The Environment Bill was introduced to Parliament in October 2019 to ensure that the environmental impacts of all legislation is considered before the UK exits the EU.
Once the transition period ends on 31st December, the UK will no longer have to consider EU law, and so the environmental protections will no longer be effective.
The Environment Bill aimed to replace the EU legislation and embed environmental accountability into any new legislation passed, but as it made its way through the House of Commons, it was (understandably) delayed by the outbreak of coronavirus and lockdown.
However, since Parliament has returned, the Bill seems to have been pushed into the shadows while other pieces of legislation have been passed. As it stands, the Bill has been pushed back a third time and, although a report has been created at the Committee Stage, no date has been set for it to be sent to the House of Commons for further debate and amendments.
Why is the Environment Bill so important?
The Environment Bill largely replaces the pieces of EU legislation embedded in UK law, but which will become ineffective from 1st January 2021. As well as replacing this, it also holds the government to account for key environmental objectives, regardless of the area they are discussing. Some of the topics covered include:
- Long-term targets set by government relating to aspects of the natural environment, such as air quality
- Creating an Environmental Improvement Plan and production of an annual report detailing progress
- The creation of the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) to hold the government to account and to act as an enforcement body
- More efficient use of waste and resources, such as making producers responsible for the cost of dealing with products when they reach the end of their use
- Requiring an increase of 10% in biodiversity after development work
- Any future bills with an environmental provision must not reduce the level of environmental protection provided by previous legislation (the ‘non-regression clause’)
As well as replacing the environmental safeguards already in place, the Environment Bill would push the UK’s environmental responsibilities and put the environment at the forefront of everything the government does.
What are the consequences if the Environment Bill doesn’t get passed?
Depending on your perspective, there are positives and negatives. At the moment, the OEP has been formed but is still in its embryonic stage, so enforcement of regulations is going to be slow at best.
There seems to be broad support for the Environment Bill, and so the inclusion of the non-regression clause should guide people towards making sure their development plans still adhere to the EU guidelines rather than disregarding them completely.
On the other hand, there’s the chance for politics and negotiations to get in the way and either change the form of the Bill, or reject it completely. As the UK leaves the EU, trade links with other countries are being formed – in some circumstances this might require a drop in environmental standards in order to trade effectively.
Given the worldwide economic impact of Covid-19, government priorities have changed too, and while it’s widely acknowledged that environmental measures are important, they might be pushed aside or reduced in favour of short-term, high-impact measures if there is no over-arching law to hold the government to account.
What is the end version of the Environmental Bill likely to look like?
At the moment, there’s no way of knowing what path the government will choose. While there have been pledges to protect the environment and biodiversity, political and economic factors could end up having a greater impact on legislation.
Given that planning has a close relationship with the protection and nurturing of our environment, it’s also worth noting that planning is a domestic matter which has been devolved to the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly. This means that England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland could all potentially have different criteria in terms of protecting their own habitats – the Environment Bill would set the minimum, but planners should be aware that regulations may be more or less stringent in different areas of the UK.
What’s going to happen next?
As mentioned above, the Environment Bill has gone through the committee stage, where a small group scrutinise the Bill and compile a report to go back to the House of Commons.
Now this has finished, the Bill can be debated by the House of Commons again, and further amendments can be proposed – but there isn’t currently a date set for this to happen.
After this, the Bill will have to go through a further three readings in the House of Lords, including a committee and report stage, before the Bill returns to the Commons. Here, the Commons can disagree with amendments or suggest other proposals – and this process can go on between the Commons and the Lords until both sides are happy.
Once this process has finished, the Bill can get Royal Assent, which means it becomes part of legislature.
There are no time constraints on how long a Bill can go between the Commons and the Lords for amendments, or for how long it could take to get Royal Assent, and so many are concerned that by the time the Environment Bill actually gets to the point of getting Royal Assent, it’ll be too late.
In the meantime, it will be down to the morals and ethics of planners and developers to make sure that the progress and efforts put into protecting our environment so far don’t go to waste and that the UK’s proud heritage of protecting its landscape remains.
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