In 2018, the government hailed the “great progressive prize” of a green Brexit. Ever since, ministers have repeated pledges to maintain high environmental standards, often to parliament. The principle of non-regression is set out in the UK’s trade agreement with the EU, advocated by the independent body the government set up to hold it to account, the Office for Environmental Protection, and is a key test of public trust in the government’s authenticity.
The laws that protect our water bodies from excess pollution are part of a rich body of environmental laws that originated from EU law. They were hotly debated over the past 12 months during the passage of the government’s Retained EU Law Bill. Environmental protections dominated parliamentary debates and ministers responded by clearly reiterating that the government would not lower environmental protections.
Recent promises now ring hollow
These promises, made recently and repeatedly to parliament, now ring hollow in light of the package of government amendments to the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill, published yesterday (see this list, amendments in the name of Baroness Scott of Bybrook).
A new schedule to the bill would disapply nature protection laws to allow pollution without mitigation in England’s most sensitive nature sites. The Habitats Regulations have been maligned by government before, mistakenly seen as burdens rather than protections. Previous attempts to weaken them have run into the ground because of immense public opposition or because policy proposals lacked rigour and were not grounded in science.
Science it seems is far from the minds of those who commissioned these amendments, as authorities are told to “assume” that water pollution will not cause environmental damage. This legislative skullduggery does not follow the government’s own guide to making legislation. It should be roundly rejected by parliamentarians in their role as guardians of our environmental statute book and democratic ways of working.
This goes against the polluter pays principle
The polluter must pay is a long established environmental principle which means the costs of pollution should be borne by those causing it, rather than those who suffer the effects of the resulting environmental damage. In its policy statement on environmental principles, the government states that a system that places environmental considerations at the heart of policy making across government “is vital” to deliver its commitment to leave the environment in a better state than that in which we found it.
In July, the government unveiled unlimited fines for polluters, but it now wants to exempt housebuilders from the polluter pays principle. The government’s proposed change to water pollution regulations reverses the principle with the public, not housebuilders, being asked to foot the bill of mitigating increased water pollution from housebuilding in environmentally sensitive areas. As former Defra board member Ben Goldsmith observed on social media, this is a “very odd, unconservative move”.
The government has set demanding nature recovery targets in the Environment Act 2021, the first of which requires the alarming decline in a host of important species to be halted by 2030. The UK has also signed up to the pledge in the Kunming-Montreal framework to protect at least 30 per cent of our land and sea for nature by 2030. It’s difficult to see how the government’s plans to relax water pollution rules will support the delivery of these targets and ambitions, given the damage that will be done to environmentally important areas. These areas are listed here and it’s noteworthy that they are also likely to be politically sensitive as many are marginal seats for the forthcoming general election.
There was no consultation
The lack of consultation on such a major policy change is deeply concerning. The government reiterated in June that “it is standard practice to consult on major policy changes for the environment”. But in this instance, there has been no public consultation, no engagement with environmental organisations and no advice appears to have been sought from the government’s expert advisers on environmental law and nature conservation, the Office for Environmental Protection and Natural England.
Protocols on consulting on environmental policy changes have been increasingly disregarded with previous efforts either rushed, such as on the revised air quality strategy, or have simply not taken place at all, such as on the interim targets in the government’s environmental improvement plan.
There are other concerns of course, such as the potential links between housebuilder profits and the Conservative party, the disconnect between the government’s proposals and the reality of tackling the housing crisis and the role of Defra, the department charged with championing the environment in Whitehall. Yesterday, it published a list of its achievements this year, many of which will be put at risk by any backsliding on water pollution rules. Just one month ago, the Environment Secretary reinforced to the Office for Environmental Protection the government’s commitment to uphold environmental protections. This weakening of environmental protections creates a troubling dissonance between rhetoric and reality.
Labour shouldn’t fall into the trap
In the next two weeks, the government’s amendments will be debated in parliament. To publish such substantive changes so late in the passage of a bill and without any degree of public consultation is likely to anger peers who increasingly think the government is undermining parliamentary sovereignty and scrutiny. Rushing out laws to latch on to a convenient parliamentary vehicle usually doesn’t end well, leading to bad law making or laws being rejected altogether.
Maybe the government believes it has set a trap for the Labour Party: vote against us and you are voting against much needed new housing. Labour should stand firm. Changes to the current rules are necessary – no one is denying that – but what the government is proposing is badly thought through and there are strong reasons to doubt that it will result in more homes being built overall. Labour claims to be the party of cleaner rivers, a party that gets the scale of the environmental crisis. This is a test of its seriousness.
The government may be hoping that the immediate backlash to its proposals will die down. But that seems unlikely as, for many, the breaking of a hitherto intact pledge to maintain environmental protections will be a last straw.