ClientEarth has called on the UK government to strengthen its plans for an environmental watchdog after Brexit, labelling the current plan “toothless”. It has published a new report that outlines what it says the legal powers the watchdog will “need” to uphold environmental law and build on EU enforcement mechanisms.
The UK Government is consulting on plans “to set up a world-leading environmental watchdog, an independent, statutory body to hold Government to account for upholding environmental standards.”
ClientEarth’s report on post-EU environmental governance, “A New Nature and Environment Commission” makes 11 ‘key recommendations” for the establishment of a new body tasked with ensuring compliance with environmental law by public authorities.
Currently, environmental decisions made in the UK are overseen by the European Commission and underpinned by a number of these principles, such as the precautionary principle, sustainable development and the “polluter pays” principle.
ClientEarth law and policy expert Tom West – “At the moment, their plan would create a toothless body that is seriously lacking in legal punch…”
While these principles are already central to government environmental policy, they are not set out in one place besides the EU treaties. The new Environmental Principles and Governance Bill will ensure governments continue to have regard to important environmental principles through the policy statement, which would be scrutinised by Parliament, government says.
Subject to consultation, the new body could specifically be responsible for:
- providing independent scrutiny and advice on existing and future government environmental law and policy
- responding to complaints about government’s delivery of environmental law
- holding government to account publicly over its delivery of environmental law and exercising enforcement powers where necessary.
ClientEarth, however, says the recent Defra consultation on this “left much to be desired”. Its proposal indicates what it would mean for this crucial new body to have “legal punch”.
In particular, the report proposes that a new Nature and Environment Commission should act as a forum for reviewing the merits of government decisions, involving relevant experts and stakeholders.
The Commission must also have a strong legal toolbox, it says, with courts empowered to make specific mandatory orders to back up the words of the Commission requiring specific steps to be taken by public authorities to achieve legal compliance.
ClientEarth law and policy expert Tom West said: “It’s good that the government has recognised the need for a new body to protect the environment through law. But at the moment, their plan would create a toothless body that is seriously lacking in legal punch. There is scope for the government to strengthen the proposal, but their clearly preferred version is far too weak.
“To be truly effective, a green watchdog must have the power to take all public bodies to court when they fail in their duty to protect people and the planet. It must be able to properly hold the government to account and engage with people and communities to help them solve their environmental problems.”
Defra’s consultation, which will run for 12 weeks and seeks views on the most effective way for the new body to hold government to account, which would include, as a minimum, the power to issue advisory notices. The consultation asks what further enforcement mechanisms may be necessary.
The government’s draft Environmental Principles and Governance bill is expected to be published in Autumn.