UK faces post-Brexit environmental ‘governance gap’, warns green coalition

As the Government prepares to publish a policy paper on the European Court of Justice (ECJ), a coalition of green organisations has called on ministers to clarify how environmental laws will be enforced post-Brexit.

The Government paper will say that the UK will no longer be under the “direct jurisdiction” of the ECJ after Brexit. Commentators view the word “direct” as an apparent climbdown from its promise of judicial independence.

In any case, green groups are eager to see that courts that take on judicial responsibility once the UK leaves the EU are sufficiently empowered and accessible. In a new briefing, the Greener UK coalition, comprised of groups such as ClientEarth, the Green Alliance and Friends of the Earth, says institutions must be strengthened to avoid a domestic “governance gap”.

Greener UK chair executive director Shaun Spiers said: “A week may be a long time in politics, but environmental processes unfold over years and decades. Without strong institutions to hold Government to account, nature can’t compete with shorter term political pressures – yet a healthy environment is essential to our well-being and prosperity, and that of future generations.

“If the Government is to achieve its environmental aspirations, it must ensure we have robust enforcement mechanisms, rather than hollowing out the law.”

‘Wholly inadequate’

As it stands, EU institutions can take forward complaints made by individuals and civil society organisations about the actions or inactions of governments or businesses that affect the environment. The ECJ can also fine governments if they fail to comply with judgements, a power which green groups say gives the process teeth.

The Government’s ongoing legal dispute with ClientEarth over the UK’s worsening air quality crisis is cited as an example of the practical need for oversight of environmental standards. The UK has consistently breached legal air quality standards under EU law and may ultimately face infringement proceedings from the European Commission backed by fines in the ECJ.

Greener UK claims that the Government’s proposals for enforcing domestic environmental law post-Brexit – which centres around judicial review – presents a “wholly inadequate” and incomplete enforcement mechanism. It is therefore calling for the UK’s future arrangements to continue to be accessible to everyone. 

The position paper comes a week after the Government released a seperate document which vowed to align its post-Brexit trade deal with the Industrial Strategy. In that paper, ministers vowed to “continue to maintain our high standards for consumers, employees, the environment and animal welfare”.

This follows on from Environment Secretary Michael Gove’s pledge to deliver a “green” Brexit which develops “global gold standard policies” on environmental management. But the Government’s Repeal Bill, released last month, faced criticism from MPs and green groups for leaving an “environment-shaped hole” in the UK’s Brexit strategy.

George Ogleby

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