Dr. Sue Young says, politicians of all parties must get behind this Bill in order to make sure it isn’t lost or further delayed.

For years, The Wildlife Trusts have called for ambitious laws that will put nature into recovery, and when the UK voted to leave the EU in 2016 it became apparent that we needed to shout louder than ever before. Forming the Greener UK coalition with 14 other major environmental organisations, we started urging the Government to introduce ambitious legislation – including an Environment Act – to replace the environmental protections we enjoyed as members of the EU and to kickstart nature’s recovery.

We know that the natural environment is suffering serious long-term declines, to the detriment of wildlife, our wellbeing and prosperity. The recent State of Nature published by over 70 NGOs and research institutes across the UK is the latest in a long line of reports highlighting these depressing, continued losses and the much-reduced abundance of our natural world. That’s why The Wildlife Trusts have urged the Government to act on its commitment to leave the environment ‘in a better state then we found it’ by including three key things in the Bill: a new environmental watchdog to replace EU oversight; legally binding targets for the improvement of the environment; and a Nature Recovery Network to expand and re-connect fragmented habitats.

At long last we have the Environment Bill and we are heartened to see that all three have, in some way, made it in.The Bill includes a framework for setting legally binding targets to improve the environment in four areas: air quality; water; resources and waste; and, crucially, biodiversity. The Bill also sets up an Office for Environmental Protection (OEP), to fill the hole left behind by the European Court of Justice and European Commission in holding up environmental protections.

A leading cause of nature’s decline in the UK is the continuing loss and fragmentation of habitat – wildlife has fewer, smaller places to live, breed and limited opportunity to disperse to new sites as conditions change. That’s why we’ve been calling for a Nature Recovery Network to map important places for wildlife, work out where best to create new, connecting habitat, and how to exploit new opportunities to give wildlife the space to thrive and restore the natural systems which underpin our economy and wellbeing. 

It’s really crucial – and a cause for celebration – that Local Nature Recovery Strategies to support a Nature Recovery Network are included in the Bill. It means that local authorities will have to set out priorities for protecting and recovering nature in their area, including by using maps to identify existing wildlife areas and opportunities for enhancement.

We are also encouraged to see the Bill mandating biodiversity net gain, which will ensure new developments more than make up for their impact on nature. However, we are disappointed that major national infrastructure projects will not be subject to net gain – this means that the new legal requirement to make developers actively improve nature will not apply to the most damaging schemes like HS2. 

Additionally, there have been few guarantees on the independence, resourcing or the strong enforcement powers of the OEP. This must change if the Government’s proposals are to effectively ensure the protection of the natural environment and meet the ambition needed to turn nature’s recovery from an aspiration to a reality.

There are ways the Bill could be strengthened to achieve Government’s ambition for the environment; The Wildlife Trusts are working in partnership with other environmental organisations to propose further amendments to the bill. Perhaps the biggest issue for the Bill, however, is politics. An impending general election will put the Bill on ice – or worse, it could be lost altogether. In the three years since the vote to leave the EU, public concern about the environment has grown rapidly, thanks to increasing awareness of the scale of the environmental crises that we face.

Now, more than ever, we need the laws and swift action to address these crises and make the UK a true world leader in environmental governance and protection. Politicians of all persuasions must recognise the importance of this Bill when it comes for its Second Reading, and make sure it comes back under any government.

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