Environment Secretary Michael Gove has announced plans to establish a new independent body to hold government to account over environmental standards once the UK has left the European Union.
Mr Gove has said that a new statutory body would “advise and challenge government and potentially other public bodies” on environmental legislation.
Currently much of the UK’s power to address environmental issues – including air pollution – stems from environmental legislation implemented by the EU.
In particular, the threat of infraction proceedings from the EU over failure to meet ambient air quality standards has been a driver in the creation of new policy to improve the UK’s air quality in recent years.
However, environmental campaigners have expressed concerns that once the UK has left the EU, there will be a lack of impetus to meet existing environmental standards, particularly once the UK has left the jurisdiction of the European Commission and the Court of Justice of the European Union.
A consultation on the specific powers and scope of the new body will be launched early next year, Mr Gove added.
Announcing the plans yesterday, Mr Gove said: “We will deliver a Green Brexit, where environmental standards are not only maintained but enhanced.
“Today we are setting out our plans to ensure the powerful are held to account. We will consult on creating an independent body – encouraging transparency and preventing careless or irresponsible behaviour damaging our natural environment.
“We will consult as widely as possible on these proposals to ensure we get this important decision right for future generations.”
The Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH) has welcomed the announcement, but said that more clarity is needed on what the scope of the new body will be.
Responding to the announcement Tony Lewis, CIEH’s head of policy, said: “This is a positive step in the right direction, and we are glad to see that the Secretary of State recognises the need to not only protect the current environmental standards in the UK, but to improve on them.
“However, there are a number of questions that need answering as a priority, and it is essential that Mr Gove provides some clarity.
“Notably, what are the benefits over and above the current environmental watchdogs, such as the Environment Agency and Natural England? How will the new watchdog operate with local government? And, vitally, how will it work with the devolved regions? These questions need to be answered.”
The announcement comes ahead of debate on the Brexit Bill – the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill – in Parliament this week, when MPs will debate a number of proposed amendments to the legislation.
Many amendments have been put forward on the need to strengthen environmental legislation and to protect the environment. An example is an amendement one put forward by Mary Creagh MP (Labour) who is chair of the Environmental Audit Committee.
Mrs Creagh is calling for: “Retention of principles of EU environmental law (1) On and after exit day the environmental principles of European Union law become principles of United Kingdom law in accordance with this section. (2) The “environmental principles of EU law” are the principles set out in Article 191 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (the precautionary principle; the principle that preventive action should be taken; the principle that environmental damage should as a priority be rectified at source and that the polluter should pay).
“(3) A court or tribunal interpreting or applying an enactment must, so far as it is possible to do so, construe or apply the enactment in a manner that is compatible with the environmental principles of EU law. (4) A public authority must, in the exercise of its functions, have regard to the environmental principles of EU law.” Member’s explanatory statement This new clause would ensure that after withdrawal from the EU, the environmental principles of EU law would be retained as part of UK law.”