Why we need a powerful, independent green watchdog

Two adorable kids, feeding the seagulls on the beach‘Everything’s gone green!’ declared Radio 4’s Costing the Earth last month.

Presenter Tom Heap subsequently sped through Westminster, Fleet Street and places where green groups congregate, considering the rise in prominence of the environment agenda.

“2018 could go one of two ways,” he concluded. “A year of delivery, or disappointment.”

In the first three months of this year, the government has made a number of heartening announcements. An apparent determination to base agricultural payments on public goods rather than acreage is an oft-cited and significant example.

Yet, as Tom Heap implied, a great stack of unanswered questions remains. Many relate to huge cross border issues such as climate change; many others relate to the huge cross border issue of Brexit.

In the past month, ministers from across government have echoed Environment Secretary Michael Gove in emphasising the importance of high environmental standards after Brexit. David Davis has spoken of his desire for the UK to set high global standards for the environment. Theresa May has repeated it.

But what of that delivery? For all the positive statements, many of us are waiting for the first big test of these green credentials.

That test should arrive very soon.

New environmental watchdog expected
In the next few weeks the government is expected to publish its proposals for a new environment watchdog. This body will replace the functions of the EU Commission and Court in holding the government to account on environmental standards, such as air and water quality.

In the foreword to the 25 year environment plan, Michael Gove promised to establish a “world-leading…independent, statutory body”. This was very much in line with the government’s continued rhetoric on high standards.

There are, however, fears that this vital green watchdog will fall short on strength and scope, potentially weakening the government’s commitment to high, or ever higher, standards post-Brexit.

Minimum requirements 
There are minimum requirements to make the watchdog a success.

It needs to be established under primary legislation and should apply to both government and public authorities. It needs to be well resourced, well funded and fully independent. It needs to provide a free and accessible complaints procedure for the public. And it needs to be able to initiate enforcement action, including through the courts.

Watchdogs are admittedly not the most exciting environmental cause. Yet this statutory body will ultimately underpin our efforts to protect and enhance the health of our nature, air and water. It will be an integral cog to a greener UK.

Let’s hope 2018 is a year of delivery.

Benjamin Halfpenny is media and communications manager at the Greener UK unit

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