Environment Bill

Written evidence submitted by the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust [1] (EB11)

The Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust ("GWCT") welcomes the ambition and vision behind the Environment Bill. Whilst others are in a better position to comment on legal and statutory matters, our areas of expertise (biodiversity, conservation, agri-environment and game and wildlife management) require us to consider the Bill’s framework from a practical perspective.

As in our evidence on the Agriculture Bill we feel it is important to note that this Bill is only one part of a jigsaw of legislation and supporting policy statements. How this Bill, the Agriculture Bill, Food Strategy and Industrial Strategy work together will be important in ensuring that there are no unintended consequences or voids. An example being that compliance involves more than regulation and sanction; it involves understanding motive, incentive, encouragement and "soft governance". The latter is part of the ELM whilst the Environment Bill focus is on the legal and statutory aspects of environmental governance. The two need to ‘marry’ to deliver the Government’s ambition of attracting a "…very high take-up of our new scheme.." as stated by Victoria Prentis, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, in the Agriculture Public Bill Committee proceedings. In addition environmentally sustainable farming will be key to the delivery of the targets within the Environment Bill. There is therefore an argument for each bill and strategy to cross-reference the other.

Whilst we recognise that the Bill forms the legal framework for future policy to "flesh out", we wish to make the following points in order to encourage the future proofing of such an important guiding piece of legislation:

1. Lack of coordination across the governance framework

1.1. There needs to be continuity between the Environment Bill’s targets and priority areas and those outlined in the 25YEP or any future EIP. Clause 7 specifies that a future EIP is a plan "for significantly improving the natural environment". The definition of natural environment (Clause 41) states that it "means-

(a)plants, wild animals and other living organisms, 

(b)their habitats, 

(c)land (except buildings or other structures), air and water,

and the natural systems, cycles and processes through which they interact."

1.2. It does not appear to us that the priority areas specified in the Bill are comprehensive enough to achieve the overall aim of "improving the natural environment". See point 2.

1.3. Also the target areas do not fully reflect the stated goals of the 25YEP. The two need to be complementary (see also 5 below).

2. Soil restoration

2.1. Given the impact of soil loss on the environment (and associated costs estimated by Government to be £1.2bn annually) we believe that soil should be a specific priority area; reference to biodiversity is not enough to protect this important natural resource.

2.2. Significantly Government has amended the Agriculture Bill to reflect its value to society; the Environment Bill needs a similar amendment to emphasise the environmental damage caused by soil loss such as the impact on riverine and estuarial habitats through sedimentation and eutrophication; flooding due to sediment build up in water courses; and, loss of organic C from the soil bank (c3% of organic C is lost due to soil erosion).

3. Domestic standards need to be based on weight of scientific evidence and not on non-regression.

3.1. We believe that amendments that call for the inclusion of the Non-regression principle in the Bill should be resisted on the basis that the ambition behind the Bill and accompanying policy statement means that its inclusion is unnecessary.

3.2. We are not lawyers and so are unable to comment on whether this is the case. Our fear is that the non-regression principle is seen as an easy way to ensure non-divergence from EU standards but in some cases EU standards and regulations are not based on scientific evidence and therefore not fit for purpose eg water quality standards (see under 9 below).

3.3. Governance by the EU has been ineffective in preventing environmental decline in biodiversity and soils. Now is the time for this Government to step up to the challenge and to review existing standards and regulations in the light of scientific scrutiny and adopt those that deliver whilst using the Environment Bill’s ambition to establish new standards where appropriate.

4. Environmental principles

4.1. Innovation principle: The statement on environmental principles should be amended to include the Innovation Principle (a point made by Owen Paterson MP in the second reading debate). This is a vital balancing principle to the Precautionary principle, which gets ignored in the regulatory environment.

4.2. Policy statement: we hope that the accompanying policy statement will encourage a science-led interpretation of the environmental principles and in particular to consider weight of evidence in the situations being assessed. Amending Clause 17(2) to include scientific expertise would ensure this is undertaken.

5. Establishing targets

5.1. We welcome the ambition of setting targets in law as this provides a means of holding Government to account.

5.2. But we are concerned that as of today many of the key environmental indicators do not have relevant or robust metrics. This point was made by the National Audit Office in its 2019 report which stated that "There remains a patchwork of sets of metrics that do not align clearly with government’s overall objectives or with each other. .." and "while government collects and reports a wide range of environmental data, there are some important gaps [eg] soil health .."

5.3. Broadgate in their submission to the EFRA enquiry on the 2019 Bill suggested that "specified ‘matters’ are considered in setting targets " as this would avoiding perverse outcomes and enable confidence in the system over the long term. They went onto propose some suggested matters such as scientific knowledge relevant to the environment
and the coherence of environmental targets as a whole and how they cohere at relevant spatial scales. Two points we are making throughout this submission.

5.4. This would also allow for unforeseen impacts such as ecological changes in species range and abundance due to climate change. Such impacts often reflect a global rather than a domestic context and so attainment of legal targets maybe compromised by factors outside our control.

5.5. We would also argue that "independent" and "relevant" advice should include practitioners.

5.6. If targets are set in law there needs to be a robust review framework in place to provide suitable accountability. This is important to ensure that targets are not simply abandoned or re-set eg Biodiversity 2020 targets.

5.7. Given the Government’s ambition the requirement that the Secretary of State must make regulations in respect of "at least one matter within each priority area" is concerning. How do you monitor biodiversity in one metric?

6. Scientific evidence

6.1. In our view it is important that environmental targets are based in sound science.

6.2. To this end we propose that Clause 1(4) (a) should include a requirement that the standard should be based on scientific evidence. We would also suggest that clause 3(1) should also include scientific advice. See also 4.2 and 9.

7. Significant improvement test

7.1. As currently drafted this clause is not in our opinion sufficiently robust. What does "significant improvement" mean?

7.2. Furthermore we are concerned about the expression "Environmental Improvement". Environmental protection is defined but environmental improvement is not. In our opinion "improvement" is not sufficient as it provides no condition or basis from which to judge the improvement. It is clear Government does not want to encourage a "trash and improve" approach to the environment.

7.3. We therefore suggest more appropriate wording be found such as "maintenance, restoration or enhancement of the natural environment" (from the definition of environmental protection) or "protecting, restoring and enhancing" the environment.

8. Water abstraction

8.1. Others have criticised the proposal in Clause 80 to not pay compensation for licence modifications. We wish to make a broader point. We understand the need to achieve water management but this would be better achieved by focussing on the need to achieve water efficiency and to considering current planning attitudes to on-farm reservoirs.

8.2. Water efficiency could be improved through for example harvesting rainwater from new developments but there is no policy to promote or require this. Such an approach would reduce water companies energy costs, a substantial part of which are due to pumping water between locations.

9. Water quality

9.1. Clause 81 allows the Secretary of State to amend or modify water quality legislation. Whilst the clause goes onto stipulate that the Environment Agency (or devolved agency) and those affected must be consulted, it makes no reference to having a scientific basis for any amendment or modification.

9.2. This is important as the water companies spend considerable amounts of money on mixing and treating water to meet the regulations.

9.3. Current regulations state that there should only be 50mg/l of nitrates and 0.1ppm of pesticides present. These quality targets are not based on current science. For example the figure for pesticides of 0.1ppm represented the limit of detection (and to put it in context equates to 3 grains of salt in an Olympic sized swimming pool) at the time the target was set rather than a limit driven by human health and environmental concerns.

9.4. The 50mg/l limit for Nitrates is way below any level that might be considered to be needed to be protective of human health. Indeed the figure was arbitrarily set. We need to consider whether the costs of maintaining this level is justified when the money could be better used to achieve greater effect. Some would consider this as a lowering of standards; we would consider it a re-setting of standards to reflect scientific opinion.

9.5. This is one area where non-regression could have unforeseen consequences.

10. Conservation covenants

10.1. Clause 102 is silent on the term and therefore we are concerned that it can be held to apply forever (a point raised by Jerome Mayhew MP in the second reading debate of the Bill).

10.2. It is important that a minimum defined period is provided to encourage participation.

11. Local Nature Recovery Strategies

11.1. We would like to see the content of the LNRSs helping to combine the already existing spatial environmental data rather than create a new ‘layer’.

11.2. A fragmented approach will make it more difficult to achieve multiple benefits simultaneously.

March 2020

For further information please contact:

Dr Alastair Leake

Director of Policy & Allerton Project

[1] We are a leading UK charity conducting conservation science to enhance the British countryside for public benefit. We use our research to provide training and advice on how best to improve the biodiversity of the countryside. www.gwct.org.uk



Prepared 12th March 2020