‘A critical milestone’: Environment Bill returns to parliament

The Environment Bill returns to parliament today with the governance of the new green watchdog, and interim targets for nature, air, water and waste, on the debate agenda this week.

The Environment Bill returns to parliament today. Photograph: Cezary Zarebski Photography/Getty Images The Environment Bill returns to parliament today. Photograph: Cezary Zarebski Photography/Getty Images

There will be four parliamentary debate sessions over the next two weeks as the bill enters its final stages in the House of Lords.

In August the government tabled a set of amendments, including on the bill’s species abundance target, sewage discharge measures, and the environmental watchdog body, the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP). 

READ MORE: 8 government Environment Bill amendments you need to know about

One significant amendment would remove the Environment Bill’s existing goal to “further the objective of halting” the decline in the abundance of species, and replace it with the target to “halt” the decline by 2030. The NGO coalition Wildlife and Countryside Link described this change as a “significant win for wildlife”. 

There were also some key amendments made which will affect rules around biodiversity net gain (BNG). 

One amendment in particular creates the power for the secretary of state to review and increase the duration for which new BNG sites must be secured, and partially responds to some fierce criticism the scheme had received. Another amendment published last week would require the secretary of state to “lay the biodiversity metric and any revised biodiversity metric before parliament”. 

READ MORE: Biodiversity net gain - The government’s latest amendments


However, these come alongside a raft of more than 100 fresh amendments from peers,  with the NGO coalition Greener UK commenting that the number of amendments “suggests big concerns remain”. 

The amendments tabled by peers include those on air quality, environmental principles and the OEP’s independence.

Ruth Chambers from the Greener UK coalition described the Environment Bill as reaching “a critical milestone” this week.

“The government has an ambitious environmental agenda”, she said, “but without further improvements the bill will lack the durable and independent governance framework needed to realise these ambitions”. She continued to single out the OEP as requiring ministers to work with peers to strengthen its independence and powers.

Green NGOs have repeatedly voiced concerns that the OEP will not be sufficiently independent of the government, and on Wednesday, peers are set to push for amendments that would remove the ability for the government to issue guidance to the body, and which would strengthen the courts in preventing environmental damage. 

An amendment tabled by Lord Krebs (Crossbench), Baroness Parminter (Liberal Democrat), Baroness Jones (Labour) and Lord Mackay (Conservative) would afford the OEP “complete discretion” in the carrying out of its functions, including in preparing its enforcement policy, exercising its enforcement functions and preparing and publishing its budget.

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