How to improve the Environment Bill

Meadow with small copper by Jon Hawkins - Surrey Hills Photography

The Environment Bill could mean better protection for wildlife, but there are still areas that need to be strengthened

The government was elected on a pledge to be the first to leave the environment in a better state for the next generation than the one that it inherited. The Environment Bill is an exciting, once in a generation opportunity to do just that and Parliament debated it on Monday 28 October.

With the inclusion of legally binding environmental targets, a truly independent watchdog and nature recovery networks, the Environment Bill could be a long-awaited and vitally important turning point for our wildlife and lead to the restoration of our natural world. 

Unfortunately, the Environment Bill only partly includes these things at this stage. We need to make the most of the opportunity to improve and strengthen some areas as the bill progresses through parliament, so it can have the power to truly bring about nature’s recovery.

Here's how the Environment Bill needs to be improved.

Environmental Targets

The Wildlife Trusts have been campaigning for environmental targets to be enshrined in primary legislation in order to drive forward policy change and provide the impetus needed to generate long-term solutions to tackling the climate and biodiversity crisis. 

Long-term targets would mean that targets would be set beyond the usual five-yearly parliamentary cycles and require politicians to consider the impact of our present day actions on the state of our wildlife in a generation’s time.

The bill includes powers for the Secretary of State to set long-term environmental targets, but it gives far too much discretion to the Secretary of State both in terms of the targets set and how easily they can be amended, and their repeal. Also, the bill allows the Secretary of State to only set four targets, which would be completely inadequate to restore our natural environment. 

How to improve the bill: The bill needs to be amended so that a broad range of targets are set, using expert advice, that cannot be simply repealed by the Secretary of State if it looks like they are going to fail to meet them.

Butterfly

Independent Environmental Watchdog

As the UK leaves the EU, we will lose the environmental oversight and enforcement provided by the European Commission and the Court of Justice of the European Union.

The Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) included in the bill is supposed to plug this gap. In order to be an effective environmental watchdog, the OEP must be independent, adequately resourced and have strong enforcement powers. Unfortunately, the bill does not guarantee any of these:

  • The watchdog cannot be said to be independent because the Secretary of State appoints its members.
  • It is not guaranteed to be adequately resourced because the Secretary of State controls its funding.
  • It does not have strong enough enforcement powers because it cannot issue fines and the process for it to complete its enforcement action is long winded and open to huge delay. 

How to improve the bill: The bill must be amended to remedy these shortcomings.

Nature Recovery Networks                          

The Wildlife Trusts have long been campaigning for Nature Recovery Networks and we are pleased to see a requirement on local authorities to establish nature recovery strategies that include the creation of local habitat maps. Such strategies will be key to creating Nature Recovery Networks. 

How to improve the bill: Whilst the inclusion is promising, there must be an obligation to actually implement nature recovery networks. They can’t be just another document that sits on the shelf untouched.

Funding must also be made available to help local authorities create the networks and restore nature.

Heron in park with person reading in background

Heron in park by Terry Whittaker/2020VISION

Net Gain

The debate in Parliament on Monday raised many important points. One key issue was addressed by Caroline Lucas MP when she pointed out that the biodiversity net gain required to be achieved by most new developments under the bill would not be achieved in perpetuity as the habitat created could be ploughed up after 30 years, completely undermining the system. 

How to improve the bill: Biodiversity net gains required under the bill should be required for all new developments and should be protected in perpetuity.

Summary

The Environment Bill has the potential to be a bright new dawn in our environmental protections, but as the actual details and targets will be set out in regulations and policy statements, rather than in the bill itself, it also has the potential to be a false dawn. 

Amendments are needed to ensure the Government is legally required to implement the ambitions of the bill and deliver policies, targets and a watchdog that will really bring about nature’s recovery.

Next steps

The Environment Bill now moves on to the committee stage, followed by the report stage and then the third reading in the House of Commons. This means there is still opportunity to improve the contents of the bill as it passes through parliament. 

What you can do - Become a Wildlife Ambassador

Once the bill reaches the report stage we may still need to call on MPs to demand the bill is strengthened if the points above have not been improved.

Our Wildlife Ambassadors are a group of campaigners who speak up for our precious wildlife. If you sign up to become a Wildlife Ambassador, we will contact you with information about when and how to contact your MP, and give you advice about what to ask them as the Environment Bill progresses.

Become a Wildlife Ambassador