The government made many lofty promises during the lengthy journey of the Environment Act, which was passed two years ago on 9 November 2021. Variously described as “world leading”, a “flagship” and a “lodestar”, it’s timely to consider whether its potential is being realised.
The Act established the UK’s new post Brexit environmental governance system and introduced a range of new measures on nature, air and water quality, chemicals and waste. It was supported by all parties in parliament and by business and environmental groups, but the success of any legislation depends on how thoroughly and speedily it is implemented.
Where are the tangible improvements?
The new governance system comprises four important elements: legally binding targets on species abundance, air and water quality, waste, woodland cover and marine protection; an Environmental Improvement Plan; an independent body – the Office for Environmental Protection – to hold the government to account on its environmental commitments; and a new duty on ministers to build environmental principles into their policy making.
Although still evolving, the new system has yet to deliver any tangible environmental improvements. On one level this is not surprising as new processes take time to establish and the continuing and growing declines in the UK’s wildlife will not be reversed overnight. But there are two principal concerns: the slow pace of embedding environmental principles – the legal duty on policy makers only came into force on 1 November – and the government’s stunted progress on delivery against its commitments. Worryingly, the Office for Environmental Protection found, in January 2023, that government delivery against its 2018 25 year plan to improve the environment had “fallen far short”.
At a recent policy conference on the Environmental Improvement Plan, colleagues from different sectors repeated the same message in their presentations: that greater clarity and transparency is needed on the action plans for each goal in the Environmental Improvement Plan so that stakeholders might understand and be able to plan their expected contribution, especially those working on land and water. The Environmental Improvement Plan is welcomed and supported, with stakeholders eager to play their part. But calls for proper delivery plans are growing.
As for the targets, there’s a risk their mere existence will be mistaken for success, and there’s unfinished business in satisfying the public desire for stronger action on restoring wildlife habitats, cleaner rivers, access to nature and reducing resource use.
There’s no sign of promised action on deforestation
When it is was first mooted, the UK government’s plans to remove commodities produced by illegal deforestation from UK supply chains was billed as urgent because of the severe impacts deforestation was having on tropical forests and peoples.
Why is it then that two years later the government has not even settled on the commodities that would be outlawed and has not published the secondary legislation needed to activate the new scheme?
Only ministers can answer this but, when she rejoined the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) as secretary of state, Therese Coffey said she was “determined to get a grip” on the delivery of its work. This clearly hasn’t happened on the deforestation law, and, without a timetable and renewed impetus, there is a risk of stagnation.
On resources and waste, the government has fallen further behind, as the extended producer responsibility scheme has been beset by delays and the deposit return scheme has been kicked into the long grass until after the general election. Worse, the early promise of a target on resource efficiency never materialised with the government instead adopting an unambitious waste target that doesn’t even cover the biggest waste stream in the country (ie mineral waste from the construction sector).
Other plans, including a new chemicals strategy and land use framework are promised this year but there’s no sign of them yet. Meanwhile gaps in legal protections loom from 1 January as ‘cross compliance’ regulations to protect hedgerows and water courses will fall away from that date, with no ready replacement. Case law emanating from the EU will become more vulnerable as Defra, unlike other departments, has not taken proactive steps to reinstate or codify interpretative effects, which provide useful guidance on how important legal protections should apply. This laissez faire approach to law making is both baffling and troubling.
A stable and robust statute book will be essential to underpin delivery of the Environment Act and the Environmental Improvement Plan. The final legislative programme of this parliament was notably silent on the environment, with one animal welfare bill and no bill to fulfil the government’s commitment to end the sale of peat products, which is due to happen by the end of 2023. It’s no surprise, therefore, that this has been universally described as a missed opportunity.
It’s not all doom and gloom
It’s unfortunately easy to pick out areas where progress has been slow or lacking. But there have been some positive moves recently, including UK support for a ban on deep sea mining, a renewed focus on nature recovery in National Parks and a Green Finance Strategy which recognises the benefits of a resilient, nature positive, net zero economy.
Biodiversity net gain will kick in from January 2024 and local nature recovery strategies are starting to be established. Although it remains to be seen whether they will drive recovery as fast as needed or if they will have enough heft to provide stability as political parties jostle to be seen as builders not blockers when it comes to housing.
The absence of a bill that would have undermined protection for rivers in the King’s speech this week was welcome and, with it, the implication that the government is instead seeking to shore up and boost the existing system to unlock housing supply in environmentally sensitive areas by speeding up the pipeline of nature based solutions.
The King’s speech doesn’t represent everything the government will do over the next year. It has scope to do more. To mark this significant second anniversary of the Environment Act, it should double down on its commitment to protect our natural world and halt the surge of decline, by prioritising delayed measures on deforestation and waste, and by refreshing its approach to working with important interests and partners to deliver on the Environmental Improvement Plan. Recent discussions have been encouraging but should be backed up with more clarity and clout. We hope to see an end to the laissez faire approach to environmental regulation that risks preventing nature’s recovery.