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ClientEarth Communications

12th August 2020

Rule of law

Protecting the UK environment: Brexit and beyond – five minutes with our lawyer, Hatti Owens

Since the EU referendum in 2016, ClientEarth’s UK environment team has been working to secure progressive and ambitious environmental protection for the UK in spite of Brexit. We spoke to a member of the team, lawyer Hatti Owens about her work to reduce the impact of Brexit on our environment.

How have you been working to ensure the protection of environmental standards and laws after Brexit?

The Environment Bill – once enacted – should play a key part in upholding the UK’s commitments to environmental standards after we leave the EU. It creates a new environmental watchdog – the Office for Environmental Protection; establishes a new framework for setting environmental targets and provides for a new process for enforcing environmental law.

Working with the Greener UK coalition, we’ve been trying to ensure the new environmental watchdog and the processes available to it are robust and meaningful. I conducted comparative research on systems of environmental legal protection – including how people are able to challenge potential breaches of environmental law in other countries. We then made recommendations for best practice. It’s been positive to see some of those recommendations reflected in the Government’s proposals.

However, what’s written down in law isn’t the end of the story. The value of the watchdog will also depend on how it functions in practice – what issues will the watchdog prioritise? Who will lead it? Will it be sufficiently independent to enable it to hold the Government to account?

"We continue to urge that the new environmental targets required by the Bill are ambitious and that the Government must be held accountable for their delivery."

What is happening with the Environment Bill now?

The Environment Bill’s passage through Parliament was paused due to the Covid-19 pandemic. We understand that it will return to Parliament in September.

We will continue working with our Greener UK colleagues to emphasise the importance of this legislation and to highlight the unique opportunity this Government has to develop and strengthen frameworks to protect our environment and the health of all those living in it.

What will future projects look like for you in the UK environment team?

This is a critical time for securing ambitious and robust environmental protections. Our work is about improving the ground rules for how our environment will (or won’t) be protected in the long term.

With this in mind, alongside our continuing work on the Environment Bill, we’ve also been scoping some exciting potential future projects. Whilst we’re at a very early stage, we firmly believe that the law is one of the most powerful tools we can use to strengthen environmental protections.

We continue to urge that the new environmental targets required by the Bill are ambitious and that the Government must be held accountable for their delivery.

Another key priority for us is making sure that people can stay informed about the state of their environment and are empowered to take action where public authorities fall short.

What has been a highlight for you working on the UK environment team?

The day I pedalled across London for a discussion with a Supreme Court judge was particularly memorable. My Greener UK colleagues and I were there to talk about the future of environmental law post-Brexit with one of the most senior judges in England and Wales. We had a fascinating and fruitful conversation, which was informed by the judge’s years of experience and insight. This encouraged me to return to my own advocacy work with real drive and renewed vigour.

What natural sights in the UK have you been particularly grateful for this year?

I’ve enjoyed exploring and getting to know my local green space more than I have done before. In north-west London, it was a reassuring joy to observe the trees of Hampstead Heath coming into leaf in spring. I’ve developed special connections with some in particular: the hollow beech with its polished interior; the copper beech with its family of parakeets, and the old beech on Sandy Heath – coppiced long ago – whose many trunks make for fun clambering.

Are there any natural sights you are looking forward to seeing?

So many! I’m looking forward to continuing to visit the Heath as summer draws to a close and to witness the changes this will bring. Amongst other things, I’m excited for some (unseasonably early) blackberry foraging and, later, seeing the colours and shapes of the trees transform.