I was lucky enough to be at WWT’s London Wetlands Centre at Barnes this lunchtime to hear Defra’s Secretary of State, Theresa Villiers, formally launch the Environment Bill. This is a key piece of legislation that will create a new system of environmental governance in this country and take forward policies in the 25 Year Environment Plan to improve the health of the natural environment, safeguard regional water resources, improve air quality, and tackle problem plastics as part of creating a more resource-efficient economy.
Anglian Water has engaged extensively with the policy-making process that has culminated in this announcement. We are one of the key sponsors of the work of the Broadway Initiative that has been working across sectors to help the government shape the Bill. We will be reviewing the clauses now they have been published and hope that they will:
- Require long-term, legally-binding goals and targets to restore and enhance our natural environment, supported by statutory environmental improvement plans and policies to achieve the targets that have been set. We also need a strong, truly independent, new environmental watchdog with powers to prosecute public authorities if action falls short. The Bill looks set to include powers for the new Office of Environmental Protection to also enforce the UK’s climate change targets. Perhaps anticipating this, the Environment Agency pledged to go carbon neutral by 2030 just last week. All water companies in England made the same pledge in April.
- Safeguard water resources in the environment by placing regional long-term water resource planning onto a statutory footing. The Bill should be strengthened by requiring all bathroom fittings and water-using appliances to be sold with a water efficiency label, to help households make informed choices and save them money in both water and energy bills. I wrote to Defra last week as chair of Waterwise’s Water Efficiency Strategy Steering Group to make the case for this, alongside tighter building regulations and minimum product standards to remove the most water wasteful products from the market.
- Tackle problematic single-use plastics, beyond drinking straws, drinks stirrers and cotton buds being banned from April 2020. There is a strong case to add wet wipes that contain plastic fibres to the banned list, as when flushed they combine with fats in our sewers to create massive ‘fatbergs’ as well as wreak havoc on the environment.
- Require new development to deliver net gains in biodiversity. We are strong supporters of this measure and already plan to introduce a biodiversity net gain requirement on all our infrastructure projects from next April. Biodiversity net gain can, in part, be achieved by requiring Sustainable Drainage Systems (SuDS) built in new developments to deliver water quality and biodiversity benefits as well as reductions in flood risk. The existing SuDS technical standards in England are incredibly weak – they only focus on drainage benefits and they’re not even legally-binding. It’s time these standards were replaced with much more ambitious, statutory standards like those the Welsh Government introduced in January. We also support water company Drainage and Wastewater Management Plans (DWMPs) being made a statutory requirement from 2025, as these will help water companies and local authorities work much more closely together to tackle surface water flooding.
- Create a new system of environmental spatial planning, that allows investment in enhancing natural capital to be planned and coordinated by public, private and third sector bodies across England. These plans should have a legal status within the planning system, so that Local Plans and individual planning decisions must be consistent with the wider environmental spatial plan. We are already helping to develop a Local Natural Capital Plan for the Oxford-Cambridge (OxCam) Arc, where a million new homes are planned in some of the most water-stressed parts of our region. We hope the planned ‘nature recovery strategies’ in the Bill are a starting point for extending the value of natural capital planning and investment across the rest of the country.
Anglian Water has long recognised the responsibility that the water industry has towards safeguarding the environment, and we have made a number of highly significant changes to our corporate governance to put that responsibility to the forefront. Most recently we have taken the unique step for a large utility of changing our Articles of Association to place a legal requirement on our directors and board to act in the best long-term interests of our customers, region and communities, and deliver positive outcomes for the environment and society. In other words, in everything we do, and in every choice we make we must ensure we continue to protect the environment and support the communities we serve.
We believe that the changes we have made to our corporate governance help support the aspirations in the Environment Bill. As the Broadway Initiative has recommended, all companies with material interactions with the environment should have a ‘duty of care’ toward nature. We believe that the wording in our new Articles of Association achieves this aim and is a model that can and should be more widely adopted by businesses beyond the water and utility sectors.
We look forward to working with Parliamentarians and our partner members of the Broadway Initiative to help improve the Bill further as it begins the process of being debated in Parliament.