Environment Bill, Committee Stage, House of Commons, November 2020


Key messages

  • We welcome the reintroduction of the Environment Bill. The legacy of the COVID-19 pandemic must be that we, as a nation, grasp the opportunity to protect and enhance our natural environment, and tackle the climate emergency. It is vital that we continue to improve air quality, protect against flooding, and ensure our transport, waste and energy policies are environmentally sustainable.
  • We support the principle set out in the Bill of increasing biodiversity net gain through the planning process. Where net gain contributions from developers cannot be delivered on site, any financial “credits” should be retained by councils so that local people will have a say in how they are spent.
  • The aspirations of the Environment Bill could be undermined by the Government’s Planning White Paper. The White Paper proposes substantial changes to the planning system, and it is unclear at this stage what the implications for the system of biodiversity net gain will be. Government will need to work in a coordinated way to ensure that the system of biodiversity net gain can work in practice in any reformed planning system.
  • Local government wants to see measures that reduce the amount of unnecessary and unrecyclable material becoming an issue in the first place. We welcome the commitment for retailers and manufacturers to pay for recycling and disposing of packaging and household waste. This is a crucial stage in shifting the cost away from the taxpayer and back to the polluter. The Bill must set out clearly that producers will be required to pay the full net costs to councils. Following the delay to the progress of the Bill, councils and the waste industry also need urgent clarity on the timetable for implementation of the Government’s waste and recycling reforms.
  • Internal drainage boards undertake important work around managing local water levels and flood risk management. Part 5 of the Bill (Water) includes measures intended to support new and existing internal drainage boards. Further clarity around the impact of this on councils is required as they part fund Internal Drainage Boards. In addition, the current cost of processing Land Drainage Consent applications are not being met by the provisions within the Bill. The Bill should be updated to give funding flexibility to local government and reflect increases in line with inflation.
  • The Bill also provides greater enforcement powers to the Forestry Commission to reduce illegal tree felling and will require local authorities to consult residents. This is a new burden and must be fully funded. Decisions on the felling of street trees should remain a matter of local determination.
  • The Bill points to a new environmental relationship between local and national government, with potentially greater responsibility sitting with councils. The impact of this is that councils will have a new environmental improvement role within their localities. Local government is well placed to take the lead on this agenda but to deliver on these ambitious plans they will need to have appropriately skilled staff and be given adequate resources.
  • Many councils are operating with significantly reduced environment functions as a result of continued financial pressures. The impact of COVID-19 on income and additional pressures on services has further increased financial uncertainty for local government. Government needs to provide councils with the support they need, both financial and legislative, to ensure they can carry out this new role in a meaningful manner.
  • At this stage it is difficult to predict the impact of the legislation and the costs for local authorities in meeting their new statutory duties. We therefore recommend the Bill is amended to ensure an assessment is made of how the new duties are operating into the future and ensuring local authorities are sufficiently funded.

Amendment statement

Amendment NC33 tabled by Dr Alan Whitehead MP, Ruth Jones MP, Daniel Zeichner MP, Gill Furniss MP and Fleur Anderson MP, intends to ensure that an assessment is made of how the new duties are operating into the future and ensuring local authorities are sufficiently funded.

A number of proposals in Part 6 of the Bill (Nature and biodiversity) introduce significant new duties and responsibilities on local government, including:

  • Local planning authorities will be responsible for requiring biodiversity net gain in new development.
  • Duty for all public bodies to carry out a strategic assessment of the actions they take to advance and conserve biodiversity.
  • Duty to produce a local nature recovery strategy with a statement of biodiversity principles and local habitat map.
  • Duty to consult on tree felling.

Councils have experienced a decade of funding reductions, and this has led to many operating with significantly reduced environment functions. In addition, councils have entered a further period of financial uncertainty because of the impact of COVID-19 on income and additional pressures on services. 

At this stage it is difficult to predict the impact of the legislation and the costs for local authorities in meeting their new statutory duties. The impact assessment published in March 2020 says that the full cost of the Bill cannot be calculated at this stage because the detail will not be clear until the secondary legislation is drafted. We therefore support the proposed amendment to ensure an assessment is made of how the new duties are operating into the future and ensuring local authorities are sufficiently funded.

Producer responsibility obligations

Part 3 (Waster and Resource Efficiency) includes provisions that will require producers to pay the cost of managing specified products and materials at end of life. We welcome this intention, the LGA has long called for the system to be reformed and for producers to meet the costs of local authorities, including the cost of littering and fly tipping discarded packaging.

While the Bill sets out the headlines of a producer responsibility scheme, it does not provide enough detail to assess the financial and service impacts of the reforms. Within the section on disposal costs, litter and fly tipping of discarded packaging is not included. Greater clarity on what producer responsibility will cover will support this analysis.

  • The Bill currently does not include the term ‘full net cost’. There is a commitment to pay local authorities, but it should set out clearly that producers will be required to pay the full net cost to councils. 

Biodiversity credits

A “credit” system will allow the sale of proposed statutory biodiversity units where improvements on site are not possible. The Bill currently does not require that Biodiversity Credits raised from developments be reinvested in the locality. Communities that accept developments in their area should be able to see improved biodiversity. 

  • Credits should be retained by local authorities so that funding stays in the area where development takes place, and local people can have a say in how this funding can be used to improve the natural environment.

Tree felling consultations

The Bill also provides greater enforcement powers to the Forestry Commission to reduce illegal tree felling and will require local authorities to consult residents. Tree preservation orders provide an established route for protecting trees as part of the local environment. Trees in conservation areas also benefit from protection in law.

  • Decisions on the felling of street trees should remain a matter of local determination. This is a new burden and must be fully funded.
  • The full impact of these costs must be considered in a formal consultation with local government.

Contact

Amy Fleming, Public Affairs and Campaigns Adviser

amy.fleming@local.gov.uk