Will the Environment (Principles and Governance) Bill deliver a Green Brexit?
Woodland Trust CEO Beccy Speight writes about the newly introduced Environment Bill which was published this week: "We are encouraged by what we have seen of the Government’s proposals so far which could make a positive impact to ensure the environment is healthy, resilient and sustainable for the future".
The UK Government promised to deliver a Green Brexit in introducing its Environment (Principles and Governance) Bill. With commitments to addressing the governance gap, ensuring carry over of the full EU environmental acquis from 29 March and to strengthen environmental protection measures, it could make a positive impact to ensure our environment - the bedrock of our quality of life - is more healthy, resilient and sustainable for the future.
This is a big deal. The vast majority of environmental law and policy in the UK derives from the EU. The overall aim is to achieve a ‘high level of environmental protection’ and EU law ensures these environmental requirements are embedded in primary legislation. European law and policy have a central role in regulating and managing both the marine and terrestrial environment including the regulation of chemicals, pesticides, air and water quality, the protection of our natural environment, and environmental impact assessments.
Specialist environmental agencies such as the European Chemicals Agency and the European Environment Agency (EEA) provide many functions such as providing independent environmental data, monitoring and evaluation, interpretation of law and guidance on implementation. The European Court of Justice (CJEU) interprets law, enforces law through infringement proceedings and settles legal disputes between national governments and EU institutions. Crucially, the architecture of European environmental governance allows for citizens, companies or organisations to take legal action against an EU institution on legal breaches.
In short, there is a vast gap to fill. The extensive governance and legal framework that ensures accountability and access to justice will need to be replaced and domestic environmental standards and policies established.
The draft Bill provides a skeleton framework for environmental governance, including environmental principles, and the establishment of a new Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) with responsibility for monitoring and reporting on progress in improving the natural environment, and overseeing compliance with environmental law. The Bill also places the 25 year environment plan, committing the Government to increasing woodland cover in England, on a statutory footing. This may finally generate the required action to improve tree planting rates, which remain at worryingly low levels.
Whilst no reference has been made to the Tree Strategy mentioned by Michael Gove since November, as the UK’s leading woodland conservation charity one thing we are especially keen to see develop from the Bill as it progresses is a full Tree and Woodland Strategy for England. Forestry policy needs to be updated and clear targets set out around protection, restoration and new planting. This should also contain a requirement for annual reports to Parliament, or even the OEP, on progress, in line with current practice in Scotland and Wales.
From our initial analysis of the Bill, it’s clear that more robust measures will be required if the Government is to realise the Prime Minister’s commitment not to weaken environmental protections when we leave the EU. We are not alone in expressing concerns about the independence of the new OEP and its ability to hold the Government to account, especially if litigation powers are to be limited to judicial review. Provisions on environmental principles are limited to a weak “duty of regard” on Ministers. And we note the series of get-out clauses within the Bill: for example exempting taxation, spending or the allocation of resources within Government from the policy statement on environmental principles. As a member of the Greener UK coalition, a grouping of 13 environmental NGOs, we will be sure to play our part in scrutinising and calling for improvements where necessary.
We are encouraged by what we have seen of the Government’s proposals so far which could make a positive impact to ensure the environment is healthy, resilient and sustainable for the future. But some important tests remain - how much of this will be carried through into law and actually implemented, and whether this new body will enjoy real independence from Government. Most importantly the proposed new watchdog – The Office for Environmental Protection - needs to be well resourced for the long-term. We also want assurances that there will be equal levels of protection for the environment right across the whole of the United Kingdom.
The Government’s willingness to consider legislating on mandatory biodiversity net gain (subject to consultation), proposals for conservation covenants and including measures to end “illegal deforestation” alongside delivering on its manifesto commitment to consult on street tree removals all offer seeds of potential. We are very keen to engage with Government to see these realised and implemented correctly.