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Watching out for the watchdogs

I have been struck by a recent blog on the Green Alliance website by a former chair of the Environment Agency on an alleged erosion of the EA’s traditional role to offer rigorous independent advice – and in public.

Sir Chris Smith writes he is worried that when EU-derived legislation becomes UK law under the Great Repeal Act there will be a chipping away of the EA’s ability and determination to uphold standards.

Smith led the agency from 2008-14 and recalls a time before the coalition government when he warned about high nitrogen oxide levels around Heathrow while arguing against a third runway. He says he was doing what the EA was supposed to do: “providing high quality impartial advice to the government and also, crucially, to the British public”.

But under the coalition, he said, ministers made it clear that impartial advice should not always be put into the public domain. “It was up to ministers to decide what the public should be told, not up to us.”

Smith was himself a former Labour cabinet minister so perhaps a pinch of salt is needed when considering relationships with senior politicians. But his observation of modern politics – a “denigration of expertise and evidence and a reliance on bluster and sweeping assumptions” is a worrying one.

That is why a House of Lords report this month was timely, warning of a potential vacuum in the enforcement of environment legislation after Brexit when the European Commission and Court of Justice of the European Union no longer have a policing role.

We will always need a strong and well resourced EA to enforce regulations and a powerful watchdog to oversee the politicians.

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