A long time coming: the UK’s Environment Act

Having just passed Royal Assent, director at environmental consultancy Ramboll questions whether the UK’s new Environment Act can deliver the revolution promised.

Delayed first by Brexit and then by Covid, the Environment Act has finally received Royal Assent and passed into law. Having first been read in Parliament in January 2020, the long road to a ratified Act could encourage many to label it a disappointment.

As with most Environmental policy, it should have been enacted years ago, needs to go further and true success will depend on implementation and enforcement.

However, in the overhaul of changing attitudes and expanding understanding over the last two years, the Environment Act has been strengthened from a protracted amendment process and positively informed both industry and public attitudes.


Since the Act was first introduced, there has been a sharp realisation that the biodiversity crisis is as acute as the climate one.

The Act’s own factsheet shares the staggering statistic that between 1932 and 1984, the UK lost 97% of our species-rich grassland.

Biodiversity net gain is swiftly rising up the public agenda. Amidst this realisation, the Act’s projects regulated by biodiversity objectives were amended to include nationally significant infrastructure.

This inclusion could result in a welcome biodiversity increase across the country, but you would be justified in questioning whether the amendment would have been proposed in the Act’s initial political climate, marking a significant attitude shift across the wider construction sector.

However, we could not acknowledge the Act amendments without addressing the recent controversy about raw sewage dumping in waterways.

four white boats traveling on river beside Big Ben in London

In a prime example of the contradictions that seem to dog the government’s environmental policy at every step of the way, a Commons majority voted down an amendment to the Environment Act to punish water firms for dumping this waste in public.

Such controversies undermine the direction of policy and amplify existing concerns about the implementation of the Act’s legislation.

Numerous areas of the Act remain unclear, suggesting a destiny akin to the Climate Change Act. The commitment was set in the Climate Change Act, but effective measures followed only over a decade later. This sort of timescale, or time for distracting scandals, are luxuries we no longer have.

Authorities, autonomy, and resources

On a similar note, it is essential that the new Office of Environmental Protection (OEP) is given proper teeth and the power to hold both Government and industry to account and local authorities must be properly resourced too.

The final round of amendments before royal assent was almost entirely focused on the OEP and their remit and many still highlight concerns around its independence. Ministers will decide the OEP’s budget, board and focus of enforcement work, which leaves many concerned.

Many environmental government bodies have experienced significant cuts over recent years, which directly affects their ability to function and enforce relevant legislation, at this stage, we have no indication that the OEP will be immune to such issues should they arise in the future.

Across the Environment Act, localised power structures are seen as the golden ticket.

With greater autonomy, the local authorities should be able to act on monitoring their natural assets and implement the best initiatives for their protection.

However, this is not as sure as it sounds. Biodiversity objectives, for example, will be overseen by planning departments that often only have a single biodiversity officer or even none.

Facing a lack of resources, authorities may accept developer proposals without a sufficient audit of whether the site’s current diversity is fully acknowledged or the developer’s net-gain proposals are realistic. These local authorities are acting in a post-Covid economy, too.

Even if there is no steep cut to public funding, supply chains and the workforce are in disarray. Some areas of the country have had to pause their green waste collections due to a lack of HGV drivers. Legislative power lying with an organization will mean nothing if it lacks the manpower or resources to implement it.


In one of the more apparent positives, as the Environment Act has been in the public domain for so long it has been informing activity and thinking over the intervening years, if in a less official or urgent capacity than many would like.

Best practice and risk-averse planning mean that some businesses and organisations have been preparing for the Act and are already incorporating its requirements into their long-term plans. Changes will be necessary for many, but opportunities have been and will be presented too, opportunities that could lead a green recovery from the pandemic.

We cannot, however, rest our laurels on the actions of the few.

There will always be some businesses caught off guard, especially SME’s and less well funded public authorities who may not have the expertise in house to effectively investigate the Act’s policies and adjustments to their operations. It is with SMEs that we will have to be particularly careful in terms of wholescale, industry-wide change- we cannot allow the least supported to be the most penalised.

The Environment Act presents opportunity after opportunity, though nothing is promised, especially considering the Environmental Improvement Plans outlined in the Environment Act are subject to a five-year target and review process. After witnessing what we are capable of under adversity with the Covid-19 response, it is difficult to see this as sufficient urgency, or even effective or responsible governance. We need to move away from a period of targets, to one of clear action, direction and accountability. The Environment Act recognises areas that will be essential to the UK’s green recovery, the government just needs to follow through.


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