Some constituents have been in touch about the Environment Bill asking me to put forward suggestions to a member of the Environment Committee in order to strengthen the Environment Bill.
I know that in lockdown, our outside spaces have become so important to us, and this period has made it even more apparent how green spaces and the environment around us can really help our health and wellbeing. In rural Mid Worcestershire, we take great pride in protecting our nature and environment, and I’m pleased that this Government has committed to doing just that. The Environment Bill will place environmental ambition and accountability at the heart of Government. Legislative measures will be introduced to address the biggest environmental priorities of our age, ensuring we can deliver on the commitment to leave the natural world in a better condition than we found it.
In the 25 Year Environment Plan, the Government committed to developing a Nature Recovery Network and, in the long term, to create or restore 500,000 hectares of wildlife-rich habitat outside the protected site series. A new framework for Local Nature Recovery Strategies will be legislated for in the Environment Bill, to help support the Nature Recovery Network and better direct investment in the environment and green infrastructure – creating places that are richer in wildlife and provide wider benefits for local communities. The Bill will also require the preparation and publication of Local Nature Recovery Strategies, mapping nature-rich habitats, so that investment can be targeted where it will make the most difference. These local plans will embrace local knowledge to strengthen links between neighbouring communities and support the wider Network.
I know that some of you have asked that the Bill ensures we have an independent environmental watchdog. I want to assure you that the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) will have the power to take public bodies to an upper tribunal if there are breaches of the law. I believe it is important that the OEP is independent and fully transparent in order to effectively hold the Government to account on its targets. I am therefore pleased by assurances from Ministers that the OEP will be operationally independent from Government, including from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. This means that Ministers will not be able to set its programme of activity or influence its decision-making.
The Bill will also give the Secretary of State the power to set long-term, legally binding environmental targets on air quality, water, biodiversity, and resource efficiency and waste reduction that will be reviewed every five years – another ask from those who have contacted me about this. There will then be a published environmental improvement plan that will also be reviewed every five years, and a progress report will be published annually. I welcome the fact that the OEP will hold this and every future Government to account on these targets, and will report on the progress made to improve the natural environment. I also want to note here that if the Secretary wanted to lower or change a target, they would have to lay before Parliament, and publish, a statement as to why they had reached their decision. It would then be up to myself and other Members of Parliament to scrutinise this decision, before voting on a Statutory Instrument to change any necessary legislation.
For those that asked me to raise these points with a member of the Environment Bill Committee, I want to assure you that once the Bill has completed the Committee Stage, the Government will reflect on concerns about the Bill raised by colleagues and interested parties. I look forward to the Bill coming back to the House, at which point I will have the opportunity to vote on any amendments brought forward there.
I do hope this information has answered your queries and concerns and thanks to all those who contacted me about this.