Breaches of environmental law will go unpunished until the UK establishes its own green watchdog in the event of a “no deal” Brexit.
A policy paper outlining the UK’s post-Brexit environmental arrangements, published by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) yesterday (19 December), says that a new independent Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) will be established after the UK leaves the EU.
The new agency will be equipped with powers, like those currently possessed by the European Court of Justice (ECJ), to take enforcement action against breaches of environment law.
Specifically on water, the paper says the government will consult on modernising legislation to ensure that the sector’s companies and regulators assess and manage environmental and other risks better.
Environment secretary Michael Gove said the draft clauses for the Environment Bill “place our environmental ambition and accountability at the heart of government”.
He said: “They set out how we will create a pioneering new system of green governance, placing our 25-year environment plan on a statutory footing. We will explore options for strong targets to improve our environment, and provisions on air quality, waste and water resource management, and restoring nature.
“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.”
The absence of enforcement powers for the new agency was greeted by widespread dismay when Defra published its original proposals for the UK’s post-Brexit environmental framework in May, leading opponents to brand it as a “poodle” of government.
The new paper says the government will work to ensure that the OEP is in place “as soon as possible” in a no deal scenario with powers to review and take enforcement action in respect of breaches of environmental law currently handled by the ECJ.
The government would put in place a “holding arrangement” until the OEP is launched to report any claimed breaches of environmental law so that the agency can take rapid action when it is established.
The OEP, says the paper, will also provide “independent and impartial scrutiny, assessments and advice on environmental legislation and the government’s environmental improvement plan”.
This will include publishing an “independent”, annual progress report on the implementation of the 25-year environment plan.
And the Environment Bill, detailed wording of which was also published yesterday, will enshrine the environmental principles that should inform wider government policy making for the first time in UK law, it says.
Defra said it will consider means of strengthening Ofwat’s ability to hold companies to account on the environment as it highlighted the dangers posed by wastewater.
Responding to the government’s announcement, Craig Bennett, chief executive of Friends of the Earth, said: “While it’s good to finally get a draft Environment Bill, it falls far short of the blueprint for a greener post-Brexit Britain repeatedly promised by Michael Gove.
“EU rules and institutions have enhanced our environmental protection for decades. But with government plans to replace them with legislation that’s riddled with loopholes and undermined by vague aspirations, it’s clear that our natural world is now far from safe.
“And to make matters worse the much-vaunted green watchdog is too weak and fitted with blunt teeth.
“There isn’t enough time to agree the tough legislation we urgently need to protect our climate and natural environment in the event of a no deal Brexit on 29 March.
“If ministers are serious about protecting our green and precious land they must take ‘no deal’ off the table.”