So what are we to make of environment secretary Michael Gove’s plans for an independent body to oversee environmental standards in England and “hold Government to account” after Brexit? A consultation on what powers the statutory body will have is to be launched early next year.
All EU environmental law is to be taken on by the UK through the EU (Withdrawal) Bill currently going through Parliament. But Gove said that without further action there would be a “governance gap”. He added the new body would “have bite” and be able to challenge law makers.
“We will deliver a Green Brexit, where environmental standards are not only maintained but enhanced,” he said.
There are as yet no indications how the new body would work with the existing regulating authorities: the Environment Agency, Natural Resources Wales, Scottish Environmental Protection Agency and Northern Ireland Environment Agency.
Gove added: “There are significant questions to answer – such as exactly what functions and powers the new body has to enforce environmental laws, exactly how a new policy statement is embedded into public policy-making, and whether Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland wish to take a different or similar approach.
“We are already working with the devolved administrations on which powers coming back from the EU should be devolved further.
“We will discuss this proposal with them as part of wider conversations on how and where powers should be exercised on return from the EU, and the need or otherwise for common frameworks across the UK.”
Environmental Services Association executive director Jacob Hayler said Gove had acted to “calm fears” about the possibility that post-Brexit environmental regulations will be weakened.
“We will discuss this proposal with the devolved administrations as part of wider conversations on how and where powers should be exercised on return from the eu”
Michael Gove, environment secretary
He said: “There is no reason why the UK cannot maintain its commitments to the environment, and we look forward to seeing the details of how this new body will hold the Government to account.”
In a recent blog, Chartered Institution of Wastes Management chief executive Colin Church argued for the creation of a National Environmental Audit Office, which would report to all four Parliaments and assemblies in the UK and receive funding from all of them. He said:
“We would expect the new body to uphold the long-term ambitions that we hope to see set out in the forthcoming 25-year environment plan.”
Lord Deben, chair of the Climate Change Committee statutory oversight body and a former environment secretary, is one of a number of influential figures to have repeatedly called for a stronger and more independent regulatory body for the environment.
Deben set up the Environment Agency in 1996, when it took over responsibility from local waste regulation authorities.
Speaking at a House of Commons event in July, he said: “When I set up the EA, I insisted on it being independent, making independent statements and keeping the Government to account. Successive Governments have removed that. It is no longer an independent body but it has got to become that.”
Gove’s appointment as environment secretary in July initially raised a few eyebrows because he had no track record in the sector and had previously described himself as a “shy green”. He is also a former chairman of the Policy Exchange, which released a report backed by FCC Environment arguing against the UK signing up to the EU circular economy package following Brexit.
Environmental decisions made in the UK – from improving air and water quality to protecting endangered species – are currently overseen by the European Commission, which monitors targets, scrutinises new legislation and takes action against illegal behaviour. This current system is underpinned by a number of ‘environmental principles’, such as sustainable development and the polluter pays principle, which puts the onus on polluting individuals or businesses to pay to repair damage. Although these principles are already central to Government environmental policy, they are not set out in one place besides the EU treaties. The proposed consultation on the statutory body will therefore also explore the scope and content of a new policy statement to ensure environmental principles underpin policy-making.