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A View from the Riverbank - The Environment Act & Me: what does it actually mean for paddlers?

After 1056 days of debate and discussion, the Environment Act finally received Royal assent on 9 November, 2021. The Clear Access, Clear Waters team explain what it means for paddlers.

Two years after it was first introduced, the Bill has broadly been welcomed as a major landmark in UK law. Opinion on whether it goes far enough remains divided, with some suggesting that it is an opportunity lost to go further. 

The scope of the new Act is far reaching, creating new powers, duties and targets related to water, air, waste, chemicals and nature. But what does it mean for paddlers? How will this new piece of law actually affect the places we paddle and importantly our own health and wellbeing?

Here are some of the key things that will affect you and your paddling:

Water:

Clearly a key area for paddlers, water quality has been firmly in the spotlight in recent weeks, as campaigners and the House of Lords have sought to push the Government hard to include amendments that would reduce the amount of sewage in our rivers.

As has been widely reported in the media, evidence shows water companies dumped huge volumes of sewage into rivers and seas - at least 400,000 times in 2020 for around 3.1 million hours. This is not only causing irreparable damage to nature, it is putting human health at risk.

In the final couple of weeks, the Bill ‘ping ponged’ between the Commons and the Lords as Ministers, MPs and Peers disagreed over the wording of certain clauses relating to sewage pollution. After a huge public backlash against MPs and following a dramatic U-turn by the Government, It was the Commons that finally won out with their wording, which creates a legal duty for ‘sewage undertakers to demonstrate a ‘progressive reduction in the adverse impact of discharges from the undertaker’s storm overflows”.

More information can be found here

British Canoeing and its fellow campaigners in the #EndSewagePollution Campaign supported a case for much stronger wording than what finally made the Act. Some critics have suggested that the Act actually weakened existing legislation.

Critically for paddlers, swimmers and anglers alike, there have been some major wins. One of these in the Act was the following simple wording:

(2) The reference in subsection (1) to reducing adverse impacts includes—

(a) reducing adverse impacts on the environment,

(b) reducing adverse impacts on public health.

This is absolutely key as it  means there is now a legal duty to reduce the ‘adverse impacts’ of sewage pollution on public health. This clause recognises the public as users of the rivers and acknowledges that reducing sewage pollution is not just in the interest of nature, but also humans too.

Other highlights that may affect paddlers and swimmers in future included:

  • A new duty on water companies to publish near real time information - within one hour - on the operation of storm overflows

  • a new duty directly on water companies to monitor the water quality upstream and downstream of storm overflows and sewage disposal works

  • A new duty directly on water companies to produce statutory Drainage and Sewerage Management Plans, setting out how they will manage and develop their drainage and sewerage system over a minimum 25-year planning horizon, including storm overflows.

Further details can be found here.

Nature:

Protecting nature is something that pretty much all paddlers are passionate about. Pleasingly, a commitment to  halt species decline by 2030 on the face of the Act and a requirement to set at least one long-term legally binding target for biodiversity can be seen as a real success for nature.

The new Act also places a 10% biodiversity ‘net gain’ requirement on new developers, meaning that new infrastructure projects have to allocate money locally to improve nature and biodiversity. New ‘Local Nature Recovery Strategies’ (LNRSs) will cover the whole of England - with no gaps and Local authorities will be required by the Act to produce a ‘Biodiversity Report’ every five years. 

These and other new powers within the Act will hopefully help reverse species decline and make for greener, healthier places to live, work and paddle for us all.

Waste, resources and chemicals:

The act introduces ‘extended producer responsibility’ (EPR) which should ultimately mean that manufacturers will be required to contribute to the disposal costs of the products they produce. The burden of disposal will subsequently be less upon Local Authorities and more upon manufacturers to design products that are much easier to recycle.

As many of us are aware, plastic pollution in our rivers is a major issue. Thousands of paddlers each year undertake river cleans to help stem the tide of rubbish and single use plastic clogging our waters. The new Act creates powers to enable charges for single-use plastic items, similar to the carrier bag charge, to incentivise consumers to use more sustainable items. 

As well as extended producer responsibility, powers in the act allow the Government to create deposit return schemes for drinks containers, consistent recycling collections for all homes and businesses, and new requirements for eco-design. 

This is ultimately all good news for the health of our rivers. One additional consequence is that in time it may push paddlesports equipment manufacturers to do even more to develop sustainable equipment for us to buy.

British Canoeing will champion the case  for an all in deposit return scheme that takes drinks bottles of all sizes and materials to be introduced as soon as possible  to combat the extent of single-use packaging ending up in our waterways causing pollution.

Governance

Ultimately the success of the Act will come down to how all these new requirements and duties will be enforced. The Environment Act establishes a new, independent Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) as a green watchdog for England and Northern Ireland. It is intended to hold public authorities, including ministers, to account if they fail to comply with environmental law.

In summary

There is no doubt that the Environment Act is a major achievement, despite disagreements over whether some parts could have gone further. It commits the Government to working positively toward a greener, healthier environment for this generation and the next. 

It is now however, that the real work begins. As always, actions speak louder than words, so translating UK law into meaningful action on the ground will be the real test of how ‘landmark’ the Environment Act actually is.

What is absolutely clear is that British Canoeing will continue to work with its partners in the sport and environmental sectors, to hold the Government and key stakeholders such as the water industry to account. 

We will continue to do this with the support of our members as we all campaign for #ClearAccessClearWaters.

Full details of the Environment Act can be read here: 

https://www.gov.uk/government/news/world-leading-environment-act-becomes-law