Why the government’s watchdog consultation is so disappointing

big ben and railing.jpgAt long last, the government has published its environmental watchdog and principles consultation.

As stubbornly technical as it sounds, the consultation is significant. In fact, despite all the positive announcements on plastic, it is probably the most significant moment yet in the government’s recent environment drive. In outlining a plan for how laws and policy will be enforced after we leave the EU, it determines how the government can be held to account on ensuring that our beaches are clean, our water is not polluted and that habitats and nature – such as the harbour porpoise – are protected.

Unlike the 25 year environment plan, launched by the prime minister in January at the London Wetland Centre, the consultation for the more cumbersomely titled Environmental Principles and Governance Bill was launched with little fanfare, at noon yesterday, on Defra’s website.

The consultation puts forward two proposals: creating an independent ‘green watchdog’ to replace the EU Commission and European Court of Justice in providing oversight and enforcement; and enshrining crucial environmental principles, such as the precautionary principle, in domestic policy.

Starting with the positives, the consultation contains reassurance that the new environmental watchdog will be independent, accountable to parliament and supported by the necessary expertise and funding to do the job. After concerns over the resourcing of other environment agencies, this is good news. Furthermore, the watchdog will be introduced via primary legislation.

But there are glaring holes in the plan.

The watchdog plans fall short
Without the power to initiate court action against the government or public authorities – and to brandish that deterrent – the watchdog will fall short of the EU’s current faculties. Its remit will not, bizarrely, cover climate change. The document does not commit to enshrining environmental principles in legislation, and may leave them in a weaker policy statement. And it does not currently ensure compliance with the 25 year environment plan.

Some may think it churlish to criticise a proposal that meets so many criteria. Yet the disappointment, expressed clearly by so many organisations yesterday, is not founded in over expectation. It is felt because the government has failed to meet the minimum requirement for maintaining the current level of environmental protection. And this disappointment is magnified because ministers – including the prime minister – promised a “world-class” watchdog, and not just to protect but to enhance standards. In proposing a bill that clearly weakens existing protections, it has fallen very short of expectations.

Rumours are that the Treasury is to blame
Reports in the papers yesterday suggested that the Treasury was to blame for obstructing stronger ambitions on economic grounds. This follows previous leaks of cabinet disagreements.

If the rumours of Treasury opposition are true, it suggests the myth that positive environmental action constrains economic growth is still pervasive. But we should not let to-and-fro politics disguise the real issues at stake.

Unless the government uses the consultation period to provide the watchdog with power to initiate legal action, we will have less protection for our environment than we have now. And until the government does that, it cannot reasonably claim to be protecting – let alone enhancing – environmental standards.

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