The Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs has promised to create an Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) that would have powers to sue the Government if it failed to act on environmental breaches.
It made the pledge in a new Environment Bill, a draft plan for the environment post-Brexit.
The bill provides a framework for environmental governance. Most of England’s environmental legislation has come from the European Union (EU) and has been overseen by the European Commission. The bill aims to address concerns that once the UK leaves the EU, many of these protections will be lost. Environment secretary Michael Gove said on announcing the Environment Bill: ‘Our ambition is to be the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than that in which we found it.’
Yet the government has been taken to court three times by environmental lawyers Client Earth to force it to act following its repeated failure to meet clean air obligations.
Since Gove first floated the idea of the OEP – dubbed by some as a ‘green watchdog’ – it has been repeatedly criticised for not being independent and having strong powers to enforce environmental legislation. Concern has been shared by the Environmental Audit Committee(EAC).
The recent proposal seeks to address this issue, however, some have argued that the body cannot be independent while it is funded – as it would be under the current proposals – by Defra. EAC chair Mary Creagh tweeted her response as, ‘not a good start’.
David Abrahams, a lawyer at Friends of the Earth, wrote in a blog for the Wildlife and Countryside Link charity coalition (wcl.org.uk) that there will be no legal requirement for public bodies to comply with OEP decisions, and it will not be able to impose fines unlike the Court of Justice of the European Union.
The draft also proposes that the secretary of state will appoint the OEP chair and other non-executive members. Climate Change will not be within the OEP’s remit, a decision that has also attracted criticism.
Client Earth environment law and policy advisor Tom West said the bill was a ‘step in the right direction’ but was ‘still a long way to go before the new watchdog has the strong legal teeth needed to protect our environment’.
It will work in line with the principle that the ‘polluter pays’ and that the public should be able to take part in decision making. It proposes to make it mandatory that the government monitor and report to Parliament on the progress of its 25 Year Environment Plan annually, and update it at least every five years. It also makes it mandatory that the government has a long term environmental plan.