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The Environment Bill 2019-20 was announced in the Queen’s Speech in December 2019 and passed Second Reading without division on 26 February 2020. Committee stage started on 10 March 2020 but was adjourned on 19 March. This Bill is the re-introduction of the Environment Bill 2019 from the previous Parliamentary session. The previous Bill passed second reading unopposed, but fell at dissolution for the General Election 2019. 

The Bill sits alongside the Government’s longer-term objective for “this, to be the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than that in which we inherited it” and its manifesto pledge to “protect and restore our natural environment after leaving the EU”.

Context for the Bill

A large proportion of existing environmental law and policy in the UK derives from the EU, with its implementation largely monitored and enforced by EU institutions such as the European Commission.

Part 1 of the Bill on environmental governance and principles stems from a draft Environment (Principles and Governance) Bill, which was published in December 2018. The draft Bill fulfilled requirements of a late-stage amendment added into the EU (Withdrawal) Act 2018. The amendment was introduced to allay concerns about a perceived loss of established environmental principles and EU governance mechanisms following Brexit. Two select Committees (EFRA and Environmental Audit) undertook pre-legislative scrutiny of the draft Bill in the previous Parliament, with some of their recommendations being incorporated into Part 1 of the full Bill.

Within the UK, environment is a largely devolved area and there is also a significant amount of domestic legislation relating to specific environmental policy areas. For example, the Forestry Act 1967, the Climate Change Act 2008 and the Water Act 2014.  The Government’s policy statement states that the Bill is “part of the wider government response to the clear and scientific case, and growing public demand, for a step-change in environmental protection and recovery”. The Bill makes provision to amend existing environmental legislation and introduce new measures on a range of environmental policy areas within the UK.

The basis for many of the proposals in Parts 3-7 of the Bill onwards has been a series of consultations, stakeholder engagement and recent Government strategies on different environmental policy areas (for example, A Green Future: Our 25-year plan to improve the environment).  

What does the Bill do?

The Bill covers two broad themes. Firstly, providing a new domestic framework for environmental governance. Secondly, making provision on specific environmental policy areas including waste, air quality, water, nature and biodiversity, and conservation covenants. The Bill contains 133 clauses and 19 schedules.

Part 1 of the Bill provides measures to ensure there is no environmental governance gap in the UK following the end of the implementation period under the Withdrawal Agreement. The Bill specifies a series of environmental principles and requires the publication of a policy statement on these principles setting out how they are to be applied by Ministers during policymaking. It establishes an Office for Environmental Protection (OEP), which will have scrutiny, advice and enforcement functions. It also makes provision for the setting of long-term environmental targets in four “priority areas” of air quality, water, biodiversity and resource efficiency and waste reduction, along with the production of statutory Environmental Improvement Plans (the first being the January 2018 25 Year Environment Plan).

Part 2 of the Bill relates to environmental governance in Northern Ireland, allowing the OEP to exercise its functions in Northern Ireland, subject to the approval of a restored Northern Ireland Assembly.

Part 3 of the Bill makes provisions for the managing of waste and producer responsibility. The provisions introduce a revised extended packaging producer responsibility scheme, the power to regulate for ecodesign standards and resource efficiency information across a wider range of products, power to regulate imports and exports of waste, and amendments to the responsibilities and powers for separating and recycling waste. It also provides a framework for a deposit return scheme.

Part 4 of the Bill deals with air quality and amends the requirements and management of Local Air Quality Management Frameworks. It also provides local authorities with greater powers in smoke control areas and includes provision to require the recall of motor vehicles on environmental grounds.

Part 5 of the Bill includes provisions relating to water resources management, including: the development of joint regional plans for long-term water resource management; a statutory duty for water companies to develop long-term drainage and sewerage management plans; amendments to Ofwat’s water company licensing process; amendments to when abstraction licences can be varied or revoked without compensation; powers to amend requirements relating to the chemical status of water bodies; and powers to amend the land valuation process for internal drainage board (IDB) charges.

Part 6 of the Bill provides for the creation of a new biodiversity net gain requirement, in England, of 10% for developers though the planning system. Gains will be mandatory and maintained for at least 30 years. They will be measured using a biodiversity metric that has been developed by Defra. It also expands the duty on relevant authorities from “conserving” to “conserving and enhancing” biodiversity; and requires the creation of Local Nature Recovery Strategies to cover the whole of England.

Part 7 of the Bill legislates for the introduction of voluntary legally binding conservation covenants between landowners and “responsible bodies” which conserve the natural or heritage features of the land.

Part 8 of the Bill provides powers to the Secretary of State to amend the EU REACH Regulation (registration, evaluation, authorisation and restriction of chemicals) in order to ensure an effective regulatory transfer of the EU REACH Regulation into the UK, and to allow future changes to be made. Powers are also provided to the Secretary of State and devolved authorities to amend REACH enforcement regulations.

What is new in the Bill?

The majority of the provisions in this Bill are substantially the same as its predecessor, although a number of minor technical changes have been made to the drafting. The substantive additions to the Bill are:

  • a requirement on Ministers to make a statement to Parliament setting out the effect of new primary environmental legislation on existing levels of environmental protection (Clause 19); and
  • a requirement on the Secretary of State to conduct a two-yearly review of the significant developments in international legislation on the environment, and to publish a report on their findings every two years (Clause 20).

How does the Bill apply to UK nations?

Most of the Bill extends to England and Wales and applies in England. There are some parts that extend to the whole of the UK or apply to specific UK nations. For example, there are specific provisions on environmental governance, managing waste and water quality that extend and apply to Northern Ireland only. Provisions on waste including producer responsibility, resource efficiency and exporting waste extend and apply to the whole of the UK, as do the provisions on environmental recall of motor vehicles, and the provisions on the regulation of chemicals.

Reaction to the Bill

Opposition parties have raised concerns that the Bill will water down current EU standards and will not stop the UK falling behind the UK on environmental standards.

Environmental campaign groups generally welcomed the principle and intentions of the Bill, responding positively to some changes the Government made since publication of the draft Bill, such as the expansion of the OEP’s remit to include climate change legislation. However, environment groups were disappointed not to see legally binding targets on the face of the Bill (as opposed to a commitment to set targets) and continued to call for the OEP to be fully independent from Government and to have stronger enforcement remedies.

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