10 December 2021 by Matthew Miller

Environment Act 2021 becomes law

On 9 November 2021, the Environment Bill finally became part of UK law as the Environment Act 2021. The legislation has been described by the Government as ‘the most ambitious environmental programme of any country on earth’ but by its critics as ‘full of missed opportunities and broken promises.

The passage of the legislation through Parliament was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, and also the impact of Brexit. The fact that the UK is no longer subject to EU law was particularly significant, as roughly 80% of UK environmental laws originated from the EU. This led to a number of key (and controversial) changes to the draft Environment Bill before it eventually reached the statute book.

In summary, the main purposes of the Environment Act 2021 are:

  • To establish the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP), a supposedly independent body that will effectively take over from the European Commission as the UK’s ‘environmental watchdog’. The OEP will – among other things – seek to ensure that the Government and public authorities comply with the very wide range of obligations set out in the new legislation.
  • To enshrine certain EU environmental principles into UK law so that they become key to environmental policy development, namely: the integration principle, the prevention principle, the precautionary principle, the rectification at source principle and the polluter pays principle.
  • To set environmental targets for the Government, over a period of at least 15 years, relating to air quality, water quality, biodiversity, resource efficiency and waste reduction. These long-term targets must be laid before Parliament by 31 October 2022 and reviewed every 5 years thereafter.
  • To require significant infrastructure and development projects, such as the construction of major roads and energy facilities, to achieve a minimum 10% increase in local biodiversity.
  • To require the Government to prepare an environmental improvement plan, again for a period of at least 15 years, and to report annually on the implementation of that plan.

The Act establishes a legislative framework through which the Government, and the relevant statutory and regulatory authorities, can make further regulations to implement the detailed provisions of the Act. A great deal of secondary legislation will be needed in order to implement many aspects of new statute.

There have been mixed reactions to the Environment Act 2021. Many commentators see it as positive that the Environment Bill has become law, at long last, but also recognise that delivering the objectives of the Act will not be straightforward and will certainly take time. The targets and regulations which are due to be set out by the Government in the next few months will no doubt be the subject of much discussion, as will the question of whether the OEP is able to function independently of the Government.

If you would like any further information on the detailed provisions of the Environment Act 2021, please contact Matthew Miller in our Corporate and Commercial team.

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