Alas, it seems as though our fears for environmental regulation once we lave the EU - based on a post Brexit Green Watchdog - are being realised.
The much-heralded independent statutory environmental body to take the place of the EU’s DG Environment when we leave Europe will not have any real power, even though The Secretary of State, Michael Gove, promised it would.
No legal teeth
To be fair, he probably does want an overriding environmental keeper with the teeth necessary to hold the Government to account, but it seems as though the Treasury has, as usual, had the last word - the environment must not be allowed to get in the way of economic growth and sustainable development.
So, although there was initial enthusiasm when we heard that EU environmental law would be transferred into UK legislation post-Brexit, apparently with even stronger protection for habitats and species than Europe provided, those words seem a little hollow just now.
Mr Gove disagrees, of course.
He insists that the Environmental Principles and Governance Bill, due to be published in the autumn, will ensure that ‘core environmental principles will remain central to Government policy and decision making’, and will help deliver a greener Brexit and the vision set out in the Government’s 25-Year Environment Plan.
However, without the legal teeth to independently challenge Government policy, Mr Gove’s Green Watchdog can never replace the ‘Sword of Damocles’ that the EU has held over our national decision-makers.
S&TC within the EU
While being in the EU, we have always had DG Environment, the EU’s own environmental watchdog, as a final arbiter if we couldn’t get UK Governments to take their international responsibilities seriously.
For example, it was S&TC’s complaint to the EU under the Habitats Directive that was the catalyst which closed down the Scottish commercial coastal salmon netting fisheries in 2016, an action the Scottish Government would never have taken without pressure from Europe, despite the accepted international view that such fisheries are bad management practice
It was another of S&TC’s complaints that has turned out to be an omen for future of the Government’s 25-Year Environment Plan. We complained to DG Environment over the Hampshire Avon's failure to meet conservation targets for salmon - some 6 years ago now - although the basis of the complaint was actually the myriad of planned measures for the river over 25 years which were never actioned. The complaint didn't get very far over the target issue - the EU prefers complaints to cover more than one river - but DG Environment latterly used it as an example of a state producing plans, strategies, reviews, reports etc but never actually delivering anything.
So, without wanting to appear too cynical, unless we can have a post-Brexit environmental watchdog with legal power to hold the Government to account, this 25-year Environment Plan looks as though it could go the way of its predecessors – after an initial burst of enthusiasm around its creation and launch, it will be left to gather dust on the Government's shelf.
That is the challenge facing the NGO community as we head for Brexit – and one over which S&TC will join forces with all the other environmental organisations within Wildlife & Countryside Link to lobby as hard as we possibly can, with the support of our 8 million plus members, for proper legal environmental protection – in our case for wild fish and all other water-dependent wildlife, and the diverse habitats upon which they depend.
- Words above by Paul Knight, S&TC CEO
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