Following the decision to leave the European Union, Michael Gove, the then-Environment Secretary, observed that “in this unfrozen moment, new possibilities occur.”
This week, one of those possibilities was realised, with the first Environment Act in 30 years completing its passage through Parliament and receiving Her Majesty’s Royal Assent. This is a landmark achievement which should help protect and improve our natural environment for years to come.
What has just been delivered should not be understated. It is a colossally significant piece of legislation that will underpin the present government’s mission to leave our environment in a better state for future generations.
This green giant of a law is packed with measures to restore bugs, bees, birds, and beavers to our countryside, to reduce waste, and to make a start on cleaning up our polluted air and rivers. Ministers will be required to set legally-binding targets in these areas, and the bill includes the first legal deadline set by any nation to halt nature’s decline by 2030.
I am particularly pleased that the Act contains new legal duties on water companies to monitor, report and reduce sewage discharges into our precious rivers – delivering a decisive shift in action and focus on water quality that I and many campaigners have been pressing for since I presented a bill to clean up our rivers to the House of Commons more than a year ago.
All of this will be overseen by a new independent watchdog, the Office for Environmental Protection, which will help to hold public bodies and others with statutory duties, including water companies, to account on their environmental commitments and enforce green laws. Properly funded, and given operational independence from Ministers, this body will be well-placed to ensure that the landmark legislation delivers on its potential.
Our attention must now turn to implementation. The urgency of the environmental challenges we face means that, more than 1,050 days after the draft Bill was published for vital pre-legislative scrutiny, we must now get on with the job of restoring this green and pleasant land.
The Act provides a framework, with much of the detail still to be determined. This includes statutory targets for nature, water, air quality, and waste reduction and resource efficiency. The government plans to consult on these targets in just three months’ time, and the proposals made by Ministers will provide an early indication of their ambition.
The Environmental Audit Committee of the House of Commons, which I chair, has been active in raising concerns about the challenges facing our environment, and was instrumental in identifying the shortcomings of the draft Bill. Once Ministerial proposals are published, I expect the Committee will wish to examine these proposals carefully to ensure they deliver the transformational improvements the public are expecting: toxic air, rivers blooming with algae and worse, disappearing wildlife and mounting plastic waste have never been acceptable but are now to be unlawful.
Future reforms to the planning system must now be aligned with the government’s environmental goals. The Environment Act will require new residential and infrastructure developments to deliver a 10 per cent net improvement in biodiversity, and it establishes provisions for the development of Local Nature Recovery Strategies to map local habitats and identify areas where nature can bounce back.
The goal is a national 500,000 hectare Nature Recovery Network – the largest nature restoration project in English history. But to unlock investment in nature and properly protect our biodiversity hotspots and the wildlife corridors that connect them, the implementation of ‘biodiversity net gain’ must be accelerated and local nature strategies must be given statutory effect in any new planning system, to minimise any potential conflict between the two imperatives of building more houses and ensuring nature’s recovery.
The implementation of measures to tackle waste will also be a key metric of success for the public, who are confronted every day by confusing recycling rules and the scourge of excessive packaging. The Act gives ministers the power to introduce a charge on single use items, incentivising the use of recycled packaging, and makes producers responsible for the cost of recycling and disposing of their packaging.
Recycling collections will be standardised across local authorities so households and businesses know where they stand. Regrettably, the roll out of a deposit return scheme to recycle more drinks containers, which the Act gives ministers the powers to implement, has been delayed to 2024, and we await Ministerial decisions on the type of containers which will be in scope. For every year of delay, England will go on wasting too many of the billions of drinks containers consumed each year.
The Environment Act has received Royal Assent as we approach the climax of the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, hosting delegations from almost every nation on the planet. This Act deserves their attention, as it also contains important provisions for reducing the UK’s environmental footprint overseas. These include a new requirement for businesses to demonstrate that they are not contributing to illegal deforestation in their supply chains – another first mover measure for the UK, which undoubtedly helped Ministers secure the global agreement made in Glasgow last week to end deforestation by the end of this decade.
Decisions on the businesses and the imported commodities which will be covered by this new law will be made in secondary legislation, which will merit close scrutiny in Parliament. The debate over whether to extend this to include all deforestation, not just that deemed illegal, and whether to include the financial sector in its scope, will undoubtedly return to the fore when the effect of the Act is reviewed in two years time.
George Eustice, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and Rebecca Pow and Lord Goldsmith, his Environment Ministers, are to be commended for delivering this historic Act to protect and improve the natural environment upon which our prosperity and health depend. Implementing its provisions effectively will be vital, and those concerned with improving environmental quality must keep the pace up and the pressure on.
We are the beneficiaries of a unique and precious natural inheritance, which we have taken for granted for too long. We are, after all, only temporary custodians, and must change the way we look after the natural world around us. This is one of the principal challenges of our times: and this Act demonstrates that Parliament and government are rising to meet that challenge.