On 9 November 2021 the first dedicated Environment Act for nearly 30 years achieved Royal Assent.
After working on and around the bill for more than 1,000 days, Greener UK’s senior parliamentary associate Ruth Chambers said:
Over more than three years NGOs and parliamentarians have campaigned tirelessly to improve the government’s plans. We welcome today a much strengthened Environment Act, which includes a watchdog that can launch its own investigations and new binding targets for nature and air quality.
At the same time, we cannot view the Act as the world leading legislation we were promised. Environmental laws are less protected than before. The Scottish system will outstrip England’s for strength and independence. There are gaping holes in how key environmental principles will apply to government decisions.
The bill’s main strengths are frameworks and aspirations that now depend on government policies. Will ministers fund and deliver the programmes to meet those important targets and enrich our natural environment?
Since plans for the Environment Act first emerged in 2018, the bill has been strengthened significantly. Here are three key ways in which ministers have strengthened the legislation:
- Plans for the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) – an independent watchdog to replace EU institutions – have been greatly improved. The OEP can now address climate law, launch investigations at its own initiative and consider the performance of public authorities as well as the government in upholding green laws. There will be a five year budget to give long term funding security
- Key legally binding targets have been committed to, including a 2030 target to halt species decline and a target to tackle air pollution from particulate matter (PM2.5). More widely, there is now a legal targets framework covering nature, water, air and waste
- The bill extends some protections for the natural environment: biodiversity net gain requirements will apply to nationally significant infrastructure projects and a new system will be in place to reduce illegal deforestation around the globe. The government has also pledged stronger protection for ancient woodland and a new action plan to improve soil health
As strong as the Act is, however, there are certainly concerns over the weakening of previous protections. There are also questions about how the Act’s frameworks will be implemented and targets achieved. Some of the future issues to consider are as follows:
- Under the terms of the Act, ministers can issue ‘guidance’ to the OEP on how it enforces environmental laws, including in cases that affect ministers themselves. The government confirmed yesterday that it will not issue guidance before the OEP develops its own enforcement policy and that Defra ministers will not issue guidance on Defra policy matters. But will ministers commit to staying clear long term, and will future governments make similar commitments? If not, there is a serious ‘conflict of interest’ risk, with government interference permitted far beyond its relationship with other ‘independent’ government bodies such as the Equality and Human Rights Commission
- The government has resisted suggestions improving the process for setting targets, with no requirement for binding interim targets and a lack of transparency in how expert advice will be used. This is a far cry from how climate change targets are developed and set. The looser framework gives ministers more flexibility and leeway, but will they use it to set targets that are sufficiently ambitious and can drive the change needed?
- Government agencies such as Natural England and the Environment Agency have suffered significant budget cuts since 2009 – but they will be vital in achieving future targets and delivering on other bill commitments. Will the government deliver the funding required in future budgets?