The Government this week re-introduced its Environment Bill to Parliament following the recent general election. The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) also published its Policy Statement on the bill which sets out the Government’s plans, through the Environment Bill, to protect and improve the natural environment in the UK.
Some key headlines from the Policy Statement are set out below.
A. Environmental Principles Policy
The Bill legally obliges policy-makers to have due regard to the environmental principles policy statement when choosing policy options, for example by considering the policies which cause the least environmental harm. The environmental principles are:
1) environmental protection should be integrated into policy-making principle;
2) the preventative action to avert environmental damage principle;
3) the precautionary principle;
4) environmental damage should as a priority be rectified at source principle; and 5) the polluter pays principle.
The Bill will also require Statutory Environmental Improvement Plans (the first being the 25 Year Environment Plan) and set a new framework for setting long term legally binding targets in four priority areas of the natural environment: air quality; waste and resource efficiency; water and nature.
B. Creation of the Office for Environmental Protection
The Office for Environmental Protection will be an independent domestic watchdog. Through its scrutiny and advice functions, the new body will monitor progress in improving the natural environment in accordance with the government’s domestic environmental improvement plans and targets. It will be able to provide government with written advice on any proposed changes to environmental law.
Through its complaints and enforcement mechanisms, the Office for Environmental Protection will take a proportionate approach to managing compliance issues relating to environmental law. Failures by public authorities to implement environmental law will no longer be considered through European enforcement processes and instead the new body will engage with public authorities to reach a solution.
C. New Requirements on Resource and Waste Management
The Bill will contains powers to set minimum requirements on product labelling, and product and packaging ecodesign, to better inform consumers and to ensure products are more durable, reparable and recyclable. The Bill also includes measures that will allow the Government to introduce producer responsibility obligations on waste prevention and redistribution.
D. Local Air Quality Management Framework
The Bill makes a clear commitment to set an ambitious, legally binding target for the pollutant with the most significant impact on human health, fine particulate matter. Reductions in this pollutant will deliver significant benefits to public health and technological advancements, resulting in benefits for the economy.
The Bill will also strengthen the ability for local authorities to address air quality issues by updating, simplifying and strengthening the local air quality management framework (LAQM). In particular it ensures that responsibility for addressing air pollution is shared across local government structures and with relevant public bodies.
E. Biodiversity Net Gain in the Planning System
The Bill introduces a mandatory requirement for biodiversity net gain in the planning system, to ensure that new developments enhance biodiversity and create new green spaces for local communities to enjoy. Net gain requirements will supplement, but not replace or undermine, existing protections for protected sites or irreplaceable habitats. In relation to protected sites, any net gain requirements would only be enforceable following a planning decision which will consider the existing legal and planning policy requirements for protected sites in the usual way. Net gain requirements will not undermine the existing range of protections, in planning policy and legislation, for irreplaceable habitats and protected sites.
F. Local Nature Recovery Strategies in Spatial Planning
The Bill introduces provisions requiring the development of Local Nature Recovery Strategies across England. These are tools that will support better spatial planning for nature recovery, by setting out priorities and opportunities for protecting and investing in nature within a local area. They will include a map of existing nature assets including protected sites and wildlife-rich habitats and will identify key opportunities for enhancement. The Bill strengthens the duty to cover the enhancement, as well as the conservation, of biodiversity, and requires public authorities to actively carry out strategic assessments of the actions they can take to enhance and conserve biodiversity.
G. Duty to Consult on Removal of Highway Trees
The removal of highway trees is usually met with great local concern and objection. The Bill introduces a ‘Duty to Consult’ which will give the public the opportunity to understand why a street tree is being felled and express any concerns regarding this.