‘The OEP is not a replacement Commission’: 5 things the new watchdog chiefs want you to know

Last week the chief executives of the newly-established green watchdogs the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) and Environmental Standards Scotland (ESS) discussed the UK’s emerging post-Brexit environmental governance arrangements with ENDS. Here’s what you need to know.

Natalie Prosser. Image: Office for Environmental Protection Natalie Prosser. Image: Office for Environmental Protection

There are strategic choices to be made about what to focus on

Speaking during an ENDS Report webinar on 21 July, Natalie Prosser, OEP chief executive outlined what the green watchdog for England and Northern Ireland would be focusing on in the months ahead. 

She said that the OEP has to be “very deliberate in [its] choices and what [it] focuses on” due to the breadth of its remit and relatively small size - the organisation is currently run by about 50 people. As such, she said that priority areas had to be chosen carefully, with the OEP seeking to focus resources where it considers it can “make most difference”. 

READ MORE: OEP strategy and enforcement policy: what you need to know

WATCH NOW: Green watchdog chiefs on scrutiny, governance and enforcement

She defined this criteria further, saying that before launching an investigation or choosing on what subjects it will intervene, the watchdog would look at how big an effect it could have, what it could do that other organisations could not, as well as considering how likely it would be that any action taken would be successful. 

‘Not a replacement Commission’

During discussion about how the need for the establishment of the OEP and ESS was born out of a “yawning governance gap” following Brexit, as panellist Ruth Chambers, senior fellow at Greener UK termed it, Prosser was clear that while this was the genesis of the new watchdogs the OEP “is not a replacement [European] Commission”.

“We are a different kind of organisation, we have different functions and we take a different approach,” she said, and emphasised that establishing the OEP’s mission statement of ‘We are here to protect and improve the environment’, was an important step in the watchdog determining how it will carry itself. 

The Scottish green watchdog is similar to the OEP - but not the same

Mark Roberts, ESS chief executive told the audience that the Scottish watchdog broadly saw its mission as similar to that of the OEP, but highlighted that a core difference between the two is that the ESS is “set up as a body accountable to the Scottish parliament”, and that this is an important detail in defining its independence from the Scottish government.

He added that the policy context in Scotland was significantly different to that in England, with the Scottish government having clearly expressed its intention to remain closely aligned with EU policy making. He said that keeping pace with changes in the EU was “no small task”. 

Roberts said that in the coming months, the ESS would be laying its organisational strategy before the Scottish parliament, where it is expected to be scrutinised over the course of the autumn. Assuming the strategy is approved, Roberts said that this would trigger a wide-ranging review of environmental governance across Scotland, which the government would be required to consult on within six months of the ESS strategy approval. He anticipated the review would kick off in early 2023.

Complaints are proving ‘an invaluable source of information’ for both watchdogs 

Both Prosser and Roberts said that while it was unlikely that either the OEP or ESS would pursue individual complaints, for example particularly localised or one-off issues, all complaints were proving “an invaluable source of information” to help inform other decision making.  

The OEP has received approximately 40 complaints, said Prosser, and has so far announced one formal investigation into the role of Ofwat, the Environment Agency, and environment secretary George Eustice in regulating, monitoring and enforcing water companies’ own duties to manage sewage.

READ MORE: ‘Dirty secrets’: What are the first complaints to the OEP about?

While she would not comment on specifics to do with the investigation, Prosser said that it was “quite a good example” of what the OEP was trying to achieve, with the purpose of the investigation to “focus on how the regulatory system works and whether it’s in line with the relevant legislation”.

On the part of the ESS, Roberts said that the ESS had already launched investigations including one into the role of local authorities meeting climate change objectives.

Commenting on the fact not all complaints will to lead to investigations, and fewer still to legal action, Prosser said that the OEP would still be in a position to speak to public authorities they receive relevant complaints about. “There is influence in the engagement,” she said. 

There is ‘room for improvement’ in the inspection regimes of environmental regulators

Asked whether or not the OEP and ESS would be looking into the inspection regimes of regulators such as the Environment Agency and the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA), Prosser said while the watchdog had “heard plenty of intelligence that there is an issue”, the OEP had not yet undertaken any “targeted analysis” on the subject. 

She highlighted that at a strategic level, the watchdog is keen to focus on the link between government ambitions for the environment and the delivery model on the ground, and was interested in looking at whether the “regulatory model for environmental protection is the right one”, as outlined recently in the first of the OEP’s annual reports on the 25-Year Environment Plan.

Prosser said: “We do think there’s room for improvement”.

You can watch the ENDS Report webinar back on demand here