Government tables Environment Bill amendments to ‘halt’ biodiversity decline by 2030

The new amendments seek to strengthen the legal language around the UK's biodiversity efforts

Defra has issued changes to the Environment Bill that if passed would introduce new efforts that deploy local recovery strategies for biodiversity, tackle water pollution and strengthen the function of the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP).

The amendments include a new statutory target to “halt” species decline by 2030, in what is a deliberate attempt to “strengthen the legal language” of the UK’s nature-based efforts. It builds on the G7’s commitment to halting and reverting the loss of biodiversity by 2030.

Environment Secretary George Eustice said: “The Environment Bill is at the vanguard of our work to implement the most ambitious environmental programme of any country on earth.

“We have been clear about the need, and our intention, to halt the decline of our natural environment, and so we are strengthening our world-leading target to put this beyond doubt. It will be a challenging task, but halting this decline is a crucial part of our commitment to be the first generation to leave our environment in a better state. Our new package of measures on storm overflows will help crack down on the pollution in our rivers, waterways and coastlines, to better tackle the harm that they cause.”

Additional amendments focus on the OEP, which will have its independence “safeguarded” by greater parliamentary scrutiny.

The amendments will also introduce new guidance for local planning authorities to explain how they should take into account new Local Nature Recovery Strategies. Earlier this month, the Government opened a consultation to gain a better understanding of how nature-based solutions can assist with local strategies to contribute to rewilding and the Environment Bill, as part of a wider move across England to create or restore 500,000 hectares of wildlife habitat.

The consultation will focus on Local Nature Recovery Strategies, which are designed to drive the recovery of natural landscape and wildlife by creating frameworks for local areas to prioritise certain solutions and map new proposals. The Strategies will form part of the national Nature Recovery Network, which plans to create or restore 500,000 hectares of wildlife habitat outside protected sites.

Bill delays

The Bill returned to Parliament in May following a series of coronavirus-related delays.

The Bill was first introduced in 2019 and sets out the UK’s plans for delivering against the long-term targets of the 25-Year Environment Bill after Brexit. To the Brexit point, the UK will not be able to formally launch its independent watchdog, the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP), until the Bill receives Royal Assent. Ministers expect the body to be running in an interim, non-statutory form from this July.

Amendments to have been made to the Bill since it was last in Parliament provide more clarity on the Department for Food, Environment and Rural Affairs’ (Defra) commitment to legally binding targets on topics including nature, water and waste.

Now, the Bill includes a legally binding target on species abundance for 2030. The overall aim is to halt species decline for all declining populations, including hedgehogs, red squirrels, water voles and certain kinds of bat. The landmark 2019 State of Nature report revealed that 41% of the UK’s native plant and animal species have declined since 1970, with the trend set to accelerate without intervention.

The Bill has also added new duties on water pollution. Defra will be required to publish a plan to reduce sewage discharges from storm overflows by September 2022 and report to Parliament on the progress towards implementing the plan.  

Industry reaction

Environmental Audit Committee Chairman, Rt Hon Philip Dunne MP, said: “I welcome the latest Government amendments to the Environment Bill on storm overflows. These provisions could be a large step forward, building on some of the measures proposed in my Private Members Bill last year, to improve transparency, biodiversity and water quality. During the Committee’s inquiry into water quality, we have heard horror stories of unreported discharges into rivers from waste water treatment works. This requirement on sewerage companies to monitor continuously and report in near real time on water quality upstream and downstream, can help to identify problem areas much more quickly.

“There must be no excuse for illegal sewage spills. Another welcome amendment helps prepare the ground for eliminating overflows entirely. Water companies have a responsibility to protect our precious waterways that are so often plagued with unacceptable pollution threatening wildlife and human health. The amendments today may also increase protections for recreational water users: properly implemented, EDM real time data can make it possible for people to see whether it is safe to swim.”

The Rivers Trust chief executive Mark Lloyd said: “The first step towards clean and healthy rivers is a shared understanding of the source and impact of pollutants.  This amendment will give us a lot more information to develop that understanding and make informed decisions about how to manage the problems.  The next step is a very significant investment in modernising our drainage infrastructure and widespread deployment of nature-based solutions to reduce the peak volumes of surface water.”

CEN Parliamentary Caucus member Tracey Crouch MP said: “I am delighted that the government has today committed to set a firm target to halt the decline of nature by 2030. This has the potential to be the nature equivalent to our net-zero target for greenhouse gas emissions, putting our efforts to address nature loss on a par with our world leading agenda to tackle climate change.

“Restoring our natural environment will create new jobs, help to tackle climate change, reduce flooding, and widen access to green spaces for the benefit of public health and wellbeing. This is another milestone in UK leadership on the environment.”

Matt Mace

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