Draft bill offers chance to transform UK environmental policy

The government’s draft environment bill could be the most important piece of environmental legislation for a generation, says Matthew Farrow.

Christmas came early for us environment policy nerds, with Defra publishing its long-awaited Resources and Waste Strategy on the 17 December, followed two days later by a draft environment bill. 

The Resources and Waste Strategy is a significant document, containing ideas that if implemented could give a real push towards a more circular economy. But the environment bill seeks to change the entire way that we create and implement environmental policy. If it survives the political vicissitudes of the next few months, it could be the most important piece of environmental legislation for a generation.   

Current environment policy is driven by the EU. Post-Brexit this changes, and the mainstream business uncertainty over what Brexit means for the economy is mirrored in policy uncertainty faced by the environmental business sector, most of whose markets are created and structured by policy and regulation. Will subsidies for green power be maintained or slashed post Brexit? Will habitats regulation be loosened to accommodate housebuilders or strengthened to match ministers’ rhetoric around natural capital?

The environment bill is a chance to address these concerns, not just during the Brexit period but for the next 20 years. The bill does three things.

First, it recreates in UK law the legal principles that underpin EU green policy thinking. These are concepts such as ‘polluter pays’ or the ‘precautionary principle’ and they have greatly influenced the green regulations we have today.  

Second, it sets up an environmental watchdog, the Office of Environmental Protection (OEP). This body would hold the government to account, by publishing an annual report on the state of the environment and the government’s progress in meeting its own goals and targets.  The OEP as a last resort can even take ministers to court. Third, it puts the 25-year Environment Plan on a statutory footing.

The end result is an ambitious piece of legislation undreamt-of by the green community in the immediate aftermath of Brexit. It has its flaws though, which will be picked over in the coming months. There are fears that the OEP will be ‘captured’ by Defra if it is directly accountable to the department as opposed to reporting only to parliament  (The chairman of another Defra-sponsored body - Natural England - told MPs last November this had happened to them).  

Another concern is that the body will be England-only so may accentuate the divergence of environmental policy across the UK devolved regions and nations. There is also a question as how specific the environmental targets within the bill should be.  

Overall though there is much to play for.  EIC worked through a group like-minded business associations (including my former colleagues at CBI) called the Broadway Initiative to define what would make the environment bill truly world-leading. We want the bill to:  

  • Define shared objectives for the environment
  • Contain predictable processes to ensure appropriate policies are in place
  • Include clear principles for incorporating the environment during policy development
  • Provide for spatial planning which integrates environmental and other objectives
  • Include clear and stable responsibilities
  • Provide for independent oversight of progress towards targets 
  • Include a common framework at UK level where beneficial.

Chances to reshape the UK environmental policy framework don’t come around often. An Environment Act along the lines above could unlock an unprecedented amount of green business investment and innovation, to the benefit of all.

Matthew Farrow is director of the Environmental Industries Commission, the leading trade body for environmental firms.