First introduced in 2019, the Environment Act has finally received Royal Assent. This incredibly significant legislation overhauls and replaces EU environmental frameworks; delivering, according to Environment Secretary George Eustice, ‘the the most ambitious environmental programme of any country on earth’. The LI policy team reviews the key points.

Brecon Beacons, UK. Photo by Mike Erskine on Unsplash

Following a long and arduous passage through parliament, the ground-breaking Environment act has finally passed into law, marking a legislative landmark for the landscape sector.

The Act 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 2019, the Act suffered numerous delays; first due to Brexit and the 2019 General Election, and then to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The UK’s departure from the EU left an environmental ‘governance gap’, which the Environment Act aims plug by maintaining key EU standards; including measures to tackle air pollution, meet net zero by 2050, and restore and enhance nature.

Significant news for landscape practice

The Environment Act includes several provisions of significance to our sector, not least of which is the new biodiversity net gain (BNG) condition. More on this below.

The Act aims to clean up the country’s air, increase biodiversity, restore and create habitats for nature, and tackle deforestation overseas. Having become law during COP26, this Act legally binds the government and public bodies to these environmental obligations at a time when the world’s focus is on climate change and biodiversity loss.

Since 2019, the LI has been working with partners to improve the Act. We supported the Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment (IEMA) publication Assurances for an Environment Act, which outlines how the legislation should create a coherent, long-term framework for the environment. We also contributed to Environmental Policy Forum (EPF) initiatives to strengthen the bill.

Overarching legal ramifications of the Environment Act

The Act will require the environment secretary set long-term, legally binding targets on air quality, biodiversity, water, resource efficiency, and waste reduction from 2022.

These targets will have a minimum duration of 15 years – and controversially, the government chose not to set interim targets to track their progress and ensure their success.

The new Office of Environmental Protection (OEP) replaces the European Commission as the domestic enforcer of enforcement policy. Under the Environment Act, the environment secretary can now issue guidance to the OEP.

Biodiversity Net Gain

A key win from this Act is the commitment to halt species decline by 2030 – an improvement over the previous Bill, which did not include this commitment.

Mandatory BNG requirements will require all Town and Country Planning Act (TCPA) and Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project (NSIP) developments to deliver a 10% increase in biodiversity.

Biodiversity gain will become a condition of planning permission. The law also requires habitats to be secured for at least 30 years. Natural England will also develop a net gain sites register, which will make publicly available information about any site being used to deliver BNG.

BNG applies to almost all development in England. Exempt from the requirement are national infrastructure projects covered by the Planning Act 2008; some small developments not requiring an environmental impact assessment; and developments on brownfield land.

If a developer is unable to provide a 10% biodiversity gain through habitat creation, they must either offset the loss on another piece of land, or purchase conservation credits from the Secretary of State.

Local authorities

The Environment Act will require local authorities to produce a biodiversity report every five years. These reports will need to state what actions authorities have taken to improve biodiversity, and their impact.

Forestry

The Act offers increased protection for trees in the UK and abroad. Tree-felling in the UK is under stricter control, with local highway authorities required to consult with communities before felling street trees. There will be an increase in fines for illegal felling in the UK.

The Act will also curb overseas deforestation in UK supply chains. This is intended to end the illegal felling of trees abroad and conserve the world’s forests.

Local nature recovery strategies

Local nature recovery strategies (LNRS) are a new system of spatial strategies applicable across the whole of England. The environment secretary will appoint authorities to lead each LNRS area. These authorities will have the task of creating opportunities to improve local habitats and aid in their recovery. (Read the LI’s response to LNRS implementation here.)

Concerns over impartiality and integrity

The secretary of state’s new power to issue guidance to the OEP somewhat undermines the UK’s environment watchdogs. The secretary of state both sets the OEP’s budget and appoints its leadership; will the Office be able to bite the proverbial hand that feeds it?

Some clauses within the Act 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, but independent bodies will no doubt be closely scrutinising its efficacy.

The government also avoided setting legally binding interim targets on air quality, biodiversity, water, resource efficiency, and waste reduction. This abrogation of short-term responsibility could jeopardise the integrity of the Act’s ambitions.

All attention must now focus on the Act’s implementation, to ensure that its ambitions translate into robust action. LI members will of course play a huge part in achieving this, particularly with regard to delivering Biodiversity Net Gain.

For more information on the Environment Act, or any of our other ongoing policy projects, please get in touch: policy@landscapeinstitute.org.

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