The Environment Bill, and what it means for councils

Image by Edward Cisneros

Hannah Lazell, Political Advisor to the LGA Labour Group

28 February 2020

Earlier this week the Environment Bill had its Second Reading in the House of Commons.  It introduces a regulatory framework for the environment once our transition period with the EU ends, and also introduces and strengthens measures to protect the environment and tackle climate change.

Labour councils are at the forefront of tackling the climate crisis.  Our councils have gone far beyond declaring a climate emergency at full council meetings, as our climate website and the event we held in January show. We’ve got Labour councils such as Stevenage focusing on improving biodiversity in the borough, Telford & Wrekin have built a solar farm to power council homes, Islington are ensuring sustainability is embedded through the planning process – and much, much more.  Our Labour-led towns and cities are ambitious for their communities, working with residents and with businesses, charities and educational institutions to reduce the impact on the environment.

The key principles of the Environment Bill that will principally affect councils are as follows:

  • Create the Office of Environmental Protection which will hold public authorities to account on environmental issues, including air quality;

  • The management of waste and producer responsibility for recycling;

  • Amends the requirements and management of Local Air Quality Management Frameworks;

  • Provisions for drainage management;

  • Creates a new biodiversity net gain requirement through the planning process, using a biodiversity metric developed by DEFRA.

In an ideal world, this new Environment Bill would strengthen the ability of councils to continue to fight the climate crisis. One of the biggest changes is the creation of the new Office of Environmental Protection which will be responsible for enforcing sanctions against public authorities who fail to comply with environmental law. For this to be effective it will need genuine knowledge and experience of public authorities, particularly councils, because of the wide range of work that councils do in this area.

A lot of detail is still needed about the contents of the Bill. For example, the Bill establishes a deposit return scheme and introduces a principle of producer responsibility, where the producer has to meet a council’s costs of disposing specified products and materials. The LGA has been calling for this for a while and whilst it is a welcome step it’s unclear in this Bill what products and materials it will cover. Another measure to be introduced is weekly food waste collection – again, an important step but one that will cost councils money when many are at breaking point.  A big issue across the Bill is the lack of clarity over the funding of new burdens for councils – such as weekly food waste collection and free garden waste collection – the wording at present is sufficiently vague and it isn’t clear who will fund the provisions in the Bill.

Two of the key asks when we talk to Labour councillors about what they need to tackle climate change is increased funding and greater devolution of powers.  There is nothing in this Bill that sufficiently addresses either of these asks, which is disappointing and a missed opportunity by the government. The measures are important but to a certain extent they feel like they are tinkering round the edges and dictating to councils what they should and should not be doing, rather than trusting councils to make their own decisions based on local knowledge and what is right for each individual area. We know that Labour councils will keep taking positive steps in tackling the climate crisis and want to, and can do more, but until the government trusts them with greater resources and powers, it will become harder and harder to match the ambition that is out there.