The United Kingdom’s plans for a new environmental watchdog to maintain EU standards after Brexit have been criticised by green campaigners as ‘toothless.’ Critics have said the plans, published for consultation on Thursday, fail to uphold essential environmental laws and weaken the protections currently in place.
Many of the UK’s environmental laws are rooted in European Union legislation and overseen by the European Commission. When the UK leaves the bloc at the end of March next year, the EU directives will no longer apply.
Amidst concerns from environmentalists after the Brexit referendum, Environment Secretary Michael Gove promised a “world-leading” environmental watchdog that would continue to protect the UK’s nature and landscapes and “hold government to account on environmental legislation.”
The new watchdog will replace the EU’s structures and require ministers to “have regard to” key environmental principles, laid out in a policy statement.
Gove insisted that the government would not roll back EU environmental protections and would uphold its commitment to leaving the environment in a better state for the next generation.
“But we will only achieve our aims by also creating a strong and objective voice that champions and enforces environmental standards,” he said in a statement. “That’s why our environmental principles and governance bill will also create an independent and statutory watchdog. This will hold governments to account for delivering their commitments to the natural world.”
However, the plans for the watchdog were met with disappointment and criticism from experts and environmental campaigners. Critics pointed out that the government failed to commit to safeguarding basic EU environmental laws, including ‘polluter pays’ and the precautionary principle, and that the watchdog lacks the power to initiate legal action.
Shaun Spiers, chair of Greener UK, a coalition of major environmental groups, said the consultation “proposes to give the environment and countryside less protection after Brexit than exists now. This is hugely disappointing and suggests that some ministers do not want to be held to account on laws that protect our beaches, habitats and air quality.”
Caroline Lucas, co-leader of the Green party, criticised the plan as “lacklustre” and lacking “meaningful proposals.” She told The Guardian: “It’s a clear sign that this government’s warm words on the environment are little more than spin.”
Martin Harper, conservation director with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), said the consultation undermines the government’s “green credibility” and fails to provide adequate legal protection for the environment.
“The proposals for a green watchdog amount to little more than a green poodle with only the ability to issue weak ‘advisory notices,’” he said.
The consultation will run for 12 weeks and “seeks views on the most effective way for the new body to hold government to account,” according to a Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) news release.