Government to consult on new environmental watchdog

A new independent environmental watchdog will hold the government to account for the environmental outcomes of its policies following the UK’s departure from the EU, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has announced.

A new Environmental Principles and Governance Bill will be introduced following a public consultation, launched today (10 May), with the express objective of maintaining the environmental protections currently safeguarded by the EU. The principles at the heart of the UK’s environmental policy are currently only set out in one place in the EU treaties, and will be transposed into UK environmental legislation post-Brexit through the Repeal Bill, announced last February, with the principles enshrined in a policy statement subject to further consultation.Government to consult on new environmental watchdog

The exact responsibilities of the governance body are also subject to the findings of the consultation, but it will provide scrutiny and advice on existing and future government environmental law and policy, respond to complaints about government’s delivery of environmental law and hold the government to account on its delivery of environmental law. It could potentially even exercise enforcement powers where necessary.

The consultation will run for 12 weeks and seeks views on the most effective way for the new body to hold government to account, as well as what enforcement mechanisms might be necessary – the power to issue advisory notes will be included as a minimum.

The Environmental Principles and Governance Bill will be published in draft form in the autumn, while the public consultation on the environmental principles policy statement will follow in due course. The Bill will be introduced early in the second session of this Parliament, ensuring these measures come into force in time for the end of the Brexit transition period in December 2020. EU environmental governance structures will continue to apply during the transition period.

The devolved governments of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland will be consulted on whether they wish to take a similar approach and co-design proposals to cover the whole of the UK, rather than just England – the primary focus of the consultation.

Commenting on the announcement, Environment Secretary Michael Gove said: “As the Prime Minister has made clear, we will not weaken environmental protections when we leave the EU. A new Environmental Principles and Governance Bill will ensure core environmental principles remain central to government policy and decision-making. This will help us to deliver a Green Brexit and the vision set out in our 25 Year Environment Plan.

“But we will only achieve our aims by also creating a strong and objective voice that champions and enforces environmental standards. That’s why our Environmental Principles and Governance Bill will also create an independent and statutory watchdog. This will hold governments to account for delivering their commitments to the natural world.”

‘Watchdog must have teeth’

Responding to Defra’s announcement, Mary Creagh MP, Chair of Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee (EAC), said: “For the last 40 years, EU membership has meant we can hold the government’s feet to the fire, on air pollution, water quality and recycling targets. Over a year ago, my Committee called for a new Environmental Protection Act to be in place before we leave the EU to avoid the risk of environmental harm from zombie legislation, no longer monitored, enforced or updated.

“The government’s delays and failure to act sadly mean a strong new environmental protection agency will not be ready by March 2019. This is deeply disappointing and my Committee will be pressing for this watchdog to have the teeth it needs to ensure the Prime Minister keeps her promises on the environment and sustainable development.”

The EAC has been active in scrutinising the government’s plans for environmental policy since the Brexit vote, and, as Creagh mentions above, called for the introduction of an EPA that would include provisions for the creation of a monitoring and governance body to oversee existing and future government environmental policy in January 2017. A failure to do so could lead to transposed EU legislation becoming ‘zombie legislation’ if such a body were not created to enforce it.

Seeking to assuage the fears around his appointment as Environment Secretary following the general election in June 2017, Michael Gove promised to deliver a ‘Green Brexit’ with a “deliberately ambitious agenda” to create a more sustainable UK economy, but this was called into question by environmental groups towards the end of last year who stated that the EU Withdrawal Bill ‘gravely threatens’ the UK’s ability to deliver a ‘Green Brexit’.

Defra’s preparedness for Brexit has also come under scrutiny, with Gove announcing in March that the scope of Brexit-related work by Defra will increase from 43 work streams to 70, following a letter sent by Creagh in February regarding Defra’s preparedness for the UK’s impending departure from the EU. Concerns also arose regarding Defra’s estimation back in November that 1,200 new posts would need to be filled by March 2018 to support Brexit work, only 650 of which had been filled as of November.

Meanwhile, Greener UK, a coalition of 13 major environmental organisations, named the waste and resources sector as ‘high risk’ in its Brexit Risk Tracker back in October after Defra predicted it would not be able to reach the 60 per cent recycling target set by the EU’s Circular Economy Package.

Waste and resources maintained its ‘high risk’ status in the Risk Tracker’s January update due to concerns over lack of funding and capacity, with the National Audit Office stating in December that Brexit creates a significant extra workload for Defra, exemplified by Defra’s estimates on the number of extra posts it will need, which it will have to carry out while accommodating £147 million of budget cuts across 2017/18 and 2018/19.

You can respond to the consultation on the Environmental Principles and Governance Bill on the Defra website.

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