The return of the Environment Bill is the acid test of the government’s green promises

The new parliamentary session which starts on 11 May will be a crucial one for the environment. In this ‘super year’ of major international nature and climate summits, parliament will debate and pass the first dedicated Environment Bill for over twenty years.

Legislation is often regarded drily, with its provisions and measures firmly remaining the domain of lawyers. But the Environment Bill has evaded this technocratic fate and become both a bellwether of government intent and a critical staging post in the battle to reverse the decline in biodiversity and tackle the critical challenges of air and water pollution.

Third time lucky?
Because of the general election and the pandemic, this is the third Queen’s speech that has featured the Environment Bill. Normally, legislation is published, debated and passed in a single parliamentary session. Before the bill is passed at the end of the year, it will have straddled three parliamentary sessions, two governments and a global pandemic, making it a strong contender for one of the most resilient bills ever to pass through parliament.

When it was introduced to parliament in December 2019’s Queen’s speech, the “landmark” Environment Bill was part of a legislative programme in which the government cited “an absolute priority to protect our planet for future generations”.

Just two months earlier, in October 2019, the government had proclaimed “The huge star of our legislative programme is a momentous new Environment Bill – a lodestar by which we will guide our country towards a cleaner, and greener future.” Both speeches committed to create “a world-leading environmental watchdog”.

The House of Commons library has been keeping track of the potential subjects of legislation for next week’s Queen’s speech and the Environment Bill will need to contend for space and attention with these.

As an essential vehicle for delivering one of the central pledges of the 2019 Conservative manifesto, to have the most ambitious environmental programme of any country on earth, its prominence and description in this Queen’s speech must remain undiminished.

Parliamentary arithmetic dictates an urgent return
Promises have been made to parliament on the bill returning early. On 26 January, Environment Minister Rebecca Pow pledged that “…we will achieve Royal Assent before COP26”; she also committed that “The Environment Bill will resume early in the second session—I make that absolutely clear—with Royal Assent by autumn”.

This must be followed through. Further delay would undoubtedly call into serious question where the environment fares in the government’s priorities. Since it was first promised in July 2018, the bill has been plagued by a catalogue of delays and consistently held back while much other legislation has progressed.

As the bill has been carried over from the previous parliamentary session it can pick up where it left off, with one remaining day of debate by MPs, before it heads to the House of Lords.

On its first outing in October 2019, it was the second bill to be debated by MPs, two weeks after parliament had resumed. In December 2019 though, the pace had slowed, and it took a full two months for MPs to debate the republished bill, with several bills ahead of it in the queue. It was then absent for 200 days from parliament, returning only slowly once parliament resumed after the first lockdown. The government cannot afford such carefree timetabling this time round.

Because of its enormous size, this bill will take many weeks to pass through the House of Lords. By our calculation, if it does not clear the House of Commons before MPs rise for the Whitsun recess on 27 May, the further delay will mean the government will fail in its stated aim to pass it before the Glasgow climate summit in November.

Why the Environment Bill has to pass by the autumn

It is central to the government’s environmental ambitions. As the first major piece of environmental legislation for 20 years, it lays the foundations for a new approach to meet the rising environmental challenges we all face. This includes a Nature Recovery Network, a framework for legally binding environmental targets and a vital new domestic environmental governance system following EU exit. These are needed to close the governance gap that exists now that we have left the EU and to address the plummeting state of our nature.

The accountability clock is ticking. The new watchdog, the Office for Environmental Protection, cannot exist as a legal entity until the bill passes, leaving a significant gap in environmental law enforcement. Dame Glenys Stacey, the chair designate of this new body, has called the delay “extremely disappointing”. A powerful parliamentary committee, comprising select committee chairs, has already made it clear that passing the Environment Bill should be a government priority “…given the gap that now exists in environmental governance following the end of the transition period”.

Global leadership rests on domestic action. The prime minister has said “We must act now – right now. We cannot afford to dither and delay because biodiversity loss is happening today and it is happening at a frightening rate. Left unchecked, the consequences will be catastrophic for us all. Extinction is forever – so our action must be immediate.” This signal of urgency from the UK will hopefully inspire global action at the scale and pace needed to tackle the devastating decline in nature across the world. But how can we hope to motivate our international partners without being seen to act decisively ourselves?

A green recovery needs legal certainty. In July, the prime minister said that it is “…more important than ever that we keep up the pace of change to fuel a green, sustainable recovery as we rebuild from the pandemic”. Enshrining this intention in legislation will provide a clear direction of travel for businesses and others and help to guide investment and resources towards green solutions.

We need nature and nature needs the bill. From hedgehogs to mountains, beavers to coastlines, we are a nature loving nation. But the dire state of our rivers, the air that we breathe and the loss of our treasured wildlife in what the RSPB has called a lost decade for nature, has been a truly damning indictment of our nation. The government says it wants to do something about it, but its rhetoric must be backed up by evidence of positive change. For this reason, the bill must be amongst the first to come back to parliament in the new session. But it must return improved, with its fundamental weaknesses addressed. It should include a 2030 target to reverse the decline in biodiversity, an Office for Environmental Protection that has real teeth to hold the government to account and binding milestones that can drive better air and water quality and resource efficiency.

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