Richard Andrews reports on how the Environment Bill can help businesses progress in the UK following Brexit.
The government’s intention to bring forward the first Environment Bill in more than 20 years, building upon the 25 year environment plan, was announced in July 2018. This bill is intended to clarify how we can reduce our impact on the environment and ensure that environmental protections do not deteriorate as Brexit progresses.
Once the UK leaves the EU, existing environmental principles that are currently set out in EU treaties will not apply. The European Commission can act if it considers that EU law is not being properly implemented, referring cases to the European Court of Justice where necessary.
The UK government’s environmental principles and governance consultation in May 2018 did not suggest equivalent enforcement powers for the proposed independent body to address this governance gap. However, this consultation was superseded by the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, giving the government six months to publish a draft Environment Bill and including a minimum set of environmental principles, a duty on the Secretary of State for the Environment to publish a policy statement on the interpretation and application of those principles, and provisions to establish a new body to take enforcement action when environmental law is breached.
Legal enforcement powers should remain available, albeit as a last resort, when environmental law is breached – particularly as the consistent application of environmental regulations is key for creating a level playing field that supports business investment.
Preserving the future
Fundamentally, the Environment Bill should include provisions that deliver upon the government’s intentions, going forward. The bill will establish an independent environmental watchdog and incorporate environmental principles into UK law, and represents a unique opportunity to provide a legal basis for the government’s environmental ambitions in the 25 year environment plan.
The Withdrawal Act did not include provisions for forward-looking objectives in the draft Environment Bill, as Defra has focused on the parts it is legally obliged to deliver. However, a separate statement could be issued, setting out the government’s intentions in this area, once the final bill is introduced in 2019. The Environment Bill is therefore an important opportunity to define long term and measurable goals that help improve the state of the environment and give businesses clear signals that they should invest in environmental improvements. Specific and measurable targets could be established in legislation to cover, for example, improvements to air and water quality, soil health, peatland restoration, net biodiversity gain and the UK economy’s resource efficiency – all reinforced by clear milestones.
Once in legislation, these goals can be used to form environmental policies in the medium term and to provide long term policy direction to business. They would also help create a supportive policy and regulatory framework after Brexit, ensuring the government is accountable for the delivery of the set goals. An environmental body equipped with independent advisory and scrutiny powers would be able to report on the development of government policy to deliver the goals.
If implemented properly, the bill could also bolster the British economy. When launching the 25 year environment plan in January 2018, Theresa May recognised that investing in natural assets and improving the economy’s resource efficiency is vital to the UK’s competitiveness.
While some feel environmental regulations hinder economic growth, recent research commissioned by the Aldersgate Group (of which Ramboll is a member) suggests that well-designed and properly enforced environmental regulations could deliver positive economic outcomes in the form of increased business investment in innovation and skills, better quality products and infrastructure, greater business competitiveness and job creation.
The legal guidelines provided by the Environment Bill will help to shape the UK’s environmental policies post-Brexit. It is vital that measurable goals and an effective regulator are included in the Bill, so it sends a clear message for investment and innovation in environmental improvements. We can help the UK become a world leader in this field by tapping into the green economy.
Richard Andrews PIEMA is a managing principal at Ramboll