Just before Christmas, the Secretary of State for Environment published the first part of the much awaited environment bill - the Draft Environment (Principles and Governance) Bill. With other sections of the bill due to be published this month, I want to pull out some highlights from this first part now.
The proposals in the bill cover the following subjects:
- air quality
- water quality
- marine, coastal and nature conservation
- waste management
- pollution and contaminated land.
It is proposed that it will not cover forestry, flooding, town and country planning, most climate change law relating to the emission of greenhouse gases, navigation and cultural heritage. This scope is likely to be very controversial and the subject of much debate.
Some environmental principles such as 'the polluter pays', sustainable development, access to information and the precautionary principle will be enshrined in statute. There will also be a "policy statement on environmental principles" that will help their interpretation and application.
This will likely have implications on waste and producer responsibility laws as, combined with the new waste strategy, businesses will see a tightening of the rules on how we dispose of our waste (including batteries) and who pays for packaging waste. It is also likely that the interpretation and enforcement of the 'polluter pays' principle will put greater pressure on the Environment Agency and Local Authorities to inspect for contaminated land.
The Secretary of State will have a duty to prepare an "environmental improvement plan" at least every 15 years and monitor its implementation. These plans, and alongside the current 25 year environment plan which also features in the bill, will set out not only how to maintain current environmental standards, but also how to improve them. Farmers may see a tightening of nitrates and phosphates regulations, impacting on their subsidies for public goods. Industry will have to ensure that business models fit within these improvement parameters, including permit compliance, as monitoring is likely to be stepped up.
The bill will also introduce a new environmental regulator – the Office for Environment Protection ("OEP").
The OEP will advise on, monitor and scrutinise the implementation of the environment plans, as well as the application of the environmental principles which the bill enshrines in law.
The OEP will also have a general responsibility to ensure that environmental law is implemented properly. It will have the power to hold ministers and other public authorities to account in the courts and can take complaints directly from the public. This will no doubt tighten the enforcement of environmental regulation and is likely to see more cases brought against our current regulators, the Environment Agency and Natural England, and even ministers. It is likely that this in turn will cause these other government institutions to become stricter in the application of their own enforcement powers.
The bill will have to go through Parliament and there will be more sections published later this month. It is expected to be passed in March, so now is the time for our clients to speak to us about how they can influence the law and to get to grips with how this legislation will impact them.