Draft Environment Bill: business as usual isn’t ambitious enough

This week we submitted our evidence to the pre-legislative inquiry on the Environment Bill. Here, Public Policy Officer Matt Williams shares our views.

©National Trust Images/John Miller

On Wednesday morning the former Brexit Secretary, Dominic Raab MP, assured listeners of Radio 4 that they wouldn’t notice a change in environmental standards in the event of a no-deal Brexit. He was talking about future trade deals, but just as important is the system of laws that protect our environment, which need to be replaced.

The Government has promised something similar – that leaving the European Union won’t mean a drop in environmental protections. But, based on the Government’s current proposals, you definitely will notice a difference.

Let’s not mince our words: the Government’s draft Environment Bill would significantly weaken the protections for nature and the wider environment after we leave the EU. The Government’s proposals have been watered down to the point of being in danger of discrediting their promises about ensuring no decline in protections.

We’ve said this in the evidence we’ve submitted this week to the two Parliamentary committees examining the draft Bill. And next week we’ll be providing more detail when our Head of Government Affairs, Georgina Holmes-Skelton, is part of a panel of experts they’ll be speaking to.

The Bill has several key weaknesses:

  • A weak environmental watchdog that risks being too closely controlled by future governments
  • Much weaker environmental principles
  • A lack of targets to guide the restoration and protection of nature
  • It leaves out the historic environment completely

But, we do at least have a draft Bill, and that gives us (and Government and politicians) something to work with. So why, and how, does it need to change?

©National Trust Images/Clive Nichols

Nature, landscapes and wildlife rely on laws and principles

The ‘Office for Environmental Protection’ or the ‘polluter pays principle’ can sound awfully dry and turgid. But these dull-sounding concepts underpin the colourful and valued nature we cherish. Our clean beaches, wildlife we love like bats and orchids, important and protected habitats – these all rely, at least in part, on the system of environmental laws and principles we have as a member of the EU.

The UK Government being taken to court for failing to clean up the air we breathe (and that plants and other wildlife breathe too), or bee-killing pesticides being banned – these are results of the crucial safeguards for nature that we’ve had until now. When we leave the EU, we’ll leave this system of environmental protection and will need to write our own.

So, these laws clearly need replacing. Otherwise nature, wildlife and landscapes will be even more at risk in the future. This is an opportunity to do more than just replace the EU system in the UK – it’s a chance to set out a world-leading environmental framework. But right now that chance is going begging.

©National Trust Images/Richard Bradshaw

A strong, independent watchdog

We asked Government to give us a strong and independent watchdog that could ensure this administration and future governments follow environmental law. What they’ve given us is a body, the Office for Environmental Protection, with a budget and senior staffing effectively controlled by the Secretary of State. We know only too well that this doesn’t work out well for environmental bodies that over time have their power and impact whittled away, to the detriment of nature.

The Office for Environmental Protection needs to be a parliamentary body – with a budget and senior staff approved by Parliament or committees of MPs, not the Government that it’s also meant to police.

Upholding environmental principles

Environmental principles guide the making and implementation of law and policy. And they provide a crucial framework for protecting the environment. For instance, the precautionary principle was used to ban neonicotinoid pesticides before we had the scientific evidence (that we now have) about their harmful effects on bees.

But the draft Environment Bill restricts those principles only to Ministers (rather than all public bodies) and it creates some significant exemptions and exceptions (such as allowing the principles to be ignored if acting in accordance with them would be ‘disproportionate to the environmental benefit’). To put it plainly – the Government’s plans for bringing the principles into UK law would make them significantly weaker.

©National Trust Images/Joe Cornish.

Targets that chart a course

The Bill isn’t yet complete and we’re expecting a second part to it later this year. We think this needs to include legally binding targets for improving the environment. These targets can set a clear destination for improving our air, water, soils, wildlife and habitats. Coupled with a clear system of monitoring and reporting, and interim milestones, these targets can provide a precise and targeted steer for future policy, energy and funding.

The historic environment needs to be included

The Government’s 25 Year Environment Plan includes the historic environment, cultural heritage, landscapes and people’s access and enjoyment of nature. This breadth was really welcome from our point of view.

But the draft Bill either plays down or leaves out these elements. We’re particularly concerned that the historic environment is specifically excluded – buildings and other structures are specifically ruled out. These historic features are not only an important part of the cultural heritage of rural places, but very often, are home to some of our most important wildlife – like bats that live in older buildings. The historic environment faces the same threats and is often found in the same places as key parts of the natural environment. Separating them is artificial and unhelpful, and while heritage does have existing protection in domestic law, leaving the historic environment out of this Bill means that future environmental plans wouldn’t necessarily have to include it, which also means there wouldn’t be the same imperative to monitor or report on it. We think this is a key weakness in the draft Bill.

Hambledon Hill, Dorset. The hill is a prehistoric hill fort and National Nature Reserve. ©National Trust Images/Ross Hoddinott

So, while a draft Bill is a good starting point, there’s a long way to go before it delivers what we need for the future of nature in this country. That’s to say nothing of the fact that the Bill (and all its provisions) only cover England – the Government has a lot of work to do both to improve the Bill and to work with the other UK countries to share these arrangements or to come up with multiple systems that work as seamlessly and uniformly across national borders as the flow of rivers and the migration of birds.

Matt Williams, Public Policy Officer, National Trust.

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