The ongoing deterioration of our environment threatens natural habitats and wildlife. It also harms human health: lives are shortened by air pollution, people fall ill from poor water quality, and community wellbeing declines as natural spaces become less accessible.
Public body decision-making is worsening this ecological and human health crisis. Projects that increase pollution, destroy natural spaces and accelerate climate change are still being given the go-ahead, to the detriment of nature and people alike.
A group of charities, including Wildlife & Countryside Link, ClientEarth, the RSPB and Friends of the Earth are backing a new piece of legislation requiring more environmentally-friendly and health-positive decision making. The Environmental Rights Bill, drafted by David Wolfe KC and Kate Cook of Matrix Chambers, would establish a human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment for everyone, if adopted into election manifestos and progressed in the next Parliament.
The Bill would enforce the human right to a healthy environment by:
1) Creating a new duty on relevant public authorities to act compatibly with the right to a healthy environment.
This means that public authorities would need to demonstrate that actions they undertake:
- Improve the environment to boost people’s health, where standards are falling short.
- Contribute to nature recovery goals and net zero.
- Have regard to the need to preserve clean water, clean air and access to natural spaces.
This would significantly increase the weight that environmental considerations are given in decision-making, across both Central and Local Government. Authorities would need to balance these new considerations alongside other factors when making decisions, but ultimately they would have to demonstrate that the right to a healthy environment would not be undermined.
2) Giving people the legal tools to challenge public bodies who fail to uphold the right, by fully incorporating rights granted by the UNECE Aarhus Convention into UK law.
The UK ratified the Aarhus Convention, a multilateral environmental agreement, in 2005 but has failed to meaningfully comply with it. Fully incorporating Aarhus into UK law would help people
- To access environmental information (known as the right to know).
- To participate in decision making, including the ability to appeal planning decisions on environmental grounds (known as the right to engage).
- To access justice, including the ability to take legal action on environmental matters without risking huge personal costs (known as the right to challenge).
Wildlife & Countryside Link, ClientEarth, the RSPB and Friends of the Earth launched the Environmental Rights Bill at an event in Parliament on 20 June 2023. The Environmental Rights Bill also forms a key part of ‘Nature 2030’, a public campaign launched on 18 July which urges political parties to include the Bill and four other environmental policy proposals in their General Election manifestos.
If progressed in the next Parliament, the Environmental Rights Bill, or legislation advancing its core principles, would confer greater weight on environmental factors in decision making and give people stronger powers to challenge decisions which harm their environment and health. This would advance human rights, boost nature’s recovery and improve health outcomes for millions.
Case study: The Ottershire Airport Access Road
This is hypothetical case study, to illustrate how the Bill could operate.
In March 2029 Ottershire District Council approved planning permission for a new road, linking the A958 to a regional airport to enable the airport’s expansion. Residents of Otterley, adjacent to the proposed access road, objected to the increased air pollution it would cause, the water meadows it would destroy and the carbon it would emit.
Residents joined up with a climate charity and a local NHS patients’ group to challenge the approval. Under the terms of the Environmental Rights Act, they were able to access key information about the consent, informing a legal challenge made affordable by a cap on their legal costs should they be unsuccessful.
The objectors were able to demonstrate in court that Ottershire District Council had failed to act compatibly with the right to a healthy environment in reaching its decision. In particular, the judge noted that the residents of Otterley were already subject to air pollution levels that breach WHO guidance, and that the Council had failed to take into account that the proportion of residents unable to access natural greenspaces within a fifteen-minute walk would double as a result of the proposals.
The judge quashed the decision, forcing the Council to reconsider whether it wished to proceed with the scheme.
Quotes in support of the Bill can be found below.
Carol Day, Consultant Solicitor for the RSPB and co-Chair of Wildlife and Countryside Link’s Legal Strategy Group said:
“The UK is proud of its human rights and environmental record, but it is the only party to the Aarhus Convention that specifically sought to avoid giving people a legal right to a healthy environment in favour of a mere “aspiration”.
This Bill aims to enshrine that right in law and to empower civil society to hold the government to account by ensuring they can access environmental information, engage in the development and implementation of projects, policies and laws effecting the environment and challenge public body decision making when they exceed the boundaries of the law.’’
Angus Eames, lawyer at ClientEarth said:
“The Environmental Rights Bill would help people to take legal action over toxic air, polluted water and depleted nature in their communities at a time where environmental rights are under serious threat in the UK.
“The Government has said time and again it wants to be an environmental leader, but has refused to endorse the right to a healthy environment, now recognised by the UN, in a way that is enforceable in the courtroom. In the current climate and biodiversity crisis this is simply unacceptable.
“We need this bill now more than ever to help individuals to hold the UK Government accountable for the impacts that dirty air, sewage-filled water and decimated habitats are having across the country. We'll continue to work closely with other environmental organisations to push this bill forward.”
The full Environmental Rights Bill can be accessed here
Also in the policy hub: