Defra to recruit head of Office for Environmental Protection

The recruitment process for the inaugural position of Chair of the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) began yesterday (10 August).

The new OEP will act as a monitoring and governance watchdog to independently scrutinise and advise the UK Government on its environmental legislation and targets, replacing the role formerly held by the European Commission prior to the UK’s exit from the EU. The Chair will be the driving force behind these activities.

The organisation will be legislated for through the Environment Bill, which is set to implement measures to improve air and water quality, tackle plastic pollution and restore habitats.

Environment Secretary George Eustice said: “Protecting and enhancing our natural environment is a greater priority than ever before, so it is essential both present and future governments are held to account on our environmental targets.

“This new and independent body needs a strong leader who has the passion and commitment needed to deliver real and lasting change for our precious environment, and I encourage all those who fit the bill to apply.”

The Chair will be based in Bristol and appointed by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural affairs (Defra), earning £56,784 per annum for a time commitment of a minimum two days per week.

The assessment panel for the appointment include Defra Permanent Secretary Tamara Finkelstein, crossbench peer the Rt Hon. Lord Kakkar, Dame Fiona Reynolds, lead non-executive board member at Defra Henry Dimbleby and crossbench peer Lord Cameron of Dillington.

The Chair will initially be engaged by Defra until Royal Assent is given to the Environment Bill and the OEP is legally established, expected in 2021, after which the fixed-term appointment will end and the successful candidate will become non-executive OEP Chair.

The Chair will be accountable to the Secretary of State for Defra, raising concerns over the independence of the organisation.

MPs have long raised concerns about the independence of the new organisation, with a cross-party group calling for a stronger link between the OEP and Parliament to ensure the watchdog’s independence, while Greener UK, a coalition of 13 major environmental organisations, also raised concerns over the fact the OEP’s board and budget is set to fall under ministerial control.

Concerns were first raised in an inquiry led by the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) into the then draft Environment Bill, during which then Environment Secretary Michael Gove responded to questions about how the new enforcement body, the OEP, might look. While he stated that the Chair and board of the OEP would have “all the resources they need” to provide adequate scrutiny, former EAC Chair Mary Creagh accused Gove of ignoring the advice of the EAC to make OEP accountable to Parliament.

When former Environment Secretary Theresa Villiers was questioned last year by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Efra) committee about the extent to which the OEP will be independent from ministerial interference, Villiers confirmed that proposals made by the committee would be taken on board in the revised Environment Bill.

The Efra committee had recommended that the OEP function like the Office for Budgetary Responsibility (OBR), which sees the role of Chair proposed by the Chancellor of the Exchequer but with the final appointment approved by Parliament’s Treasury Select Committee.