03:26, December 12 359 0 theguardian.com

2017-12-12 03:26:03
It's not asking the earth for independent watchdog to fill EU gap

Michael Gove has raised the stakes for those of us determined to see a world-class environment for the UK. The environment secretary has vowed that the government will establish a “new, world-leading body to give the environment a voice and hold the powerful to account, independent of government and able to speak its mind freely”.

MPs will debate this new institution during the next stages of the withdrawal bill in parliament on Tuesday and must ensure Gove’s promises are turned into legally binding commitments.

Currently, the EU oversees much of the implementation of our environmental law and ensures government compliance. The EU can hand out strong penalties for breaches of air quality laws, for instance, and has rules that order the UK to report on nature protection laws every six years. Come March 2019, we will be left with a major governance gap. And this gap can’t simply be closed by charities like ClientEarth going to court when serious legal infringements occur.

So why do we need a new watchdog for the environment? Laws are not just pieces of paper. They come alive in courts and are upheld by regulators.

A new properly funded environment watchdog can speak up for nature, ensuring five-year parliamentary cycles and short-term politics don’t neglect our natural world.

In Gove’s own words, the government wants us to be the first generation to leave our environment in a better state than we found it. A fully independent body with real powers can look to our future and stop our environment laws being ignored.

The new watchdog should be made up of experts and be tasked with reviewing the government’s compliance with environmental law and, where it fails, be able to take ministers to court. This straightforward and strong power means the institution will have teeth and will help the government consider the natural world in all its policy decisions.

Nature does not end with Defra. As we have seen with the super inquiry on air quality which brought the transport, health, and environment select committees together to tackle the problem of dirty air, we need to be mindful of the environment across all government policy. If a new body had the power to declare laws incompatible with environmental rights, they could do just that.

Courts should also be empowered to issue serious sanctions such as fines when environment laws are broken. Individuals and charities cannot protect the environment alone. Their right to have access to justice in environmental cases must be guaranteed and a new institution can offer a place where complaints can be made.

The new body should help government – and parliament – create an environment charter that sets out nature targets and people’s rights to a healthy, beautiful and resilient environment. This charter could be reviewed every 15 years to make sure laws and targets stay relevant. Demanding the best for our natural environment is not asking the earth.

Other countries already have similar institutions. The Te Urewera Board in New Zealand acts on behalf of a national park, which has a legal identity, promoting the area’s natural and cultural value and its protected status. Hungary’s Ombudsman for Future Generations had the power to partially suspend certain political decisions and bring to court laws that endangered the right to a healthy environment.

Having a watchdog that can speak up for the countryside, our forests, our mountains and lakes will ensure nature is protected and our country continues to inspire us all. And by empowering an official body to take the government to court if need be, we can force ministers to take their responsibilities to protect the environment seriously.

By amending the withdrawal bill, MPs have the chance to ensure proper enforcement of our laws by guaranteeing the creation of a new environment body. This would be a step in the right direction, but it is only the beginning. We need to make sure the bill converts all EU law in full and keeps key environmental principles that shape our law and give judges direction.

Gove must deliver on his promises. And we will be watching.

Karla Hill is the director of programmes at ClientEarth