The government announced this week that the Environment Bill is to be postponed, once again, due to a fear that there isn’t enough time left in the parliamentary schedule this term to scrutinise it.
The Bill, which was part of Boris Johnson’s original spate of legislation, was put on hold for six months in March 2020 due to Covid-19 and will now face another six-month pause as it is held until the State Opening of the next Parliament - sometime after June - so that it doesn’t fall through the cracks of the legislative schedule.
It was a move that was panned by environmental organisations and MPs alike, with CLA President Mark Bridgeman describing the delay as "hugely unhelpful for the rural sector". During the parliamentary debate, senior MPs highlighted an environmental governance gap that has emerged, following Britain’s departure from the EU. The Bill redraws the environmental protections that the UK was signed up to when in the EU and contains important targets on air quality and protecting wildlife.
With Britain set to host COP26 in Glasgow in September, there is some urgency in achieving Royal Assent by then in order to avoid political embarrassment. Defra has given assurances that work on the Bill will continue outside of Parliament, such as the creation of the Office for Environmental Protection, which is to be a watchdog for UK environmental standards. But the delay risks fostering a narrative that tackling climate change just isn’t high enough on the government’s agenda, and this could undermine the UK’s ability for environmental leadership.
The CLA has briefed MPs on the importance of the Bill, with its robust framework for environmental governance, and long-term plans and targets. It is vital, though, that the Bill takes a holistic view of the environment, economy and society with policies that are balanced between these three pillars, as well as dovetailing with the Agriculture Act and Environmental Land Management schemes.
The problems of today risk worsening the problems of tomorrow, and the government must make sure they are on top of it.