Just before the UK exited the European Union, the Environment Bill – the Government’s plans on how the UK’s environmental protection laws will look after Brexit – continued its journey through Parliament. It includes the Government’s proposals for setting up the Office of Environmental Protection (OEP), the new environmental watchdog which will hold national and local government accountable where it comes to adhering to environmental law. The ramifications for the development sector could be considerable.
The OEP will be funded by DEFRA, it will have a 120-strong workforce and operate from offices in Bristol. The aim is to have the public body fully operational from January 2021, when the Brexit transition period will come to an end, to avoid a ‘green governance gap’. Its main objective is to scrutinise environmental policy and all climate change legislation, including the 2050 net-zero carbon target, investigate complaints – which can be made by anyone – and enforce action against public authorities that fail to uphold the law.
Begonia Filgueira, partner at Acuity Law and chair of the UKELA Brexit Task Force leading in OEP, commented: “Existing the European Union has brought environmental scrutiny much closer to home. Instead of the European Commission we will now have our own independent regulator to hold national and local authorities to account. Councils will have a duty to cooperate with the OEP and if an authority is found to be in breach of environmental law, they could be taken to court if necessary.”
She continued: “The key driver is the net-zero carbon objective in the Climate Change Act, which is law already. All levels of Government should implement environmental law in a consistent way. Every local authority’s Local Plan and climate emergency action plan will need to demonstrate how standards and targets are going to be met. All of this is going to trickle down to developers and the planning permissions that will be issued. It will include matters such as sustainable construction, updated building regulations, the introduction of EV chargers in developments and achieving biodiversity net-gain. How authorities are currently tackling the nitrates issue on the South coast is only the beginning.”
The Environment Bill is to enter the Committee stage before receiving Royal Assent later in the year. At present the new watchdog may still be a puppy but it could go on to grow some teeth to be reckoned with.