Policy and Influencing Manager Theo Plowman reviews the most important environmental updates in the world of policy and politics
With the arrival of a new government, there has been a flurry of policy activity, with several important bills reintroduced and new policy papers launched. Here, we review the most important updates from the past few weeks.
The Environment Bill
The Environment Bill was re-introduced to Parliament on 30 January 2020, with Defra releasing a policy paper alongside it.
The Bill outlines measures intended to protect and enhance the UK’s environments in a world without EU oversight. Initially brought before the House of Commons in October, the Bill suffered delays due to Brexit and the December General Election.
The UK’s departure from the EU leaves an environmental ‘governance gap’. The Bill aims to ensure maintain key EU standards, including measures to tackle air pollution, meet net zero by 2050, and restore and enhance nature.
When first presented last year, the Bill included several provisions of interest to our sector:
New green watchdog
The Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) will hold the government to account on environmental law and its Environmental Improvement Plan.
The proposed body will enforce its powers through a new kind of legal instrument, an ‘environmental review’, that can force public authorities to take action if a court finds they have failed to meet environmental standards. The body will also examine the worth of new environmental policies and investigate potential breaches.
Environmental issues enshrined in law
As part of a new environmental governance system, the Bill outlines requirements for legally binding targets on air and water quality, biodiversity, and waste efficiency. These new targets replace those under the existing EU framework, which the UK has frequently failed to match – even finding itself in court in May 2018 for failing to deliver on air quality improvements.
The OEP will need to have strong legal clout to enforce similar measures.
Biodiversity net gain
If enacted, the Bill will enshrine in law the principle of biodiversity net gain. This would require a developer to offset and improve the value of any natural habitat damaged or destroyed as a result of development.
Biodiversity net gain applies to almost all development in England, with 10% net gain to be achieved though a structured plan. National infrastructure projects covered by the Planning Act 2008, some small developments not requiring an environmental impact assessment, or those on brownfield land, will be exempt from the net gain policy.
If a developer is unable to provide a 10% biodiversity gain in habitat creation, it must provide an offset on another piece of land or purchase conservation credits from the Secretary of State.
The Bill includes a new pledge to create a two-yearly review of ‘significant developments in international legislation on the environment’ to feed into the Environmental Improvement Plan and target-setting process. The aim is to position the UK as a leader in environmental protection.
No commitment to non-regression
One of the changes in the ‘level playing fields’ section of Boris Johnson’s renegotiated EU Withdrawal Agreement means there is no obligation to uphold EU environmental standards.
The Environment Bill does not incorporate the full principle of no ‘watering down’ or ‘non-regression’. But Defra communications do stipulate that the UK will be free to go above and beyond current rules.
Will regression be halted?
As acknowledged, there is no clear wording that ensures non-regression – simply the aforementioned requirement for a biennial review of international environmental protection legislation.
There is no requirement to align UK law with these ‘developments’. The Bill as it stands implies a level of scrutiny, without going as far as outlining any method of tangible recourse.
This is of course a concern. The Landscape Institute (LI), alongside other members of the Environmental Policy Forum, are continuing to press for the principle of non-regression from EU environmental standards.
Will the new green watchdog have ‘teeth’?
The OEP will replace the EU in holding the government to account. Worryingly, though, the body remains tied closely to the government. The secretary of state both sets the OEP’s budget and appoints its leadership; will it be able to bite the proverbial hand that feeds it?
Some clauses within the Environment Bill state that the secretary of state ‘must have regard to the need to protect its independence’. Such provisions will hopefully allow the OEP to remain impartial.
Working alongside the Environmental Policy Forum, the LI will be pressing the government to improve certain aspects of the Environment Bill.
Key Asks for a new Environment Bill
- Be founded on a philosophy of non-regression from EU environmental standards, embedding environmental principles and protections that are at least as strong as those we enjoyed as an EU member.
- Outline a clear, robust target-setting process, laying the framework for ambitious and clearly measurable, legally binding air, water, and biodiversity targets.
- Address concerns over the OEP’s independence and its ability to enforce appropriate standards.
- Fully implement a sustainability skills agenda, equipping young people and employers to deliver a greener, cleaner economy.
Natural Capital Committee
The Natural Capital Committee launched its final annual report on 31 January. At launch, there was criticism of the delivery of the goals outlined in the 25-year Environment Plan. The 2020 report states that: ‘The absence of progress since 2011 is more notable than the successes. Broadly the natural environment is deteriorating.’ The report recommends an urgent and comprehensive natural capital baseline census so that progress can be assessed robustly.
The main recommendations from the Natural Capital Committee 2020 Annual Report are:
- The Environment Bill should include a general duty to protect and enhance the natural environment, with legally binding long-term and interim targets for each of the ten 25YEP goals.
- Three principles should be at the heart of environmental legislation: public money for public goods; the polluter pays; and net environmental gain.
- The government should urgently work towards replacing biodiversity net gain with environmental net gain in the Environment Bill.
- A comprehensive, England-wide ‘environmental census’ of the stock of natural capital assets is urgently needed.
The NCC has delivered a lot of strong policy statements throughout its report and the LI will be analysing them in more detail. Broadly, at this stage, there are several ideas and principles the LI will be working on making a reality in the coming year.
New appointments on select committees
There were several appointments to select committees last week that have relevance to the landscape sector.
Long-serving chair of the Housing, Communities and Local Government (HCLG) select committee Clive Betts has been re-elected unopposed.
Neil Parish returns as Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Committee chair. Mr Parish was the incumbent chair, having first been elected unopposed in 2015. The Conservative MP for Tiverton and Honiton has his roots in farming and has been on the committee since 2010.
Philip Dunne, the only new appointment, has been chosen as the new chair of the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC). The EAC examines how government departments’ policies and programmes will affect both the environment and sustainable development. The Conservative MP for Ludlow, who replaces former Labour MP Mary Creagh, was one of two candidates who put themselves forward for the role.
Woodland Trust launches its Emergency Tree Plan
Last week, the Woodland Trust published its Emergency Tree Plan. It sets out how the UK can rapidly increase tree cover to help reach net zero carbon emissions and tackle the decline in wildlife.
Key points include:
- Design and fund an approach to woodland creation that addresses both the climate and nature crises.
- More than double annual rates of woodland creation, starting in 2020.
- Set new targets for the quality as well as quantity of woodland creation.
- Provide new grants for natural regeneration of trees.
- Implement an emergency increase in resources to help national and local government deliver on tree pledges across the UK.
In case you missed it…
Last month, the government also re-introduced the Agriculture Bill. Policy and Influencing Manager Theo Plowman explores the Bill’s potential environmental effects, and asks how it can continue to deliver positive environmental outcomes now that the Common Agricultural Policy no longer applies in the UK.