On 15 October 2019, the UK government introduced its Environment Bill 2019-20 to Parliament.
The introduction of the Bill is part of the government’s response to the increased scientific and public demand for a step-change in environmental protection, especially in the context of widespread concerns that Brexit might significantly reduce the ambition of the UK’s environmental programme. It is a key piece of legislation in delivering the government’s 25 Year Environment Plan, and in establishing post-Brexit environmental governance and regulation.
The Bill addresses the current and emerging environmental ’emergencies’ facing the UK and governments around the world – climate change, air quality, the circular economy of waste and resource management, water, and natural habitats – and crucially will introduce binding legal targets on each.
The Bill is divided into seven parts, the most notable of which are as follows:
The Bill sets out the post-Brexit structure for the UK’s environmental governance. It prescribes the environmental principles for decision-makers to follow, as well as setting out the monitoring and reporting procedures for setting environmental targets.
The Bill also establishes a new independent environmental body, the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP), which will replace the role of the European Commission in legally holding the government to account for its environmental performance. The OEP’s enforcement remit will also cover climate change, including the five-yearly carbon budgets set by the UK’s Committee on Climate Change.
Waste and resource efficiency
The Bill introduces a series of measures, procedures and schemes to aid the UK’s transition towards a circular economy. For example, it:
- places further responsibility on producers in resource supply chains;
- sets out single-use charges and deposit schemes to increase efficiency;
- outlines procedures for managing waste material; and
- provides greater enforcement powers in respect of littering and illegal waste activities.
Air quality and environmental recall
Building on the government’s Clean Air Strategy, the Bill tackles the health impacts of emissions by imposing a legally-binding target to reduce fine particulate matter. Additionally, the Bill increases the power of local authorities to cut emissions from domestic heating and empowers the Secretary of State to introduce a mandatory recall of any motor vehicles which fail to meet certain environmental standards.
The Bill imposes additional requirements for water supply and drainage plans, with the aim of making future networks more resilient to flooding and droughts. Importantly, the Bill allows for regulators to revoke water abstraction licences without the requirement to compensate the licence holder.
Nature and biodiversity
The Bill outlines a mandatory biodiversity net gain regime , which requires developers to contribute to the local biodiversity of new developments. Finally, the Bill enhances the duty of public authorities to encourage biodiversity.
Osborne Clarke comment
In addition to addressing the question of post-Brexit environmental governance in the UK, the Bill introduces wide-ranging measures to enhance environmental protection, and elevates the importance of its stated environmental principles by ensuring that those principles are central to any decisions made across government.
The Bill represents a step up in environmental protection from earlier draft passages of the Bill, and is a confirmation of the government’s ambition to meet its environmental commitments. With the expectation that the current Parliamentary session will be particularly short, it remains to be seen whether the Bill will be passed before any general election. Nevertheless, with environmental protection enjoying broad cross-party support, it is likely that the Bill will be passed, in one form or another, by either this or a successor government.