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13 Jun 2018

A winning watchdog

Posted in Blog posts

Brexit means waving goodbye to Europe’s environmental watchdog, and saying hello to a brand new British watchdog instead. Tonight they’ll be debating the issue in Parliament.

There is currently a whole litter of potential watchpuppies to choose from. So which one would you choose?

Puppy No 1: A straight replacement for the European watchdog

This would replace the European Commission’s role to monitor legislation, created under a set of principles, and also act as police and prosecutor if the UK broke it.

In other words, this is a multi-talented watchdog who knows what it’s doing and why. But it would have a big job to do, which can take a long time. Arguably it would be too far-reaching and too slow. But the sheer size of its teeth would encourage good decision-making in the first place, making it potentially a net cost-saver.

Puppy No 2: The UK Government’s British version

Last month the Government proposed an environmental body that will “offer feedback and recommendations” on any Government plans for environmental law, but not be able to propose any by itself. It would be able “to make a prominent declaration” where it thought the UK was breaking environmental law, but would have a limited set of principles to refer to and – importantly – no enforcement power at all.

In other words, this is a watchdog that can bark loudly, but isn’t sure why it’s barking and has no teeth whatsoever.

Puppy No 3: The MPs’ counter-proposal

This late entry is an environmental body that might be able to take action against Ministers, and would refer to a slightly larger set of principles than the toothless puppy but smaller than the European puppy’s set. But note the proposal’s exact wording:

“…the establishment of a public authority with functions for taking, in circumstances provided for by or under the Bill, proportionate enforcement action (including legal proceedings if necessary) where the authority considers that a Minister of the Crown is not complying with environmental law (as it is defined in the Bill).”

You don’t have to be a lawyer to spot at least some of the qualifications in that sentence. This is a current and live demonstration of the Government’s ambition for a green Brexit being watered down, you can almost see it dripping.

Interestingly this sentence only refers to Ministers and not public bodies, who make most of the independent operational decisions affecting our environment. These will often be local authorities giving planning consent, among a wide range of public bodies who make operational decisions affecting swathes of land, water or air.

In other words, this is a watchdog candidate with some teeth and some idea of why it should use them, but it may well be muzzled by the legislation that creates it and unable to bite many of those who’ll need biting.

So which is your favourite?

It would be easy for us to say the first one sounds strongest, because we’re not juggling the costs. HM Treasury are rightly cautious to create a publicly funded body that would bring cases against other publicly funded bodies, in publicly funded courts, and which might jeopardise publicly funded projects. These costs don’t help short-term commitments to reduce national deficit and debt.

But if we don’t have an effective watchdog, the long-term cost could be much higher. Flooding, pollution, health problems and depletion of natural resources are all issues being priced steadily higher as our natural environment deteriorates.

The third candidate seems to be the front runner at the moment. The fact that it’s even a late entrant at all is a testimony to Parliamentarians in both Houses who are working tirelessly towards hard-won compromises between many interests.

But despite their efforts, is it still acceptable to merely establish a watchdog that is a bit worse, rather than a lot worse, than the status quo? Surely as a nation we have more ambition than that?

WWT is part of various environment coalitions advising Government and Parliament on ways to make environmental protection at least as effective post-Brexit as it is now.

Brexit is the opportunity for us to show that the UK can do things better outside of the EU, not worse. Let’s take that opportunity and build a set of environmental principles to be proud of and an independent, effective watchdog to guard them.