The Government’s “landmark” Environment Bill introduced to Parliament in October stuttered to a halt faced off by the General Election. Reintroduced in February it has now found new energy accelerating through a first reading and onward through a second reading.
The Bill sets out four priority areas, some of them critical for human health: air quality, waste reduction and resource efficiency, water and biodiversity. The Secretary of State is required to set at least one long-term target (15 years minimum) for each of the priority areas.
Existing environmental targets are largely derived from European Union law and the Bill sets out a new domestic framework for environmental policy. The Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) will be charged with the role formerly adopted by the European Commission; quite what teeth the OEP will have is not clear.
The requirement for the Government to produce 15-year Environmental Improvement Plans (EIP) remains with the 25 Year Environment Plan to be the first plan. The government must report annually on the progress of an EIP, reviewing and revising five-yearly with the first one due by 31st January 2023.
The Environment Bill 2019-2020 will inevitably bring with it changes to food production across the UK. Environment secretary, George Eustice, has confirmed that the system for environmental land management proposed in the Agriculture Bill will be tied into plans for local nature recovery strategies set out in the Environment Bill. So what might it mean for farmers and the countryside? At the moment it is difficult to be precise because so much is based on future targets and policies that will be implemented following consultation. Interestingly the priority areas in the Environment Bill don’t seem to coincide with the Agriculture Bill on soil protection.
On its second outing, the Bill has three new additions. Parliamentary legislation ongoing will have to carry a statement on whether it could affect existing levels of environmental protection. The Bill introduces a new power to end the export of ‘polluting plastic waste’ to non-OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries; this will presumably be achieved by using less plastic and processing more waste plastic at home. The third addition is that the government will be required to consider significant developments in international environmental legislation biennially.
The government has consulted on how to best introduce Environmental Covenants. These are defined as a private voluntary agreement between a landowner and a “responsible” body, such as a conservation charity, government body or local authority. It must deliver lasting conservation benefit for public good and might cover for example a woodland or species rich hay meadow. The Covenants have permanence so will be legally binding on the landowner and on subsequent owners of the land. This supposedly to give the first covenanted landowner, the reassurance that good stewardship initially implemented will be continued.
Meanwhile Labour’s shadow DEFRA team has tabled amendments that would turn the moratorium on fracking into a full ban. Secondly for a commitment to safeguard current green standards after the Brexit transition period – non regression as it has become known.