Beachgoers walk among sewage and rubbish at Blackpool seaside

How can we make our environment healthy?

From sewage to diesel fumes, different types of pollution are destroying our lands and seas. Campaigner Rachel O'Connell explains why a new environmental law could help us stop big polluters from harming people and planet.
  Published:  02 May 2024    |      5 minute read

Jo loves where she lives, but it's tainted by pollution in her local river and sewage at the nearby beach. She sees local children playing and swimming and worries about whether it’s safe.

Jo has spoken to the council as she’s sure it must be able to help, but she keeps hitting a dead end. No one wants to see their neighbourhood in decline or members of their community harmed by avoidable issues.

If we had an Environmental Rights Act, Jo would have a route to force the water company or government regulator to act by improving enforcement, and potentially change water laws to better protect our rivers and seas. This law could help ensure Jo's local environment is kept healthy and safe for everyone. This law could ensure Jo's local environment is kept healthy and safe for everyone.

Give a sh*t about our rivers and seas?

The impact of pollution

Our environment is in crisis, and the situation is getting worse. To turn things around, we need the next government in Westminster to pass a law recognising the right to a healthy environment as a human right.

When we breathe dirty air, eat food grown in toxic soils, and swim in water filled with sewage, it impacts our health. And if the environment around us is also in declining health – if trees are being cut down, pollinators are in decline, soils and waters are leached of nutrients and loaded with pollutants – then the risks to people can only increase.

Posters saying "Save our park" hang on railings with a felled tree stump in the background
Tree felling in South London
Credit: Mark Kerrison via Getty Images

Flooding, heatwaves and storms caused by climate change, along with the destruction of precious nature, are making things even worse. It’s easy to see the disastrous consequences of an unhealthy environment.

Environmental harm is often caused by the actions of big businesses, developers, and even our decision makers. And those who are already disadvantaged or discriminated against are bearing the brunt of this harm. At home and across the world, millions of people on low incomes, disabled people and racialised communities are living in unhealthy environments. Our Planet Over Profit work is campaigning for a new law to stop UK companies causing harm overseas. But we need action across the UK too.

The right to a healthy environment

Friends of the Earth is campaigning for the UK government to incorporate the right to a healthy environment into domestic law so it's recognised as a human right and makes a practical difference to people’s lives. The Scottish government has already consulted on doing just that through a Human Rights Bill for Scotland. And the government in Westminster has signed up to various internal commitments recognising the right to a healthy environment – but they haven’t put it into law in the UK.

We want to change that. If the government were to pass a law recognising the right to a healthy environment as a human right, this would make it so much harder for future governments to make new laws that damage our environment. Why? Because new laws, government policies, and actions by public bodies are meant to be compatible with our human rights.

Ultimately, this would mean that the government and other decision makers would be obliged to make better choices to protect people and nature in the same way they have a duty to protect our other human rights.

How would a new environmental law work?

If the Environmental Rights Act were passed into UK law, it would give the human right to a healthy environment legal status, like other rights in the 1998 Human Rights Act.

This would allow us to push back on decisions that threaten the health of the environment and make it easier for people to keep their neighbourhood and themselves healthy by challenging problems in the courts. And, unlike now, they wouldn't need to wait until harm has happened to prove that the risk is there or wait until the unhealthy environment leads to a tragic death, as in the cases of Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah and Awaab Ishak. Instead, they could focus on the quality and health of their local environment – right here, right now.

This law would give people better routes to justice and better potential remedies. It could help us access the information we need to know if our environment is healthy or whether public bodies have done their job to keep it healthy. And it could also be applied to secure the enforcement and remedial action that communities need to guarantee homes that provide everyone with a safe and healthy living environment. For example...

Sarah, asthma sufferer*

My local planning authority has decided to allow a new road bypass in my area. Studies show air quality on my street will get worse and could cause my asthma to flare up, but the authority hasn't changed its mind.

In this case, a challenge could currently be raised through the planning system but it would need to focus on whether the bypass breached planning policy, or the decision was incorrectly made.

If Sarah had a right to a healthy environment, she'd have additional grounds on which to challenge the consent, which could lead to the bypass being stopped or consent changed to better protect human health. It could also bring in the wider impact of a road bypass on nature and ecological health.

Ahmed, nature lover

Research shows that my area contains some of the poorest environment in England. Government passed a law that was meant to clean up the environment everywhere, but the council keep cancelling funding and activities needed to make it happen. This means my community will continue to experience an unhealthy environment.

People like Ahmed can only look on when big environmental promises for people, wildlife and nature don’t translate into local implementation and action.

He could complain the Office for Environmental Protection, but it can be difficult as timescales set in law are long term and we need action now to prevent the worst impacts on an unhealthy environment. If we had an Environmental Rights Act, Ahmed could provoke action by reminding the council of its duty, and then access the courts if it continues to fail to fulful its duty.

What can I do to support?

In the run up to the next election, more than ever, political parties are looking to get voters on side. That makes this an opportune moment to show how important this new law would be to communities across the UK.

You can demand the right to a healthy environment for everyone by signing our record of public support for a new Environmental Rights Act.

The story so far

In 2022 our legal team worked with the RSPB and Client Earth to develop a draft law (the Environmental Rights Bill) which would equip people to stand up for their right to a healthy environment. This new piece of legislation was formally drafted by Matrix Chambers and is also being backed by Wildlife and Countryside Link.

In summer 2023, together with other organisations including RSPB and Client Earth, we launched a proposal for a new legal right to a healthy environment in the House of Lords. We made this one of our earliest demands for the next government ahead of the general election by discussing the potential benefits of a new law with parliamentarians and policy makers. The call for an Environmental Rights Act was also included in the Wildlife and Countryside Link Nature 2030 manifesto (PDF).

More recently, we've been seeking feedback from allied NGOs with a rights and justice focus to contribute amendments to a second draft of the Bill, currently underway.