The Environment Bill takes the emergency out of climate emergency and is full of holes

As the Brexit skirmishes continue, it is easy to lose track of other important pieces of legislation struggling to get parliamentary time. One of those is the Environment Bill. The second reading of the bill on 23 October was abruptly cancelled to make way for the Withdrawal Agreement Bill. That’s ironic as a large part of the Environment Bill is concerned with reinstating the environmental protection the UK will lose if it ceases to a member of the EU. The bill aims for a lot more, including a deposit return scheme for drinks containers, measures to improve air quality, and rules to ensure biodiversity net gain from housing and some other developments. 

It’s a great forward looking bill. At least, that’s what ministers say. In practice the bill is colander bill. It is full of holes. It fails to incorporate the principle of non-regression into law. It sets 2037 as the earliest date for any environmental targets and those targets are at the behest of ministers. It allows environmental policies to be watered down by ministers at a whim, including the target for biodiversity gain. It is a bill that takes the emergency out of the climate emergency. 

The Environment Bill weighs in at 244 pages, with 130 clauses and 20 schedules. It follows the pattern of much recent legislation by setting out a framework and then leaving it to ministers to flesh out what the bill will achieve. Forty seven provisions are delegated to ministers. Some will be subject to parliamentary scrutiny through the positive procedure but any later amendments will use the negative procedure, which rarely gets challenged in parliament. That’s why the bill is a colander bill – full of holes. It’s a step forward in environmental regulation that will allow future ministers to make steps backward the moment they panic about the economy or succumb to the nation’s inertia to consume resources and pump out emissions. 

The Environment Bill conspicuously excludes the principle of non-regression – maintaining current standards after departure from the EU. 

Theresa May had promised a level playing field with the EU on a wide range of standards after Brexit. But media reports suggest that Boris Johnson is under pressure from right wingers in the cabinet to deregulate to favour trade with America and anywhere but the EU. The Sun quotes a “cabinet source” as saying that Johnson wants the level playing field to be abolished as “it would seriously restrict our ability to deregulate and do trade deals with other countries.”

Greenpeace, the environment audit committee and many others have highlighted the bill’s lackadaisical approach to setting environmental targets. Ministers have until 31 October 2022 to put targets in place. This might be excused as allowing time for due process if the bill did not insist that the date for meeting these targets must be no less than 15 years after the target is set. That’s 2037 at the earliest. That’s driving forward action against climate change in the slow lane.  

The bill establishes the Office for Environmental Protection but its board members will be directly appointed by the secretary of state. This vital watchdog needs to be moved further away from government to make it truly independent. It must be established along the lines of the Budget Responsibility Committee, whose board members are nominated by ministers and approved by a select committee. And it should have the power to imposes fines on government for not meeting targets – something ministers are reluctant to allow it to do. 

The bill introduces mandatory biodiversity gain for developments. The government says this will be a 10% gain but the bill says ministers can vary this. The biggest construction schemes in the country, nationally significant infrastructure projects, will be exempt from biodiversity net gain, as will marine developments. 

Everyone is distracted by Brexit and the looming general election right now. But at a time of climate emergency and with ecology under the greatest threat since the evolution of humans, the opportunity provided by the Environment Bill must be seized. It needs a lot of improvement. At the very least, ministers should not be allowed to lower targets once they are in place. It must be high on the priorities of the next government. 

* Andy Boddington is a Lib Dem living in Shropshire, and a former editor for Lib Dem Voice

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7 Comments

  • nigel hunter 29th Oct '19 - 10:17am

    To me deregulate means lower standards. No regulations for controlling conditions and prices in maintaining quality of life. An example would be these ‘secret deals’ that have been going on in the US with civil servants over NHS drugs. If higher prices from US drug companies are permitted it leads to more expence and a costly NHS. That leads to lower standards,poorer health (it needs people to maintain it) Difficulties appear in keeping environmental standards high and the environment ,quality of life suffers.

  • nigel hunter 29th Oct '19 - 11:12am

    The Victorian philanthropist’s new about the power of the environment to improve their workers efficiency Titus Salt for example built Saltaire outside Bradford to enhance his workers health to get happier workers. He knew that the happiness of the worker improved profits and health. Wise leaders of today should not cut and burn.
    It would be interesting to know what ERG members are doing for the environment with the money they have.

  • Richard Underhill 29th Oct '19 - 12:32pm

    Please do not demonise the USA, they have had some great Presidents and may do so again, hopefully soon. Simon Reeve’s programme on BBC tv is currently in California.
    Some will be interested in homeless people living within, not under, a bridge.
    The entire west coast still has large trees which of course absorb CO2 from the atmosphere and pump out oxygen (O2). They grow ten times faster when they are large. They are an answer to climate change, unless cut down for timber.
    They are fire resistant, but after a small fire has cleared a few acres of brushwood, releasing CO2, their seeds are triggered by the smoke and grow.
    An avenue of sequoia sempervirens or sequoiadendron is a magnificent thing. They should be chosen wherever the land is available long term and given tree preservation orders.
    A property developer in the UK has recently been fined £xxx,xxx.00 for destroying one tree. He is is appealing. Others will take note.

  • nigel hunter 29th Oct '19 - 1:03pm

    They are developing electric (twin engined) planes for short haul trips. These could be used say on trips from Glasgow to London and other routes. Small steps but you have to start somewhere.
    Wind generators and solar power,much neglected on Land should be more used. The benefits that were slashed concerning Social housing solar power regeneration should be reinstalled both for environmental and for cost of power to the tenants.

  • Jenny barnes 29th Oct '19 - 5:43pm

    Electric planes? Go by train. The only need for aviation will be for medium to long haul (4hrs+) . And we won’t be able to afford very much of that.

  • Nonconformistradical 29th Oct '19 - 7:19pm

    @Jenny Barnes
    “The only need for aviation will be for medium to long haul (4hrs+) ”

    Not quite. How about the shortest – but very essential – commercial flight in the world – around 2 minutes in the Orkneys – Westray to Papa Westray…? No problems over battery range on that one!

    https://www.reddit.com/r/ukpolitics/comments/clgkhl/the_worlds_shortest_flight_may_soon_be_its/

    https://www.pressandjournal.co.uk/fp/business/north-of-scotland/1763213/plan-for-island-hopping-flights-really-taking-off/

  • There is, perhaps it is correct to say was, a need for an integrated approach to all of the problems which face us as a species. The changes are taking place more rapidly each year.
    We must recognise that this is a problem for everyone. We must move towards involving all in the steps we need to take. We need to make progress from the nineteenth century ideas of democracy we have now.
    Perhaps we could start with the fact that there is not enough resources on our planet to support humans, let alone the other species.
    The time for action was perhaps a hundred years ago. However I suppose that as we are part of the natural world things will take their course.

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