Does the UK’s new environmental bill promise real change?

The government’s revised Environment Bill 2020 recently saw its second reading in Parliament. It discussed the agenda for environmental reform in a post-Brexit landscape.

The bill focuses on creating new legislation around air quality, biodiversity, water usage, waste reduction and resource efficiency. It will also see the introduction of a new regulatory watchdog, called the Office of Environmental Protection (OEP)

Environment Secretary George Eustice has claimed that this bill will deliver: “The most ambitious environmental programme of any country on earth”. However, concerns are already being raised over the bill’s effectiveness. Critics say it lacks both coherence and promise for real change.

Air pollution takes the lives of 40,000 people each year in the UK and is a policy area which the government has repeatedly failed to deliver on.
Photo by Shane Rounce

A lack of coherence

Back in 2019, the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) expressed its concerns that the bill ‘severely downgrades’ the environmental laws currently enforced by the EU. The committee also highlighted that the document was ‘lacking coherence’ and would leave “many Governmental departments exempt” from their environmental responsibilities.

air pollution
Photo by Julia Solonina

Unfortunately, it doesn’t look as if the revised bill has tackled this issue.

A disturbing element to the bill is that the Ministry of Defence (MOD), as a landowner will be exempt from environmental responsibilities. More widely, as Greener UK outlines in its review of the bill, any public authority “spending…resources within government” will not have a legal obligation to consider environmental principles.

Further to this, Environmental organisation GreenPeace discovered a worrying loophole in the bill that allows an ‘18 year lag’ on delivering any legally binding targets.

This clearly shows that the government will not deliver on its ‘ambitious’ targets until, perhaps it is too late.

Areas where the bill fails to deliver

Air pollution takes the lives of 40,000 people each year in the UK and is a policy area which the government has repeatedly failed to deliver on.

In 2019, Ministers claimed that the new environmental policies will ensure that the number of people in polluted areas above the WHO guidelines will be cut by 50%. However, despite outlining the need for new targets, the new bill does not outline any clear dates or standards through which this will be achieved.

More worryingly, the bill could also potentially undermine and weaken existing laws. ClientEarth lawyer Katie Nield said: “There is no legally binding commitment to meet WHO air pollution standards by 2030 in the Bill.”

The bill (specifically clause 81 of the bill) has also been criticised for potentially undermining the protection of the UK’s water environment. This new clause will allow the Secretary of State to make changes to targets relating to the chemical status of water.

Greener UK, a coalition of 13 major environmental organisations in the UK (including GreenPeace and FOE) have pointed to the dangerous nature of this clause. It has subsequently called for its removal or a drastic amendment.

Where does accountability lie?

Post-Brexit, the UK public can no longer take their concerns over environmental failure to European courts. Instead, a new watchdog, the OEP, is to be introduced. The new office will be located in Bristol and made up of 120 staff.

At first glance, the introduction of a ‘green watchdog’ may seem promising. However, when you peer behind the curtain, its lack of real power and transparency becomes apparent. And, its inability to wield any real legal authority is shocking.

If a ‘serious’ breach of law is found to have been committed by the government, the watchdog can only issue what is called an ‘information’ or ‘decision’ notice. Upon receiving this notice, the governmental body will only have to return a written response. Then, it only needs to discuss if it plans to implement changes to combat the breach of law.

environment image
Photo by Roger Bradshaw
air pollution water and waste image
Photo by Dan Smedley
The government must introduce more robust mechanisms to ensure that air pollution, water and waste targets are met and surpassed.

This process lacks any real rigour and means that the government’s environmental policies won’t be fully scrutinised.

Another concern brought forward by both MPs and environmental organisations, is the watchdog’s inability to enforce financial penalties. The office has, quite rightly, been criticised for its ‘lack of teeth’ and questioned about what will happen in the absence of these penalties.

The threat of financial penalties was essential for the UK to comply with EU air pollution limits for nitrogen dioxide (NO2) after all.

Greener UK in its review of the legislation said: “The Upper Tribunal must be empowered to grant meaningful, dissuasive and effective remedies including, where appropriate, financial penalties.” However we are yet to see an enhanced enforcement procedure within the bill.

Questions around the OEP’s impartiality and independence have also been raised. Not only will the Secretary of State appoint all non-executive board members, but the minister will also be in control of deciding the budget.

This leaves the office open to underfunding and suggests that the government will not be held to a high standard of accountability.

Final thoughts on the bill’s efficacy

Ultimately, the bill does not seem to deliver the ‘gold standard legislation’ it promised. There is no guarantee that the government will deliver the environmental change vital for the health and wellbeing of its citizens.

The government must introduce more robust mechanisms to ensure that air pollution, water and waste targets are met and surpassed.

The government’s current targets lack both the credibility and urgency required to tackle the climate emergency. And, the Environmental Bill is full of loopholes and clauses that undermine environmental protection.

Prior to Brexit, Environmental Audit Committee Chair Mary Creagh MP said: “The draft Bill means that if we leave the EU we will have weaker environmental principles, less monitoring and weaker enforcement, and no threat of fines to force government action.” Unfortunately this is the situation the UK now faces.

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