Regular contributor and SERA member, Victor Anderson, here dives into the Environment Bill's complicated journey through Parliament and sets out ways in which it must be strengthened to protect our environment.
The Government has been busy. The Environment Bill has not been one of its priorities, despite the Bill’s close connection with Brexit. This legislation is necessary in order to replace some of the ways in which membership of the EU has protected the environment of the UK.
In possibly a record for parliamentary slowness, the Bill achieved its Second Reading on February 26 this year. It started Committee Stage on March 10. Then following the session on March 19, at which MPs had got as far as Clause 3, further progress was suspended. More than 7 months later, the Committee still had not resumed, although that is now expected soon. A large part of the Bill was published in draft form in December 2018, and scrutinized by MPs in early 2019. There has been no convincing explanation of why the whole process has taken so long, except perhaps that the environment is not really a priority for the present Government.
Despite this, it now looks like the Bill will be back in Committee in November 2020, and so this seems a good time to remind ourselves about its contents, and more significantly, what it does not do.
What it does do includes:
- Enables the Government to set long-term (at least 15 years) environmental targets and require them to draw up an Environmental Improvement Plan to achieve them. There is to be, within the next 2 years, at least one target for each of air quality, water, biodiversity, resource efficiency and waste reduction.
- Establishes an Office for Environmental Protection to hold governments to account on the implementation of environmental law and the Environmental Improvement Plan.
- Strengthens and incentivizes arrangements for waste recycling.
- Toughens the wording of the obligations on public bodies to protect biodiversity.
However what it does not do includes:
- Ensuring that the environmental principles in the Bill apply to all areas of government policy. The principles are seen as governing the work of Defra: the Treasury and other departments have managed to get themselves opted out.
- Giving the Office for Environmental Protection the resources, remit, and degree of independence necessary to enable it to provide advice across all areas of policy, as the Sustainable Development Commission, established by Labour and abolished by the Tory/LibDem Coalition, used to do.
- Recognising that places are unique and cannot always easily be replaced by some other habitat of “equal value”, as is supposedly happening now to compensate for some of the destructive effects of HS2.
- Addressing the biodiversity impacts of UK imports and overseas investments. We do not only have a “carbon footprint”, we have a “biodiversity footprint” too, operating partly through the illegal wildlife trade, but more importantly through how the UK economy draws on land and water overseas, and of course through climate change.
- Nothing to stop the Government going ahead with HS2, its massive road building plans, or airport expansion, or (through allowing US producers to undercut UK farmers) an environmentally damaging future trade deal with the US.
- Nothing to ensure that the UK keeps up with improvements and updates to EU environmental law and resource policies. We are going to have to depend instead on EU demands, being fought against by the UK Government, for “level planning field” provisions.
- Nothing to restore the levels of budget and staffing which have been taken away from the Environment Agency and Natural England.
Brexit has left an enormous gap in arrangements for protecting the UK environment. The Environment Bill goes only some of the way to filling this gap. Labour will need to be far more ambitious.
Victor Anderson edited ‘Debating Nature’s Value’ (Palgrave Macmillan 2018). He is a freelance researcher on the economics and politics of environmental issues.