University of Sussex experts respond to today's Queen's Speech
By: Neil Vowles
Last updated: Wednesday, 12 May 2021
University of Sussex experts respond to the contents of today's Queen's Speech which outlays the Government's priorities for the year ahead.
The ten-minute speech highlighted 30 laws that UK ministers intend to pass in the upcoming year.
Our academics have been responding to the prospective Environment Bill, plans to reform the Judicial Review process, new proposals for the UK's immigration system and an announcement to simplify the government procurement system.
Prof Joseph Alcamo, Director of the Sussex Sustainability Research Programme, said:
“The UK government has some admirable climate policies.
"But if this Government wants to prove its net zero COP26 credentials, it can't give with one hand in terms of developing effective environmental and carbon reduction legislation and take away with another, that is, slash foreign aid and consequently reduce the capability of poorer countries to adapt to climate change.
"The reduction in foreign aid, from its commitment level of 0.7% to 0.5% GNi, could amount to more than £4 billion less to the Global South over the coming year. This includes likely cuts to clean water projects and other strategies used by countries in Africa and Asia to adapt to climate change impacts like more frequent and severe droughts. And these climate impacts can be traced back to the greenhouse gases emitted mostly by industrialised countries over the past several decades.
"So, if the Government really wants to do something for the climate emergency it should restore the foreign aid budget, and not give with one hand, and take away with the other."
Dr Bonnie Holligan, Lecturer in Property Law at the University of Sussex, said:
"The Environment Bill includes a requirement to set environmental targets, including targets for biodiversity protection. However, to meet our urgent climate and biodiversity challenges, the government needs to do much more to explain how it will ensure that its plans for housing and economic growth don't come at the expense of the environment.
"The aim to 'modernise' the planning system with a new planning bill seems likely to conflict with the aim to ensure that development does not damage our precious green spaces.
"The requirement in the Environment Bill for 10% “biodiversity gain” as a condition of all new grants of planning permission is, on the face of it, positive, but much depends on how well our metrics for measuring biodiversity work, and whether “biodiversity gain” sites can be protected in the longer term.
"A new “conservation covenant” is planned to secure protection for biodiversity gain sites. Conservation covenants are an exciting new tool that property owners can use to conserve their land in the long term, but a lot depends on how closely they are monitored and enforced.
"We also need to make sure that decisions about biodiversity protection are not left entirely in the hands of private landowners. Offsite biodiversity gains must not be allowed to distract us from the need to ensure that developments are built to the highest environmental and social standards.
"In order to deliver on promises to be truly-world leading in climate and biodiversity protection, the Uk Government will need to:
- Make sure that all new developments are built to the highest environmental and social standards - offsite biodiversity gains cannot make up for the loss of local green spaces.
- Ensure that communities have a say in development decisions, and in choices about which green spaces to protect.
- Make sure that new biodiversity protections such as net gain requirements and conservation covenants are properly monitored and enforced."
"The Queen's Speech is a missed opportunity for a renewed and concrete vision for meeting our carbon reduction targets.
"The Government's policies as indicated in the June 2020 CCC progress report seeing the UK drift off track for net zero by the mid-2020s.
"The December 2020 10 point plan in theory makes up the gap but there was only £4 billion of new funding announced then, so it’s disappointing that there is nothing new in the Queen's Speech given that this is the year that we are hosting COP26 and we should be showing the world leadership on this issue.
"The little information given in the speech suggests that the legislative focus will be more about environmental issues rather than climate change and greenhouse gas emissions when both should be of equal and pressing priority for the Government.
"The mention of green industries creating jobs is welcome, but will these jobs fit with the Government's new emphasis on increasing skill levels.
"For example, there are potentially quite a lot of jobs in energy efficiency but will the Government support them if they are not very highly skilled?
"There are also questions around proposed legislation on streamlining the planning system to increase housing supply and home ownership.
"A spike in housing construction could potentially push up emissions in the short term, especially when including embodied carbon in concrete and steel.
"It is a disappointment that earlier ambitious new build policies were abandoned in the early 2010s, and the Future Homes Standard will not be fully introduced until 2024, with interim regulations next year only about as half as stringent. "
Robert Barrington, Professor of Anti-Corruption Practice at the University of Sussex, said:
"Simplifying government procurement is a useful post-Brexit win for the Government, which is currently locked into EU procurement rules.
"It's genuinely a chance to do things better if the Government has the right intentions to ensure they are done better.
"In order to do so the Government needs to a) learn the lessons from what went wrong in the Covid procurement b) at minimum, implement the suggestions in the recent Green Paper and c) place transparency and anti-corruption mechanisms at the centre of any new legislation. Government procurement is one of the highest corruption risk areas in any country.
"It would have been a major surprise to see anything in the Queen's Speech on lobbying, because the Government would firstly need to admit there is a problem, but its' absence is still a disappointment.
"At the very least, the government could commit in advance to accepting the recommendations (expected later this year) of the Committee on Standards in Public Life.
"Another notable is a failure to tackle 'corrupt capital' - the proceeds of corruption being laundered through the UK financial system.
"The Government is occasionally tempted to attract foreign 'investment' irrespective of origin, but that damages the UK's reputation with allies.
"There remains outstanding commitments to legislation, but it looks like the loopholes will be allowed to continue and to be exploited."
Dr Ceri Oeppen, Senior Lecturer in Human Geography, with a specialisation in Migration Studies at the University of Sussex, said:
"The new plan for immigration, mentioned in the Queen’s Speech, proposes a number of changes to current immigration policy.
"Most concerningly for those fleeing persecution and conflict, it suggests a two-tier system of protection, whereby those whose only means of arriving in the UK is via the use of the smugglers will receive lesser protection, rights and support than the tiny number arriving through formal refugee resettlement schemes.
"This proposal is therefore out of line with the international standards of protection for refugees in the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, which the UK helped draft.”
Lindsay Stirton, Professor of Public Law at the University of Sussex, said:
"The text of the Queen's Speech on the need to 'restore the balance of power between the executive, legislature and the courts' raises alarm bells.
"It is not reflective of the more measured tone the Government is striking in its consultation on judicial review and I hope is not an indicator of their intentions regarding reform of Judicial Review.
"When you look at what the Government has actually been saying in its consultation, I sympathise with their concerns.
"Ultimately, is that it is not the balance of powers that is out of kilter as the UK does not really have a 'balance of powers' constitution.
"It is rather that different loci of power in the constitution--the courts, say, or executive government, each have thier own constitutional visions and their own justificatory narratives.
"And our constitution lacks the structures through which these different narratives can be harmonised, in order for institutions to work together to achieve agreed goals.
"The solution does not lie in the government attempting to impose its understanding, by force of legislation alone.
"That risks an arms race of ever-more constraining legislation being met by ever more far-fetched efforts by the courts to read down legislation.
"Instead, the Government needs to seek ways of achieving its objectives that also meet the concerns of other constitutional actors.
"It is entirely appropriate for the government to proceed to legislate to reform and even restrict judicial review in certain cases, but in doing so to be mindful of judicial concerns.
"We need to find a way of limiting judicial involvement where this is appropriate while keeping in place the sort of 'safety valve' in case of the sort of executive or tribunal over-reach that clearly motivates judicial attitudes. I firmly believe that there are ways of accommodating such concerns, in ways that are conducive to effective government."
Chloe Anthony, Doctoral Researcher in Environmental Law at the University of Sussex, said:
"The Environment Bill aims to plug the governance gap created by Brexit and fulfil the UK Government's ambition for 'world-leading' environmental protection.
"Throughout the long passage of the Bill, concerns about key elements of the new environmental regime have not been alleviated.
"The Bill downgrades the legal status of environmental principles in EU law to a ministerial policy statement.
"The scope of environmental law is limited – the Bill does not create a framework for cooperation between the four nations of the UK and climate policy is not included.
"Questions remain over the independence of the new Office for Environmental Protection as well as the strength of its enforcement powers.
"The Environment Bill does not yet create the robust legal and institutional framework needed for environmental protection.
"The Bill would be improved by an obligation for public authorities to integrate environment and climate policy in all policy-making and decision-making, by creating a well-resourced enforcement regime with legal underpinning and by increased efforts for collaboration across the four nations, across departments, and between the public and private sectors, on environmental matters."
Dr Mari Martiskainen, Senior Research Fellow in the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU) at the University of Sussex Business School, said:
“That the Queen's Speech should acknowledge that the UK is committed to COP26 is welcome.
"But it is one thing to host a summit, and quite another to actually deliver a real-life green transition that will see the UK put addressing the climate crisis at the heart of government policy.
"This means a concerted and determined move away from fossil fuels and other polluting initiatives.
"The pandemic has shown the vulnerability of our society, and instead of talking about economic growth only, we need a clear plan for a green recovery that supports industries and technologies that do not worsen climate change, but pave a way for a recovery that protects our environment and benefits everyone equally.”
Dr Spyros Skarvelis-Kazakos, Senior Lecturer in Electrical Engineering at the University of Sussex, said:
"In my view, the energy industry is a key national infrastructure, so its resilience must be protected. It is also a key national industry, supporting a lot of jobs and growth. The energy industry is also a key contributor to achieving Net Zero, although some progress has already been made on that front.
"If we also take into account the recent Colonial Pipeline cybersecurity incident in the US this week, it can be argued that energy sits at the cross-section of several policy priorities: (1) Energy supply resilience, (2) environmental performance, (3) national infrastructure security and (4) jobs and growth. None of the above is mutually exclusive anymore.
"It looks like the government shows some level of awareness of the above issues, and the COVID response is not irrelevant, as it has had an impact on energy demand and to some extent network operators."
Dr Noam Bergman, Lecturer in Energy Policy in the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU) at the University of Sussex Business School, said:
"Proposals to liberalise the planning system and accelerate housebuilding could jeopardise upholding or tightening energy efficiency and other environmental regulations concerning new homes. Building new homes is in itself highly resource and energy intensive; repurposing empty buildings for homes should be considered, especially post-COVID.
"’The United Kingdom is committed to achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and will continue to lead the way internationally by hosting the COP26 Summit in Glasgow’. These are nice words, but long-term promises don't guarantee short or medium-term action. There is a history of emission cuts happening sometime in the future, rather than now. Short-term intentions to rebuild the economy post-Covid could mean higher emissions.
"The Government has said legislation will set binding environmental targets but so far there is no further detail and no guaranteed funding. It’s hard to imagine this will take precedence over building and economic growth.”