The government's full Environment Bill, published on Tuesday, would give a proposed green watchdog more powers to enforce environmental law. Photograph: diliananikolova/Getty Images The government's full Environment Bill, published on Tuesday, would give a proposed green watchdog more powers to enforce environmental law. Photograph: diliananikolova/Getty Images

Environment Bill: Government beefs up green watchdog

The government’s proposed green watchdog would have the power to scrutinise the government’s climate change targets and request a new form of legal review of public bodies suspected of breaching environmental law, as set out in the full Environment Bill published on Tuesday.

The Office for Environmental Protection (OEP), the body that after Brexit will take on some of the oversight and enforcement functions currently held by EU institutions, will be able to ask the courts for an “environmental review” of public bodies.

After the watchdog has followed a two-step process informing the body in question of why it believes it has broken environmental law, it can ask the courts to review the case and issue non-financial remedies if it finds the law was broken. 

That marks a step-up in the government’s previous proposals for the OEP, under which it would merely be able to request a judicial review, which is concerned with whether the body followed the law in its decision-making process rather than the merits of its decision. 

A number of environmental law experts had previously expressed concern that the OEP’s powers under the draft passages of the bill were too weak compared to those enjoyed by the European Commission, which can take member states to the European Court of Justice for suspected breaches of environmental law. 

“Legal proceedings will only be taken as a last resort or in truly urgent cases,” DEFRA has made clear in a policy statement.

Tom West, UK environmental lead for ClientEarth, welcomed the new bill’s inclusion of the environmental review process. 

“This has the potential to redesign how environmental law is enforced in the UK, but realising this potential is dependent on environmental decisions being actively and properly assessed by experts,” he said. “And on the existence of more powerful remedies, so that we can be sure that decisions are improved.”

The watchdog will also scrutinise the government’s environmental targets, including its greenhouse gas emissions.

“The OEP will monitor progress in improving the natural environment in accordance with the government’s domestic environmental improvement plans and targets,” reads the accompanying policy statement. It will have to prepare an annual progress report with advice on “how progress can be improved”, the bill states.

Legally binding targets will be required for air quality, waste and resources, water and biodiversity, along with a specific target for fine particulate matter (PM2.5) emissions. The first set of targets is required by October 2022.

The government will be required to produce Statutory Environmental Improvement Plans (SEIP) covering at least 15 years, which will be reviewed every five years. The 25-Year Environment Plan, launched in January 2018, is the first SEIP, DEFRA has confirmed. 

The OEP’s governance structures remain largely unchanged in the full bill, with the secretary of state responsible for determining its budget, despite calls for parliament to take on that role.

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