The Environment Bill - progress and loopholes

17th October 2019

The Environment Bill landed for its first reading in the House of Commons on Tuesday, 15th October. The first reading is a formal stage that takes place without any debate. The next step is a second reading in which MPs debate the overall principles of the Bill. The date for this has not yet been set, and will likely be delayed due to a probable General Election in the next few weeks.
This was a mammoth Bill, and it focused on 4 key areas for improvement, and gave detail on the new regulatory body the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP).

The Environment Bill
Its updated objective is to: ‘Make provision about targets, plans and policies for improving the natural environment; to make provision for the Office for Environmental Protection; to make provision about waste and resource efficiency; to make provision about air quality; to make provision for the recall of products that fail to meet environmental standards; to make provision about water; to make provision about nature and biodiversity; to make provision for conservation covenants; to make provision about the regulation of chemicals; and for connected purposes.’
The Bill outlines priority areas as (a) air quality; (b) water; (c) biodiversity; (d) resource efficiency and waste reduction. Each of these areas must have binding targets. Each target must have a standard to be achieved, which must be capable of being objectively measured, and a date by which it is to be achieved.
These targets can only be amended by the Secretary of State, if satisfied that meeting the existing target would have no significant benefit compared with not meeting it or with meeting a lower target, or because of changes in circumstances since the existing target was set or last amended the environmental, social, economic or other costs of meeting it would be disproportionate to the benefits.

Greenpeace have been critical of the target process, as they have pointed out a loophole that gives the government 18 years before legally required to meet targets. Greenpeace said: “The deadline for setting legally-binding targets detailed in the Bill is 31 October 2022. The four environmental priority areas, with the exception of air quality, must then set a date for meeting these targets “no less than 15 years after the date on which the target is initially set”. This means that no legal action could be taken against the government on any potential environmental failings on water, plastic, waste or nature restoration until 2037, at the earliest.

“The Bill does give the government power to set interim targets for the four environmental areas. However, as with the long-term targets, they still would not be set until 2022 and the interim targets wouldn’t be legally binding.”

Another criticism was of the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) – the independent regulatory body outlined in detail in the Bill. Currently, the EU monitors the UK’s compliance with environmental law, after Brexit, this role will be assumed by the OEP. However, unlike the EU, the OEP will not have the power to impose fines on the government for non-compliance. Its remit will only include local authorities. This has led many to say this will weaken environmental law and that the regulatory body lacks bite and independence.

The OEP must prepare a strategy that outlines its principal objective, how it will act objectively and impartially, how it will avoid overlap with the CCC, and how it will have regard to the need to act proportionately and transparently. This will be an interesting read.
Key areas
The Bill requires the government to set at least one legally binding target for each of the outlined areas.

Details outlined on each of these areas includes:
Air quality
There will be new regulations and a target to reduce fine air particulate PM2.5 in ambient air, as well as financial penalties for the emission of smoke in smoke control areas in England, regulations on the sale and acquisition of solid fuel in England, smoke control orders to vessels in England, and the listing of authorised fuels and exempted fireplaces in Wales.
The Bill outlines measures to encourage water companies to work together on joint plans, as well as regulations on the procedures for water resources management plans and drought plans.
Biodiversity gain will be a required condition of planning permission. Previous wording stated biodiversity must be ‘conserved’ – the new wording requires for there to be ‘enhancement’ as well.
There are to be local nature recovery strategies across England and local highway authorities in England must now consult before felling street trees.
Resource efficiency and waste reduction
The Bill includes measures to regulate on Producer Responsibility which will see those responsible for manufacturing, processing, distributing or supplying products or materials to meet, or contribute to, the disposal costs of the waste packaging they create. It also includes powers to introduce and regulate on Deposit Return Schemes and potential new regulation on single-use plastic charges.

You can read the full Environment Bill here.

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