BlackthornYoung blackthorns in blossom thicken a garden hedge,
bringing pollen for insects in spring and fruit and more
shelter for birds in autumn and winter.
Photo, Nigel Pearce.

Can the Environment Bill save our biodiversity – and us?

A reflection by Nigel Pearce

Over 30 years ago, in 1989, the Department of the Environment published an innovative series of booklets under the general title “Environment in Trust”. The introductory booklet opened with these words:

The Government has the responsibility to protect the natural environment from any harmful effects of human activity. Everything we do as individuals – even such daily functions as eating, drinking and washing – has an effect on the natural environment. Nature is not inevitably damaged by our activities: in many respects it is very resilient. But we need to ensure that a sensible balance is struck between the demands we make on Nature and its capacity to meet them. The Government has the responsibility of ensuring that we live in harmony with Nature, and in particular that we avoid creating lasting or irreversible damage.

The booklet went on to endorse the concept of Sustainable Development. This was defined, with an emphasis on humans, as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. Eleven years later, in 2000, the UK’s Sustainable Development Commission was set up, taking over and consolidating the work of three previously existing organisations.

But in 2011, the Commission was shut down, and its work was dispersed around government. In its closing statement, the Commission asked:

Has there been progress? Of course, due to the hard work of many officials and some Ministers. Has the job been done? Emphatically not. In fact, to paraphrase Churchill, it has barely reached the "end of the beginning".

Since then, the term “sustainable development” has been used so widely that it has lost much of its meaning. It seems also to have been superseded in part by “sustainable growth” – meaning mainly sustainable economic growth. Can the new Environment Bill change that emphasis to sustainable biodiversity growth? It would benefit humans as much as the rest of Nature. The signs are encouraging.

Where are we with the Environment Bill?

The Environment Bill has been a long time coming. It began its tortuous path through Parliament in January 2020. In May 2021 it reached the Report Stage and Third Reading in the House of Commons, and in June it was back in the House of Lords, being examined line by line. Royal Assent is expected in the autumn. Then at last the Bill will become an Act of Parliament, although the Statutory Instruments setting out targets may not be laid before Parliament until October 2022.

Shortly after Royal Assent, the new Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) is expected to start operating. However, before then an Interim Environmental Governance Secretariat will be “able to receive and assess complaints submitted by members of the public about alleged failures of public authorities to comply with environmental law”.

What can we expect from the Environment Bill?

 Back in August 2020, the Government announced the establishment of five pilot Local Nature Recovery Networks (LNRSs) in Cornwall, Buckinghamshire, Northumberland, Cumbria and Greater Manchester. “The forthcoming Environment Bill,” it said, will go even further – requiring all areas in England to established LNRSs.”

 The LNRSs are designed to “underpin the new Nature Recovery Network”, which will “create or restore 500,000 hectares of wildlife habitat outside protected sites”, and linking these to existing protected areas and urban green infrastructure.

The aim is to protect 30% of terrestrial land by 2030. An announcement in May 2021 confirmed that “The Bill will crack down on water companies that discharge sewage into rivers and will include a world-leading legally-binding species target for 2030, aiming to halt the decline of nature.”

At the G7 summit in Cornwall in June 2021, the G7 leaders agreed commitments to halt and reverse biodiversity loss by 2030, and tackle deforestation, marine litter and illegal wildlife trade.” Their shared “G7 Nature Compact” can be seen here:

All these words are indeed encouraging, but we know from experience that, to turn governments’ words into successful action, projects initiated and carried out by local people are key. It has become clear that Nature, or at least biodiversity, is not as resilient as they believed in 1989. Local people have the knowledge to know what works best locally to restore wildlife, habitat and landscape, and the Nature Recovery Network can replicate that knowledge across the country.