The UK government has announced plans for a new ‘world-leading’ green watchdog.
Without the European Commission’s oversight of laws enforcing cleaner beaches and cleaner air, the UK needs a strong and fully independent body to uphold our laws and champion our environment.
This new body must be able to hold the government and public bodies to account when they fail to meet environmental obligations.
We now have the opportunity to improve the effectiveness of environmental law in the UK. We can amplify the voices of people and nature, shine a light on poor implementation of the law, and empower the public and courts to respond meaningfully to illegal action or inaction.
Strong legal powers
The new watchdog should be tasked with reviewing and improving compliance with environmental law by government and public bodies.
It should work collaboratively and cooperatively – but it also needs to have the power to take court action where this falls short. Legal power will be essential to give the watchdog teeth.
To improve legal compliance, the watchdog should be empowered to:
- Conduct inquiries looking at systemic problems in particular policy areas. It should be able to make recommendations that public authorities must follow, unless they have good reason not to
- Review and respond to government plans affecting the environment. The body’s reviews should be sent to parliament for debate and be responded to by government
- Undertake formal investigations with the power to issue binding action plans and compliance notices that will be enforceable before the courts
Environmental obligations should not be a ‘box-ticking’ exercise. Having the quality of government decisions reviewed in an expert forum will force the government to take our natural world seriously.
The goal of the new body is simple – improve compliance with environmental law. But for its recommendations to be effective, its word must carry technical, political and legal weight, with the courts empowered to back it up when necessary.
If public authorities repeatedly break the law, courts should be able to issue specific orders that require them to follow the watchdog’s recommendations. This will reinforce the powerful expertise the body will have and ultimately protect our environment.