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The environment is at grave risk – which protections are under threat?

Our rivers and seas are full of sewage but instead of cleaning them up, the UK government want to unravel the rules that protect the environment. If we want safeguard people and nature, we need to keep these legal protections in place. Find out what’s at risk.
  Published:  09 Feb 2023    |      Last updated:  27 Jun 2023    |      5 minute read

 In autumn 2022, the government laid out a series of reckless and dangerous attacks on our environmental protections. Since we initially raised the alarm about this attack on the rules that protect people and nature, some parts of the government’s proposals have been watered down. But the threat hasn’t disappeared.  

In June 2023 the Retained EU Law Act was passed and the future protections of our health and the environment will be in the hands of government ministers, not our MPs.

Weak and poorly enforced legislation leaves our environment inadequately protected. And unscrupulous companies disregard the rules, polluting our air, rivers and seas and putting the habitats of our native species in jeopardy.  

3 out of 5 wild species are in decline and 15% are at risk of extinction. Air pollutants vastly exceed recommended levels right across the country – disproportionally affecting people of colour and those on lower incomes – and the dumping of untreated sewage, pesticides, plastics, pharmaceuticals and industrial waste in our seas and rivers is escalating. Withdrawing more environmental protections will make matters worse.   

Digging deeper – what’s at risk? 

There are 4 main aspects to the government’s short-sighted plans that undermine nature protections.  

1. Unravelling EU safeguards

Many of the UK’s most important protections for people and nature have their roots in decisions made via the EU. The Retained EU Law (REUL) Law was passed in June 2023, making hundreds of these laws defunct at the end of 2023, and leaving thousands more at risk of being weakened.

It gives ministers sole power over the choice of which EU legal protections to keep, change or remove – bypassing our parliamentary democracy system despite Brexit claims that parliament would decide. Proper parliamentary scrutiny of changes will also be very limited.  

Your support meant we were able to successfully stop thousands of these laws from disappearing at the end of 2023. But it's not over yet. Ministers still have the power to weaken or unravel thousands of laws before 2026.

2. Bulldozing planning rules 

Some developers and politicians have long complained that planning rules protecting nature – for example to conserve rare plants and animals – hold back economic growth and delay infrastructure projects. They also bemoan the role of local democracy in planning.  

While not perfect, current nature assessments for planning projects are very stringent, but the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill looks to replace these with potentially less robust, outcomes-based assessments.  

Bulldozing planning rules risks concreting the countryside, making it harder for people to access nature and making it more difficult to create a healthy environment for everyone.     

Already, people across the UK are paying the price of an unhealthy environment. Coastal towns are blighted by sewage. Rural communities are living with the fall-out from industrial agriculture and fossil fuel projects. And families are deprived of the green spaces that bring such benefits to our mental and physical health. Withdrawing more environmental protections will make matters worse. And it won’t just threaten our beautiful natural world, it will penalise the disadvantaged most, compromising their quality of life and undermining their right to have their voices heard.   

 3. Uncertainty around changes to farming 

Much of UK farming is intensive, which is harmful to nature and pollutes our waterways. Theresa May’s government promised to fundamentally change the way farming is subsidised through the Environmental Land Management Scheme. Rather than payments according to the size of land, payments would be for the “public goods” farming can provide, like improvements to soil quality, carbon capture and wildlife support.   

Environmentalists and nature-friendly farmers alike welcomed this shift in approach. 

But following long delays in implementation, and rumours of the plans being scrapped under Liz Truss, it took until January 2023 for the government to confirm the scheme would go ahead, and even then with little detail. The uncertainty caused has been damaging to farmers and has cut confidence in planning for a more nature-friendly future. 

And the removal of many rules around Genetically Modified food, and “emergency” authorisations granting the use of bee-harming banned pesticides, could have long-term consequences for sustainable and organic farming. 

4. Undermining democracy and the rule of law 

Right now, communities can get their voices heard in the planning process by inputting into Local Plans. The government is threatening to overrule this process by producing National Development Management Policies and cutting the rights of communities to have their say about big infrastructure projects (like roads and power stations). This could lead to new development being imposed on local areas.  

To make matters worse, when groups like Friends of the Earth want to challenge bad decisions in the courts, we often rely on case law (previous decisions made by other courts) to convince the judges of our arguments. The REUL bill aims to make it much harder for us to do this.  

By undermining democracy and the rule of law, the government is making it harder for people to stand up for nature.  

How will weakening environment protections impact me? 

Weakening the laws that protect people and our environment will have multiple, damaging impacts, affecting the food we eat, the air we breathe and the nature we can access.  

Some examples of what it’ll mean include: 

  • Further pollution in our rivers and streams – we’ve already seen how damaging water pollution is through the sewage scandal.   
  • Loss of green and heritage spaces that are precious to communities and important for people’s mental and physical health and wellbeing.  
  • More pollution in the air we breathe, with consequences for public health and costs to the NHS.  
  • Loss of species and wildlife habitats, as well as an increase in the damaging presence of pesticides across a range of habitats. 

What's the latest?

In September 2022 the UK government published a plan to review, delete or weaken thousands of laws that protect us and our environment by the end of 2023. We could see this potential bonfire of vital safeguards was a threat to people and nature and thousands of you agreed with us. Over 90,000 of us demanded a government rethink its attack on nature protections by signing our petition.

In May, after huge public pressure, the government removed this arbitrary deadline from its plans. And instead, has come up with a much shorter list of laws to cut by the end of 2023. With the rest getting automatically kept… for now. 

While the government has saved much of the great tapestry of laws that protect us and the environment in the short term, this isn’t over yet. The real threat is still its plan to hand ministers the power to decide which laws get weakened or unravelled. That bit of the plan hasn’t changed at all. 

In June 2023 the Lords asked the government to guarantee that ministers won’t be able to weaken or unravel environmental and food laws in carrying out this plan. 

But, just hours after we handed in our petition calling for stronger, not weaker, environmental protections, our MPs voted against this change and now the Retained EU Law Act has come into effect.

Everyone is worried. Our friends at RSPB and The Wildlife Trusts are fighting to protect nature, wildlife and our future.  

If we want future generations to survive and thrive, we can't let the government unravel the tapestry of rules that protect air and water quality, food safety, wildlife and health.

Help fight the ecological emergency

Help fight the ecological emergency