Draft Environment Bill contains ‘significant unanswered questions’
“The draft Environment (Principles and Governance) Bill sets out how we will maintain environmental standards as we leave the EU and build on the vision of the 25 Year Environment Plan.”
These underwhelming words from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs announcing last month’s (December 2018) publication of draft clauses for the first Environment Bill in some 20 years belie the importance of the eventual document.This future for our natural environment once this country has departed the EU has exercised the thoughts of many – for example, CPRE Kent’s Graham Warren – but we are perhaps now some way closer to understanding quite what might lie in store.
Introducing the draft clauses, Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, writes: “We have ambitions to be the home of the boldest possible environmental policies, and to set an example of excellent and effective leadership at home and abroad.
“As we leave the EU, this new environmental law marks an unprecedented step forward – helping to safeguard our commitment to environmental protection for generations to come.”
What does CPRE make of it? While not dismissing the draft Bill out of hand, it is fair to say it is not quite so convinced as it gives what it calls “a cautious welcome” to the announcement.
“While the ambition is there, detail and clear targets are evidently lacking,” says a statement on the CPRE national website.
It continues: “The core elements published in the draft clauses include:
- Environmental principles to help protect the environment
- The establishment of a governance body – the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) – to uphold environmental legislation
- A commitment to making it a legal requirement for the government to have a plan for improving the environment.”
Tom Fyans, CPRE director of campaigns and policy, said: “Environmental principles are crucial to the way law is created, from planning and land-use policy to air quality and biodiversity targets, yet the draft Bill offers only the weak requirement that ministers ‘have regard to’ or ‘consider’ them.
“While the proposed Office of Environmental Protection (OEP) has some useful legal powers, there are significant unanswered questions regarding its relationship with the planning system, when decisions are in breach of environmental law, and how it will engage with climate change – the greatest threat to the countryside.
“We are also seriously concerned that the OEP will lack the true independence required to hold the government to account.
“We are pleased that the 25 Year Environment Plan will be placed on a statutory footing, with requirements to report to Parliament on the government’s progress to improve the environment.
“But even here there is much more work required on the future environmental priorities – for example, examining how targets are set for improvements in air and water quality, soil health and waste and resource use.”
This, of course, should not be the end of the matter and CPRE says it “looks forward to having many opportunities in the coming year to engage with Defra officials and through Parliamentary processes to ensure the Bill is improved and is able to deliver the admirable ambitions of the government.”