England to get a new environment watchdogEthical News News & Features
A new Environmental Principles and Governance Bill will be introduced ‘to ensure environmental protections will not be weakened as we leave the EU’, the government has confirmed.
The watchdog needs teeth
Yesterday (10 May) a consultation began on the contents of the Environmental Principles and Governance Bill, which the government said ‘will establish a world-leading body to hold government to account for environmental outcomes’.
The government said the body ‘will support our commitment to be the first generation to leave our environment in a better state than that in which we inherited it’, a pledge that has not yet been translated into policy or legislation.
‘We welcome this consultation and watchdog with open arms, and we’re pleased that it covers the key areas. For all the Government’s warm words on the natural environment, this Bill and the effectiveness of this body will be the test of its commitment to a greener future. Legislation to protect and enhance our countryside will count for nothing unless this body is truly independent and has real ‘teeth’.’
Head of rural affairs at the Campaign to Protect Rural England
Green MEP Keith Taylor said the government’s proposals are ‘woefully weak’; he criticised the idea of replacing the EU’s current oversight powers, which allow for the UK government to be taken to court for not upholding environmental protections, with a body that has no legal power to hold the UK government to account.
‘It sends a strong, and far from positive, signal about the government’s post-Brexit environmental intentions that, on the same day it announces its proposals for a woefully weak post-Brexit environment ‘watchdog’, it closes its consultation on a policy which forces fracking on local communities, cements a ban on the cheapest form of renewable energy, and removes vital protections covering our most precious countryside. At the same time, Ministers have also refused to rule out stuffing our national parks with radioactive waste.
‘This is a government that, for all its warm words, cannot be trusted with protecting our environment. The launch of this consultation is just the latest example of the lie behind the Government’s green claims. Far from creating an effective environmental watchdog, the consultation makes it clear that the Environment Secretary Michael Gove’s preference is for a toothless lapdog without the legal power to hold to account those who would do our environment harm.’
KEITH TAYLOR MEP
Member of the European Parliament’s Environment and Public Health Committee
What the body would do
The body will also ‘provide scrutiny and advice as we protect and enhance our precious landscapes, wildlife and natural assets and would be able to hold government to account on environmental legislation’, the government said.
Subject to consultation, the new body could specifically be responsible for providing independent scrutiny and advice on existing and future government environmental law and policy; responding to complaints about government’s delivery of environmental law and holding government to account publicly over its delivery of environmental law and exercising enforcement powers where necessary.
‘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.’
How environmental decisions are made
The government is also consulting on its intention to require ministers to produce – and then have regard to – a statutory and comprehensive policy statement setting out how they will apply core environmental principles as they develop policy and discharge their responsibilities.
Currently environmental decisions made in the UK – from improving air and water quality to protecting endangered species – are overseen by the European Commission and underpinned by a number of principles, such as the precautionary principle, sustainable development and the ‘polluter pays’ principle.
While these principles are already central to government environmental policy, they are not set out in one place besides the EU treaties. The new Environmental Principles and Governance Bill will ensure governments continue to have regard to important environmental principles through the policy statement, which would be scrutinised by parliament.
The consultation seeks views on whether or not the principles to be contained in the policy statement should be listed in primary legislation.
Holding government to account
The consultation, which will run for 12 weeks, seeks views on the most effective way for the new body to hold government to account, which would include, as a minimum, the power to issue advisory notices. The consultation asks what further enforcement mechanisms may be necessary.
The consultation is concerned with environmental governance in England, but the government said it is ‘exploring with the devolved administrations whether they wish to take a similar approach’.
The government said it would ‘welcome the opportunity to co-design proposals with them to ensure they work across the whole UK, taking account of the different government and legal systems in the individual nations.’
‘A vital step’
Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) said it ‘welcomes’ the government’s consultation and announcement, and said the Bill will be ‘a vital step in the government fulfilling its commitment to leave the environment in a better state that it inherited it.’
The charity added that to do this, the Bill must ensure that environmental principles, such as ‘sustainable development’, which are the basis of protecting our countryside, are enshrined in law when we leave the EU.
With respect to the new environmental governance body, CPRE warned that it ‘must be given powers to hold the government to account on the state our natural world. This means it needs the powers to initiate legal action and ensure implementation of the Government’s 25 year Environment Plan.’