What is the Environment Bill?
When the UK leaves the EU on 31st December, it also leaves behind all the environmental protections put in place via the EU. The Environment Bill was first introduced to Parliament in October 2019 to cover the gap that will be left with new environmental legislature.
The aim of the Bill is to make sure environmental accountability is embedded in every aspect of UK law, but its passage through the House of Commons was (understandably) delayed by Covid-19 and the subsequent lockdown.
Now that Parliament is up and running again, the Environment Bill seems to be of a lesser priority and other bills have jumped ahead of it. It’s been pushed back three times already.
Why does the Environment Bill matter?
EU legislation will become ineffective in the UK from 1st January 2021, and the Environment Bill was drawn up as a way of embedding the protections it offers into UK legislation, as well as incorporating other key environmental objectives which will be enforceable across all other areas of legislation. These objectives include:
- Creation of the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) to enforce legislation and hold the government to account
- Creation of an Environmental Improvement Plan and annual reports showing progress made
- Long-term government targets relating to the natural environment, such as improvements to air and water quality
- Making producers more responsible for the waste created and resources used in the creation, use and disposal of their products
- A mandatory 10% increase in biodiversity following development work
- A ‘non-regression clause’ stating that no future bills should reduce the levels of environmental provision put in place by previous legislation
This new Environment Bill would move the UK ahead in terms of its environmental responsibilities, making protection of the environment a key part of all future government work.
What will happen if the Environment Bill doesn’t get passed?
As things stand, the Environment Bill won’t be in place in time to ensure a direct transition from the EU legislation. The OEP is still in its earliest stages of formation, so enforcing any regulations is likely to take time too.
However, the new Bill has the support of many groups, and so the fact that a non-regression clause has been mentioned should encourage people to make sure their plans either meet or exceed the EU guidelines they are currently working to.
Since the first introduction of the Bill, the political and world situation has changed vastly, and this could impact the final form it takes. Leaving the EU has necessitated trade talks with other countries who may have lower environmental standards. Adhering to previous or enhanced environmental provisions may therefore make trade with some countries difficult.
Covid-19 has also taken its toll, not only in terms of delaying the Bill, but also in terms of the form it may take. The economy as a whole is suffering as a result of the pandemic, meaning that environmental considerations may come further down the list than they would have previously. Without the legislation in place holding the government to account, short-term, high-impact measures may prove irresistible.
What will the Environmental Bill look like?
The Bill is still undergoing scrutiny and has to pass through many more obstacles before it becomes law – so there is plenty of opportunity for things to change. The above mentioned political and economic factors could mean pledges to protect the environment get watered down.
It’s also worth bearing in mind that planning – which has a close relationship with how the environment and biodiversity is handled – is a domestic matter which has been devolved to the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly. As a result, each country of the UK could have different criteria. While the Environment Bill will provide a baseline, the regulations for planners may vary by area.
The next stages
The Environment Bill has just completed the Committee Stage, and a date is yet to be set for the Committee’s report to be sent to the House of Commons.
Once this is done, the House of Commons can debate the Bill again and propose more amendments. Then, there will be a further three readings in the House of Lords before the Bill goes back to the Commons. The Lords and Commons can object to amendments and put forward more proposals, passing the Bill back and forth until they come to an agreement.
There is no time limit as to how long this process can take, and once completed, there is a further wait for the Bill to get Royal Assent, making it a part of legislature. This means there’s currently an indefinite amount of time when the UK will have a very limited amount of environmental legislation, and there are concerns about what could happen over that period.
It will be the decisions of planners and developers which will determine whether the work already done to protect our habitats is protected or undermined – although it’s hoped that the British tradition of protecting our landscape will win out.