Pine trees in the sun

Reaction to the environment bill policy statement

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) today published a new policy statement on the environment bill. 

With the draft bill having been published in December 2018, the statement issued new 'firm positions' on an array of policies, after Secretary of State Michael Gove made a well-publicised speech last week (16 July) mentioning some of the proposals. These firm positions include:

  • standardising recycling practices;
  • legislating for a new framework for Local Nature Recovery Strategies;
  • acknowledging the feasibility of meeting the World Health Organisation's guideline level for fine particulate matter; 
  • mandating biodiversity ‘net gain’ in future developments;
  • and improving environmental governance via strengthened plans for a new green watchdog to enforce environmental standards (the Office for Environmental Protection, or 'OEP').

Following campaigning by environmental groups, Defra is proposing to give the OEP a free-to-use complaints system. The OEP will also be able to undertake its own investigations 'at its own instigation', and to 'take central Government and public bodies to court for any failure to abide by environmental law'. These proposals are very welcome.

Nevertheless, there remain significant gaps in the proposals for the environment bill - including the absence of legally binding targets and the fact that the OEP will not be genuinely independent from government.  

Ruth Chambers of the Greener UK coalition said:

“Measures that create richer habitats for nature and drive improvements in air quality will be crucial in tackling the environmental crisis.

“Giving the green watchdog powers to initiate legal action against the government and undertake its own investigations also shows that Michael Gove has listened to some major concerns.

“Still, we will have less power to enforce environmental law after Brexit without further additions. The next Defra secretary needs to make sure the watchdog sets its own budget, appoints its own board and is enforcing legally binding targets.”

Ruth's comments have been covered by Business Green.