Today, the new Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) began its work in earnest. The parts of the Environment Act which give it its legal powers and functions have been brought to life. This is a major milestone as it means that significant parts of the environmental governance gap that arose when we left the EU will be addressed, although there is still unfinished business, including in Wales and on environmental principles. The journey to get to this point has not been easy, with many challenges and times of jeopardy, making this a defining moment for our environmental governance.
The new body will hold the powerful to account
The government’s initial pitch was that there was no need for a new independent body to hold it to account and that existing mechanisms, such as judicial review, would be sufficient. Following Greener UK’s advocacy, this changed in late 2017 when then Environment Secretary Michael Gove pledged to consult on establishing a new body to “give the environment a voice and hold the powerful to account”. That consultation coincided with a groundswell of cross party support, and prompted a huge public response. In 2018, Greener UK worked with parliamentarians to secure a change to the EU (Withdrawal) Bill requiring the government to publish draft legislation by the end of 2018.
Thanks to good work from the two environment select committees in scrutinising these draft laws, the government’s blueprint for the new body was strengthened, with a wider remit that included climate law, a multi-year budget and the power to undertake its own investigations.
This ambition grew further when Theresa May announced the first dedicated Environment Bill for over two decades. That officially became the Environment Act almost three years after the draft bill was published and nearly two years after the bill was first introduced to parliament. It was a very long haul.
The OEP was debated repeatedly throughout this time. Even in the closing minutes of the final debate, its role was further strengthened through a legal recognition that when environmental laws are broken the court must be able to take remedial action in all cases.
Solid building blocks have been laid
Setting up a new public body is a huge team effort and requires significant planning and resource. Defra civil servants entrusted with this important task, working alongside the Chair Designate Dame Glenys Stacey and her growing team, shouldered this responsibility with admirable dedication and commitment. They involved organisations like Green Alliance from the outset, seeking and listening to our views on how the OEP should work in practice, how its independence should be protected and how it can deliver maximum impact.
Even as an interim body, the OEP provided its first advice to the government, making a persuasive case for more ambition and clarity on the draft policy statement on environmental principles. It has been collecting complaints about environmental laws being broken and, from today, it will be able to investigate and potentially take enforcement action on these in the courts.
It has also been laying the ground for its first monitoring report on the 25 year environment plan (expected in March) and for a consultation on its draft strategy and enforcement policy, which will be launched on 25 January. This has been done iteratively alongside activity on staff recruitment, IT set up, finding premises and starting to form relationships with the many stakeholders it will work with.
The OEP needs the right money to do its job
During parliamentary debates on the Environment Bill, the independence and powers of the OEP were stand out issues, reflecting public interest in ensuring that the government is held to account on its environmental commitments.
Thanks to the scrupulous efforts of environmental NGOs and parliamentarians of all parties, across the Houses of Commons and Lords, the government was forced to make several welcome commitments on the OEP. These must now be realised as quickly as possible. For example, it should publish the OEP’s first five year indicative budget, and ringfence it within this and future spending reviews. But the budget should also have enough flexibility so that, as the OEP finds its feet and learns more about what resources it will need to work well, this initial baseline can be supplemented as necessary.
As a public body, the OEP will agree a framework document with Defra, which sets out ground rules on how the two organisations will work together and on how important governance and financial procedures will function. There’s a growing trend across government for homogeneity in how public bodies are governed. While, of course, there are certain common factors, the OEP has certain unique features and responsibilities which must be fully reflected in this agreement, and we encourage the government to recognise the special status of the OEP.
The new watchdog will also be subject to a tailored review. This should be independent, seek views from stakeholders and include assessment of whether changes are needed, legislative or otherwise, to safeguard or strengthen the OEP’s independence and ability to deliver its principal objective and mission.
The real test of success for the OEP will be its impact and how effective it is in persuading and encouraging public authorities to fulfil their legal obligations on the environment. With the state of nature in freefall and our air, water and soil quality in peril, the OEP will have its work cut out. Expectations are high and we expect the OEP to be proactive and fearless, and to use its powers wisely and transparently. Dame Glenys and her team have started excellently, setting the bar high and with an open and engaging approach. Long may this continue.