User login

Gove reveals draft of Environment Bill to which Policy Connect submitted evidence

Gove reveals draft of Environment Bill to which Policy Connect submitted evidence

21st December 2018

With little fanfare, the draft of the first Environment Bill in 20 years was published by the Government at 5.30pm on Wednesday evening.

Policy Connect was one of the 173,000 people and organisations to submit evidence to the Environmental Principles and Governance Bill on behalf of our members and supporters. The fact that this is one of the highest number of response to a public consultation that the government have ever had shows the importance of the environment to the public.  

Policy Connect welcomes the publishing of the draft Environment Bill, following the publication of the Resources and Waste Strategy this week, and the Government’s desire for their Bill to ‘put environmental ambition and accountability at the very heart of government’. The ‘polluter pays principle’ is rightly given a mention in the environmental principles given its importance to stakeholders as a way of rectifying environmental damage through the way it was damaged, and it is important that this principle along with ‘sustainable development’ and others are put onto the UK statute.

Michael Gove’s desire to “be the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than we found it” is laudable, but needless to say a very difficult target to achieve. The UK’s environment has been in decline for decades: there has been massive decline in insect numbers in the UK since the 1970s (76% by weight), and this has effected other animals such as birds and hedgehogs.

Before joining the Common Market in 1973, the UK was known as ‘the dirty man of Europe’ due to a very poor record on water quality and air pollution. The Environment Secretary has repeatedly stated that Brexit will be an opportunity to actually strengthen and improve environmental legislation, to deliver a ‘Green Brexit.’ We must avoid environmental standards slipping after the we leave the EU, and take international leadership on environmental protection and improvement. This was highlighted in our Principles for a Sustainable Brexit report (2017), which recommended that economic growth can be encouraged post-Brexit through sustainable investments and innovation.

If the new Office for Environmental Protection - the OEP - is to hold the Government to account on environmental targets in the same way that the European Commission did, then it must be truly independent of Government, report directly to Parliament, and have the ability to take enforcement measures against the Government. The OEP must be properly resourced for the important job they have to do. Whilst responding to complaints from the public and acting as a pseudo-ombudsman is important, it has the potential to create quite an administrative burden. The OEP’s budget must also be independent of meddling from the government of the day, to prevent punishing the OEP for being reprimanded.

Policy Connect would be concerned if the senior appointments to the OEP were made by the Government, rather than a senior group of parliamentarians. To avoid any political influence the OEP should lay progress reports before Parliament directly. It is good that the EFRA Select Committee has already launched an inquiry to scrutinise the draft Environment Bill.

Our Westminster Sustainable Business Forum manager, Jim Clark, welcomes that the Bill will include measures for the ‘better management of our surface, ground and waste water’. WSBF’s Bricks & Water report showed that more regional-scale planning of water is needed. Catchment management and natural flood management measures such as moorland restoration can help lock in more water resources and reduce the risk of flooding.  

This is just a taster for now, with more to come from Defra on the details of the Bill due in the New Year. Key questions such as "can the OEP take the Government to court and fine them for missing targets?" remain unanswered. The OEP is intended to replace all the functions of the European Commission in enforcing environmental targets, then the OEP needs the teeth to enforce action. The threats from the EC of fines were very real: one of the main reasons that the Thames Tideway Tunnel is being built is the threat of significant fines from the EC for not meeting water pollution targets in the River Thames under that Water Framework Directive.

Policy Connect’s Sustainability Team is now looking forward to delving into Defra’s published documents on the Bill in greater depth in 2019, and informing the feedback to the Government through consultation with our members and associates.