Five tests for 'landmark' legislation

Thursday 30 January 2020

Martin Harper, the RSPB’s director for conservation said: “The importance of this landmark legislation cannot be overstated - it should underpin our efforts to restore nature in a generation.  It must set the right ambition, establish the right legal protections backed up by the right enforcement powers and introduce new tools to drive nature’s recovery.

“We have set five simple tests to see if the Environment Bill will deliver for wildlife in the face of the nature and climate crises and we now shall work with parliamentarians across all parties to ensure the Bill is fit for purpose.”

Secure environmental principles in law

Crucial environmental legal principles currently found in the EU treaties include the polluter pays and precautionary principles. Currently, these are considered in creating policy and legislation as well as in their interpretation and implementation (and therefore are important in decision making). The previous draft of the bill published before Christmas significantly weakened the application of the environmental principles by failing to give them equivalent legal status domestically. This part of the bill be need significant strengthening to ensure that the environmental principles remain secured in law.

An independent and effective new watchdog: The Office for Environmental Protection

To uphold environmental law and to ensure its effective implementation we need a truly independent watchdog that acts as an effect deterrent and can provide a real remedy when breaches in environmental law occur. This means a watchdog that reports to Parliament, not government, ensuring independence of budget and appointments, critical if the watchdog is to hold the government to account.

The watchdog must also be able to suggest remedial action in cases where environmental law is breached as well as when environmental harm is caused and must have access to effective enforcement mechanisms to ensure compliance with the law- this could include access to fines. 

The target setting framework

An effective target setting framework in the Bill could truly ensure a step change in how we protect and manage our environment, meaning that we are no longer focused purely on saving what we have left, but on restoring our natural world. Therefore part of the framework must ensure that targets are set to recover biodiversity & secure the transformative actions required to tackle the crisis facing our natural world. To be effective, the target setting framework in the Bill must secure a clear direction of travel for targets, ensuring that targets set under the framework are ambitious, comprehensive and legally accountable. The Bill must ensure mechanisms to compel action by successive governments to ensure that they all contribute to reaching the long-term target (ensuring that we stay on track and can take action in a timely manner if a target looks likely to be missed). The environmental improvement plans included within the Bill should set out the steps that the government will take to reach the targets and these plans should be regularly revised to ensure that appropriate actions are being taken.

The nature chapter

Provisions for nature in the Bill will be important to ensure that we are able to deliver the ambition and aims set out in the target setting framework. In this part of the Bill, the government will legislate for biodiversity gain. This is significant as if done well, this could make a significant.

However, it must apply to the majority of developments. If major infrastructure projects are excluded, from the mandatory system, some of the largest projects taking place in England will not have to contribute gains for biodiversity, a significant missed opportunity.

Likewise we need to see lasting commitments to restoring nature so that habitats delivered through biodiversity gain are permanently secured. Otherwise there is a risk of new habitats being lost after just 30 years. 

Provisions in this part of the bill need strengthening to better link how local delivery (including of net gain) will help deliver the biodiversity targets set out in the bill and contribute to the broader ambition of a Nature Recovery Network.  Clarity is also needed on how local communities can engage to help shape and restore their local environment.

Securing existing protections and standards

The UK Government has committed to maintaining environmental standards on our exit from the EU and has indicated that they will ensure measures are within the Environment Bill to meet this commitment. Whilst it is important that the Environment Bill is focused on driving environmental improvement, this is best done building on our existing environmental protections. The Environment Bill should therefore include robust non-regression provisions to secure our current environmental legal protection baseline.

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