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Green Ker-Pow: The Rebecca Pow interview

7 min read

Forget Brexit: The Environment Bill is the biggest piece of legislation to go through Parliament in decades. Kate Proctor meets Rebecca Pow, the lively environmentalist steering the ship.

Rebecca Pow nearly jumps out of her chair with joy when she tells me she's got an electric car. She’s ready for the gotcha moment like a coiled spring, and when asked if she drives one, she replies with a triumphant: “Yes”. Then almost sings the rest of the answer: “I have an electric car… on a long term rental!”

The environment minister says she’s supporting a new business that loans out the cars and will eventually buy one outright. It’s not surprising Pow, an ex-journalist, scoped out the potential traps of talking about green issues and not practising what one preaches. Labour’s shadow business secretary Ed Miliband recently fell foul of this when he called for an electric car revolution while not actually owning one.

No one could accuse Pow of seizing on a green agenda because it’s “fashionable” – she’s lived and breathed this since she was a teenager. Raised on a farm, she went on to attend Wye College to study rural affairs before becoming an environmental journalist working for BBC Radio 4 and then in green communications. She is now in charge of steering the largest piece of legislation through Parliament in decades, the Environment Bill, which was much delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic taking over the legislative timetable. Miming with her hands the size of the thing, she signals it’s a weighty tome that requires some effort to lug it into the Chamber. She hands me two pages of A4 containing the 40 things the bill delivers – from a deposit return scheme to making producers pay for the disposal of their products. The bill is next due to start its journey through the House of Lords.

Fundamentally it is about setting a series of legally binding targets the government must adhere to for air pollution, biodiversity, water quality and resource efficiency. A new watchdog, the Office for Environmental Protection, is being set up to ensure the government hits these targets. All of this accompanies a 25 Year Environment Plan and is part of the post-Brexit transition from EU policy that governed environmental protection to domestic law making. The specific legal targets need to be developed by October 2022, and Pow says they are on course to do that.

And the bill has just got even heavier with the absorption of Conservative MP Philip Dunne’s Private Members’ Bill to stop raw sewage being discharged into rivers. This is definitely one to pique the interest of surfers and wild-swimmers and comes hot on the heels of a horrifying BBC Panorama programme, The River Pollution Scandal, which showed raw sewage being deposited into our waterways. The bill now includes a duty on government to publish a plan by September 2022 to reduce sewage discharges from storm overflows, as well as various duties on water companies.

“It was a shocking programme, and we’ve got to do something about it. But the great news is we are doing something about it. We set up a storm overflows taskforce with a view to tackling this, and we’ve set ourselves this long-term goal of eliminating these storm overflows,” Pow says.

The month of May will be peppered with announcements from the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs which had to be pushed back because of the death of Prince Philip. They include the roll-out of the 10p plastic bag charge, civil enforcement powers to councils to stop people burning polluting wet wood, and a new Plant for the Planet project which will encourage everyone across the country to plant something in the lead up to the COP26 UN Climate Change Conference being held in Glasgow this November.

For our interview she is fittingly dressed in an eye-catching and job-appropriate leaf-print suit by the brand Smashed Lemon, which she bought from a shop in her constituency, Taunton Deane in Somerset. Pow says she wears this striking blue, green and yellow outfit to every Commons appearance relating to the bill. It’s certainly one way of making technical legislation stick in the mind.

Her current ministerial brief is her absolute dream job – and she says the bill is vital.

“It will move us on to the sustainable trajectory we need for the future of the planet,” she adds.

The improvement plan and the fresh layers of scrutiny, specifically through the Office for Environmental Protection, will “get the environment back into a better state for future generations,” she says.

The office will be based in Worcester – part of the government’s “levelling up agenda” to move civil service jobs out of Whitehall.

Did the controversial Cumbrian deep coal mine plan, which is now going to a public inquiry, demonstrate some government departments haven’t quite got the green message?

Communities secretary Robert Jenrick initially decided not to challenge the planning application.

Asked if the department had taken its eye off the ball, Pow says the issue demonstrates how complicated the environmental space is, but won’t comment further on decisions made by her colleagues.

“I’m not going to be drawn on the whys and wherefores of that example,” she says.

Air quality and how to deal with the UK’s levels of harmful PM2.5 – particulate matter – is a significant portion of the bill. The government plans on setting two targets: one is long term on PM2.5 – and an exposure target.

The family of nine-year-old south London school-girl Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, who died from an asthma attack in 2013, has been campaigning for better air quality for years, and in December air pollution was officially recognised as having made a “material contribution” to Ella’s death.

The family has highlighted that UK rates for particulate matter are two and a half times higher than World Health Organization recommendations of 10 ug/m3. (The rate is, however, well within current UK legal limits.)

Pow says: “People are pushing us to try and make it lower. We want it to be as ambitious as possible but we want it to achieve better health. There isn’t just one number that is the correct number.  We want to get it as low as we can, but we haven’t set the actual figure yet. We’re getting a lot of pressure from people to set this at 10 [ug/m3], but 10 might not be the right number. We’re working on it.

“We are the first country to say we’re going to do this exposure target. Often the poor air quality is worse where you’ve got lots of cars, where people congregate – outside of hospitals and schools. An exposure target for those specific areas will be really helpful.”

At COP26, Pow will lead on biodiversity, taking to the global stage to showcase the UK’s nature recovery network plan, which will map the country to show what improvements could be made, plus the “biodiversity net gains” scheme.

“Every new development in future will have to put back 10 per cent more nature than was there when they started,” she says.

On the fact that much is made of the Prime Minister’s green agenda being inspired in some part by his fiancée Carrie Symonds, who has worked for environmental organisations, Pow says: “I know her but not well.”

However, she does add: “I am heartened that Boris himself seems to be really keen on green issues. In fact I went to see him just the other day to make sure this was the top of his agenda.”

Pow reveals the Prime Minister assured her of his commitment. After months of delays it seems the government’s landmark agenda is now creeping closer to the finish line.

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