments are at different stages of policy development on post-Brexit environmental protections. The new watchdog will work across England and will also cover Northern Ireland, subject to the views of future Northern Ireland ministers. But it is less clear how will it work with whatever arrangements emerge in Scotland and Wales and whether there will be a seamless approach to environmental matters that cross administrative boundaries. For example, why does the bill propose that UK ministers will apply environmental principles differently when they are acting on ‘reserved matters’ in different countries?
3. Will the bill include measures to tackle the UK’s global footprint?
The BBC documentary series Seven Worlds, One Planet is inspiring wildlife film making at its best but it is also a powerful reminder of the profound impact that we are having on the natural world. Nowhere is this felt more acutely than in the destruction of precious rainforests. The Environment Bill is an opportunity to debate and make progress on tackling the environmental harm occurring through supply chains. Thinking on this has already begun through the Global Resource Initiative taskforce. Joining up its recommendations with the legislative opportunity provided by the bill will help to position the UK as a global leader ahead of crucial international climate and biodiversity summits taking place in 2020.
4. Will the Office for Environmental Protection be ready in time?
To avoid a governance gap between EU and UK jurisdiction, the new watchdog must be up and running on 1 January 2021. Media reports suggest it is unlikely that any transition period will be extended, meaning there are fourteen months to ensure that new watchdog is ready to act from day one. And there will be less time in a no deal exit. Public bodies can’t be invented overnight. Painstaking development of systems and processes is needed, not to mention the securing of premises and IT systems. There is a risk that further delays to the legislative timetable could disrupt the set up of the new watchdog.
5. Can the environmental crisis spark cross-party support for game-changing legislation?
Support is growing rapidly for urgent action to address the climate and ecological crisis. An ambitious Environment Bill is an opportunity for MPs to come together across the House and unite behind bold legislation to change our response. There are similarities between this bill and the universally popular and inspiring 1949 National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act, which has protected our finest countryside for all to enjoy ever since. A strengthened Environment Bill, supported and improved by all parties, could be a game-changer for the 21st century.