As the Brexit skirmishes continue, it is easy to lose track of other important pieces of legislation struggling to get parliamentary time. One of those is the Environment Bill. The second reading of the bill on 23 October was abruptly cancelled to make way for the Withdrawal Agreement Bill. That’s ironic as a large part of the Environment Bill is concerned with reinstating the environmental protection the UK will lose if it ceases to a member of the EU. The bill aims for a lot more, including a deposit return scheme for drinks containers, measures to improve air quality, and rules to ensure biodiversity net gain from housing and some other developments.
It’s a great forward looking bill. At least, that’s what ministers say. In practice the bill is colander bill. It is full of holes. It fails to incorporate the principle of non-regression into law. It sets 2037 as the earliest date for any environmental targets and those targets are at the behest of ministers. It allows environmental policies to be watered down by ministers at a whim, including the target for biodiversity gain. It is a bill that takes the emergency out of the climate emergency.
The Environment Bill weighs in at 244 pages, with 130 clauses and 20 schedules. It follows the pattern of much recent legislation by setting out a framework and then leaving it to ministers to flesh out what the bill will achieve. Forty seven provisions are delegated to ministers. Some will be subject to parliamentary scrutiny through the positive procedure but any later amendments will use the negative procedure, which rarely gets challenged in parliament. That’s why the bill is a colander bill – full of holes. It’s a step forward in environmental regulation that will allow future ministers to make steps backward the moment they panic about the economy or succumb to the nation’s inertia to consume resources and pump out emissions.
The Environment Bill conspicuously excludes the principle of non-regression – maintaining current standards after departure from the EU.
Theresa May had promised a level playing field with the EU on a wide range of standards after Brexit. But media reports suggest that Boris Johnson is under pressure from right wingers in the cabinet to deregulate to favour trade with America and anywhere but the EU. The Sun quotes a “cabinet source” as saying that Johnson wants the level playing field to be abolished as “it would seriously restrict our ability to deregulate and do trade deals with other countries.”
Greenpeace, the environment audit committee and many others have highlighted the bill’s lackadaisical approach to setting environmental targets. Ministers have until 31 October 2022 to put targets in place. This might be excused as allowing time for due process if the bill did not insist that the date for meeting these targets must be no less than 15 years after the target is set. That’s 2037 at the earliest. That’s driving forward action against climate change in the slow lane.
The bill establishes the Office for Environmental Protection but its board members will be directly appointed by the secretary of state. This vital watchdog needs to be moved further away from government to make it truly independent. It must be established along the lines of the Budget Responsibility Committee, whose board members are nominated by ministers and approved by a select committee. And it should have the power to imposes fines on government for not meeting targets – something ministers are reluctant to allow it to do.
The bill introduces mandatory biodiversity gain for developments. The government says this will be a 10% gain but the bill says ministers can vary this. The biggest construction schemes in the country, nationally significant infrastructure projects, will be exempt from biodiversity net gain, as will marine developments.
Everyone is distracted by Brexit and the looming general election right now. But at a time of climate emergency and with ecology under the greatest threat since the evolution of humans, the opportunity provided by the Environment Bill must be seized. It needs a lot of improvement. At the very least, ministers should not be allowed to lower targets once they are in place. It must be high on the priorities of the next government.
This article first appeared on Liberal Democrat Voice.