Return of the Environment Bill

intext-blog-House_of_Commons_Chamber_1This post was first published in Business Green 

The Environment Bill makes a welcome return to Parliament next week in a prime slot after Prime Minister’s questions. It is wide-ranging and includes important measures on four critical foundations of our natural environment: nature, air, water and resources and waste. But its lasting legacy will be a new environmental governance system for England and Northern Ireland.

Our new environmental governance system can be a global bellwether
The Environment Bill must match the Climate Change Act (CCA) in both effect and intent, so that the twin crises of biodiversity and climate can be tackled with equal vigour. To do this effectively, its provisions should be similar in both form and function. A new framework to set targets on the natural environment must match the strength and clarity of the CCA’s respected framework to set carbon targets, obliging the government to take action commensurate with its ambition for the most environmentally ambitious programme of any country on earth.

At the heart of the bill, a new home-grown watchdog – the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) – is set to keep watch over our environmental laws. Principles to protect our environment and our health, such as acting with precaution and avoiding harm, must be guiding lights to government ministers as they make policy. New Environmental Improvement Plans, which explain where and how environmental action will be taken, should provide a clear direction of travel for business and investors, as well as the wider public.

But questions remain over how environmental governance will work across the whole of the UK: we await firm proposals from governments in Scotland and Wales, and an understanding of how these will work alongside plans for England and Northern Ireland. The bill’s silence on the UK’s global environmental footprint is a notable absence. There is no doubt however that, if done well, embedding domestic accountability and ambition in law could act as a global bellwether as we tell our story on the world stage at international summits on climate and biodiversity in Glasgow and Kunming.

Success will depend on clarity and good administration
Words matter, and with some important additions, the government’s vision for a world-leading system for environmental governance can be realised. As framework legislation the bill has inbuilt flexibility and will be taken forward by regulations and as yet unpublished policies and strategies. But while flexibility can help legislators respond to changing circumstances, future governments and other stakeholders need clear signals on how the architects of the legislation intended it to work.

For example, while the inclusion of legally binding targets in the bill is very welcome, the system to set targets and the means to ensure they are met is skeletal. Being more explicit about when and from whom independent advice will be sought will ensure that those targets are well designed and evidence based, giving confidence to those invested in both our economy and the environment. Establishing a stronger link between Environmental Improvement Plans and targets to tackle species decline, air pollution and water quality will provide a clearer pathway for action to be costed, monitored and owned across government.

Our domestic governance system must be underpinned by the principles of good administration, including transparency, openness and the quest for continuous improvement. The Office for Environmental Protection must instil these principles in its own work and in the institutions it oversees. Its mission is a noble one, that of environmental protection and improvement and safeguarding environmental laws. But it must be equipped with the right tools to do its job well, including a wider range of remedies to deploy if environmental laws are found to have been breached. It will be in all our interests if the body is an independent champion, acting in the public interest, and not caught in a perpetual cycle of budget cuts.

Only cross-government action can lead to systemic environmental improvement
To address the alarming decline in nature, the Environment Bill must be more than just words on paper.

It will only truly succeed if it becomes a bill of the whole government. Defra is a department much-changed by recent events, whose agenda touches so many parts of our lives, from farming to chemicals to air quality. But like any other single department, it is incapable of sustaining cross-government action over the long term without support from its sister departments as well as from the very top of government.

The contents of the spending review suggested for the autumn will be a good test of the extent to which our new environmental governance system is valued across Whitehall, as will the negotiation of new trade agreements that respect the environment. Ministers have long maintained that our environmental standards will be the same, if not higher, but these pledges have not yet made their way into legislation.

Environment and business groups have identified a number of other ways in which the bill can be strengthened. We hope that these will be embraced by ministers as the bill makes its way through Parliament.

[Image first uploaded on YouTube under a CC license]

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