Gove’s environmental watchdog risks adding confusion to policy

The CLA has warned Defra Secretary Michael Gove’s new environmental watchdog risks adding confusion to policy-making following the opening of a consultation on the creation of the body.

The Government is seeking views on what the functions of the new watchdog should be, but has proposed it should:

  • Provide independent scrutiny and advice on environmental law and policy
  • Respond to complaints about the delivery of environmental law
  • Hold Government to account publicly over its delivery of environmental law, exercising enforcement powers where necessary

CLA director of policy and advice, Christopher Price, said Ministers needed to ensure the new body does not end up duplicating or confusing existing arrangements for scrutiny and enforcement which are carried out by parliament, existing public authorities such as Natural England and the Environment Agency, local authorities and the courts.

“We are concerned what is suggested in this consultation could add significant cost, complexity and bureaucracy to the system and put at risk the better delivery of environmental policy”, he added.

“We will be challenging the Government on why it is not looking at a more fundamental consolidation of the many enforcement and reporting agencies currently involved in environmental governance.”

Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Farming Today programme, Mr Price also hit back at claims from environmental organisations that the body needed to be able to take the Government to court – a power which was absent from the consultation.

“Challenging the Government’s environmental agenda can be done through domestic courts”, he said.

“This new body is not going to have the power to take the Government to court for environmental failings, but we already have a system of judicial review, under which NGOs and others can take the Government to court, so it is difficult to see what the purpose of this new body really is.”

The suggested powers of the watchdog will be set out in an Environmental Principles and Governance Bill, which will be published in draft in the autumn, alongside a requirement for Ministers to have regard to the precautionary and polluter pays principles when making law.

The consultation is seeking views on whether those principles should be in the Bill itself, or in a separate policy statement.

Will the watchdog cover the devolved regions?

The consultation is concerned with environmental governance in England, but the UK Government has said it would ‘welcome the opportunity to co-design proposals to ensure they work across the whole UK’.

Welsh Rural Affairs Cabinet Secretary Lesley Griffiths, however, said she was ‘disappointed not to be fully engaged’ on the matter given Wales’ track record of developing environmental legislation.

“We stand ready to work in collaboration”, she added.

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