After 1,056 days, three Queen’s speeches, countless hours of drafting, campaigning, protest and debate, the first environment bill for 26 years has passed into law.
Environmental activists at the heart of first pressing for the bill and then attempting to make it the best it could be, said its enactment was momentous.
While key battlegrounds relating to discharges of raw sewage by water firms, air quality levels and safeguarding the independence of a new body to police and enforce the law remain issues of concern, most involved agree that having the Environment Act is better than not.
Ruth Chambers, a senior parliamentary affairs associate for Greener UK, a coalition of NGOs formed to campaign for an environment bill, said: “I feel a mixture of emotions. There is a sense of relief that finally we are here after so many days and years of hard work. And there is anticipation because now the really hard job starts. Passing the act is momentous but will count for nothing if it’s not seized upon with vigour by government and translated into real action on the ground.”
Chambers was there from the beginning, when the idea of an environment act was not on the government’s mind. After the UK left the EU, European directives that related to the environment were rolled over into UK law via the Withdrawal Act.
“The government said there wasn’t going to be a governance gap and if there was then judicial review would cover it,” said Chambers.
But in a testament to the campaigning powers of the environmental movement, MPs and ministers were persuaded that such a crucial area required specific legislation. The draft bill was published on 19 December 2018. Since then it has taken 1,056 days to come into law.
Battles have been high-profile and bruising. The issue of the scale of raw sewage discharges by water companies became one of national concern, from grassroots protests on beaches to rebellions within the Conservative camp in parliament.
Other tendentious fights took place over the independence and powers of the body that fills the enforcement gap left by the European court and European Commission – the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP). These fights are not yet finished, campaigners say.
“The campaign to #EndSewagePollution is far from over. Our voices and our action meant the parliamentary vote on this was very close, with MPs from all parties voting in support of this legal duty on water companies. And whilst we lost the vote, this tight race will have sent a clear message to ministers that much more must be done,” said Surfers Against Sewage.
Chambers said the lack of provision to strengthen the independence of the OEP was a glaring omission. “Some safeguards have been built in, yet ministers remain in charge of determining the watchdog’s budget and board, and they have retained a wide power to ‘guide’ its enforcement work, which we fear could be used to curtail its freedom to make up its own mind about when to enforce environmental law.”
Jenny Jones, who with other peers voted for amendments to toughen the OEP and for action over sewage discharges, which were rejected by the government, said: “I am torn between pleasure that we finally have an environment act, even though it took until the last week of Cop, but I am also very disappointed that the government didn’t allow us to make it even better.
“We have to come back to the issue of adequate enforcement of any measures, plus the setting targets. For example, allowing water companies to continue frequent discharges without a timetable for reduction is plain wrong.”
Chambers, too, said the fight for the best law possible would continue. The act requires the government to set long-term improvement targets on air, water, nature and waste. The first targets will go to public consultation early next year.
“This will be the first major test of the government’s ambition,” said Chambers. “Given the huge public interest in solving the crises of toxic air, sewage pollution, plastic waste and endangered wildlife, it’s clear that there is only one direction of travel that will satisfy the court of public opinion.”