Witha year to go until the UK leaves the EU, Greener UK coalition slams ministers for failing to back up pledges on post-Brexit environmental safeguards
Green groups have warned the government it is running out of time to fulfil its high profile 'green Brexit' pledge, having so far failed to set out any detailed plans for how the UK will ensure environmental standards are maintained and strengthened after Britain leaves the European Union.
With a year to go until the UK quits the EU, albeit into a transition period that will largely maintain the status quo, Greener UK, a coalition of 13 major campaign groups, today stepped up long-standing calls for the government to urgently provide details on how it intends to honour its promises to uphold "world leading" environmental standards post-Brexit.
Both Prime Minister Theresa May and Environment Secretary Michael Gove have repeatedly insisted that environmental standards will not be watered down after Brexit. But comments from some of their cabinet colleagues, including Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Trade Secretary Liam Fox have implied some standards could reviewed or diluted post-Brexit.
In November Gove sought to address concerned about the future direction of UK environmental policy and promised to establish a national environmental watchdog after Brexit with "real bite" that would ensure green laws and standards are properly enforced after the jurisdiction of the EU Commission no longer applies in the UK.
More recently, the Environment Secretary has suggested he wants to see the UK adopt EU green legal principles such as the 'polluter pays' and 'precautionary principle' after Brexit, and acknowledged the government's future green ambitions will need "legislative underpinning".
The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said it was committed to consulting on an indepedent, statutory body to hold the government to account, which would require new legislation to set up.
However, further specific details on potential new environmental legislation have yet to emerge as part of the withdrawl bill and it remains unclear precisely how Gove's promised new green watchdog will operate, or how much independence, authority, and funding it will have.
Meanwhile, a recent report by MPs on the Efra select committee stated that during evidence sessions with government ministers the proposal to set up a new environmental protection body "did not appear welcome" across Departments, with several ministers suggesting Parliament was the correct body to hold the government to account.
The on-going lack of clarity over how post-Brexit green protections will be managed and enforced drew criticism from Greener UK's Amy Mount, who stressed time was now running out for the government to set out in detail its post-Brexit environmental plans.
In particular, she reiterated calls for Gove's proposed environmental watchdog body to be fully independent, and for ministers to ensure all EU environmental legislation is passed into UK statute via the government's EU Withdrawal Bill.
"With only one year to go until exit day, there are gaping holes to fill," said Mount. "We need new laws to make the statute book fit for the environmental challenges we face. And we need powerful, independent, well-resourced institutions to hold the authorities to account."
Greener UK today issued a four-point list of priorities it wants the government to urgently address as the country seeks to smooth its path outside the EU. It is calling for:
- new legislation to build on the full body of existing environmental law.
- "ambitious and measurable" goals for the future of the UK's nature and environment.
- strong principles to underpin legal judgement.
- "at least" one new, empowered institution to uphold environmental laws and hold future governments to account.
Mount stressed that environmental protections were "not just a nice-to-have" but crucial if the UK is to fulfil its ambition to be an international environmental leader. "With ambitious new legislation at home enshrining the highest standards, the UK can credibly push for progress at the global scale. However, it has to seize this moment now, match actions to its green rhetoric and show the world what visionary leadership looks like," she said.
Karla Hill, director of programmes at ClientEarth - a Greener UK member - added that the "clock is ticking" towards Brexit and the government needed to now set out "concrete steps" for establishing its promised green watchdog body.
"Without a new green watchdog body to hold governments to account on their environmental promises and replace the role of the European Commission in oversight of laws enforcing nature protection and clean air, the UK will fall behind," she said. "The environment can't afford to wait. A shadow green watchdog body must be up and running before exit day to stop our environment laws from being ignored."
In response, a Defra statement reiterated the government's commitment to a "Green Brexit".
"We have a unique opportunity to strengthen our environmental standards as we leave the EU and deliver a Green Brexit," said the Defra statement. "That's why we are committed to consulting on an independent, statutory body to hold the government to account and introducing a new policy statement on environmental principles. We have also outlined our approach to the natural world through our 25 year Environment Plan. By definition a statutory body will require legislation. We are exploring with devolved administrations whether they wish to take a similar approach.
Gove has certainly promised much on the environment since taking over at Defra last summer, and much of it has been welcomed by green campaigners. However, the self-labelled "shy green" is now under increasing pressure to deliver the legislative measures that should ensure his promise of a Green Brexit is delivered. And as anyone following the Brexit saga will be all too aware, the clock is ticking.
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