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Government plays its green card

Plans to consult on a new, independent body that would hold government to account for upholding environmental standards in England following Brexit have been set out by environment secretary Michael Gove.

Currently environmental decisions made in the UK – from improving air and water quality to protecting endangered species – are overseen by the European Commission, which monitors targets, scrutinises new legislation and takes action against illegal behaviour.

This current system is underpinned by a number of “environmental principles”, such as sustainable development and the polluter pays principle, which puts the onus on polluting individuals or businesses to pay to repair damage.

Although these principles are already central to government environmental policy, they are not set out in one place besides the EU treaties. The proposed consultation on the statutory body will therefore also “explore the scope and content of a new policy statement to ensure environmental principles underpin policy-making”.

In an opinion piece accompanying the announcement, Gove said the European system has been “far from perfect”, but admitted the European Commission “has contributed to helping raise environmental standards”.

He explained: “We will consult on using the new freedoms we have to establish a new, world-leading body to give the environment a voice and hold the powerful to account. It will be independent of government, able to speak its mind freely. And it will be placed on a statutory footing, ensuring it has clear authority. Its ambition will be to champion and uphold environmental standards, always rooted in rigorous scientific evidence.”

The government is planning to transfer all existing European law, including environmental protections, into UK law through the EU (Withdrawal) Bill.

However, the Society for the Environment, alongside six other professional bodies within the Environmental Policy Forum (EPF), this week warned that time is running out to effectively transpose EU environmental acquis into UK law.

“We remain deeply concerned by the apparent lack of parliamentary scrutiny and the lack of time remaining for the development of the secondary legislation required for a working statute book on exit day,” EPF said.