The bumpy road of the UK’s Environment Act

18 November 2021
Our views on the Environment Act as it finally receives Royal Assent. After all this time, and considering the huge challenges - is it robust enough to positively deliver for nature, business and society?

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Bram Miller

Technical Director, Strategic Sustainability Consulting
M: +44 7436 545 408

Delayed first by Brexit and then by Covid, the Environment Act has finally received Royal Assent and passed into law. Having first been read in Parliament in January 2020, the long road to a ratified Act could encourage many to label it a disappointment.

However, in the overhaul of changing attitudes and expanding understanding over the last two years, the Environment Act has been strengthened from a protracted amendment process and positively informed both industry and public attitudes.

Amended to address the biodiversity crisis

Since the Act was first introduced, there has been a sharp realisation that the biodiversity crisis is as acute as the climate one. Biodiversity net gain is swiftly rising up the public agenda. Amidst this realisation, the Act’s projects regulated by biodiversity objectives were amended to include nationally significant infrastructure.

This inclusion could result in a welcome biodiversity increase across the country, but you would be justified in questioning whether the amendment would have been proposed in the Act’s initial political climate, marking a significant attitude shift across the wider construction sector.

The raw sewerage controversy

However, we could not acknowledge the Act amendments without addressing the recent controversy about raw sewage dumping in waterways.

In a prime example of the contradictions that seem to dog the government’s environmental policy at every step of the way, a Commons majority voted down an amendment to the Environment Act to punish water firms for dumping this waste in public. Such controversies undermine the direction of policy and amplify existing concerns about the implementation of the Act’s legislation.

Numerous areas of the Act remain unclear, suggesting a destiny akin to the Climate Change Act. The commitment was set in the Climate Change Act, but effective measures followed only over a decade later. This sort of timescale, or time for distracting scandals, are luxuries we no longer have.

Concerns on independence, autonomy and resources

On a similar note, it is essential that the new Office of Environmental Protection (OEP) is given proper teeth and the power to hold both Government and industry to account and local authorities must be properly resourced too.

The final round of amendments before royal assent was almost entirely focused on the OEP and their remit and many still highlight concerns around its independence. Ministers will decide the OEP’s budget, board and focus of enforcement work, which leaves many concerned.

Across the Environment Act, localised power structures are seen as the golden ticket. With greater autonomy, the local authorities should be able to act on monitoring their natural assets and implement the best initiatives for their protection.

However, this is not as sure as it sounds. Biodiversity objectives, for example, will be overseen by planning departments that often only have a single biodiversity officer or even none.

We must move beyond targets

The Environment Act presents opportunity after opportunity, though nothing is promised, especially considering the Environmental Improvement Plans outlined in the Environment Act are subject to a five-year target and review process. 

After witnessing what we are capable of under adversity with the Covid-19 response, it is difficult to see this as sufficient urgency, or even effective or responsible governance. We need to move away from a period of targets, to one of clear action, direction and accountability.

The Environment Act recognises areas that will be essential to the UK’s green recovery, the government just needs to follow through.

Full article on the Environment Journal.

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