Can new watchdog protect the environment?

Published: 06 Jun 2018


Can new watchdog protect the environment?

6 June 2018

As our exit from the EU continues to be negotiated, we’re starting to get some small insights into how our environmental world will look post-Brexit. The latest glimpse comes from the Government Consultation on the Environmental Principles and Governance after EU Exit.

Running until August 2018, the Consultation proposes the creation of an independent environmental watchdog to hold the Government accountable for the policies and decisions it makes on environmental protection. Currently, the European Commission supported by the European Environment Agency, monitors the implementation of EU environmental legislation across the Member States. Where necessary, cases of non-compliance are brought to the European Court of Justice to ensure the appropriate application of the law.

What’s being proposed?

Once we leave the EU, we’re going to need an independent body to take over the monitoring of the UK Government, which takes the place of the European jurisdiction.

The Consultation attempts to address this, by examining the:

  • current environmental principles in international and EU law, and how they can be implemented into domestic policy and a legal framework through a new policy statement
  • creation of a new watchdog to hold the Government accountable for the environment, including the development and implementation of policies
  • role of the new watchdog in the wider environmental context, and how it will work with the Government and other authorities, such as the Environment Agency and Natural England

Long time coming

Proposals for a new environmental watchdog were first suggested by Environment Secretary Michael Gove back in November last year. He suggested creating a “green Brexit” where the environment has a powerful voice amid overlying concerns that environmental legislation enshrined in EU law could be lost and that the UK would be prepared to relax some of its policies, including the environment, post-Brexit.

However, the suggested consultation did not materialise. Something that was picked up on by the House of Lords, in its ongoing scrutiny of the EU Withdrawal Bill.

A compromise?

Now some six months on, we finally have some published proposals, although they appear to reflect the current divisions in the Government.

It’s a compromise. We will have a new watchdog, but one without real power. No means to initiate legal action against the Government. No obligation to continue to operate key environmental elements like the precautionary and polluter pays principles. Nothing to do with climate change.

“Holding the Government accountable” won’t mean taking them to court if they flout environmental standards. It will mean serving them with “advisory notices” which request compliance and identify corrective actions. The Government sees this as the main form of enforcement, and believes the majority of cases would be resolved through this route.

Increasing criticism

While initially it was criticism from environmental campaigners, with near universal condemnation, more recently it is the House of Lords that have increased political scrutiny around the proposals, highlighted by another defeat of the Government’s EU Withdrawal Bill on 16th May.

Amendments proposed by the Lords aimed at bolstering environmental protection after Brexit were carried by 294 to 244 votes. They appeared to be a direct reaction to Gove’s new watchdog, which was described as “inadequate” and further comments that the environment had been “subordinated to housing and economic growth”.

Mind the gap

In a time of uncertainty for our profession, concrete proposals on how the environmental “Governance Gap” will be filled once the UK exits the EU are a positive step. However, it seems doubtful that, in its proposed form, the new environmental watchdog will be able to do the task that has been carried out by the Commission and the European Court of Justice very successfully.

Gove claimed the watchdog would have “real bite”, but without the power to take Government to court, it lacks teeth. It’s essential that any new body can genuinely hold the Government to account, in the same way European institutions have been able to do.


Media contact: Amy Batch ( 0191 490 6700 (ext. 6709).

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