But Green groups say proposals will mean weaker protection for nature after UK leaves EU
— A new post-Brexit green watchdog will be able to sue the government over environmental failings, according to new plans set out by Michael Gove. However, campaign groups have questioned the independence of the body because the chairperson and budget will be decided by the environment secretary.
The establishment of the watchdog is part of the draft environment bill, which also puts principles such as “the polluter pays” into legal guidance, but only requires ministers to consider them. The bill, the first for 20 years, makes it a legal requirement for the government to have a long-term environment plan and report on progress to parliament each year.
Gove said the government would “explore options” for setting targets, although these would not be legally binding.
For decades, the protection of water, air, nature and wildlife in England has been largely governed by European Union rules and enforced by the European commission. Ministers have been defeated in the courts three times in recent years over illegal levels of air pollution, and the cleaning up of dirty beaches and rivers in the UK has relied on EU enforcement.
After Brexit, when the European institutions will no longer act as independent watchdogs, it is proposed that an Office for Environmental Protection will take over this role, including being able to take ministers to court. However, there is no mention of it having powers to levy fines, as the European institutions have done.
“Our draft clauses for the environment bill place our environmental ambition and accountability at the heart of government,” Gove said on Wednesday. “Our ambition is to be the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than that in which we found it. We will keep building on our successes by enhancing our environmental standards and delivering a green Brexit.”
Green groups praised the ambition of Gove’s plan but said the bill would weaken environmental protections after Brexit.
“There is still a long way to go before the new watchdog has the strong legal teeth needed to protect our environment,” said Tom West of ClientEarth, the group of lawyers that defeated ministers in court over air pollution. “We also need new laws to protect our children from breathing dirty and harmful air.”
Gove said the full environment bill would be published in September 2019.
Amy Mount, of the Greener UK coalition, said: “There is a real sense of ambition, with ministers acknowledging the need to put the environment at the heart of government. Yet without further work, protection will be weaker.
“If the government decides its budget, and appoints its officials, how can the new watchdog challenge ministers effectively?” she asked. “Without establishing strong, legally binding targets for things such as water quality, how can we properly hold the government to account?”
Martin Harper, of the RSPB, said the proposals were mostly policy promises and not legal duties. “Until this is remedied, the idea of a green Brexit will remain an elusive dream.”
The environmental principles in the bill include the precautionary principle, but Tom Fyans, at the Campaign to Protect Rural England, questioned their effectiveness. “They are crucial to the way law is created, yet the draft bill offers only the weak requirement that ministers ‘have regard to’ them.”
England already has two public environmental protection bodies: Natural England and the Environment Agency.
The outgoing chair of Natural England, which monitors important wildlife sites and has faced major budget cuts, said recently it had lost its independence from ministers. Half of the important sites have not been examined for at least six years. At the Environment Agency, which has also faced big staff cuts since 2010, the number of site inspections has fallen by more than a third in the past four years, according to Greenpeace.