Why we need a green watchdog with bite after Brexit

Shara Samra is a policy assistant in the Greener UK unit at Green Alliance. Greener UK is a coalition of 13 major environmental organisations united in the belief that leaving the EU is a pivotal moment to restore and enhance the UK’s environment.

Leading figures in the UK’s environmental movement are calling Brexit a pivotal moment, a chance to push politics aside and seize the opportunity to improve how we manage and protect our environment.

In an attempt to shift the Brexit narrative, and appeal to a wider demographic, the government has promised a ‘green Brexit’. Environment Secretary Michael Gove has published a 25-year plan for the environment, and Brexit Secretary David Davis has made the case for international environmental co-operation and a global ‘race to the top’ on regulations.

But there is one other pressing issue, highlighted by Greener UK, which will make these aspirations hard to achieve if it is not tackled, and that is the serious environmental governance gap that threatens to open up once we leave EU. In a nutshell, the absence of new plans from the UK government will make it harder to enforce and uphold environmental laws after Brexit.

A truly independent body?

Michael Gove’s promise of a ‘world-leading… independent, statutory body’ is a step in the right direction. He is proposing that this ‘green watchdog’ will replace the functions of the EU Commission and Court; he says it will oversee the enforcement of environmental laws and hold the government to account on environmental standards like air and water quality.

Last week a Lords NERC Select Committee report, The countryside at a crossroads (PDF, 900KB), welcomed the decision to create the watchdog, echoing Greener UK’s calls for an independent, accountable body providing environmental oversight and scrutiny.

Yet, there are real fears that the watchdog will fall short. In a recent Efra Committee report, three ministers from departments other than Defra were reluctant to support an oversight body, fully independent of government. And, if its strength and scope are limited, it will be impossible to uphold the commitments being made to maintain high UK standards post-Brexit. To avoid this, the body must be enshrined in primary legislation, with oversight of government and public authorities. Greener UK will be watching to see that it meets expectations and is well resourced and fully independent.

A chance to get it right

An effective watchdog needs a mechanism by which the public can raise complaints in a free and accessible way. And it will need powers to carry out enforcement, including through the courts. Should faults or breaches occur, as the Lords report recommends, ‘appropriate sanctions – including but not limited to fines – should be available.’

Nature in the UK is under enormous pressure and wildlife is in decline. For example, the 2016 State of Nature (PDF, 8MB) report found that 15% of species assessed are extinct or threatened with extinction from Great Britain. In the swirl of Brexit concerns, a new environmental watchdog is not exactly headline-grabbing, but this is worth fighting for and getting right. We have a responsibility to use this pivotal moment to do better for the natural world on which we all depend.

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