Environment Act 2021 - a review

Melanie Oxley, a local ecologist and campaigner for wildlife has critiqued the new Environment Act 2021.

The passage of the new Environment Act was finally achieved, after many delays, at the same time as the UK co-hosted COP26 in Glasgow. Owing to successful lobbying by NGO’s, the Environment Act received Royal Assent in a much-strengthened form.

The Act aims to tackle air, water and waste pollution, stemming and reversing biodiversity loss and thereby improving public health. It brings together a number of recent strategies that were drip-fed to the media ahead of COP26.

There is much to welcome in this new piece of environmental legislation, especially since the essential relationship between climate change and biodiversity loss is clearly made.

On waste and recycling there are stringent new measures to curb plastic pollution, with producer’s made to pay for the disposal of waste products including packaging, beside a ban on exporting waste abroad.

On water, the Act will help reduce harm from storm overflows into our waterways and coastlines. New statutory duties require government to publish a plan to deal with this by September 2022. Water companies and the Environment Agency will be required to work together to publish data on storm overflow operations annually. However, it remains a concern that water companies may be more willing to pay hefty fines than clean up their act, as illustrated by the £90m fine paid by Southern Water for unlawful discharges into the sea and rivers in recent months.

There is surprisingly little said about sea and coast protection: what protection these areas have in the UK is largely down to the National Trust (780 miles of coastline), the Crown Estate (tidal sea-bed), and the RSPB, who between them probably manage approximately 30% of our coastline.

The Dasgupta Review, a ‘state of nature’ report commissioned by the UK Treasury in 2020, showed that over the last 50 years, much of the UK’s wildlife-rich habitat has been lost or degraded and many of our once common species are in long-term decline. It found the UK to be one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world(1). Following these findings, the Environment Act now requires new legally binding targets on species abundance for 2030, aiming to halt the decline of nature in England. It aims to do this through a variety of landscape-scale measures delivered through separate strategies, including Defra’s new Environmental Land Management Schemes (ELMS), which pave the way for farming for biodiversity as much as for food.

The inclusion of a legally-binding 2030 species abundance target has the potential to boost efforts to reverse the decline in wildlife and will help put the UK on the path towards protecting 30% of land and sea for nature by 2030, a specific target in the Act, now known as “30 by 30”. A new requirement for planning applications to demonstrate Biodiversity Net Gain will encourage developers to put nature back into planning, whilst the responsibility to develop Local Nature Recovery Strategies has been placed on local authorities and other large landowners. The hope is that these measures, along with a revised National Policy Planning Framework (NPPF, which was withdrawn earlier this year following outcry from a number of organisations), will create the framework for a national system of interconnected sites for nature recovery.

Yet the Environment Act does not live up to Environment Secretary George Eustice’s promise to be “a world leading piece of legislation”. Plans for an Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) have been improved by ministers, but the Secretary of State retains the ability to provide the OEP with “guidance”, which will seriously undermine its independence. The Government resisted placing a statutory duty on local authorities to produce Local Nature Recovery Strategies(3) (which our own COP26 East Hampshire recommended in fact), but it is encouraging that Natural England be given more funding and stronger legal powers, and will continue to use EU Habitats Directive Regulations.

Some bold remarks are made about bringing back lost wildlife: plans for further beaver introductions (an estimated 50-60 have been released clandestinely to date) and acknowledgement of their role in natural water-management, is excellent. On the back of successful white-tailed eagle reintroductions, the golden eagle is singled out for conservation effort, but there is a lost opportunity to mention bringing back the wolf, leaving the UK still without a top predator.

There is an intriguing announcement in the Act encouraging older farmers to take early retirement so that more eco-friendly young farmers can take over. I presume this applies to tenant farmers in the main and will concern largely upland farms where golden eagle (and wolf?) could then be introduced without farmers running for their shotguns!

The Act points to the Government’s “England’s Trees Action Plan” which sets a target for tree-planting that is strangely low - only 12% canopy cover by 2050, presumably including existing canopy cover. This requires 30,000 hectares to be planted with trees each year from the date of the Environment Act. Conservation bodies, including the Petersfield Society, believe that 23% canopy cover is required, with much of this taking place in the urban environment.

The landscape-scale tree planting schemes that are proposed are woodland-sized, so probably large land-owners and farm clusters will apply under the ELMS. There is a concern we might go back to the old days of monocultures, but the Act does specify schemes that will replace cultivated land, and not wildlife habitat. Encouragingly, the Act includes new measures to protect England’s trees and woodlands from illegal and unnecessary felling.

Accusations of less than robust plans in the Act extend to the Government’s new Peat Strategy, which sounds good on the face of it and recognises the huge role played by peatland in storing carbon. But since we are now 30 years on from Plantlife’s call for a moratorium on peat extraction, the measure is too late for much of our degraded peatland and moorland. The proposed ban on peat sales in the UK (from 2023) applies only to the amateur gardening public. Supermarket suppliers, commercial horticulture, and research establishments such as Forest Research, will continue to use huge amounts of peat in intensive nurseries. Until lately 70% of this peat came from Ireland and other European countries, so an EU ban on extraction as well as a ban on imports, is required to protect these areas of the temperate north(2). Some limited controls on muirburn in Scotland were included in the Strategy, but landowners need only apply for a licence to set fire to their heather. Despite the headlines, and a restoration scheme, the Peat Strategy does not go far enough to protect such valuable areas.

Much of the success of the new Environment Act will depend on resourcing and enabling Government agencies such as Natural England, the Forestry Commission and the Environment Agency in particular, so that the necessary funding and legal powers will facilitate their role in delivering the measures in the Act. I fear that without it we will continue to see habitats decline and rivers badly polluted.

 

(1) Here in the UK, one in seven species is at risk of extinction and 58% species are in decline. On our very doorstep, the numbers of iconic UK species such as the hedgehog and water vole are in freefall and face joining other threatened species in the history books. When compared internationally, the UK is in the bottom 10% in terms of how much biodiversity still survives here.
(2) Ireland has now declared a moratorium on peat extraction following a High Court ruling. It now imports peat from Latvia.
(3) The Lord Benyon Committee is due to produce a Green Paper on land protection in this term.