Long-awaited legislation to deliver new environmental regulator and legally binding green targets
The government will today formally table its long-awaited Environment Bill in Parliament, promising that the “landmark” legislation will reshape environmental regulation and enforcement in the UK post-Brexit.
Currently most of the UK’s environmental rules are enforced by Brussels, but today’s legislation would see the creation of a new Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) established to ensure the UK complies with environmental standards.
The Bill will also enshrine environmental principles such as the ‘polluter pays’ principle into UK law, forcing the government to embed the environment into its decision making.
In addition it will set legally binding targets for environmental improvement on areas such as air quality.
The confirmation of the bill comes after government promised in yesterday’s Queen’s Speech that its new air quality target would be “among the most ambitious in the world”.
Under the new regime, Councils will be given more powers to tackle sources of air pollution, while developers will be subject to mandatory biodiversity rules in the planning system that will require them to protect existing habitats or pay for land restoration elsewhere.
Meanwhile, the Bill will also see further action taken on plastic pollution, with charges applied to some single-use items and a new rule requiring packaging producers to pay for the cost of clean up.
Ministers will today touted the new Bill – which was the centrepiece of yesterday’s Queen’s Speech – as a landmark piece of legislation that will deliver a “historic step change” in environmental protection across the country.
“Our natural environment is a vital shared resource and the need to act to secure it for generations to come is clear,” said Environment Secretary Theresa Villiers. “That’s why our landmark Environment Bill leads a green transformation that will help our country to thrive. It positions the UK as a world leader on improving air quality, environmental biodiversity, a more circular economy, and managing our precious water resources in a changing climate.”
“Crucially, it also ensures that after Brexit, environmental ambition and accountability are placed more clearly than ever before at the heart of government, both now and in the future,” she added.
However, environment experts have warned they will be scrutinising the text of the Bill carefully, amid fears the OEP will not have the necessary funding or authority to hold recalcitrant businesses or government departments to account.
The government confirmed today the OEP will be based in Bristol, and have a staff headcount of up to 120. But concerns still abound that the watchdog may have its funding decided by Defra, which some industry insiders argue would risk its independence, and will not have the power to levy fines or compel witnesses to attend hearings.
Questions will also be asked over whether a headcount of 120 will be sufficient, given the scale of the responsibilities that are likely to be transferred from EU agencies. Moreover, businesses will want clarity on how the body will interact with existing agencies, such as the Environment Agency, Natural England, and the Committee on Climate Change.
Experts will also be poring over the wording of the legal principles, to ensure they cover all government activities, and will be scrutinising the scope and scale of the legally binding targets.
Martin Baxter, chief policy advisor at IEMA, said the bill is a welcome step to improving the UK’s natural environment, but indicated his organisation would be lobbying for further changes before it becomes law.
“The Bill establishes a good baseline for putting sustainability at the heart of our economic model,” he said. “We will work with government and Parliamentarians to make the necessary improvements needed to turn the Bill into a world-leading legislative framework as it passes through the House of Commons and Lords.”
However, it remains unclear whether the government will have the votes to pass the legislation. Environmental legislation tends to garner broad cross-party support, but under Prime Minister Boris Johnson the government is 45 MPs short of a majority and speculation is mounting the Queen’s Speech could be voted down as the main parties continue to tussle over the government’s Brexit and election plans.