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The Environment Act

Photo credit: Malinka van der Gaauw

The Environment Act is the current version of the Environment Bill. This Bill should make provision about targets, plans and policies for improving the natural environment; for statements and reports about environmental protection; for the Office for Environmental Protection; about waste and resource efficiency; about air quality; for the recall of products that fail to meet environmental standards; about water; about nature and biodiversity; for conservation covenants; about the regulation of chemicals; and for connected purposes. This is a statement from our president, Maggie Jones, regarding the Environment Act.

Over the last few months, I have been busy with the government’s Environment Bill in the House of Lords.

Maggie Jones, President

It was undoubtedly a landmark Bill, with ambitions across many aspects of our environment. However, opportunities like this do not come along very often so the Lords, across the parties, worked very hard to improve it to make it a piece of legislation about which we could all be proud.

It was debated during preparations for COP26 and we were keen to emphasise that globally we face a biodiversity emergency as well as a climate emergency. In fact, recent reports have shown that the UK is now one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world, with 41% of our species declining and 1 in 10 threatened with extinction.

So, one of our first achievements in the Bill was to introduce challenging measures to halt the decline in biodiversity by 2030.

This will be supplemented by the introduction of ‘biodiversity net gain’ as a condition for awarding planning permission locally. This would mean that new buildings would have to be offset by investment in alternative environmental projects. This is an exciting concept but still needs much more work – particularly on how it would relate to the government’s planning reforms.

Another issue which was hotly debated was the need to protect our ancient woodlands. These have been disappearing from our landscapes at an alarming rate. While the government’s promise to plant 30,000 hectares of new woodland each year is welcome, progress so far is slow; these new trees do not provide a comparable rate of carbon capture to that of existing established woodlands, so it was pleasing to get extra commitments to protect our ancient trees.

The Bill also included new commitments on waste recycling, creating more resource efficiency and cutting back on plastics. We were pleased to introduce new measures to charge manufacturers the full environmental impact costs of single-use items such as cups, plates and cutlery which create huge amounts of litter and marine pollution.

Air quality and tackling air pollution turned out to be a hugely controversial issue. We know that there are some 40,000 early deaths a year from the health effects of breathing in polluted air. We tried, unsuccessfully, to write into the Bill the introduction of World Health Organisation air quality standards by 2030. We will continue to campaign on this issue.

The challenge to prevent water companies discharging raw sewage into our rivers and seas was a major debate and it was fantastic to see the public campaign and support for the action we were proposing.

As a result, we made significant progress on controlling unauthorised discharges for the future, as well as requiring water companies to invest more resources into the outdated infrastructure.

These are just some of the many issues which we pursued over the months of debate.

However, we remain concerned that so much of the Bill has deadlines and targets in the distant future and we failed to win amendments to introduce interim targets which would have provided measurable data on progress at an earlier date.

Finally, a huge amount depends on the success of the Office of Environmental Protection which is a new organisation set up to replace the oversight of our environmental laws previously carried out by the EU.

We remain concerned that this new body is not sufficiently independent of government, nor does it have the same powers of redress.

So, overall, we were pleased with the progress we made in improving the Bill which has now become law, but only time will tell if the ambition of the Environment Act really will live up to its promise.

Maggie Jones

President, Friends of the South Downs, and Member of the House of Lords