Government launches new ‘green watchdog’ consultation

Today the Government have published a consultation on creating a new environmental watchdog. Joan Edwards, The Wildlife Trusts’ Director of Living Seas and Public Affairs, writes on what’s needed to meet the Prime Minister’s promise of being “world leading” and how it could help put nature back into the places we love.

Over the last 40 years, the European Union has driven improvements in environmental legislation affecting the UK. From protecting endangered species and habitats to putting a halt to the discharge of raw sewage in our seas, EU laws have helped to defend the UK's wildlife and environment.
However, laws are only as effective as their enforcement.

EU institutions, such as the European Commission and European Court of Justice, have played a vital role in environmental governance, from monitoring and reporting on progress, to accountability and ultimately enforcement, including by providing a citizens’ complaints process, and having the power to levy large penalties.

If the Government’s promises of a ‘Green Brexit’ are to be met, then these vital functions will have to be replaced by the time we leave the EU.

Today, the Government have launched a consultation to fix this ‘governance gap’ and create a “new, world leading independent statutory body”, alongside implementing the environmental principles, such as the ‘polluter pays’ principle, which are currently enshrined in EU Treaties into UK law.

This consultation is welcome, but any new body will need to meet some key tests if it is to be robust enough to adequately replace the current functions of EU institutions.

it is clear that the enforcement powers of the body need to be stronger to give it real teeth – such as the power to initiate legal proceedings against government departments once all other options have been exhausted
Large Blue butterfly

Large Blue ©Keith Warmington

First of all, consideration of devolution in conjunction with the devolved administrations is required to help ensure effective and coordinated protection of the environment and wildlife across the whole UK. It is vital to map out which functions are best done at a UK or devolved level or both, as well as any cross-border implications. While today’s consultation itself focuses on environmental governance in England and issues that are reserved for the UK Government it will be important for discussions to continue with all the devolved Governments to explore how co-operation on UK-wide governance could be achieved and implemented jointly.

It is also key that any post-Brexit environmental governance system is established by legislation, that it is fully independent and adequately resourced with technically qualified staff. The UK Government are proposing a new Environmental Principles and Governance Bill to implement the body which is welcome but further detail on how the independence of the body will be guaranteed is still needed.

The proposed watchdog will be responsible for reviewing and reporting on the state of the environment; checking compliance with environmental law and will also be able to receive complaints from citizens on environmental issues and decide whether to investigate these further. However, it is clear that the enforcement powers of the body need to be stronger to give it real teeth – such as the power to initiate legal proceedings against government departments once all other options have been exhausted.

To succeed in its ambition to ensure Brexit does not lower environmental standards, it is essential that the Government ensures that these key environmental protection functions are put in place by the time we leave the current EU arrangements.

The Prime Minister knows that we are truly a nation of nature lovers. At the end of last year, over 14 million people sat transfixed to the opening episode of the BBC’s flagship wildlife series Blue Planet II, making it the most watched show of 2017.

if Theresa May really wants to speak to the millions of British people who are united by their love and fascination of nature, she needs a higher ambition
Rockpools and seaweed on the shore in summer, The Wildlife Trusts

©Toby Roxburgh/2020VISION

However, if Theresa May really wants to speak to the millions of British people who are united by their love and fascination of nature, she needs a higher ambition.

The task of creating a healthy environment for people today and for future generations will also require visionary new legislation which sets out targets for nature’s recovery on land and at sea and which is then supported by the work of the proposed new green watchdog. What better approach to achieve this than to use the Government’s proposed Bill and turn this into a truly ambitious piece of environmental legislation.

Achieving this would give the Government the opportunity to champion nature’s recovery at home and across the globe and help put nature back into the places we love.