Everything you need to know about the OEP

The Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) began its work today, ahead of gaining its full powers through the Environment Bill. Here’s what you need to know.

Photograph: Geography Photos/Getty Images Photograph: Geography Photos/Getty Images

1 The OEP’s board meets for the first time today

The watchdog’s senior leadership consists of chair Dame Glenys Stacey; interim chief executive, Natalie Prosser; and non-executive directors Paul Leinster, the former chief executive of the Environment Agency; environmental law expert and barrister professor Richard Macrory; conservationist professor Dan Laffoley, and chair of the Institution of Environmental Sciences, Julie Hill.

2 It fills a ‘governance gap’

Part of the European Commission’s role is to ensure that member states uphold EU law, which can lead to legal action against them. Leaving the EU meant this role was absent, posing a particular problem for ensuring that environmental objectives are met. After a heavy lobbying campaign by environmental groups, the government admitted that a watchdog function was needed after Brexit.

3 It won’t issue fines…

The Environment Bill will leave the OEP without the commission’s biggest stick: the ability to issue fines. Labour’s attempt to lend the OEP this power was resisted by the government. But under the Withdrawal Agreement, the EU executive will still be able to bring new cases before the Court of Justice of the EU until the end of 2024.

4 … but the OEP should act more quickly than Brussels

A fundamental weakness of the European Commission’s enforcement system is that it can take years to progress – notoriously so in the case of breaching air quality limits. Stacey has said that the OEP will be “demonstrably more responsive and nimble”.

5 The OEP will be able to demand information

The Environment Bill will empower the OEP to issue ‘information notices’, demanding details on an alleged breach of environmental law if there are “reasonable grounds” of suspicion and if it is “serious”.

6 Initial enforcement will be through ‘decision notices’

If the OEP finds, on the balance of probabilities, that environmental law has been breached, it will issue a decision notice against the relevant public authority or authorities, setting out how it should be remedied, mitigated or prevented in the future. A response will have to be made within two months.

7 An environmental review could follow

The OEP may apply to the High Court for an ‘environmental review’ if it considers a decision notice has not been met satisfactorily. That could lead to a ‘statement of non-compliance’, through which the court could grant any remedy available through judicial review other than the award of damages. However, that power is circumscribed in the latest version of the Environment Bill, preventing any remedy that would cause “substantial hardship to, or substantially prejudice the rights of, any person other than the authority, or be detrimental to good administration.”

8 Judicial review will be available in some circumstances

The OEP will be allowed to apply for judicial review “in urgent cases”, according to the bill. This will be where the conduct of a public authority “constitutes a serious failure to comply with environmental law [and] is necessary to prevent, or mitigate, serious damage to the natural environment or to human health”.

9 It’s not just a watchdog

Although its main function will be enforcement, the OEP’s functions include monitoring the implementation of environmental law, reporting annually to parliament, scrutinising official data and advising the government on amending the green statute book.

10 The OEP is not yet a statutory body

At the moment, the OEP has no legal powers – those will come when the Environment Bill receives royal assent. But, in the interim period, it will be able to consider complaints about environmental lawbreaking by central government and English public bodies, report on progress in implementing the 25-Year Environment Plan, recruit staff, open consultations and establish policies. It will also assess progress against targets for air quality, water pollution, biodiversity, waste and resource efficiency once those are set under the bill.

READ MORE: Office for Environmental Protection ‘begins work in earnest’

READ MORE: The Office for Environmental Protection: What to expect from England’s new green watchdog

READ MORE: Lords challenge OEPs 'secrecy clause' 

11 The interim OEP replaces another interim body

The OEP should have been fully operational before the end of the Brexit transition. A combination of no-deal Brexit planning and the pandemic put paid to that aspiration. Instead, an even more interim body was created, the ‘Interim Environmental Governance Secretariat’, within DEFRA, to begin forming the watchdog. Its staff was drawn from the Natural Capital Committee, whose role in monitoring the 25-Year Plan the OEP will replace.

12 The OEP is based in Worcester

The OEP is headquartered in Worcester, as part of plans to spread government jobs outside London.

13 Its independence is questionable

Amendments to the Environment Bill last year have limited the watchdog’s ability to act without government interference. Its senior leadership is government-appointed, and environmental campaigners have particularly opposed the government’s power to issue guidance on the formation of its enforcement policy.

But Stacey told ENDS earlier this year that her own record of independence was “very strong”. I don’t think anyone would question it... And why would I change my spots now?”

READ MORE Interview: OEP chair Dame Glenys Stacey on independence, funding and enforcement

14 It is already considering complaints

A system for registering complaints went live in January. By the end of March, 13 had been lodged, naming 17 public bodies as having broken environmental law. Ten of these have been taken forward.

15 The government has taken a leaf from the Climate Change Act

The government is establishing the OEP in a similar fashion to the Climate Change Committee (CCC), which was up and running in ‘shadow’ form before it was formally established under the Climate Change Act 2008.

16 The OEP will work with other watchdogs

The OEP’s remit will extend to England and Northern Ireland, though that is subject to confirmation by the Northern Ireland Assembly.

A broadly parallel body, Environmental Standards Scotland, is already operational, chaired by former Scottish public services ombudsman Jim Martin, with Brendan Callaghan as chief executive. He was previously head of operational delivery at Scottish Forestry.

A comparable watchdog is also expected to be created in Wales, working alongside its existing future generations commissioner. A Senedd briefing says that the nation has the “weakest environmental governance structures in western Europe”.

The OEP will draw up a memorandum of understanding with the CCC to ensure that the two watchdogs do not step on each other’s toes

Related Environmental Services

Powered by ENDS Directory

Compliance Search

Discover all ENDS content in one place, including legislation summaries to keep up to date with compliance deadlines

Compliance Deadlines

Plan ahead with our Calendar feature highlighting upcoming compliance deadlines

Most-read articles

Hydrometry & Telemetry Officer

The National Hydrometry & Telemetry Team sets the strategy, procedures, ways of working and evidence needs, as well as managing & developing systems for hydrometry and telemetry within Wales.

Senior Industry Regulations Officer

This is an exciting opportunity to join our Industry Regulation Team in South West Wales.

Regulation Unit – Senior Scientific Officer (SScO) – Water

(SScO) will report to a Principal Scientific Officer (PScO). The posts could be in any one of the four areas: - Land and Groundwater Remediation - Drinking Water Inspectorate - Water Regulation - Regulatory Transformation

NEAS Environmental Project Manager

We are looking for two Environmental Project Managers to join our Eastern Hub at the heart of our National Environmental Assessment and Sustainability team (NEAS).

Environment Adviser

We are looking for two Environmental Project Managers to join our Eastern Hub at the heart of our National Environmental Assessment and Sustainability team (NEAS).

People and Places Officer

This post sits in the South West People and Places Team. The Team provides an “intelligence hub” to inform the delivery of sustainable management of natural resources within the place.