The Environment Bill: What measures does it provide?

October 16, 2019 Kerrie O'Flynn

The Queen’s Speech saw the return of the Environmental Bill, a flagship bill which seeks to build a domestic framework for environmental governance and protections after the UK withdraws from the EU.

A draft version of the Bill was first published in December 2018 and many of the measures, shaped by public consultations, have been brought forward into this Bill. They include:

  • The establishment of an independent environmental watchdog called the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) mandated to scrutinise environmental legislation, investigate complaints and take enforcement action against public authorities for non-compliance;
  • Extending producer responsibility for the cost of disposing of their product from 10% to 100%;
  • The promotion of resource efficiency through a consistent approach to recycling and the introduction of a Deposit Return Scheme;
  • An obligation on developers to incorporate green spaces into their developments that renders biodiversity measurably improved than before – setting the threshold at 10% net gain;
  • Stronger protection for natural habitats throughout the country by establishing Local Nature Recovery Strategies that maps out important natural habitats and opportunities for improving them;
  • Securing resilient water services through directing water companies to coordinate their operations and;
  • Improving air quality through setting legally-binding targets and increasing local governments’ powers to address the sources of air pollution.

While the Bill only applies to England, more than half of the measures can be adopted across the UK, if sanctioned by the devolved administrations.

As the UK withdraws from the EU, Prime Minister Boris Johnson wants to stress the environmental provisions that this Government is introducing, given that public opinion is against weakening environmental protections in the many trade agreements the UK will be negotiating over the coming years. Environment Secretary Theresa Villiers stated that the Bill ensures that environmental priorities feature “more clearly at the heart of government” and as a criterion in the policymaking process across all departments.

The draft Bill underwent scrutiny by the Environment Audit Committee in April 2019, which recommended that the OEP be more independent from Government, with oversight given to Parliament and multi-year budgetary arrangements, similar to the National Audit Office, to create a “watchdog with teeth”. This is particularly desirable since the Government intends for the OEP to replace the EU Commission’s role in enforcing environmental protections in the UK.

While environmentalists have welcomed numerous provisions that the Bill brings forward, green groups have pointed out that the muscle behind the enforcement of these measures has been significantly reduced. The Bill does not empower the OEP to fine the Government for failing to achieve legally-binding environmental targets – an enforcement mechanism currently in place through the UK’s membership in the EU. In the past, the UK Government has been fined for missing air quality targets.

On air quality, some crucial details are yet to come to light. The Government promises ‘ambitious, legally binding’ targets for clean air to remove particulate matter known as PM2.5, given that parts of the UK are in breach of WHO’s recommended levels. However, the Government has not yet revealed what the new clean air standard will be.

Environment Minister Zac Goldsmith has defended the Bill against these charges, contending, to his view, that the Bill “guarantees that [the UK’s standards] will not go down” and will instead, set them on an upward trajectory.