Assurances for an ambitious Environment Act

4th July 2019


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Chris Seekings

Chris Seekings examines the Broadway Initiative's recommendations for creating an Environment Act that is fit for purpose

The UK government's draft Environment Bill risks “severely“ downgrading environmental protections after Brexit, scrutiny by MPs has concluded.

In response, a group of environment, business and professional bodies, known as the Broadway Initiative, has published demands it believes must be at the heart of the Environment Act. These organisations have been working on recommendations for post-Brexit environmental law for nearly two years, and hope their assurances will establish a new constitution for the environment.

Martin Baxter, IEMA's chief policy advisor, explains: “The assurances set out the key elements needed for a coherent Environment Act that gives society predictability on the long-term pathway for the environment, providing the basis for private and public sector investment in environmental improvement.

“The key is to get past the pattern of short-term policymaking, where policies are introduced late in the day, once problems have become entrenched. That approach means that society and the government pick up the bill, and businesses face high short-term adjustment costs.

“The Environment Act is the opportunity to set a clear pathway as soon as possible, that enables all sectors to plan, invest and collaborate towards a sustainable future and healthy environment. While the need for the Environment Act was triggered by the UK's decision to leave the EU, these shortcomings need resolution irrespective of Brexit.“

Assurances:

1) Define shared objectives for the environment

This must include long-term targets to maintain and restore the environment, a 'non-regression' requirement on existing laws, and a participatory process with business and civil society.

2) Establish predictable processes for government

This should include a duty on the Secretary of State for the Environment to develop a mechanism to set standards and ensure measures for achieving targets are in place. It should also require the government to develop an Environment Improvement Plan every five years, and a set of indicators for targets to be reported on.

3) Clear principles for incorporating the environment in policy development

The act must at least include the principles set out in the Withdrawal Act, and ensure that all environmental law is based on these principles. All policy development should take account of the principles, too.

4) A unified spatial framework for environment, social and economy

This should include a single 'map' that shows the opportunities for improving the environment and operates on different scales, establishing a single integrated framework to inform local decision-making and planning.

5) Include clear and stable responsibilities for specified activities

This must include a requirement for new developments to incorporate environmental net gain, and also include 'extended producer responsibility' to encourage upstream responsibility for the environmental cost of products.

6) Provide independent oversight of government processes and action

The act should provide provision for advice, scrutiny of targets and for receiving complaints. It must also include provision for enforcing non-compliance robustly, and establish an independent and equipped body or bodies that are accountable to parliament.

7) Support a coherent approach at UK level

Westminster government must work with devolved administrations to ensure co-operation in developing policies with cross-border implications, and in setting the UK's position on relevant international agreements. It should also provide independent oversight for UK-level commitments.

More detail on the assurances can be found at bit.ly/2MERKHc


Harry Greenfield

Senior land use advisor, The Country Land and Business Association (CLA)

The CLA represents around 30,000 farmers and landowners across England and Wales. Environmental issues often focus on urban or industrial issues, but for CLA members it is rural land management that holds the key to leaving the environment in a better state for the next generation.

Land management has a huge impact on the natural world, and the CLA sees proactive land management as an opportunity to make major improvements to our natural environment. Amid unpredictability for farming and the rural economy post-Brexit, farmers' role in restoring the environment could give some certainty.

This is why it is important to CLA members that the Environment Bill contains long-term objectives, to guarantee a focus on actions that conserve the environment. Michael Gove has set out a direction that will see a more environmental focus within agricultural policy, with farmers paid to provide benefits such as clean water and thriving wildlife. Targets will show where land managers can best focus their efforts and give them the certainty to integrate environmental management into their business planning.

Given the size and scope of the Bill, there is still much detail to work out. The CLA is working with others through the Broadway Initiative to ensure the government develops policies that work for rural businesses.

Stuart Colville

Director of strategy, Water UK

Water supplies depend on the long-term health of water bodies, so we have a profound interest in their future protection against overuse and pollution.

The government has recognised some of the features that protection will require: a scrutinising body, transparency of aims and progress, and enforcement. To date, though, Environment Bill proposals have not gone far enough, with some areas – such as enforcement – being weaker or more complicated than the status quo. That is why we support Broadway's assurances, which identify the features to get right.

Many of those assurances set this test for legislation: what is the degree to which we expect the Office for Environmental Protection to maintain the ability to uphold the rules? If that test is failed, we risk 'in-flight' changes to complex, multi-year plans, which could increase cost and make it harder to deliver improvements.

The assurances also bring opportunities to enhance the framework, rather than replicate what we have. An embrace of 'extended producer responsibility' could be transformational: many sources of environmental harm are still seen as too complicated to tackle, or are cleaned up via costs imposed on customers. Challenging producers to prevent pollution will almost always be cheaper and better than subsequently cleaning contamination.

Matthew Farrow

Executive director, Environmental Industries Commission (EIC)

The UK's environmental technology and services sector is strong, outperforming the economy as a whole and with higher than average productivity levels. We have expertise in traditional fields such as landfill engineering, and cutting edge ones like sustainable city data modelling.

EIC members are the firms that make up this sector, from multinational consultancies to family-owned green engineering firms. The markets that these firms operate in are largely defined by environmental policies and regulations. To be able to raise investment, these businesses need to be confident that policy is not going to be switched back and forth as ministers come and go.

Broadway Initiative's Assurance 2 ('Establish predictable processes for government to ensure appropriate policies are in place') is crucial. The assurance makes clear that this must lead to more than just setting targets many years hence. It refers to setting milestones – otherwise there is a tendency for governments to delay environmental action, which makes it impossible for sustainable structured environmental markets to evolve. Without those markets, investors will put their money elsewhere.

Assurance 5 is also important, calling on the act to require 'environmental net gain' from new development and 'extended producer responsibility'. This could spur business to prevent environmental damage occurring, rather than cleaning up after it has happened.

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