Time is running out for Wales to protect its environment after Brexit

brecon beacons smallThis post is by Sarah Graham of WWF Cymru.

With 22 days until we leave the European Union, the Welsh government’s plans for how it intends to retain and improve environmental protections remain a mystery. Unlike its counterparts in England and Scotland, it has not published any consultation proposals or draft legislation. Leaving the EU without these plans in place could have very damaging implications for people and nature.

The current watchdog, the European Commission, monitors and enforces EU law, taking governments to court when their plans and actions are not good enough, often at the request of citizens, for whom it provides an unrivalled free and accessible complaints mechanism which can result in remedial action.  If we leave the EU on 29 March with no deal, we will immediately lose this right, and there will be no watchdog with equivalent powers to hold the Welsh government to account. Our nature and our health could pay the price.

Welsh citizens need to retain affordable access to justice and the ability to appeal to a strong, truly independent new watchdog which can demand corrective action where decisions have not achieved the purpose of environmental laws. This must be able to act on complaints when our government is not doing enough to safeguard the environment, on issues from protecting puffins to river pollution.

The Welsh government isn’t doing enough
The EU’s environmental principles currently guide the development of law made in Wales, all our policies and how decisions are made. These principles, such as the polluter pays and precautionary principles, will need to be fully and faithfully incorporated into Welsh law to ensure that they sit alongside our existing domestic legal framework, including existing legislation on sustainable development.

WWF Cymru has outlined these urgent needs in a letter to Lesley Griffiths AM, the Welsh minister for environment, energy and rural affairs.  And BBC Wales has highlighted our concerns that the Welsh government is not doing enough to close the gap in governance. In only a few days, over 600 supporters have already joined us to call on the Welsh government to take urgent action.

Recently Llyr Gruffydd AM, Plaid Cymru, shadow minister for environment and rural affairs pressed the environment minister to explain her plans to protect the environment post-Brexit. Worryingly, she did not provide any firm commitments and said that the government’s already delayed consultation would be launched this month, ever closer to the Brexit deadline.

Will Wales get its own environmental watchdog?
The Welsh government has been in discussion with UK government over the scope of its proposed watchdog, the Office for Environmental Protection . Current proposals are limited to England and reserved matters, however, there is potential to develop a body which is flexible to the needs of devolved nations. The Welsh government could go down this route or establish its own dedicated environmental watchdog.

A number of existing bodies already play a valuable role in monitoring the policies and activities of the Welsh government, such as the Future Generations Commissioner for Wales; the Wales Audit Office; and the Public Services Ombudsman. While these roles must be respected, the watchdog functions delivered by the EU Commission and the Court of Justice of the European Union are of a fundamentally different scope and strength to those exercised by existing Welsh bodies. In their current form, these bodies would be inadequate to hold the government to account on its compliance with environmental law as they lack the remit, resources, independence and expertise.

Whichever form the watchdog takes, at WWF, we want arrangements that help to restore nature in Wales and prioritise the environment, and there are multiple ways that can be done.  Any replacement watchdog must be able to monitor and challenge the government, as well as pursue complaints on behalf of citizens.

Taking it to the wire
On the face of it, Wales should be in a stronger position as it already has advanced laws, such as the Environment (Wales) Act 2016, providing a foundation to put nature at the heart of decision making and create a better future for our natural environment. However, this framework, by design, does not have anywhere near the same scope as the EU’s. Furthermore, the Welsh government is considerably behind both the UK government, which has already consulted on a proposed new Office for Environmental Protection, and the Scottish government, which recently announced a consultation on its proposals for how it intends to address the environmental governance gap after Brexit. It is of grave concern that all we have had from the Welsh government is a hint that it may bring out the long awaited consultation just days before Brexit day.

It is a huge risk that we could leave the EU with no plans to ensure that environmental law will be properly monitored and complied with after Brexit. WWF Cymru is continuing to keep up the pressure to ensure this is not the case.

[Image: Pen Y Fan and Cribyn from the ridge Cefn Cwm Llwch, courtesy of Andy Scott via Wikipedia Commons]

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