The first broad Environment bill for more than 20 years will soon be brought before the Westminster Parliament. It could be the first law in the world to contain the express legal duty to leave our environment in better shape than we found it. But what might such a new law include, and what should we all be urging Ministers and MPs across all the political parties in England, to seek to achieve in the months ahead?
WWF has been working to answer those questions as a member of the Greener UK coalition of conservation and environment groups. Alongside the Wildlife Trusts, RSPB, National Trust, Woodland Trust and others, we mobilised 150 thousand people who have written to Environment Secretary Michael Gove to set out the headline contents of what we say could be a new world-leading Act of Parliament. One that really will set us on a positive path to the future and, following many decades of decline, pave the way for a period during which aspects of our environment will begin to improve.
In addition to making proposals for a robust new environmental governance system policed by an official watchdog with robust powers and bite, we have urged Ministers to adopt an ambitious approach toward not only the protection of the environment but crucially its recovery. This is because recent research tells of a most worrying situation, one in which many people breathe polluted air, most rivers are polluted and many wildlife species are heading toward rarity or even extinction in the UK.
With this in mind, we have asked Michael Gove to ensure that the new legislation for England has written into it a clear overarching duty on all public bodies to adopt policies and decisions that will lead to nature and our environment being left it in a better state than we found them. The approach we have now has helped in some cases to slow the decline of our environment, but this is not enough and now we need more ambition. Such a duty would clearly signal and require that.
That ambition is important not only for wildlife but also because a healthy natural environment is the foundation of our wellbeing, prosperity and security. In making sure that we set off with a clear sense of direction in rising to that new ambition, we have asked for a set of thematic and time-bound objectives. The Secretary of State will need to achieve these to comply with the overarching duty.
The objectives, we have said, should address a range of environmental issues, including in relation to air and water quality and improved soil health. There should also be objectives set out for the recovery of species, habitats and the health of ecosystems. We’ve also called for more explicit people-facing aims, for example, to ensure everyone has access to high-quality green space close to where they live.
Given the breadth of what needs to be done and the extent to which no single Government department has the means to achieve it alone, the new Environment Act should include a new duty on all Ministers, across departments, to contribute towards achieving the objectives and targets. Reports on overall progress would be prepared every year, published and independently scrutinised.
The new law would also enshrine citizens’ environmental rights into domestic law, including the right to environmental information and the right to participate in environmental decision making.
As we make the case to Ministers for this ambitious agenda it is important to remember that much of what we are seeking is already set out in the Government’s 25 Year Environment Plan. However, we need to go further than what it set out in that Plan and the proposed measures must have legal standing. Including and building on them in the new Environment Act would mean they have to be implemented as a matter of legal requirement; without this, they could simply gather dust and diminish in profile each time there is a change of Ministers, never mind a change of Government.
Looking forward, it is very clear that the strength and effectiveness of the new Act will be down to political choices. While some parts of the Government seem committed to environmental leadership, others are not. Under these circumstances, the outcome will be very much down to all of us, to public opinion and the strength of citizen demand.
If we all step up and demand action, then not only might we achieve something very special and important for our society and wildlife now, but also for the many generations who will wish to inhabit what could be a green, pleasant, vibrant and diverse land for centuries to come. The choices need to be taken now, and by working together we can make sure the right choices are made.
If you believe that a new world-leading Environment Act should be adopted by the Westminster Parliament, then please write to your MP to say that you hope they will support such a step.