On Tuesday 15 October the government published its new Environment Bill.
Greener UK has long campaigned for a strong bill that can enable us to tackle the ecological and climate crisis, and build a much healthier environment for people and wildlife.
The new bill is certainly a step in the right direction. It sets a framework for establishing legally binding targets on water, air, biodiversity and waste, and extends the powers of a new green watchdog - the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) - to climate laws. The OEP can initiate investigations of its own, and take the government and public authorities to court. It will offer a free-to-use complaints system. These are strong proposals.
Nevertheless, the bill falls short in other areas, meaning that as it stands environmental protections are set to be weaker after Brexit. Of particular concern is that:
- The OEP chair and board members will be appointed by the secretary of state, who will also determine the budget. This compromises the body’s independence and makes it less independent than similar oversight regulators such as the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR)
- The OEP cannot issue fines, a key deterrent wielded by European institutions. Other countries (such as New Zealand) have established fining systems to drive compliance with environmental law
- The government has not included a commitment to maintaining existing standards in the legislation. Without a legal commitment to 'non-regression' there are concerns that regulations could be weakened in the future (which is the desire of some ministers)
- The bill does not enshrine in law vital environmental principles – such as the precautionary and polluter pays principles – despite indications in the government's press release. As it stands the principles are more for reference and consultation than a legal basis for decisions
In response to the publication of the bill, Ruth Chambers from Greener UK said:
“Legally binding targets have the potential to be world-leading, but targets need enforcement. As currently proposed, the watchdog will lack the independence and powers needed to do the job.
“It is concerning that there is no legal commitment even to maintain current environmental standards. Ministers have repeatedly said they want to maintain and enhance standards – so why not write this in black and white into the bill so future ministers cannot deregulate?
“The bill is an excellent start, but there is work to do before we can safely say protections are not set to be weaker.”