Why the Environment Bill must come back with a bang not a whimper

After a lengthy delay of more than six months, the Environment Bill will make a welcome return to parliament on 3 November. It will pick up where it left off with a committee of MPs going through the bill in detail and discussing where changes and clarifications are needed. During its absence we have faced major challenges, the resurgence of coronavirus and significant new evidence of the perilous state of nature at home and across the planet.

This means that the bill cannot be business as usual legislation, it must be exemplary in both its intent and execution, and the government should be open to strengthening it. The bill is wide ranging and ambitious, but it is neither perfect nor incapable of improvement. Ministers hold the key to realising its full potential to address the immediate and growing problems, and must embrace the openness with which they first introduced the legislation.

Three burning questions
Three questions should be high on parliamentarians’ minds as they prepare for the return of the bill:

1. Will the governance system meet the government’s own test of being world leading?
It won’t be unless the new watchdog, the Office for Environmental Protection, is truly independent, with the necessary powers to hold the government and other public authorities to account on their environmental commitments. Enshrining a multi-year budget in law and giving parliament a greater say in appointing the chair and board members would be a good start. The changes the government has recently proposed for the watchdog are worrying. They would undermine its independence and risk discrediting the government’s commitment to ensure that “…after Brexit, environmental ambition and accountability are placed more clearly than ever before at the heart of government, both now and in the future.” They merit a rethink.

2. Can the bill turn around the decline in the natural environment?
While the provisions for legally binding targets on air, water, biodiversity and resource efficiency, are welcome, improvements are needed to how these are set and met: the current wording would allow action to be put off until it is too late. Introducing binding interim targets would help, as would requiring the new environmental improvement plans to set out how the targets will be met, making it more likely they will succeed.

3. When will the Environment Bill fulfil its promises?
The bill is framework legislation, which means that much of it will give the government the power to act but action will not always be immediate and funding is not necessarily guaranteed. Legislating can be an incremental, gradual process with one act of parliament providing footholds for those that follow, and progress pursued through consultations or policy development. This bill must be different and timescales and commitments need to be tightened so that action comes sooner rather than later. Unanswered policy questions must be picked up as the bill progresses, not subsequently, and a renewed sense of urgency should underpin the government’s collective plans. From Treasury to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, this bill depends on the co-operation and drive of the whole of government, not just Defra.

Delay will leave a governance gap
The bill committee is scheduled to complete its scrutiny work by 1 December. Parliamentary timelines after that are yet to be confirmed but one thing is abundantly clear: the bill won’t achieve Royal Assent by the end of the year and there will be a concerning governance gap until the Office for Environmental Protection is ready to scrutinise and enforce the government and other public authorities’ compliance with environmental law.

Nor will the proposed policy statement on environmental principles be agreed, let alone embedded in Whitehall policy making. Environment Minister Rebecca Pow said last week that a 12 week consultation would be issued in late 2020, over two years since the statement was first committed to, suggesting it will not be ready before summer 2021. While coronavirus has had an inevitable impact on timelines, these delays cannot be solely attributed to the pandemic.

Greener UK has set out ten areas where urgent action is needed by the government to ensure that its interim plans are fit for purpose. These concerns have been echoed by the two Commons environmental select committees who wrote to the Secretary of State on 23 October calling for transparency around the proposed interim arrangements.

While it’s clear that some plans are being made, for example Defra has bid for more contingency funding for essential expenditure on the set up of the Office for Environmental Protection, there is a distinct lack of transparency. With the interim secretariat to be hosted in Defra there are legitimate questions on how independent the ‘embryonic’ form of the Office for Environmental Protection will be.

Without transparency and urgency there is a risk of further delays and a loss of public confidence. Oversight must be both independent and robust from the outset if the pledge to put environmental accountability at the heart of government is really going to be honoured.

This post was first published by Business Green.

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