The UK began to experiment with voluntary agreements and market-based instruments much later than other northern, industrialised member states of the EU. This delayed start can be accounted for by the comparatively low level of environmental awareness in the UK throughout much of the 1980s, and the belief that domestic regulation, when suitably fine-tuned, was more than capable of addressing most domestic environmental problems. The deployment of 'new' environmental policy instruments grew significantly in the 1990s, although the UK still has comparatively few voluntary agreements. The aim of this contribution is to assess how far these tools are genuinely 'new' or not as compared to pre-existing institutional forms and policy instrument types. The findings suggest that the UK's institutional setting has restricted and strongly conditioned the development and functioning of voluntary agreements. Until recently, the same could be said of economic instruments, but the arrival of tradable permits, complex policy packages and various other eco-taxes is indicative of genuine innovation, which breaks decisively with the past.