Environmental Audit Committee warns 25 Year Plan for Environment 'lacks detail' on how crucial green targets will be met
The government will today face fresh calls to clarify how it plans to enforce environmental rules and standards post-Brexit while delivering on its 25 Year Environment Plan and high profile pledge to leave the environment in a better state than it found it.
The Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) of MPs is to publish a wide-ranging report in response to the 25 Year Plan, which was launched earlier this year and featured a raft of commitments to tackle plastic waste, curb environmental impacts, and bolster the green economy.
The report says the ambition to drive a cross-government effort for the "restoration and recovery of the natural environment" is both "welcome and necessary", but warns the current plan "lacks details" on how its various goals will be met.
As such MPs are calling on the government to "urgently bring forward details on targets, implementation, governance and funding before the publication of the draft Environmental Principles and Governance Bill" later this year.
The EAC said the government should use the new legislation to enshrine biodiversity targets, habitats, soil quality targets, and access to justice in UK law for the first time.
Specifically, it argues the government should ensure the new legislation should replace the one third of EU environmental legislation that cannot be copied and pasted into UK law through the EU (Withdrawal) Act and calls on Ministers to ensure the environmental principles that are embodied in European Treaties are fully incorporated in UK law.
It also calls on the government to firm up its proposal in the Chequers' Plan to ensure environmental standards cannot be diluted post Brexit through "a principle in UK law that policy and public bodies will seek to ensure a high level of environmental protection and a presumption that environmental protection will not be reduced, but rather enhanced in line with repeated assurances from the Secretary of State".
More broadly, the report proposes a major overhaul of environmental governance centred on a five year planning and reporting process similar to the work of the Committee on Climate Change under the Climate Change Act. It also calls for the creation of a dedicated Environmental Enforcement and Audit Office (EEAO) that would to report to Parliament, in a bid to ensure the governance, enforcement, oversight and policy functions currently carried out by the European Commission and European Environment Agency are not lost after Brexit.
The report said the EEAO should complement the work of the Environment Agency and should be given a remit that includes "monitoring how public authorities are complying with their duties, making policy proposals to meet the government's objectives, providing strategic oversight and reporting bi-annually to Parliament on progress against the government's environmental targets, including scrutiny of the 25 Year Plan's five yearly and annual progress reports".
EAC chair Mary Creagh said the government's 25 Year Plan was "high on ambitions, but low on milestones" and needed a robust watchdog and governance framework to ensure targets are met.
"If we want a world-leading environment we need a world-leading environmental watchdog," she said. "But in recent months the government has been referred to the EU's highest court for failing to tackle illegal levels of air pollution in the UK… The government has more experience of getting rid of environmental watchdogs than of setting them up.
"We want an Environmental Governance and Principles Act that sets legally binding targets and creates a new Environmental Enforcement and Audit Office to measure progress and enforce this new law," she added. "The government needs to set out detailed delivery and funding proposals for the Plan and departments across Whitehall need to commit to its ambitions, rather than trying to water them down behind the scenes."
The report comes just days after Creagh clashed with Theresa May over the government's environmental governance plans, when the Prime Minister appeared before the Liaison Committee of Select Committee chairs.
Asked if the proposed post-Brexit green watchdog would be granted the same powers to take the government to court that the European Union currently enjoys, May would only say a consultation on the issue was ongoing.
The government is currently consulting on how the watchdog would operate following a cabinet row over the powers the proposed new authority should be given. It had previously faced fierce criticism from green groups for failing to confirm that the body would enjoy the same powers as those currently enjoyed by European agencies.
Speaking at the Liaison Committee, May said the government was planning to introduce a wider Environment Bill next year, which would seek to tackle air pollution and a range of other issues, although few details were provided on the precise nature of the proposed legislation.
Today's EAC report reiterates the Committee's concerns that more work needs to be done to reassure people the Brexit will not result in a watering down of environmental protections. "We believe that leaving the European Union poses a potential threat to delivering the goals set out in the government's 25 Year Plan for the Environment; in terms of the risk of reduced standards, lower enforcement powers, the threats to common frameworks and regulatory oversight," the report states.
Separately, the EAC report will today argue the imminent Environmental Principles and Governance Bill should be used to put into UK law the commitments the UK signed up to at the 2015 Paris Climate Change Conference - a move that could provide a route for the government to fast-track the adoption of more ambitious long term net zero emission targets.
And it will call on the government to address the current lack of clarity over how EU powers covering the environment will be shared between the devolved administrations post-Brexit.
"The Plan is primarily a Plan for England. However, environmental policy involves cross-border impacts and cross-border markets," the report states. "There are benefits to the nations of the United Kingdom in agreeing co-ordinated policies, common frameworks and shared institutions in some areas of environmental policy. In particular, we heard compelling evidence that a co-designed and co-owned EEAO would be more resilient, independent and effective. The process of agreeing such policies, frameworks and institutions needs to be a conversation between governments and legislatures, not an imposition from Westminster."
Defra was considering a request for comment at the time of going to press.
However, the report was welcomed by green business body the Aldersgate Group. "The EAC rightly highlights that the government's initial proposals for the governance body must be strengthened to ensure environmental protections are maintained after Brexit, particularly in terms of enforcement where the new body must have the power to take legal action against the government as a last resort," said executive director Nick Molho. "It is also right to emphasise the importance of the body directly overseeing all public bodies, as well as ensuring its independence by being accountable to and funded by Parliament in a similar way to the National Audit Office. This will ensure that the body is a truly world-leading institution as the government desires."
Ruth Chambers, senior parliamentary affairs associate at the Greener UK coalition of NGOs said the report "adds to the growing calls for the government to be bolder and more precise in setting out its plans for how our environment will be protected and governed after the UK leaves the EU".
"A watchdog with strong legal powers is essential, as is ensuring the new body has the resources and freedom to do its job," she said. "Greener UK supports the committee's recommendation for ambitious new targets to protect and improve our environment. This, along with the prime minister's commitment to the first Environment Bill for over twenty years, are steps in the right direction, but the government must now act swiftly to match its rhetoric with legal commitments that stand the test of time."
The government has repeatedly stressed its ambition for a 'Green Brexit' and world leading climate action. It has also gone some way to appeasing green groups concerned by Brexit, by accepting the need for a new green watchdog and a dedicated Environment Bill. But without more clarity over how new governance arrangements will work in practice, the risk is that its long-term promises will ring hollow to the ears of many well-versed in political u-turns and missed targets.
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