Defra's plans for a world-leading watchdog: a joint statement between RSPB and business partners

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I’ve been the RSPB’s Conservation Director since May 2011. As I settle into the job, I’ll be blogging on all the big conservation topics and providing an inside view of our conservation projects. I hope you enjoy reading it and feel inspired to join in t

Defra's plans for a world-leading watchdog: a joint statement between RSPB and business partners

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Several weeks ago, I highlighted here the concerns the RSPB and our partner organisations have about the ‘governance gap’ that will be created when the UK leaves the EU and leaves all of the governance mechanisms that have enforced our environmental laws during our time in the EU.

In January, the UK Government promised us a ‘world-leading environmental watchdog’ to help tackle this gap, but then proposed, in May this year, a ‘green poodle’ (see our initial response to the UK Government’s proposals here). Of course, these proposals only concern governance arrangements in England and for reserved matters. The governments of the four UK administrations will need to work together to ensure the governance gap is addressed through new arrangements that must be co-designed and co-owned if they are to be effective.

We have since had the chance to look in more detail at the proposals and issued our response to the consultation this week.  The consultation has attracted a significant response from the public, with many joining RSPB in calling for a better deal for nature after Brexit. Over 33,000 had submitted their views to the consultation (which closed a midday today) via the link www.rspb.org.uk/environmentwatchdog.

Yet, we have not been the only ones looking closely at the UK Government’s proposals and expressing concern. Many of the businesses RSPB has been working with across the UK have also been paying close attention to the UK Government’s proposals and we have joined forces with our business partners (ANESCO www.anesco.co.ukCEMEX UK www.cemex.co.uk; EnergyUK www.energy-uk.org.uk; Idverde www.idverde.co.ukto issue this joint statement shown below.

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Working together for nature

Civil society groups and private sector companies in the environmental sector share many years of working together to conserve and restore the natural environment. Through collaborative projects, shared best practice, and joint input to the development of policy and law we have helped to deliver benefits for people, nature and environmentally sustainable economic development.

Disused quarry pit now filled with water, Hodbarrow RSPB reserve by Andy Hay (rspb-imags.com)

Key to these successes has been the political commitment at UK and international level to environmental protection, coupled with sound, and well implemented legislation. Well-designed environmental regulations can not only protect and restore the environment but also deliver positive economic outcomes in the form of increased business investment in innovation and skills, greater business competitiveness and job creation.

Effective implementation and enforcement mechanisms have ensured respect for environmental laws, and given industry the certainty to invest, underpinning the delivery of key environmental and economic objectives. Ensuring that legislation is well implemented and enforced requires an effective and properly resourced regulator to support regulated industries and, where necessary, to take enforcement action.

Leaving the EU will create a significant challenge to the enforcement and implementation of environmental regulation. The UK may no longer be able to draw on the capacity and expertise of shared EU level agencies and institutions to support the implementation of environmental legislation and provide some of the key monitoring, scrutiny and enforcement functions expected of an effective regulator.

One of the successes of the European Union has been to develop, implement and enforce environmental regulations, and this impact has been enabled in a significant way by its transboundary nature, following the needs of wildlife or habitats rather than political boundaries. What has worked at EU level must not be neglected within the UK in any post-Brexit settlement. Unnecessary divergence from existing EU regulations and standards would not only impact trade between the UK and the EU27, but also put at risk these environmental gains. At the same time maintaining regulatory convergence between the UK and the EU-27 would not only concern regulations as such, but also their interpretation and implementation, which are dependent on a number of factors, including shared guidance and an adequate enforcement mechanism.

Both conservationists and business have a mutual interest not only in how these issues are addressed, but also in government action to address existing capacity gaps and failings in the UK’s existing environmental governance arrangements.

Joint Statement on a New Environmental Watchdog

We support the UK Government’s ambition for the UK to be a world leader in environmental legislation and governance.

We agree with the House of Lords Select Committee who concluded that achieving this will require a new, independent body to replicate some of the environmental protection functions currently carried out by the European Commission.

In our view the new environmental body must be established in line with the following objectives:

  • Be independent of government and transparent: The watchdog must be truly independent from government in terms of its funding, accountability and permanency. To ensure transparency and independence it should provide annual reports to the relevant parliaments. It should be established through primary legislation.
  • Have a clearly defined role and be properly resourced, with the necessary expertise to fulfil its role: The role of this body should be clearly identified, it should not replicate the functions of any other bodies, and its relations with other bodies should be clear and visible to all. The watchdog should have a technically qualified staff with the knowledge to fulfil a demanding role and be publicly funded with an agreed five-year budget sufficient to deliver all its functions.
  • Ensure proper implementation of rules, and compliance with regulatory requirements (including environmental law, policy and international agreements): Effective oversight and implementation is crucial to ensuring a level playing field, clear expectations and effective implementation and compliance with environmental standards, and relevant national policies (e.g. on energy, climate change). The watchdog must effectively replicate the vital roles that EU institutions have played in providing regulatory, monitoring, oversight, accountability and enforcement functions.
  • Have powers to investigate failures and breaches by public bodies and take effective enforcement action against these bodies where necessary: To ensure that public bodies comply with their legal duties and that environmental and planning law is effectively enforced, the new watchdog will need robust enforcement powers. This should include the ability to investigate any noncompliance, and the ability to initiate proceedings against an offending public body. Clarity will be needed on the triggers whereby the watchdog would be empowered to act on complaints and, if necessary, challenge nationally important planning decisions or investigate possible breaches in environmental law. Any overlaps with or duplication of existing processes and responsibilities must be avoided.
  • Have the power to review and report on implementation of environmental regulation: The monitoring and reporting functions currently performed by the EU institutions are essential to enabling compliance with requirements and targets to be checked, as well as monitoring the state of the environment. These functions must be replicated, and the watchdog must have an overarching reviewing function, and the ability to question the action (or inaction) of governments and public bodies and the adequacy of existing laws, requirements and targets.

The Governance gap and loss of the full application of the environmental principles will occur across the whole of the UK. The governments of the four UK administrations must work together, in a transparent way, to develop new arrangements for environmental governance for the whole of the UK.

Comments
  • Fully agree with all these terms of reference. The EU is not great in respecting European conservation in some ways but regarding the EU laws for designating wildlife areas and there after protecting them, it is good and effective. It is so important that these EU laws are carried forward into UK laws should the UK leave the EU. However my confidence in this Government enacting this and including the bullet points you list above Martin I am afraid is around zero. I hope I am proved wrong but I think it unlikely.

    I take “ my hat off” to the RSPB personnel and those in other conservation organisations who have to suffer the frustrations of trying to deal with the UK politicians and their puppets such as Natural England.