What is the UK's Environment Bill and which industries will it impact?
As the UK exits the European Union’s environmental legislative frameworks, the Environment Bill will establish a new environmental governance system for the UK. This is a substantial bill which will enact major new governance mechanisms for managing and enhancing the environment, together with creating more specific targets on air quality, waste and resource management, water, biodiversity, and nature.
The Environment Bill is a flagship piece of environmental legislation which aims to focus the environment at the centre of policy making, ensuring that the UK is a sustainable country for future generations to enjoy. The bill addresses several key environment issues such as: improving air quality, establishing a new environmental governance framework, updating chemical laws, protecting water supplies, preserving green spaces, and enhancing waste and resource management.
Aims of The Environment Bill
- Now the UK has left the EU, environmental governance must be transformed by enacting environmental standards into law, setting legally binding goals, and establishing a new Office for Environmental Protection.
- Enhance local powers to combat emissions sources.
- Work with developers to preserve and improve nature and biodiversity.
- Extend producer responsibility, deliver greater consistency in recycling, implement deposit return schemes and levy fees on specific single-use plastic products.
- Ensure long-term, dependable water and wastewater supplies, including the ability to order water companies to collaborate to satisfy existing and future demand.
The Environment Bill: Delayed
Due to exceptional pressure on the Parliamentary timetable caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the government announced on January 26th, 2021, that the Environment Bill will experience further delays as discussions are carried forward to the next Parliamentary session which began in May 2021. This is the third time there has been delays since work began on the Environmental Bill in 2018, which has caused outrage amongst many, who highlight the need for increased urgency in response to the current environmental crises.
In response to criticism over the delayed Bill, Environment Minister Rebecca Pow stated “The necessary changes we’ve had to make to our procedures in order to keep members, the public and of course, staff safe have put extraordinary pressure on the Parliamentary timetable and I want to reassure all members that the government remains committed to getting the Environment Bill to the statute book.”
The Environment Bill was recently mentioned within the Queen’s speech, at the state opening of Parliament on the 11th of May 2021. The Queen highlighted that the Environment Bill will receive Royal Assent during the current parliamentary session.
In response to the Queen’s speech, IEMA Director of Policy and External Affairs Martin Baxter stated, “it is ‘third time lucky’ for this Bill and essential that it receives Royal Assent as soon as possible. The natural environment cannot wait a moment longer and we need the new environmental governmental governance process in place to ensure we protect and enhance our natural capital and ecosystems.”
Office for Environmental Protection
One of the main elements of the Bill is the creation of a new environmental watchdog, known as ‘The Office for Environment Protection’ (OEP). This government body aims to use its advisory, oversight and compliance powers to help contribute to environmental conservation and therefore help enhance the natural environment. It will also be responsible for holding organisations accountable regarding environmental issues. The OEP was established to take over from the European Commission now it has ceased to have jurisdiction.
A key aspect of the OEP role will be to annually monitor and report to Parliament on the government’s progress toward implementing environmental improvement initiatives outlined in Environmental Improvement Plans (EIP), as well as meeting interim and overall targets. The OEP’s compliance powers relate to the failure of public authorities in complying with environment law.
The Environment Secretary George Eustice has recently appointed Dame Glenys Stacey as chair of the OEP. Dame Glenys stated, “we have a hefty job to do, on behalf of the public and our future generations, making sure environmental law works and develops as it should, to truly protect and improve our environment.”
Resources and Waste Management
The Environment Bill aims to move the British economy away from a take, make, use, throw system and towards a more circular economic structure. This will involve establishing increased consumer awareness surrounding the purchasing of more sustainable products. The Bill will set minimum eco-design standards for products and require provision of information for consumers to support the use of reusable and recyclable products, as well as banning the use of products which cannot be reused or recycled. This is further reflected in plans to continue the reduction in single-use plastic use, as new charges will be introduced to incentivise a move towards more reusable items.
In addition, extended supplier responsibility programs will aim to hold manufacturers accountable for the net cost of managing their goods at end of life. The government’s current powers to set producer responsibility obligations will also be updated, extending them to waste prevention and surplus product and material redistribution.
Illegal waste activity is a key issue which will be addressed within the Environment Bill, with the aim of reducing the environmental, economic, and social harm that waste crime commonly causes. New measurements will ensure that businesses are implementing legitimate waste management practices. An electronic waste tracking system will also be introduced to combat against illegal waste activities such as fly-tipping. Regulators and local authorities will also gain increased powers to work more effectively to combat waste crime.
The Bill stipulates a consistent collection of waste must be obtained from all households and enterprises, including food waste, to help citizens’ efforts to recycle more. This aims to make services across the country more consistent. The Bill also specifies how the government will enforce weekly food waste collections for all households, subject to consultation.
Alban Forster, the European Infrastructure Sector Leader within SLR added, “the Environment Bill is likely to have a significant impact on UK resource and waste management but only time will tell how big that impact will be.”
Biodiversity has been recognised as a key area for improvement within the Environment Bill. This is reflected within a proposed update of the current Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006, which aims to enhance biodiversity within England and Wales.
In addition, biodiversity net gain will become a mandatory condition as part of planning permission in England. All developments will have to ensure a biodiversity net gain of 10% compared to pre-development, as measured through a biodiversity metric published by Defra. Biodiversity net gain must also be guaranteed for at least 30 years. The Town and Country Planning Act 1990 will be updated in accordance with the Environment Bill’s new requirements for biodiversity net gain.
The Bill also requires that councils in England publish Local Nature Recovery Strategies, to improve spatial planning for natural recovery through establishing goals and opportunities to conserve and invest in local nature.
Provisions for creating a public biodiversity gains site register are also included within the Bill. The registry is intended to provide developers, planning authorities and other organisations with transparency in offsite improvements. This should ensure that offsite biodiversity gains are only allocated to a single development and that the required agreement to deliver biodiversity gains is in place.
In a recent parliamentary debate surrounding the Environment Bill, which took place on the 27th of May 2021, Virginia Crosbie, a member of the Environment Bill Committee told the House of Commons that, “the biodiversity targets proposed in the Bill could not be met without global action.” Highlighting the urgent need for global cooperation surrounding detrimental biodiversity conservation.
The Environment Bill establishes a commitment to set a legally binding target regarding fine particulate matter, a dangerous pollutant for human health. Reductions in this pollutant would result in major improvements in public health, as well as technological improvements, which would also create economic benefits.
Local action on air pollution will also be updated through the Bill, this will be achieved through the improvement of the local air quality management framework (LAQM). This should ensure that the responsibility of addressing air pollution is evenly distributed amongst local authorities and relevant public bodies.
Domestic solid fuel burning is the single largest contributor of fine particulate matter emission in the UK. The Environment Bill aims to introduce measures to tackle this source, establishing a simple mechanism for local authorities to decrease smoke related emission within their local area. Vehicle recall was also addressed within the Bill, as it established a new power; forcing vehicle manufacturers to recall vehicles for environmental non-conformity or malfunction.
Morgan Fitzpatrick, SLR’s Technical Director of Air Quality explains that the Bill has been criticised as it fails to set specific targets regarding air quality, especially in regard to particulate matter (PM2.5).
The water related measures included in the Environment Bill aim to provide long-term, dependable water and wastewater services ensuring a cleaner, greener, and more resilient country for future generations. The Environment Bill continues current goals for restoring British water bodies to as close to their natural state as possible.
The Environment Bill will update the current list of priority substances and their respective standards included within the Environment Plan. This should ensure that current water quality regulations do not become ‘frozen’, post-Brexit due to the loss of European Communities Act (1972, section 2.2) powers, whilst also keeping up to date with current scientific knowledge.
Through amending the current process for modifying the conditions of companies’ licenses to operate, the Bill aims to strengthen Ofwat’s (the economic water regulator) power to improve how sewerage and water companies are operating to meet current and future demands for water.
Flood and coastal risk management is an area of priority within the UK. The bill aims to improve costal erosion risk management by removing current barriers to the expansion of current, or the establishment of new, internal drainage boards. These boards are integral in that they carry out vital work regarding the management of local water levels and potential flood risks.
Within the most recent debate regarding the Bill, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Rebecca Pow stated, “we have also announced that new measures to reduce the harm from storm overflows on our precious aquatic environment will be added.”
To find out more about the Environment Bill and how it could impact your organisation please contact SLR for further information and advice.