Environment Agency chair Emma Howard-Boyd last week called for the Environment Bill published by government just before Christmas to be made relevant to all policy making and for the green standards it sets to be made collaboratively with stakeholders.
Speaking at Westminster Energy, Environment and Transport Forum last Thursday, Howard-Boyd (pictured) said of the Bill “there’s a lot to celebrate in it”. She included the new Office for Environmental Protection. Acknowledging “outstanding questions about its resource and ultimate powers”, she said: “We think the Office’s proposed approach – investigating complaints about environmental law and bringing about compliance through legal proceedings – could hold government and public bodies to account effectively.”
She also said: “By putting the 25 Year Environment Plan on a statutory footing, the Bill takes a world-leading step forward for environmental law, just as the Climate Change Act did ten years ago.”
However, she highlighted two “risks”. The first concerned environmental principles. She said the inclusion of principles which guide policy making were crucial: “Without them, deregulatory duties from other departments could override environmental protections from Defra.” She would like to see the policy which they influenced more broadly defined. The chair explained: “Clause 4 of the Bill ensures that ministers must ‘have regard to’ the principles when making policy decisions.
However, those policy decisions risk being narrowly defined. We would like to be certain all ministers will respect the principles. Embedding them in our domestic framework of policy and law would ensure that law and policy makers respect environmental principles, and decision makers – including courts – may refer to them.”
Of environmental standards, Howard-Boyd said: “This Bill can help foster the collaborative working environment we aspire to. The inclusion of a broad and transparent legal mechanism - to set environmental standards - would require business, government, regulators and NGO representatives to work together to establish what is achievable from an economic, social and environmental perspective. Without it, standards could be set in Whitehall alone. But with it, wider civil society would be able to help safeguard environmental protection for generations to come.”
Howard Boyd went on to say she looked forward to long term goals on specific ambitions that could come in part two of the Bill. This included legislation for mandatory biodiversity net gain: “We would like to see Environmental Net Gain as a long term ambition. The Bill has the flexibility to make this happen in the future.” And proposed legislation concerning the assessment and management of environmental risks. She said this could help the country manage water better “…by reducing damaging abstraction from rivers; by making improvements to long term planning for drainage and waste water; and by improving regional planning for water resources.”
Finally, the chair called for hard targets on climate change adaptation. “There is no point in building low carbon, energy efficient infrastructure that could be washed away in a flood or destroyed by heat,” she pointed out. “This Environment Bill is a close relative of the Climate Change Act, and both are still relatively young. By helping them to develop together - reducing emissions; making our country more resilient; and allowing continued prosperity – the UK can be a leader in a new and challenging global climate.”