Last week the Government’s consultation on environmental principles and a new environmental watchdog closed. This is our opportunity to ensure that environmental protection is maintained and enforced post Brexit. It is also a once in a lifetime opportunity to make the UK a world leader in protecting our environment. We are asking for environmental goals, objectives and a requirement for legally binding targets to be on the face of an Environment Act.
Government continually promises that it wants to leave the environment in a better state for the next generation, but we have not seen this in action. Instead we have seen a roll back on promises for reform to make removal of water from nature sustainable in the long-term, a continued lack of action to tackle diffuse agricultural pollution, minimal Government investment in improving water quality and continued declines in wetland bird counts. Government now has a chance to meet the challenge it has set itself and put environmental objectives at the heart of decision-making across Government. A healthy environment will be the foundation of a thriving economy, prosperous communities and a country rich in nature.
Environmental principles in law and a duty on all public bodies to act in accordance to those principles
Environmental principles such as the “polluter pays” and “precautionary principle” have been written into EU law. They guide policy and decision making and must continue to do so after Brexit. These principles provide both a preventative and restoration function, for example encouraging Government to set up baseline standards to reduce levels of agricultural pollution and significant investment by water companies.
An environmental watchdog to hold Government to account
Currently within the EU if the UK is non-compliant with EU law there are a range of proceedings which can ultimately end up with the UK being taken to court. On leaving the EU we have no such recourse for in-action. In a worst case scenario the Government can simply shrug its shoulders if it fails to meet its commitments for 75% of water bodies to reach good ecological status (an indicator of quality and a requirement under EU law); like we saw with the 2015 biodiversity targets.
However, the Government has committed to establishing an environmental watchdog, how many teeth this watchdog has is still unknown. If it is to be truly world leading, as the Government claim, then it has to have all the legal remedies available to it, including, if it comes to it, to be able to take the Government to court.
The only reason £4bn is being invested in the Thames Tunnel is not because there are excessive volumes of untreated sewage entering the Thames, which there is, or because we do not have sufficient drainage infrastructure to cope with growth in London, which we don’t, it is because the UK is at risk of infraction with the EU with the potential of massive daily fines if it doesn’t do something. A new environmental watchdog must be equally dissuasive so that adequate investment is given to protecting and enhancing our habitats and wildlife once we have left the EU.
Legally binding environmental goals, objectives and targets
This is possibly a once in a lifetime opportunity to place in legislation a requirement for Government and public bodies to protect, restore and enhance the natural environment. Legally binding objectives committing to clean and plentiful water and 5-year targets to ensure sufficient improvement is made, which the watchdog can then hold Government to account over, would finally make me believe that Government means it when it says it wants to leave the environment in a better state for the next generation.
Government have an opportunity to make Brexit a positive force for the environment. Let’s see change for the better and for Government to put its legislative pen where its mouth is.
Hannah Freeman, Senior Government Affairs Officer at Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust.
The opinions expressed in this blog are the author's and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.
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