New Environment Bill proposals give hope but there is more to do
Senior conservation adviser
The Environment Bill is now passing through Parliament after finally being released this week. The first of its kind for 20 years, it’s designed to set out the regulations around how best to manage the environment in England. Some of the provisions also relate to Northern Ireland.
So far, we think it's a good start towards ensuring the environment is healthy, resilient and sustainable for the future. But it lacks clarity and detail on how it will be resourced and delivered. We’ll be working with our partners to get these concerns addressed.
We all rely on nature, and we have a responsibility to protect and restore wildlife and the wider environment wherever possible.
When the draft Environment Bill was produced in December 2018, we largely welcomed it. But at the same time, we recognised its shortcomings and the huge environmental governance gap that it leaves. Since then, we’ve been working with our partners in Greener UK to lobby government to improve on the proposals.
Credit: Philip Formby / WTML
New proposals unveiled
On 15 October, the Government included an Environment Bill in the Queen’s Speech. The Bill itself was published the next day, including the Government response to the Defra consultation on local authority tree duties and Forestry Commission enforcement powers.
It’s time to put words into practice
The Environment Bill proposals are a big step forward. The inclusion of climate within the Office for Environmental Protection’s remit is noteworthy. So are the requirements within the Bill to set targets and push forward local nature recovery networks.
But more needs to be done. We and our Greener UK partners would like to see:
- sufficient resources for delivery dedicated for national agencies, such as Natural England and local authorities
- greater clarity around the independence of the OEP
- a commitment to ‘non-regression’ of standards.
Non-regression means that UK standards are not lower than those imposed by EU law. This is an obvious omission as the Government elsewhere states it will not lower environmental standards and wants to be a world leader!
We note that the Environment Bill does not move forward the call for a national tree strategy for England to be required by law, as is the case in Scotland. Work is already underway in developing this strategy, so we hope this could be a relatively straightforward amendment to the bill. It would certainly send out a positive signal about the importance of trees to the Government.
Joining up policy
There is a need for strong links to the Agriculture Bill, which was also proposed in the Queen’s Speech. There must be a firm focus on rewarding land managers for delivering environmental public goods, like improved habitats for nature and flood alleviation. Increasing tree cover will be a key part of delivering these benefits. We are, as always, ready to play our part through woodland creation projects such as the Northern Forest.
We would also like to see more focus on soil quality and quantity in both bills.
Consultation on tree duties bears fruit
Alongside the draft Environment Bill in December 2018, a consultation was launched. It focused on plans for new measures for felling street trees and the Forestry Commission’s power to deal with illegal tree felling.
We submitted our own detailed response and ran a campaign for you to have your say too. You joined us in droves - the Government response confirms over 80% of the total 4,671 responses were Woodland Trust supporters. Huge thanks for your phenomenal response. Your voice continues to make a difference.
The new Environment Bill consequently includes a legal duty to consult before felling street trees, and stronger powers for the Forestry Commission too.
We welcome the need for local consultation before beginning street tree felling programmes. It’s important that this is properly resourced, and that funding is ring-fenced. Thought must also be given to the technical detail around applying this duty in practice. It must draw on the experience of local communities around the UK. There can be no loopholes that leave valued trees vulnerable from ambiguity in the definitions.
The other local authority duties suggested in the consultation were to:
- report tree losses and gains
- produce a local authority tree strategy.
The Government has decided not to take these forward. It says the bill’s proposals for national biodiversity reporting will cover the reporting element. It also plans to publish local tree strategy guidance. We look forward to working together to make sure these are as robust as possible.
We also welcome the strengthening of the Forestry Commission’s powers in relation to illegal felling. We want to see this properly funded too.
What happens now?
The bill has its second reading in Parliament next week, when the whole House will debate its principles. In normal circumstances, the bill would then progress to scrutiny by committee and further debates in both Houses before becoming an Act.
But if a general election is called soon, all bills in the Queen’s Speech will fall. The bill proposals are likely to be the basis of the environmental aspects of the Conservative Party, so we will be examining other party manifestoes to see how they compare.
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