The environment bill – now the Environment Act 2021 – prioritises five principles of integration, prevention, rectification, precaution and polluter pays, each of which ministers must consider when formulating new policy. Its stated intention is to ensure that the UK is at the legal forefront of reducing negative impacts on the environment.
The Act introduces a diverse range of targets, plans and policies outlined below.
- The Secretary of State can set long-term environmental targets through regulations and formulate an environmental improvement plan to address air quality, water, biodiversity, resource efficiency and waste reduction
- The Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) replaces the European equivalent and will monitor the progress of improving the natural environment. Its functions include creation of legislation on climate change, dealing with enforcement, monitoring, reporting, advice and scrutiny
- Existing legislation regarding waste and resource efficiency will be amended and enhanced. For instance, the Act provides increased powers to both regulate the shipment of hazardous waste and adjust labelling on the recyclability and durability of products
- Air quality and environmental recall measures increase local authority powers to impose financial penalties, the Secretary of State’s ability to recall products that do not meet emission standards and the duty of the Secretary of State to review and report on air quality strategy
- An objective to secure resilient water and wastewater services will be implemented through increasing the duties of water companies in relation to water resource management plans and drought plans. Sewerage companies must prepare, publish and maintain drainage and sewerage management plans
- In order to enhance nature and biodiversity, all development planning permissions in England will contain a general condition requiring biodiversity gain plans to be submitted and approved before commencement of development. Future development must achieve at least a 10% increase in biodiversity.
- The Act introduces conservation covenants . Binding subsequent landowners without further documentation, their aim is to bring more land and heritage assets into conservation management
- The Secretary of State possesses the power to add to or amend the transitional provisions of the Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and restriction of Chemicals regime (REACH). The REACH regime addresses the production and use of chemicals and their impacts on health and the environment. The purpose of this will be to ensure that the transfer of the REACH Regulation into UK law is effective and provides for future changes
Some sections of the Act were strongly debated during its passage through parliament. This includes the Secretary of State’s ability to issue guidance to the OEP relating to its proposed enforcement policy.
This contrasts with the House of Lords’ proposal of complete discretion for the OEP, extending to enforcement and budget functions. Furthermore, the Act extended the remedial powers of the courts. Remedies can be implemented despite a risk of substantial hardship or of detriment to good administration.
Remedial action will be allowed if it is considered necessary to prevent serious environmental damage and if a reason of exceptional public interest exists. Finally, after debate between the House of Lords and government regarding sewerage release from storm overflows, it has been included that water companies must “secure a progressive reduction in adverse harm” or “strong enforcement action” could occur.
Water companies must publish annual reports of storm overflows and the government must publish a plan to reduce sewerage discharges and report on implementation to parliament.
In summary, the Act offers an ambitious and more stringent approach towards the UK improving its natural environment and complying with its 2030 targets. Much will rest on the regulations introduced under the Act. It provides a framework but, in many areas, it is the regulations which will provide the detail. The Secretary of State has very wide powers as to what they might cover.