Published late on Wednesday (19 December), the 79-page document confirms that the green watchdog will be called the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) – a body which will work alongside the Environment Agency and Natural England to uphold existing environmental and product standards once Brexit is complete.

Crucially, the draft bill confirms that the OEP will have the power to take businesses, public bodies and the Government to court over any breaches of environmental law.

However, it additionally states that the body will not be able to issue fines, call senior representatives to attend Government hearings or place non-compliant organisations into ‘special measures’ – a power currently held by Ofsted for educational facilities and the Care Quality Commission (CQC) for healthcare bodies.

Environment Secretary Michael Gove said the “world-leading” OEP will “scrutinise environmental policy and law, investigate complaints and take action where necessary to make sure environmental law is properly implemented”.

“Our ambition is to be the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than that in which we found it,” Gove said.

“We will keep building on our successes by enhancing our environmental standards and delivering a Green Brexit. We will explore options for strong targets to improve our environment, and provisions on air quality, waste and water resource management, and restoring nature.”

In order to ensure the OEP supports the Government in meeting the goals outlined in its 25-year Environment Plan, the body will be required to produce an annual progress report to Parliament, the draft plan states.

The document additionally notes that Gove should “pay to the OEP such sums as [he] considers are reasonably sufficient to enable the OEP to carry out its functions”.

A watchdog with teeth?

The publication of the draft strategy comes after Prime Minister Theresa May confirmed this Summer that a new environment bill would be published in 2019, following concerns from Ministers who argued that environmental standards would not be upheld post-Brexit.

Around 80% of the UK’s environmental laws have been forged in partnership with other nations in Europe and, if the UK Government flouts environmental laws while within the EU, it will be taken to court by the European Commission. 

Dozens of ministers, NGOs, businesses and green campaign groups have therefore called on Defra to create a “watchdog with teeth” in recent months – a move they claim will uphold standards and ensure the Government can still be held to account.

Such “teeth” include the power to hold Government to account, the power to summon leaders to hearings and the power to issue fines.

The publication of the draft bill has therefore been met with a mix of cautious optimism and disappointment from the UK’s green economy, with many expressing concerns that the watchdog’s bark may be worse than its bite.

WWF’s director of advocacy and campaigns Tony Juniper said there was still “much more” to be done to make the environment bill “world-leading”, as May promised it would be.

“We need to see an overarching duty to restore nature, an environmental watchdog that has both a fiercer bite and a longer leash and an obligation to reduce the UK’s global environmental footprint,” Juniper said.

“If this bill is improved during the coming months, it could mark an act of real leadership at a time when our seriously threatened planet needs it most.”

Environmental law firm ClientEarth has also published a statement on the draft environment bill, claiming it will not be “world-leading” without “boldness” from the Government before the final policy papers are published.

“This bill is a step in the right direction and we are pleased that the government has listened to some of our concerns – but there is still a long way to go before the new watchdog has the strong legal teeth needed to protect our environment,” ClientEarth’s environmental law and policy advisor Tom West said.

“We need a watchdog that can stand up for people and work with them to ensure the Government doesn’t get away with neglecting our environment.”

Core clauses

Elsewhere in the draft bill, Defra has confirmed that several EU principles – including the “polluter pays” principle – will be enshrined into UK law after Brexit.

It also includes a proposal for policies requiring the Government to always have a plan for improving the environment in place. If this proposal is confirmed, Defra will be legally required to monitor and report annually to Parliament on progress and update its policy at least every five years.

The full draft bill is set to be published early next year, and to include further information about air quality, soil quality, land use and chemical regulations. It will be debated by Ministers after Easter.

While the draft bill does not include any information on climate change, Defra has confirmed to the BBC that the full draft bill will include measures the UK will take to help limit the global temperature increase.

Sarah George

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