The long awaited Environment Act 2021 receives Royal Assent


16 November 2021

On 9 November 2021, the first major piece of environmental legislation for the UK since leaving the European Union, the Environment Bill, became an Act of Parliament, as the Environment Act 2021.

The Environment Act 2021 (the Act) got off to a slow start which was aggravated by the dissolution of Parliament for a General Election, the COVID-19 pandemic, a long journey between both Houses of Parliament and robust debate attracting much business and public engagement.

At its heart, the Act provides for the establishment of the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP), the remit of which is to hold public authorities (including Government ministers) to account for not complying with Environmental Law and regulation. By setting out five principles of environmental management, including the polluter pays and precautionary principle, the Act provides a framework for improving environmental management across a wide spectrum of issues including waste and resources, water quality, nature and biodiversity and air quality. It aims to deliver long-term targets to improve environmental conditions and reduce pollution.

Compliance with such targets will be monitored and regulated through a series of reporting cycles, with the threat of enforcement action for non-compliance; it is yet to be seen how the strength of this enforcement regime will measure up against European system it replaces.

With a timely enactment during the COP26 summit in Glasgow, the Act provides a demonstrable commitment from the UK government towards driving environmental improvements. The Act addresses nature conservation with strengthened obligations on developers to ensure biodiversity net gain for certain developments, together with establishing routes for strengthening woodland protection and Local Nature Recovery Strategies. A public register will be set up where sites have been committed for biodiversity net gain and such sites will need to be managed for 30 years.

With regard to waste and recycling the Act introduces tighter regulation for shipments of hazardous waste, charges for single use plastics, a deposit return system for drinks containers and a greater consistency for recycling collections in England and means for monitoring and otherwise tackling waste crime. There will also be increased responsibilities on producers with regard to packaging and reducing their use of plastic.

Last minute debates focused on the independence of the OEP and sewage discharges into rivers. Naturally, the latter issue gained a great deal of public attention, with the House of Lords proposing an amendment to restrict the discharge of raw sewage into our rivers. The compromise amendment requires water companies to reduce the adverse the impact of any discharges. A further amendment requires the Government to produce a report setting out the actions needed to eliminate discharges from storm overflows. In addition, there is a new duty on water companies and the Environment Agency to publish data annually on storm overflow discharges. Water companies are also required to monitor water quality up and downstream from the discharge point.

Interestingly, when the Bill started out water quality was not highly featured with the principle “watery” focus being on abstraction, supply and drainage. So, despite the recent debate on sewage discharges the Act has certainly become a greater force for improving water quality as the debates progressed through Parliament.

Whilst some people will be disappointed that it has not come far enough, the Act should be welcomed for many reasons, not least for establishing the Office for Environmental Protection, which will address the environmental governance gap created by the UK’s departure from the European Union,  and the obligation for setting new binding targets for air quality and biodiversity.

Given the breadth of subject matter covered by the Act, we are sure that the next stages of implementation will be of interest to many.

The content of this article is for general information only. If you require advice on any of the matters referred to in this article, please contact Jane Haviland, a solicitor in Birketts' Planning and Environmental Team.

The content of this article is for general information only. It is not, and should not be taken as, legal advice. If you require any further information in relation to this article please contact the author in the first instance. Law covered as at November 2021.

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