My passion for wildlife was stimulated in my teenage years, mainly thanks to my Mum (a biology teacher) who made me look at the world differently and being inspired by writers such as Paul Colinvaux. This early interest developed into biological research in my 20s, when I did practical conservation work in places such as the Comores and Mongolia.
Today, any free time I have I spend pottering around the flatlands of East Anglia or escaping to our hut on the Northumberland coast looking for wildlife and castles with my wife and children.
I studied Biological Sciences at Oxford and Conservation at UCL, and worked at Wildlife and Countryside Link before spending five years as Conservation Director at Plantlife.
I joined the RSPB as Head of Government Affairs in 2004, became Head of Sustainable Development in 2006, before becoming Conservation Director in 2011.
As the dust settles after last week’s launch, we’ve had time to consider more closely how the Westminster Government’s proposals for future governance arrangements after we leave the EU, fare against the tests that we set before its release.
You may have seen my initial response which outlined our serious concerns. We need an environment watchdog that can properly hold government and public bodies to account. Fundamental to this are robust and meaningful enforcement powers to bring about real remedy and recourse. That means the ability to apply appropriate sanctions including fines and the power to order environmental restoration. Without this, we’ll have enforcement only in name, and risk ending up with a system with far less bite than that of the European Commission and European Court of Justice: hardly the world-leading protection the Government promised.
This is why I believe that the proposals and options in the Government’s consultation fall seriously short. The Government’s preferred option is that the ultimate penalty the new body could issue would be “advisory notices”. Whilst these notices would request compliance with legislation, they would have no real teeth to compel that compliance and no additional backstop if they are ignored. Essentially, they’re merely a written ticking off.
Gannet by Danny Green (rspb-images.com)
Whilst there are other penalty options put forward in the document, there are no options to fine non-compliance or for the body to initiate or bring about legal proceedings itself. The consultation document repeats the Prime Minister’s promise in January for a “world-leading” watchdog, yet these proposals would not even adequately replace what we have now, let alone lead the world.
There are other concerning parts of the consultation. It aims to bring our important environmental principles into domestic policy, such as the polluter pays and precautionary principles which provide vital underpinning, direction and objectives to our environmental law. But the consultation provides no commitment to enshrine these principles in law. Without this robust, legal underpinning, ensuring consideration of them, they will lose meaning and effectiveness, weakening our environmental law.
And whilst recent rhetoric about environmental ambitions is laudable, the consultation proposals make no meaningful commitment to the aims and ambitions of the 25 Year Environment Plan. Without that we risk undermining the effectiveness of the Plan and the watchdog’s ability to deliver the ambition found within.
There are some positive parts of the consultation. It commits to a new ‘Environmental Principles and Governance Bill’, with a promise to introduce this before the summer next year. This will ensure that the new watchdog is set up using a robust Parliamentary process so that’s a tick against one of our tests. Likewise, the document outlines that the preferred option is for the body to be independently accountable to Parliament – again this is a plus (although the devil will be in the detail as to how this is set up and funded). And the consultation includes a complaints function for the new body - giving any citizen a vital opportunity to raise complaints about possible breaches of environmental law.
But there is clearly plenty of room for improvement and its now for us to make the case. The consultation asks some genuinely open questions for us to answer. We need to demonstrate the value of our environmental principles in underpinning our environmental law. We must show the real value of a watchdog with proper teeth to ensure that our laws are being properly upheld and followed, with meaningful sanctions if not. And the need for targets in legislation to help reverse declines in our species and habitats and support nature’s recovery.
Only then can the Westminster Government claim to have the “world-leading” watchdog promised by the Prime Minister and repeated in this consultation. Only then do we stand a chance of meeting the Westminster Government’s aims of leaving the environment in a better state than we inherited it.
This is the moment to put in place something that could truly drive change, resulting in a healthier environment for us all. This is the moment to show how much nature matters to us all, and push the Westminster Government to show the world leadership they keep promising us. A failure to do so risks leaving our natural world, and ultimately us, in a much poorer state.
Do you want to be part of making that case, and push to secure a trusted green watchdog that genuinely protects the wildlife you love? We’ll be campaigning for this outcome so sign up here to find out how you can get involved.