This landmark piece of legislation will ensure the UK can deliver the most ambitious environmental programme of any country; transforming how we protect our natural environment, make better use of our resources and clean up our air and water. I am pleased that the Act developed over its time in Parliament with new measures and amendments put forward by the Government to help strengthen it further and to make sure we continue to build back greener and remain a global leader in tackling environmental issues following COP26.
The Act was amended to include measures that will allow ministers to introduce charges on all single-use items, not just plastics – helping to cut waste and put an end to throwaway culture. In addition, further new measures will help landowners to secure long-term environmental benefits through conservation covenants, as well as better protect ancient woodland in England.
The Government also amended the Act to include a new, historic, legally binding target on species abundance for 2030 to halt the decline of nature, and to address the unacceptable amount of sewage discharged by water companies into our rivers.
I am glad that the Environment Act explicitly provides for the OEP’s independence and includes specific safeguards to ensure this, including a legal duty on ministers to have regard to the need to protect the OEP’s independence. I am assured that ministers will have no powers of direction, nor can they intervene in decision making about individual cases. Because of these reasons, the amendment was not deemed necessary and was therefore not accepted by Parliament.
However, I am aware that there are exemptions provided in the Environment Act from the requirement to have due regard to the policy statement on environmental principles. These are for the armed forces, defence or national security and include taxation, spending or the allocation of resources within government. I am assured that these exemptions are limited but critical, to allow swift responses to urgent threats, flexibility to alter the UK’s fiscal position, and decisions about macroeconomic issues which are too remote from the principles for them to be directly applicable. I understand that the principles will still apply to the way funds are spent by departments once they have been allocated.
I am glad that the Environment Act has now completed its passage into law. It is encouraging that in this year of COP26, the Environment Act is at the core of delivering the Government’s manifesto commitment to deliver the most ambitious environmental programme of any country on earth and leave our environment in a better state than we found it.