New environmental watchdog to get legal teeth after Brexit

By Roger Harrabin
BBC environment analyst

Image source, Reuters

Plans for a new green watchdog to protect the environment after Brexit have been outlined by the government.

Ministers say the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) will be an independent statutory body to safeguard environmental standards.

It will have the power to take the government to court to enforce environmental law after Brexit.

Green groups question its independence and doubt the structure will replicate the EU’s environmental protections.

Why is a new law needed?

About 80% of the UK’s environmental laws have been forged in partnership with other nations in Europe.

Some Brexiteers see leaving the EU as an opportunity to dilute environmental standards to increase competitiveness, but the government has promised this will not happen.

At the moment, if the UK breaks green laws – like over air pollution for instance - it gets taken to court by the EU.

Under the provisions of the draft Environment Bill, the new watchdog will have a similar legal power. It is a crucial decision after a long internal battle within government.

The bill also sets down in the UK some of the key principles of European law – like the polluter pays principle, which establishes who is responsible if the environment is harmed.

The bill will get debated after Easter, after the scheduled Brexit date of 29 March.

The government says European law will remain in place in the UK until the new environment bill is passed, and any law-breaking will be dealt with by the OEP when it opens for business.

“Our ambition is to be the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than that in which we found it," Environment Secretary Michael Gove said.

"We will keep building on our successes by enhancing our environmental standards and delivering a Green Brexit.”

There has been confusion over whether or not climate change will be included in the bill.

Environmentalists insist that it must be, and on Wednesday a government source said it would be included in the bill in the new year.

Later a spokesman said it would not be included.

More recently, a Department for the Environment spokesman said climate might or might not be in the bill, depending on the results of consultations in coming months.

How has it been received?

Friends of the Earth said the proposals had several loopholes.

The campaign group believes the environment department is nowhere near ready for a no-deal Brexit and fears there are not enough staff to enforce green laws.

Ben Halfpenny, from Greener UK, told BBC News: "There is a good level of ambition and broad scope.

"But there are big questions over power and enforcement. If the secretary of state appoints the board and decides the budget we are really worried about that."