Watchdog or lapdog? A test of the Government's commitment to nature

Watchdog or lapdog? A test of the Government's commitment to nature

With an announcement due any day on a new Environment Bill, Russell Cooper, Public Affairs Manager at The Wildlife Trusts, shares his expectations of the Government at this critical time for the environment.

I have worked in environmental fields most of my professional life. Never before has so much been changing in the regulatory and policy frameworks that govern our environment, and at such a pace. The amount of proposed change in the last six months would normally happen over ten or twenty years.

The Government has stated that it intends to "leave our environment in a better state than it inherited it". Mr Gove has said he wants the UK to become a global leader, setting the gold standard for environmental protection. Yet, he faces opposition to some of his plans from Treasury and other parts of Government. In addition, our membership of the European Union brought with it the most comprehensive set of environmental laws anywhere in the world - so the bar is set high. As a result, The Wildlife Trusts are working closely with other environmental groups to scrutinise progress.

The EU Withdrawal Act has brought across many of the EU's environmental laws, but we know that these laws are only effective when they are properly applied and strongly enforced. We need any new governance system to be exceptionally robust.

We know that environmental laws are only effective when properly applied and strongly enforced.

EU environmental laws are overseen by the European Commission and the European Court of Justice. Together they have made sure our Government and others in the EU follow the agreed environmental rules properly. Where a government is judged to be failing to implement those rules, the EU has the power to take action by launching legal proceedings and in some exceptional circumstances by imposing fines. 

Our environment has been transformed by these strong EU laws and the powers of enforcement. It has driven much needed investment in a healthier natural world. For example, our rivers and seas are cleaner today thanks to strict rules on water quality and water treatment. High standards have been backed up by the threat of 'infractions' and many governments have needed this incentive to take the clean-up action that has been desperately needed.

In preparing for Brexit the Government is aiming to create its own governance system - a powerful watchdog to make sure environmental rules are followed.  If they don't, our natural world (and therefore all of us living in it) will suffer. This has been a key ask of The Wildlife Trusts together with other environmental organisations under the umbrella of Greener UK. Thanks to pressure from Greener UK and cross-party support in Parliament the EU Withdrawal Act (2018) was amended to include a requirement on the Government to publish its proposal on a watchdog before the end of the year – and it is this announcement that we expect very soon.

I, like many others, believe that to even stand a chance of matching the power of the European Commission and European Court of Justice, the new green watchdog must be:

  • Truly independent of Government and report to Parliament directly – with a clear remit established in law;
  • Well-funded and employing people with the right skills and expertise; and
  • Able to respond to and investigate citizen complaints i.e. those put forward by you and I.

And the watchdog must have powers to:

  • Investigate how well environmental laws are being followed;
  • Launch legal proceedings against the Government if needed and, as a last resort, be able to ensure the Government can be fined if the law is still not followed – with all money received directed towards environmental protection; and
  • Oversee all public authorities in relation to compliance with environmental laws, including local authorities.

Finally, wildlife does not respect administrative boundaries. Therefore, the UK Government should remain open to the possibility of co-designing the green watchdog with the devolved Governments if this is mutually agreed to be the best arrangement for securing UK-wide governance.

So, in summary – the watchdog must be uniquely powerful to compare with what we currently have – otherwise it will be a step back for our wildlife and wild places, which will consequently be under more threat than ever before. And, to be truly successful, the Government must recognise that it needs to accept the authority of the new watchdog – even when it doesn't like the decisions it makes.

To be truly successful the powers of the new green watchdog must match those of the European Commission and European Court of Justice like-for-like.

The expected announcement will be a real test of the Government and their commitment to our natural world. And this is just the half of it. A fuller Environment Bill is expected to be published around Easter 2019. This must sign us up to targets for environmental recovery and not be limited to just protecting what we have left. It is also vital that the Bill drives the creation of Nature Recovery Networks to create more space for nature and to join-up important places for wildlife through new green corridors. This is a crucial moment for our wildlife and our own wellbeing.

If you would like to join us in calling for better laws that brings about nature’s recovery, then take a look at our Wilder Future campaign and consider speaking to your MP.