The Environment Bill: a lot at stake, a lot to win

Sarah Williams, Public Affairs Manager at the Aldersgate Group, reviews the framing of the Group’s recent response to the government’s environmental principles and governance consultation.

The beginning of August marked the end of the government’s environmental principles and governance consultation and a very busy three months. Given that much of post-Brexit policy is still an unknown, it was good to be able to focus on and respond to some concrete proposals – even if we felt they could be substantially strengthened.

The consultation set out to address the governance gap that will arise when the UK leaves the EU, both in terms of the continued enforcement of environmental law and our reliance on environmental principles that have guided the development of environmental law and policy in recent decades. In particular, it proposed to set up a new independent body to hold the government to account on environmental protection.

It was therefore unsurprising that the consultation was of great interest to the Aldersgate Group and our members. Particularly, as Nick Molho set out in a previous blog, well-designed and consistently enforced environmental regulations are good for business – they provide a stable environment for businesses to invest in, support innovation in new green solutions and products and provide a level playing field across the economy. We wanted to make sure that the government’s plans were based on a clear understanding of the potential economic and environmental benefits that a strong environmental regulatory framework can deliver.

Priorities for post-Brexit environmental governance

From the Aldersgate Group’s perspective, there were two important questions that needed to be considered when determining our response to the consultation: (i) will the proposals mean that the UK retains the strength of current environmental principles and enforcement mechanisms after Brexit; and (ii) will the Bill that enacts them put in place the fundamentals needed to go beyond the status quo and deliver the vision of the government’s 25 Year Environment Plan?

The European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 helped address our concerns on the first question. The consultation proposals for the enforcement powers of the new body were not equivalent to those currently held by the European Commission and the Act stipulated that the body will have legal proceedings at its disposal if necessary. Advisory notices will be an important first step but legal enforcement powers must continue to be available as a last resort if environmental law is breached. If provided with these, the new body will help ensure businesses have confidence in the UK’s commitment to high environmental standards going forward and will trust that these standards will be properly and consistently monitored and enforced. The consistent application of environmental regulations is key in creating a level playing field that supports business investment.

On the second question, the consultation did not suggest that the Bill will include objectives to ensure the vision of the 25 Environment Plan is delivered. Given the busy parliamentary timetable in the years ahead and the government’s commitment to have a world leading environmental policy framework after Brexit, this was a missed opportunity and one that the Prime Minister recently addressed during a Liaison Committee appearance. She announced that the government will bring forward the first Environment Bill in over 20 years and that she intended it to be ambitious. By incorporating a few specific and measurable natural environment improvement goals that can help deliver the vision of the 25 Year Environment Plan, these targets can then genuinely shape environmental policies in the next couple of decades, provide much needed long-term policy direction to business and help drive private investment in the natural environment.

A collective effort

There is still much work to do – in fleshing out these long-term objectives and underpinning them with clear metrics and milestones, and crucially in ensuring that the new body is truly independent and properly resourced to fulfil all its enforcement and advisory functions. Thankfully a lot of people are ready to support government in delivering this. The process of compiling a consultation response always involves a lot of input from our members but given the landmark nature of this consultation, they were particularly responsive and thoughtful in their contributions. Our response was based on a full member roundtable that we held to discuss the consultation and hone the business case for the new body to have strong legal enforcement and advisory powers. We will continue to work with our members on the potential impact of ambitious environmental goals, particularly in helping to increase investment.

After all, there’s a lot at stake but also a lot to win: the establishment of legally binding goals backed by an effective and independent oversight, governance and advisory system will send clear market signals to business, help support increased investment in the natural environment and drive improved environmental protection after Brexit.

Sarah Williams is Public Affairs Manager at the Aldersgate Group