Back in January, Theresa May launched Defra’s long-awaited 25 year environment plan. One of the many commitments made on that day was that Defra would consult on its plans for a “world-leading environmental watchdog” underpinned by environmental principles.

With Brexit less than a year away, there is an urgent need to establish new arrangements that will replace those that will be lost once we leave the European Union.

Image courtesy of Michael Harvey

As I wrote ten days ago (here), our environmental laws are only as effective as the institutions that enforce them – and at present most of these (which contribute to our overall system of environmental governance) sit in the European Union. As we move toward our exit from the EU, we face a potential cliff edge moment in terms of environmental governance. That’s why we’re asking for urgent action, including new governance regimes. Failure to act swiftly will lead to a gap emerging which could have serious environmental consequences.

In the months since the commitments were first made, we’ve been pushing governments in Westminster and the devolved nations hard, asking them to work together to find a solution to the governance gap that both respects the devolution settlement and works across the UK.  We are pleased that there have been initial discussions within the individual devolved administrations, such as the work of the Scottish Government’s Round Table sub-group on governance, but these now need to be progressed at pace.

As noted by the respected Institute for Government, a four-nation watchdog might be more challenging/difficult to establish in the short-term, but could deliver significant long-term benefits. In particular, any new body would almost certainly be more robust and less at risk of being abolished by future governments if it were to be “designed and owned jointly by the four nations…reporting to, and co-funded by, the four legislatures rather than just the UK government.”

Whatever the geographic scope of the environmental watchdog, it needs to: 

  • Be established through new legislation – such as a Westminster Environment Act and parallel devolved legislation or support – that also set out ambitious new targets for nature’s recovery, and holds current and future governments to account.
  • Be independent of government - by reporting to relevant Parliaments, rather than any government departments - with secure five yearly budgets and technically qualified staff.
  • Ensure proper implementation of environmental law and policy. This should include supervising plans that give effect to environmental law, overseeing permitting regimes (including responsibility for granting exemptions), and ensuring robust and consistent application of the law.
  • Check compliance with environmental law, policy and international agreements including trade deals by government, business and other actors. This should include reviewing progress against plans, assessing the legality of decisions and scrutinising whether environmental principles, targets, conditions, metrics and requirements are being adhered to.
  • Enforce environmental law by initiating investigations into possible breaches and responding to complaints from citizens and civil society organisations. Breaches must be identified and acted on, with the application of appropriate remedies and sanctions, including fines and the power to order environmental restoration.
  • Review and publicly report information regarding both the state of the natural world and performance against legally-binding targets. These reviews should include the ability to question the action (or inaction) of governments and public bodies, and the adequacy of existing laws.
  • Provide tailored advice on changes to or requirements for new targets, conditions, metrics and requirements, working with existing expert Committees such as the Climate Change Committee.

We’re not the only ones asking for all of this. Recently the House of Lords Natural Environment and Rural Communities Committee called for a new body, independent from the Government. They stated that this independence must be safeguarded by making the body accountable to Parliament and providing finance from more than one Government department. The Committee added that any new body must be able to deal with complaints from individuals, and should have the power and capacity to take the Government and other public bodies to court when appropriate to do so.

I’ll leave the last word to Michael Gove, Defra’s Secretary of State:

Outside the EU, we have an opportunity to learn from both the [European] Commission’s successes and failures…[and] the chance to set the gold standard for environmental science and become a home to centres of environmental excellence. A new independent, statutory body and a strong statement of principles will ensure that outside the EU, we become the world-leading curator of the most precious asset of all: our planet.”

The launch of the consultation will be the first test of his commitment to this vision. We hope it moves us beyond fine words and towards action.