Gove: My plan for a green Brexit revolution
Environment Secretary pledges new watchdog that will have powers beyond European standards
AN INDEPENDENT watchdog to “give the environment a voice” and “hold the powerful to account” will form the cornerstone of a “green Brexit”, the Environment Secretary discloses today.
Michael Gove reveals plans to set up a “world-leading” statutory body to maintain environmental standards, together with a national policy statement that will permanently “embed” protections for land, water, air and wildlife into policy-making as Britain leaves the European Union.
The announcement, set out in an article for The Sunday Telegraph, is intended as a major concession to environmental groups and concerned MPs in a bid to head off a series of amendments to the Government’s EU Withdrawal Bill that will be debated this week.
It is understood that Zac Goldsmith, the Tory backbencher, has been leading a group of around 20 Conservatives putting pressure on ministers to set out additional environmental protections that will be put in place after Brexit. Last night he said that Mr Gove’s proposals appeared “exactly right”.
The announcement came after proEurope Tories separately vowed to vote against the Prime Minister’s plan to enshrine in law the date Britain leaves the EU, and Sir Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary, accused Theresa May of ignoring “serious concerns” over the Bill, including on the need for “clear and robust protection and enforcement mechanisms” on environmental standards.
It follows what some Eurosceptic Tories believe is a coordinated campaign to speak out against Brexit last week, as well as the departure of Priti Patel, a leading Brexiteer, from the Cabinet, and attacks on Boris Johnson over his comments about a British-Iranian woman detained in Tehran.
It will be seen partly as an attempt by Mr Gove, another key Brexiteer, to restate the positive case for Britain’s departure from the EU.
Last night the Mail On Sunday reported that Mr Gove and Mr Johnson wrote to the Prime Minister last month warning that “in some parts of Government the current preparations are not proceeding with anything like sufficient energy”.
In his article, Mr Gove says that the European laws that will be enshrined are “not enough” without the oversight of an “environmental watchdog” – a role currently played by the European Commission. While the Commission has been “far from perfect”, he says, Britain has secured rules and protocols
‘We will consult on using the new freedoms we have to establish a new, world-leading body’
that “protect important habitats and endangered species”. He adds that outside the EU Britain can become the “world-leading curator” of the planet.
Mr Gove pledges to launch a consultation on the plans “by early next year”. He writes: “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.”
Greener UK, a coalition of 13 major environmental groups, had previously warned of “major deficiencies” in the Withdrawal Bill because of the omission of “the environmental principles which underpin many of our strongest protections” and a “governance gap” that would be created without the Commission acting as a watchdog.
But last night Shaun Spiers, the coalition’s chairman, described the proposals as “very encouraging”.
I GREW up in Aberdeen in the Eighties all too vividly aware of how the Common Fisheries Policy depleted fish stocks, damaged sustainability and, in the process, undermined the long-term health of our coastal communities.
And as a worker in a farmers’ cooperative, I also saw how another arm of EU environmental action, the Common Agricultural Policy, damaged our countryside. It paid farmers according to the amount of land they farmed, not the way they managed it, and has harmed biodiversity.
Outside the EU – once we have taken back control of our agricultural, fisheries and environmental policies – we can do so much better.
But it is also important to acknowledge that there have been changes which have occurred during our time in the EU which have helped improve our environment. Indeed British politicians, from Margaret Thatcher to Stanley Johnson, John Gummer to Owen Paterson, have played a part in shaping policy at the European level to improve environmental protection. Rules and protocols that protect important habitats and endangered species have been drafted by British authors working internationally. And I want to preserve the gains we have made.
Indeed this Government has pledged that we must be the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than we found it. I have argued therefore that we must not only maintain but enhance environmental standards as we leave the EU. And that means making sure we secure the environmental gains we have made while in the EU even as we use our new independence to aim even higher.
Our first task is to ensure that we have a coherent, functioning body of law in place on the day we leave. That is why we are transferring all existing European law, including environmental protections, into UK law through the EU (Withdrawal) Bill. Rules and regulations in place the day before Brexit will still be in place the day after.
However, this alone is not enough. Some of the mechanisms which have developed during our time in the EU which helpfully scrutinise the achievement of environmental targets and standards by Government will no longer exist in the same way, and principles which guide policy will have less scope and coverage that they do now. Without further action, there will be a governance gap. The environment won’t be protected as it should be from the unscrupulous, unprincipled or careless.
Of course, in the UK we benefit from a vibrant democracy and robust legal system, which allow individuals and parliaments to hold the powerful to account when they do the wrong thing – whether it’s turning a blind eye to pollution or damaging our beautiful countryside. But when it comes to protecting the environment, this is not sufficient on its own.
That is why the EU asked the European Commission to play a role as environmental watchdog. Outside the EU, we have an opportunity to learn from both the commission’s successes and failures. We can develop new institutions which do a better job and hold us to higher standards.
So 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, independent of government and able to speak its mind freely. 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.
We also need to ensure that environmental enforcement and policymaking is underpinned by a clear set of principles. So as we leave the EU, we will create a new policy statement setting out the environmental principles which will guide us. This statement will draw on the EU’s current principles and it will underpin future policymaking.
By early next year, we will launch a formal consultation on both the new environmental body and the new policy statement. There are significant questions to answer – such as exactly what functions and powers the new body has to enforce environmental laws, exactly how a new policy statement is embedded into public policymaking, and whether Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland wish to take a different or similar approach.
Nothing is more vital than the future of our environment and the natural world. We are their custodians and must safeguard their future if our ambition for a Green Brexit is to become a reality.
We have the chance to set the gold standard for environmental science and become a home to centres of environmental excellence. A new independent, statutory body and a strong statement of principles will ensure that outside the EU, we become the world-leading curator of the most precious asset of all: our planet.
‘Nothing is more vital than the future of our natural world’