Why the Environment Bill’s so called ‘triple lock’ isn’t the safety mechanism the government says it is

This post is by Philippa Goodwin, senior policy officer at the RSPB

Anyone tuning in to parliamentary debates on the Environment Bill will have heard Environment Minister Rebecca Pow refer to the ‘triple lock’ mechanism, which she says is key to driving short term environmental progress. She has already used this analogy during the bill’s second reading and twice during the bill’s committee stage on 10 March and 3 November, and we are promised that we will hear a great deal more about it as the bill progresses. So, does it stand up to scrutiny and will it deliver the legal certainty that the minister is clearly hoping for? Here are our responses to the triple lock mechanism.

Lock 1: Environmental Improvement Plans
The Environment Bill will require the government to have an environmental improvement plan to “significantly improve” England’s natural environment. This should set out the steps the government intends to take to improve the environment and review the plan every five years. As part of the review, the government must consider whether further or different measures should be adopted to achieve five yearly interim and long term targets. The minister has said that, when it reviews the plan in 2023, the government “will update it as necessary to include the steps that we intend to take to achieve the targets that we set.”

Our response:
The Environment Bill gives long term Environmental Improvement Plans a very welcome statutory footing and retrofits the 25 year environment plan (2018-2043) to become the first of these. But the bill is extremely thin on the content of these plans. They must “set out the steps … to improve the natural environment” but this will not necessarily provide the clear road map needed to put the country on track to achieving its environmental goals, including the statutory targets the bill provides for. Instead, we run the risk of repeating the mistakes of the 25 year plan, which is a long document short on commitments to measurable success criteria, lacks ownership across government and suffers from weak linkages to actions that would deliver much needed progress towards targets.

A small amendment to the bill would genuinely bind the government to producing plans with specific, time bound measures capable of meeting interim and long term targets, with delivery mainstreamed across departments. To date, this has not found favour with the minister. But without these stronger linkages, we risk the outcome of the first review being a lacklustre plan, incapable of driving the necessary transformative action.

Lock 2: Progress reporting:
The bill requires the government to report on progress towards achieving targets and improving the natural environment every year.

Our response:
Again, the bill’s proposed reporting mechanism is an important step but, by the minister’s own account, this is about looking backwards to what has been (or has not been) achieved in the preceding year. Any forward looking assessment must wait until the five yearly review, the first of which won’t be until 2023. The bill provides little detail on the scope of annual progress reports. While, under the bill, the government must consider progress towards meeting targets and improving the environment, this requirement is very loose and could result in a superficial or light touch review, rather than a comprehensive, forensic analysis of the effectiveness of the measures in the plan or how they might need to change.

Lock 3: Oversight
The bill provides for the new watchdog, the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP), to monitor the government’s progress towards achieving targets. Each year it will comment on the progress in the government’s annual reports. The minister says that the OEP can “flag early on whether it believes there is a risk of the government not meeting their long term targets”. The OEP may make recommendations on how progress could be improved, and the government has to respond. Ultimately, the OEP has the power to enforce requirements if the government breaches its environmental legal duties, including the duty to achieve long term targets.

Our response:
While we welcome the proposed role for the OEP on overseeing annual progress reports, there will be a significant time lag. A worst case scenario would see almost two years elapse from the end of the reporting year until the government is forced to respond to the OEP’s recommendations on missed or delayed targets. This would be unacceptable, given the severity of the environmental crisis. The government’s response to any recommendations the OEP makes must be laid before parliament and address any recommendations for improvement, but that does not necessarily guarantee decisive action. The OEP might bemoan a lack of progress, but it would be powerless to do little more than issue reprimands and entreaties, while waiting for some distant court action.

A threat of enforcement for failure to achieve long term targets is not likely to bear down on the government of the day as it could not be started until late in the 2030s when the targets reach the end of their fifteen year lifespan, a distant point on a future political horizon. This so-called lock would provide much greater protection for the environment if interim targets were legally binding, in line with the Climate Change Act’s five yearly carbon budgets. That would place ministers in a much tighter bind and ensure a stronger focus on making sure outcomes are delivered.

While, of course, we acknowledge that the bill does attempt to pin down early action, it is nevertheless possible to look forward five years and see an amended Environmental Improvement Plan, ill-equipped for the vital task of driving environmental improvement, because the process of scrutiny and accountability has been too loose. Legislation must be futureproofed against this. Positive interventions by the minister at the time are not enough to guide a plan’s future interpretation.

In conclusion, the triple lock is not as safe and robust as Rebecca Pow hopes and the bill frameworks do not yet provide the required level of security that our threatened environment needs. We hope the government will be in a receptive mood as the bill proceeds through parliament. Time is running out to reverse the harmful effects of a business as usual approach to the environment and, if the UK government is to seize fully upon next year’s international summits to showcase its environmental leadership to the world, all efforts should be made now to strengthen this landmark bill.

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