Today, I’m attending Countryfile Live on behalf of the National Trust for the first time. But before leaving the office yesterday there was one important job I had to do: submitting our response to the Government’s consultation on an Environment Bill.
If you listened to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Thursday morning then you might have heard our Director-General, Hilary McGrady, talking about this. And in her speech at Countryfile Live she repeated our call for the Government to put in place strong new legal arrangements to protect the environment and make sure the law is upheld.
The Government has committed, in part through its 25 Year Environment Plan, to be the first generation to pass on the environment in a better state than it inherited it. But when we leave the EU, even if we bring across much of the current environmental law (termed the environmental ‘acquis’) many of the roles played by European institutions will be missing.
But a new Environment Bill is a chance to go even further than just replacing the EU bodies’ functions. These functions keep the Government in check and on track, holding it to account when it is putting the environment (or public health and wellbeing) at risk by failing to uphold the law. Outside the EU, there will be no system for doing this.
To date Environment Secretary Michael Gove and Prime Minister Theresa May seem serious about protecting and restoring our countryside, wildlife and landscapes. Their plans for a new agricultural system based on using public money to pay for public goods, primarily environmental outcomes, are music to our ears. If they’re to turn their promises into reality then a huge part of the jigsaw will be bringing forwards a historic and ambitious Environment Bill.
From the National Trust’s point of view, there are three key things (at least) that the new Environment Bill needs to do.
First, a new watchdog is needed to make sure that the Government, and other public bodies, abide by the environmental law. And this body needs to have robust enforcement measures at its disposal, such as fines. While these might not always be the measure of choice or first resort, the new body does need them at its disposal, in the same way that the European Commission and Court of Justice currently do. In addition, the new watchdog can provide a way, for free, for citizens and civil society organisations to take legal action against the Government if they believe there has been a breach of the law.
Current EU law-making and policy-making is guided by a set of important environmental principles. When applied, these can have a powerful effect. You may have heard of the sustainable development principle. Meanwhile, the precautionary principle, for instance, protects the environment from harm even when there is a lack of scientific certainty. It was on this basis that neonicotinoid pesticides (which can harm bees) were previously banned when the scientific evidence was less clear than it is today. We think that these principles need to be brought across into our law using the Bill.
And finally, the Bill is a unique opportunity to set some ambitious and legally binding targets related to improving the environment. The Climate Change Act 2008 is an outstanding example of how legal targets can drive positive environmental action. So we think that the Bill should include a broad duty on Government to abide by the environmental principles and to improve the environment, as well as a duty to promote a set of environmental characteristics, such as water quality, soils, landscapes or biodiversity. These legal duties can be linked to the existing 25 Year Environment Plan, and any new environmental watchdog can advise Government on how to meet them and report on how Government is doing (although both of these roles should be secondary to its legal enforcement role).
You can read our full response to the Government’s consultation on what a future Environment Bill should include here.
Blog by Matt Williams, Public Policy Officer, National Trust