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I welcome this opportunity to speak on the inclusion of the Environment Bill in the Queen’s Speech. The commitments to improving air quality, restoring nature and transforming waste management are certainly long overdue. I particularly welcome the proposals for improving water quality and securing the resilience of water supply. I am hugely disappointed, however, by the powers available for the proposed new office of environmental protection. At present, the Government can be taken to the European Court of Justice if they fail to meet their legal obligations to the environment. Under the proposals in the Bill, these rights are significantly reduced. Judicial review is not a satisfactory replacement for the rights we currently enjoy.
My principal concern remains the lack of Government commitment to tackling the climate emergency in the round. This demands action on a range of measures if we are to meet the 2050 target, but the detail on achieving that remains vague. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Government’s approach to water resilience. Yes, the Environment Bill promises to improve water quality and to secure resilient water services in the long term, but I just do not think the Government are taking the challenge seriously enough. Parts of the country are already suffering water stress. In March, the chief executive of the Environment Agency warned that if we do not act now, within the next 25 years the UK will be facing “the jaws of death”. In the context of climate change and projected population increases, we face not just a climate emergency but a water emergency, and we must act to tackle both. The need for action amounts to much more than building new hard infrastructure, and it is also about much more than tackling leakage; it is about looking at water in a holistic way.
I am not convinced that the Government will act comprehensively to tackle the water emergency. Their current consultation on reform of building regulations, for example, does nothing to promise higher water efficiency standards. When will it be understood that tackling climate change is not just about energy efficiency? We also need a road map for retro-fitting the domestic housing stock in the context of both energy and water efficiency.
The Government’s Bill is vague on other key water issues. Improving water resilience demands better management of surface water, and yet we still have no statutory compulsion to use sustainable drainage for new developments, and no commitment to developing rainwater or greywater harvesting, or to a per capita consumption target for water. It is this absence of a comprehensive approach to securing water resilience that makes me so sceptical of the measures in the Environment Bill. Targets are great, but they need to be backed by concrete commitments and plans to deliver the changes necessary.