Fersiwn Gymraeg ar gael yma

Guest blog by Annie Smith, RSPB Cymru Sustainable Development Manager.

With most of our current environmental protection laws deriving from the EU, RSPB Cymru is concerned that these high standards could be sacrificed once we leave the European Union. Several reports, including the State of Birds in Wales 2018, have shown that we need to do more, not less, to protect Welsh nature.

We have been reassured by commitments from Welsh Government to maintain and improve post-Brexit environmental standards; but in this blog, we highlight one aspect of this that is particularly challenging.

The enforcement of EU environmental law is a key reason for its effectiveness, with citizens being able to raise concerns about breaches or failures to implement environmental law with the European Commission.

It is the European Commission who is currently responsible for investigating such breaches, and they have the power to take perpetrators, including governments, to the European Court of Justice. This is where rulings and remedies are currently made and where fines can also be issued.

We describe the deficiencies that we will face because of losing access to these EU Institutions as the ‘governance gap’. Unless it is effectively addressed, environmental protection will inevitably be weaker after Brexit and we strongly believe that the gap can’t be plugged by existing domestic bodies; we need a new one.

Early last year, Welsh Government committed to introducing new laws to address the governance gap in Wales – as it stands, no details have emerged as to how and when this will be done.

The clock is ticking, and the prospect of the UK leaving the EU before suitable arrangements can be made is now a very real one.

Of course, the governance gap will not only open in Wales, but across the whole of the UK. Along with other environmental organisations, RSPB Cymru has called on Welsh Government to work with the UK and Scottish Governments and officials in Northern Ireland to develop a UK-wide approach to environmental governance.

There is potential for the creation of a shared UK body, which could be co-designed and accountable to each country’s government. Alternatively, the gap could be addressed through each country establishing their own governance body, with arrangements for them all to work together.

At the end of last year, Defra (the UK Government’s environment department) published a draft Bill on environmental governance and principles, which sets out draft clauses for the establishment of a new environmental governance body called the Office of Environmental Protection, focused mainly on England.

We still don’t know whether Welsh Ministers’ favoured approach will be to work with Defra and others to co-design a single UK-wide governance body (resulting in changes to the proposed approach in Defra’s draft Bill), or to create a separate new body for Wales. All we know for sure is that time is running out to develop a shared solution.  

We are now expecting a Welsh Government consultation on the governance gap to be published in the next month or so. We will be sure to let you know our thoughts once the consultation has been published, as well as how you can get involved in any relevant campaigning. If you haven’t done so already, you can sign up to be one of our campaign champions here.