Government

Gove to consult on new environmental protection body for UK

Environment Secretary Michael Gove has revealed plans to consult on a new, independent body to hold the government to account over upholding environmental protections following the UK’s departure from the EU.

Since his appointment as Environment Secretary in June, Gove has often stated that he wants the UK to deliver a ‘Green Brexit’, putting the environment at the heart of policy-making, while maintaining and enhancing the country’s natural assets, landscapes and wildlife.

The future of protections currently upheld by the likes of the European Court of Justice has been one of the litany of worries regarding the environmental impact of Brexit, with several commentators suggesting that losing these agencies could lead to ‘zombie legislation’ that is not enforced and eventually erodes with no oversight.

Gove to consult on new environmental protection body for UK
Gove faced questions on the future of UK environmental protection from the EAC

In his announcement yesterday (12 November), Gove revealed that as part of the strategy for achieving a ‘Green Brexit’, ministers will now consult with businesses, NGOs, the farming sector and civil society on a new environmental body to hold government and public bodies to account and advise and challenge these bodies when environmental standards are not being upheld, with the consultation set to launch in early 2018.

In unveiling his plans, Gove said: “We will deliver a Green Brexit, where environmental standards are not only maintained but enhanced. Today we are setting out our plans to ensure the powerful are held to account. We will consult on creating an independent body – encouraging transparency and preventing careless or irresponsible behaviour damaging our natural environment. We will consult as widely as possible on these proposals to ensure we get this important decision right for future generations.”

An independent body would take on the governance mantles currently shouldered by the European Commission, which monitors targets, scrutinises legislation and takes action against illegal behaviour.

In addition to a new independent public body, Gove stated in an exclusive article in the Sunday Telegraph that the UK would create “a new policy statement setting out the environmental principles which will guide us”, to bring all principles together in one place in UK law. Current principles include sustainable development and the ‘polluter pays principle’. The new policy statement will also be open for consultation at the start of 2018.

Furthermore, discussions are underway with the devolved administrations of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland regarding whether these administrations want to take the same approach as England, and which powers regarding environmental protection should be further devolved following the UK’s departure from the EU, leaving the door open to a different regulatory body for each administration, as opposed to one for the whole of the UK.

Too little, too slow

When questioned by the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) last month (31 October), Gove refrained from committing to an Environmental Protection Agency-type body, with the power to fine government for missed targets or underperformance, stating that it was important to consult “very widely” before making any final decisions.

Gove remained non-committal on a timescale for the introduction of such a body, stating that no “definitive” thinking had been done at this stage and he was keen to await the contributions to the consultation, but that he envisaged it would happen before the UK’s official departure from the EU; whether ‘departure’ refers to the elapse of the two-year period following the triggering of Article 50 or the end of any potential transition period remains to be seen.

Mary Creagh MP, Chair of the EAC, was critical of Gove following the EAC session, after he was unable to guarantee that the prospective body would cover the whole of the UK and unable to rule out separate bodies for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Creagh tweeted: “At @CommonsEAC on Weds [sic] this watchdog morphed into 4 bodies. Not sure he understands “overarching”. Or chemical regulation.”

Creagh has tabled two amendments to the EU Withdrawal Bill, regarding the ‘retention of principles of EU environmental law’ and the ‘enforcement of retained environmental law’, although Gove, in his session with the EAC, informed Creagh that he could not support the amendments.

The lack of clarification over the timescale for the establishment of an environmental regulatory body has provoked concern from some, with Shaun Spiers, Chair of Greener UK and Executive Director of Green Alliance, commenting: "The government shouldn't waste any time starting the conversation about what this body or bodies should look like as it will need to come into effect the day we leave the EU.

"Any new organisation will need adequate resources for effective governance. It will have to be fully independent of government, with statutory power, and accountable to the relevant parliament or assembly.”

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