A draft environment bill: National Trust initial reaction

The Government has published its draft environment bill, the first in over 20 years. In this blog Public Policy Officer Matt Williams takes an initial look at what’s good, and what’s not so good…

The wait is finally over. Since July, we’ve been looking forward to the Government’s promised Environment Bill. We were told that it would be world-leading and would ensure that when we leave the EU there will be no weakening of protections for the environment. These ambitions are repeated in Michael Gove’s foreword to the draft Bill published yesterday evening.

We welcome the fact that Government is bringing forwards this legislation. It puts in place the groundwork for making sure our environment is protected as we leave the EU. Alongside the Agriculture and Fisheries Bills, and the 25 Year Environment Plan, it’s part of an ambitious package of laws and policies to tackle the decline in our environment and uphold protections.

But the Bill as drafted doesn’t go far enough, and it’s possible to see the signs that Defra’s ambitions have been watered down by other parts of the Government. There’s time to fix this before it comes before Parliament next year.

There is much to build on here: the Bill does set out the key elements we need, but they’ll need strengthening and shoring up. So, here are the key things the Prime Minister and her Government need to address:

Giving the environmental watchdog true independence and teeth

Since we first heard about the prospect of this Bill, we have been saying that any new environmental watchdog needs to be independent and powerful enough to hold the Government and public authorities to account. There are two problems with the Office for Environmental Protection proposed by the Bill: first, its senior staffing and funding will be controlled by Government – any body that’s going to hold Government to account if it breaks the law needs to be independent of it; second, it has been given the power to sue the Government using Judicial Review, but not to impose fines (a power that the European Commission does currently have). These two key elements represent a weakening compared to the powers that exist at the moment under EU arrangements.

Strong and cross-cutting principles 

The Bill brings across the key environmental principles from EU law to UK law. These principles, such as sustainable development, play a key role in shaping laws and policies. But, under the draft Bill, decisions on Government spending and taxation would be exempted from the principles. Furthermore, the principles would apply because Ministers must ‘have regard to’ them; those fluent in legal language among you will know that this isn’t the strongest form of words that could have been chosen.

The guiding light of targets

The Bill gives the Government’s ambitious 25 Year Environment Plan a legal status as the first ‘environmental improvement plan’. But, this does not go far enough in setting a guiding light for improving our environment. What’s missing are legally-binding, time-bound objectives and targets for improving the state of the environment over years and decades to come. We hope that any future additional parts of the Bill will address this gap.

Nature and heritage hand in hand

Our historic environment is just as precious and vulnerable as our natural environment, faces very similar threats. In many places and landscapes (including but also beyond National Trust ones) the historic and natural environment are inseparable. One of the strengths of the 25 Year Environment Plan is that it includes the historic environment. But the Bill’s definition of the environment means that historic and cultural features are excluded from the rest of the scope of the Bill (for example from the role of the Office for Environmental Protection).

We’re disappointed that the historic environment is not better protected by the draft Bill and we’ll be looking more closely in the coming days and weeks at how this could be rectified.

If you want to help tackle any of these weaknesses, then you could write directly to your MP – at some point in the coming months the Bill will come before Parliament and Members will have the chance to point out its flaws and even propose ways of strengthening it.

Blog by Matt Williams, Public Policy Officer, National Trust

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