By Dr Samantha Mudie, Head of Technical Development
It has been both my privilege and my frustration to provide written evidence for the second reading of the UK Environment Bill over the last few weeks. The Environment Bill 2019-2021 is a vital piece of legislation and is, in effect, our answer to the environmental requirements in the Brexit withdrawal bill.
The government has hailed it as a “landmark bill” and the prime minister regards it as the “huge star of our legislative programme” – this is a strong statement of political intent. There are many welcome measures in the bill. There are some where technical improvements will help to set it on the right track, and others where significant amendments will be necessary.
This lengthy bill (350-page total!) encompasses an overwhelming expanse of issues including (but by no means limited to) the following:
- Environmental principles
- 25-year environment plan
- Air pollution/quality (outdoor only)
- A framework to set legally binding targets
- The creation of the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP)
- Waste and resource efficiency measures to include proposed charges on single use plastics, deposit-based recycling/bottle return schemes and producer responsibility clauses
- Water quality and marine environmental matters
- Biodiversity gain, local nature recovery strategies and nature clauses
- Tree felling and planting
- REACH (the protection for the public and the environment from hazardous chemicals)
As someone whose career and personal life has been deeply moved by almost all these issues, it was difficult to know where to start. Tearing apart and commenting on every aspect would have taken months, so sadly I have chosen just 6 areas to add my expertise to. Trying to leave my opinions on Brexit aside, I summarise my 4 areas of thought regarding the bill here.
For the OEP to be the world-leading watchdog the government has pledged to create, its independence and powers must be strengthened, including through greater parliamentary oversight of OEP board appointments and the budget. In the courts, The Upper Tribunal must be empowered to grant meaningful, dissuasive and effective remedies including, where appropriate, significant financial penalties. The issues of flooding and town & country planning (among others) are specifically excluded from the reach of the OEP. It is difficult to see how this can be justified on environmental grounds.
Non-regression (compared with existing EU frameworks):
If the government is serious about its repeated verbal commitments to maintaining, and indeed enhancing, environmental standards, it must include a straightforward and substantive commitment to non-regression of environmental law in this flagship bill. At present, the bill is a weaker set of rules and regulations compared to those we have worked towards under the EU legislation, specifically in the areas of scope, targets, air quality, eliminating plastic pollution, species abundance and diversity, species habitat extent and condition, and a measure of human-caused extinctions (but who’s counting!). Regressive changes will probably be tucked away in the small print of trade agreements, secondary legislation or detailed policies. The scope of this provision should, therefore, be extended to cover international treaties, secondary legislation, policy and guidance.
Except for reserved matters, the Bill currently applies to England and, for some aspects, to Wales. I strongly believe that environmental governance should be developed at the UK level. Since environmental issues do not follow borders, effective environmental guardianship requires collaboration across those borders, and this in turn offers opportunities for economies of scale, efficiency of compliance, data sharing, better use of resources etc. Different regimes in the devolved administrations also place an unreasonable burden on businesses.
Indoor Air Quality:
Most of us spend 90% of our lives indoors. While outdoor air quality/pollution is a serious issue in the UK, I feel that the bill misses a good opportunity to address the pressing issue of indoor air quality. Failure to redress this will outweigh any progress on outdoor air quality. Air pollution has a devastating impact on the UK population, shortening lives, causing early deaths and ill health. It is a bigger global killer than smoking and costs the UK economy over £20 billion a year. Indoor air quality targets should be included for specific pollutants (PM2.5 and below; CO2 levels; ozone; VOCs and NOx etc). This is of course much more of a priority in our post-Covid world.
It’s a start I suppose, but the bill does not achieve what has been promised: gold standard legislation, showing global leadership for responding to the environmental crisis, and a world-leading watchdog. The Committee is now scheduled to report by Tuesday 1 December 2020 (having been recently pushed back from 29 September) and I eagerly watch this space!