UK’s environment watchdog warns of rushed review of EU green laws
The UK’s post-Brexit environmental watchdog has written to various government departments calling for an environmental non-regression safeguard to be added to the ongoing review of hundreds of retained EU laws as well as calling for the deadline to be extended beyond 2023.
The Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) has this week provided written evidence on proposals from the Government to review the Retained EU Laws Bill, warning that it could introduce a rushed approach that fails to improve key environmental targets.
The OEP submitted evidence to the House of Commons’ Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill Committee. The Retained EU Law Bill was presented to the House for a first reading in September 2022 and currently has no date for a second reading.
The Bill seeks to overhaul the retained EU laws that were issued in the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement in 2018 and subsequently updated by the EU Act in 2020. The aim of these legislative frameworks was to transpose various existing EU legislation into UK law, which covered the majority of environmental policies that the UK agreed to uphold.
However, in 2021, the Brexit Opportunities Unit (BOU) was set up within the Cabinet Office with an aim of reviewing retained EU law.
The OEP is concerned that a deadline of the end of 2023 to rewrite key environmental legislations under the review may lead to a rushed approach that fails to strengthen the UK’s approach to nature, water and environmental stewardship.
The OEP’s chair Dame Glenys Stacey said: “If done well, this review could make environmental law better. But done badly, or rushed unduly, it could compound environmental problems and create new uncertainties and burdens. Rushed law-making is not conducive to addressing environmental problems that are difficult, complex, inter-connected and long-term. It runs the risk of undermining the UK Government’s own environmental ambitions and international standing.
“Hundreds of environmental laws could be revoked or amended under the Bill. These laws are critical to solving pressing challenges such as nature depletion and the quality of air and water and marine environments. Worryingly, the Bill does not offer any safety net, there is no requirement to maintain existing levels of environmental protection.”
The OEP wrote that the sunset date of the end of 2023 for Bill be “reconsidered and extended” based on clear implementation plans. The Office also states that an environmental non-regression safeguard is added to the Bill as a minimum measure.
The OEP is also calling on the Government to produce a comprehensive list of the environmental laws that fall under the Bill’s scope, and for the Government to clarify the process and timelines for implementation of the Bill.
The OEP has written summarising its evidence to: the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy; the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities; the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland; the DAERA Permanent Secretary and the NI Department for Infrastructure Permanent Secretary. Letters have also been sent to Environmental Standards Scotland (ESS) and the Interim Environmental Protection Assessor for Wales (IEPAW).
The OEP has been vocal in its concern for current environmental legislation in the UK. In the summer, it urged the Government to revisit its approach to environmental targets, warning that “comprehensive” statutory targets need to be introduced to help protect and restore the environment.
The OEP has welcomed the goal of halting the decline in species abundance by 2030, but notes that Defra’s current plans “provide little clarity” on how these proposed targets will work alongside existing environmental commitments.
Specifically, the OEP has stated that the Government will need to develop a suite of targets to help meet the 25-Year Environment Plan. The OPE calls for associated apex targets and interim targets to be introduced to drive progress in the short-term.
Earlier this year the OEP published it’s Taking Stock’ report, which assessed progress to date towards the 25-Year Environment Plan. The Plan was launched in January 2018 under Theresa May, with the aim of supporting an overarching vision to leave nature in England in a better state for the next generation.
The OEP’s report finds that progress towards the Plan’s goals has been slow overall, with nature in England continuing to undergo “worrying and persistent environmental decline”. The report outlines evidence documenting the decline of river water quality, persistent issues with poor air quality in urban areas, mismanagement of seafloor and several other negative trends.