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17 October 2019

UK environmental watchdog has no bite, so must bark loudly

The British Government will seek to create a new Office for Environmental Protection (OEP), as part of a ‘groundbreaking’ environmental bill to shape a green post-Brexit Britain. However, debate will be had over how objective of effective a government-funded organization can be.

The environmental bill, which has been in the pipeline for nearly 6 months, will be the first of its kind since 1995 and has been long awaited by environmentalists. Outlined proposals aims to establish UK standards in lieu of environmental rules which are usually enforced by the EU.

Measures have been suggested to implement a ‘polluter pays’ principle into UK law, ensuring emissions are at the forefront of government decision making. Proposals also include delegating more power to councils to tackle issues such as air pollution, subjecting developers to mandatory biodiversity protection rules, and tightening charges applied to single use plastic.

The most controversial addition to the bill however is the creation of an Office for Environmental Protection (OEP), as an “independent environmental watchdog” to hold the government accountable for environmental obligations after Britain leaves the EU. The department is set to be based in Bristol, UK, with 120 staff-members – a reasonably low headcount compared to those enforcing environmental policy in the EU.

Michael Gove’s definition of the word ‘independent’ in his draft of the bill last year has sparked debate. With the OEP funded by Defra, and with a Chair appointed by Defra, the government’s claim that an “arm’s length” will be kept from the non-departmental public body, allowing it to objectively scrutinize government decision making and take legal action when necessary. This will not include the ability to fine the government, as the EU has been able to do, as seen through fines to the UK for not meeting air quality regulations.

The Brexit and Environment Network, a collection of independent academics, has argued that the OEP will be “ultimately subject to the government’s control”, with similar watchdog the NAO warning that the perception of independence is almost as important as its functional independence.

Some commentators have expressed a concern that the OEP will take legislative power away from the environmental agency.

If the current Conservative government survives its Brexit issues long enough to bring the OEP into being, it looks like it will diverge the UK’s agenda for dealing with climate change from that of the EU. It may be faster and more focused and lead the process, although most government critics simply assume it will lead to environmental standards slipping.

Following a week of Extinction Rebellion protests, with the government insisting on one major investment in gas (see last week’s issue), any positive action against climate change will be a breath of fresh air. At least the government is aware that decision making needs to be reviewed independently.

The Committee for Climate Change, the governments go-to for advice at the moment, released a paper this week with Imperial College, London, outlining guidelines for the government to influence public behavior through microconsumer changes from transport to diet. This timing is almost comical, with 1500 arrests made in London at the extinction rebellion protests this weekend.

Despite lacking power and arguably being too close to the government, as an additional voice on climate change the OEP will hopefully serve the purpose of positively influencing industrial policy, rather than allowing the government to justify its existing opinions with more ‘expert’ advice, as EU climate regulations slip slowly to one side.