The statutory body was announced as part of ministers’ plans to protect landscapes and nature after the UK leaves the European Union.

Measures from improving air and water quality and protecting endangered species are currently overseen by the European commission and underpinned by green principles across the EU, such as “the polluter pays”.

The new watchdog will replace the EU’s mechanisms and will be backed by a law requiring ministers across Whitehall to “have regard to” core environmental principles, set out in a statement of national policy.

But environmentalists who emerged from a session with environment secretary Michael Gove to talk through the plan were critical.

Tony Juniper, advocacy director of the WWF, said it needed “stronger jaws and bigger teeth” and called for targets on air, water, plastics and soil quality to be included in the legislation. 

The RSPB said the government’s green credibility was “hanging by a thread”.

Caroline Lucas, co-leader of the Green party, dismissed the plan as “lacklustre” with no “meaningful proposals”.

“It’s a clear sign that this government’s warm words on the environment are little more than spin,” she said.

These proposals carry particular weight because they are the first example of how the government will treat protections that have been established by Brussels for more than 40 years once the UK has taken back control of them.

Gove claimed the government would be the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than the previous one.

“But we will only achieve our aims by also creating a strong and objective voice that champions and enforces environmental standards. That’s why our environmental principles and governance bill will also create an independent and statutory watchdog. This will hold governments to account for delivering their commitments to the natural world,” he said.

Tom West, a lawyer for ClientEarth, which has successfully taken the government to court over its failure to set out a plan for how it was going to meet clean air targets, said: “At the moment the plan would create a toothless body that is seriously lacking in legal punch. There is scope for the government to strengthen the proposal, but their clearly preferred version is far too weak.”

Kierra Box, Friends of the Earth’s Brexit campaign lead, said the government’s plan was a bare minimum: “It’s as if the government is asking people to chose between different environmental outcomes – as if there’s no possibility of achieving all of them. That doesn’t feel very world-leading … It’s not a promising start at all.

“You can see the process of negotiation that’s gone on – but the environment is not a matter for horse-trading and that wasn’t the promise that we were given.”

The environmental principles and governance bill will be published in draft in the autumn. It will not, however, be introduced until the next session of parliamentin autumn 2019. Existing EU protections expire after the transition period expires at the end of 2020.

The government insists there will be no weakening of environmental protections. As a minimum, the statutory body will be able to issue advisory notices to those in breach of standards.

Green campaigners regard that as a low bar, and a betrayal of the government’s pledge to bring in standards of environmental protection that match or exceed those set in place by the EU.

Brussels directives have played a vital role in reducing air and water pollution, and providing campaigners with a way of holding government to account. The British government has frequently found itself on the wrong side of EU directives, most recently on clean air. Legal action has been used to make the government comply with Brussels legislation.

Gove, however, will have had to fight hard against a Treasury that is notoriously hostile to all green measures, which it sees as a tax on business.

His consultation document has been the subject of difficult negotiations with the chancellor, Philip Hammond, and, it is thought, the transport secretary, Chris Grayling.

NGOs were due to meet Gove on Thursday to discuss the proposals, but they have already been widely criticised. They have argued the withdrawal bill would have been the most effective way of ensuring continuity of protection.

Peers were highly critical that there was nothing about environmental protection in the bill, and forced the government to concede that Thursday’s consultation document would be published before a third reading in the Lords next Wednesday.

Anne Perkins

This article first appeared on the Guardian

edie is part of the Guardian Environment Network

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