It is momentous that we finally have an Environment Act, so what now?

It’s a historic day. The first dedicated Environment Act for nearly 30 years has passed. The act is undoubtedly welcome and greatly improved since it was first proposed in draft form in 2018, thanks to a colossal effort involving parliamentarians of all parties, businesses, NGOs and campaigners.

The Greener UK coalition of environmental organisations, set up in 2016 to make the case for strong post-Brexit environmental laws, has been at the heart of this, working with our partners at Wildlife and Countryside Link and other NGO coalitions, and drawing on the expertise and insights of policy, legal and communications specialists from across the sector. We pay tribute to the hard work of the dedicated teams of civil servants and ministers who have beavered away over three years to draft and amend these important laws.

We have come a long way. At the start of this journey, the government was contesting whether there would even be an environmental governance gap after we left the EU. Environmental principles were hardly being debated. An Environment Act was merely a twinkle in the eye of green NGOs. That there was an act at all is, in part, thanks to our campaigning, as we persuaded parliament to require the government to bring forward legal proposals for a new governance system.

Working on the bill has, at times, felt like a never ending campaign. It’s been 1,056 days since the draft bill was published and 648 days since the bill was first introduced to parliament. The bill was in three Queen’s speeches, carried over between parliamentary sessions and delayed at various points, including by the pandemic. The fact that it has now passed is all the more to celebrate, bearing in mind the obstacles it has overcome.

Extended protections, a watchdog and targets are now law
Plans for the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) – an independent watchdog to replace EU oversight institutions – have been greatly improved. Unlike its outline in the initial proposal, the OEP can launch investigations on its own initiative, address climate law and consider the performance of public authorities, as well as the government. A five year budget gives it long term financial security.

The act includes important legally binding targets, including a 2030 target to halt species decline and a target to tackle air pollution from particulate matter (PM2.5). Crucially, there is now a legal targets framework covering nature, water, air and waste.

It also extends some protections for the natural environment. Biodiversity net gain requirements will apply to nationally significant infrastructure projects such as major transport developments. A new system will also be in place to reduce illegal deforestation around the globe. Although the focus on illegal deforestation and the exclusion of the finance sector from this system is likely to need reconsideration when the legislation is reviewed in two years’ time.

And – yes, there’s more – the government has also pledged stronger protection for ancient woodland and a new action plan to improve soil health. The act extends the ability to charge for all single use items, not just those made from plastic.

There is significant unfinished business
The most glaring omission is provision to strengthen the independence of the OEP, which has been a totemic issue since the Environment Bill first emerged. Some safeguards have been built in, such as an ability for it to alert parliament to inadequate levels of funding. Yet, ministers remain in charge of determining the watchdog’s budget and board, and they have retained a wide power to ‘guide’ its enforcement work, which we fear could be used to curtail its freedom to make up its own mind about when to enforce environmental law.

Defra ministers have accepted that they must exclude their implementation of environmental law from this power because of the obvious conflict of interest. But the government’s continued refusal to safeguard the OEP’s independence through law, which is already in place for existing domestic bodies such as the Office for Budget Responsibility and Environmental Standards Scotland, is very disappointing.

The act will introduce five environmental principles into law, including the vital precautionary principle. There are, however, sweeping exemptions for defence, taxation and spending policy. As a cross government approach will be necessary to deliver on climate and nature commitments, this will have to be addressed soon.

It gives the government the ability to set long term environmental improvement targets on air, water, nature and waste. The first set of targets are expected by the end of 2022, and specific action is promised on tackling particulate air pollution and species decline. As governments prefer to maintain as much flexibility as possible, the targets are not set out in detail in the act.

The expected public consultation on the targets, planned for February 2022, will therefore be a major test of the government’s ambition. Given the huge public interest in solving the crises of toxic air, sewage pollution, plastic waste and endangered wildlife, it’s clear that there is only one direction of travel that will satisfy the court of public opinion. Areas such as soil health and the UK’s global footprint have evaded statutory target setting for now, but the promised soil health action plan is eagerly awaited, and clearer ambition is urgently needed to reduce the UK’s global environmental footprint.

Now the government needs to follow through
Passing the 2021 Environment Act marks the beginning of a new chapter. Attention will inevitably turn from the words of the act to the actions they will require and inspire. In some areas, implementation has already begun, with the OEP set up in interim form and already forging an encouraging path. Its first official policy advice to government on environmental principles certainly pulled no punches. But, in other areas, progress has been slow, with many promised initiatives yet to materialise, such as the long awaited Deposit Return Scheme for drinks containers.

The government has made many lofty promises during the lengthy journey of this act, variously described as ‘world leading’, ‘flagship’ and a ‘lodestar’.

The focus must now be on making sure that this long awaited legislation indeed becomes the “lodestar by which we will guide our country towards a cleaner, and greener future”.

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