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All we want for Christmas... is a decent Environment Bill

All we want for Christmas... is a decent Environment Bill

Our environment is, and impacts on, everything we are and do, individually and as a nation. The environment is our local park, hedgehogs in our garden, the stunning Valley of the Rocks in Exmoor or Britain’s oldest road, the Ridgeway. It’s the bees, wasps, moths and more that pollinate crops and are worth more than £400 million per year to British farming. It’s the 10 billion tonnes of carbon stored in soils. Leaving the EU will mean we need new rules to protect and manage all of it.

It is difficult to escape Brexit debates at the moment – deals, no deals, Green Brexits, hard Brexits and everything in between – so I’m sorry to bring it up again.

Nobody knows exactly what’s going to happen. However, in this world of uncertainty, one thing that has to happen before Christmas - apart from your Christmas shopping – is the publication of the first part of a draft Environment Bill outlining the Government’s approach to environmental principles and governance.

I can’t stress enough just how important the Environment Bill will be. It will set the direction of environmental policy for decades, with far-reaching consequences.

The Environment Bill will create a watchdog, and determine how the Government and public authorities can be held to account if they do harm to the environment – if they allows dangerously high levels of air pollution, for example.

It will also determine the over-arching principles that make sure all new laws are made with their impact on the environment in mind – things like the ‘polluter pays’ principle, which means the people or companies that do harm are responsible for cleaning it up.

Finally, it will set out what responsibilities the Government will have to measure how well it is safeguarding the environment, and how it should set targets for improving this. This could be a once-in-a-generation opportunity to raise the bar on crucial issues such as improving habitats for wildlife, enhancing the landscape or tackling plastic waste.

The nine principles we know will be in the Bill so far, such as the ‘polluter pays’ principle, are welcome, but they are yet to be defined. The proposals for a watchdog are also good, but lack real teeth. The watchdog needs to be able to take the Government to court, issue fines, and climate change has to be in its remit. Ultimately, there needs to be more ambition.

We still don’t know exactly what will be published in the next few weeks, but I can envisage two routes of travel, which are a result of two very different schools of thought:

  • On the one hand there’s a loud lobby who believe environmental protection and regulation is bad for economic growth. Who believe businesses can only thrive when deregulated. And who believe irrevocable damage to nature, the climate, the countryside and public health is a small price to pay for profit.
  • On the other side, environmental protection is viewed as an absolute necessity. It is a vote-winner across all audiences, particularly for young people. And it is a fundamental duty of Government to ‘leave the environment in a better state than we found it’.

At CPRE, we subscribe to the latter approach. For development and growth to be sustainable, it must never take place at the expense of the environment.

Professor Johan Rocsktröm, a global sustainability expert, made this point powerfully at WWF’s State of the Planet Address in November. He defined sustainable development, one of the nine principles in the Bill, as: ‘human prosperity and social inclusion, within planetary boundaries’. This is the fundamental ambition the Environment Bill should seek to deliver.

We will be arguing for an ambitious Environment Bill that shares our vision for a sustainable environment, a thriving countryside, better connected to our communities, where we all prosper within the limits of what our natural world can cope with. But we’ll need your help to do this.

The draft Bill to be published before Christmas is only the first step in a complex legislative process to make the Environment Act a reality. We are hopeful it will be an ambitious document, but we are not complacent. We will be working with the Greener UK coalition (a group of environmental organisations) to influence the Bill. There will also be opportunities for you to help us do this.

With this support, we will push MPs and the Government to craft a Bill based on cross-party consensus, which shares our ambition to enhance, protect and promote that which sustains our health, our wellbeing, our heart and soul: our incalculably valuable environment.

We will be arguing for an ambitious Environment Bill that shares our vision for a sustainable environment, a thriving countryside, better connected to our communities, where we all prosper within the limits of what our natural world can cope with.




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