How will Brexit affect Environmental Governance in the UK?

December 1, 2020
Dr Anna Willetts


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In the latest of our series of articles on Brexit and the changes we can expect from 1st January 2020, Dr Anna Willetts, Environmental Crime Partner, looks at what is in store for environmental regulation.

Just over a year ago, in October 2019, the government introduced the Environment Bill. Its purpose is to enhance and protect our natural environment by making sure that we leave the environment in a better state than in which we inherited it and, crucially, that future governments continue to do the same.

The bill requires the Secretary of State to set long term environmental targets, defined as 15 years and over, for at least one matter within the four key priority areas of air quality, water, biodiversity and resource efficiency and waste reduction.

A key provision of the bill is to establish the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP), a powerful new independent regulator which is tasked with holding the government to account. It will scrutinise all government policy and ensure that the environment is at the very core of all decision making. It will have significant power, including the ability to run its own independent investigations and enforce environmental law. This includes the ability to take the government and other public bodies to court when necessary.

It also has a number of other key functions. These include monitoring and reporting on environmental improvement plans; monitoring and reporting on the implementation of environmental law; and advising on proposed changes to environmental law. As you can see, its remit is far and wide and also includes all climate change legislation, replacing the role of the European Commission.

The OEP will be a non-departmental body, comprised of the following key roles:

  • A Chairperson, who will be a non-executive, appointed by the Secretary of State and will serve for a fixed term that cannot exceed 5 years.
  • Between two and five other non-executive members, appointed by the Secretary of State in consultation with the Chairperson, again for a fixed term that cannot exceed five years.
  • A Chief Executive who will be appointed by the non-executive members in consultation with the Secretary of State (although the first chief executive with be appointed by the Chairperson).
  • Between one and three executive members, appointed by the whole board.

It is worth noting specifically that the OEP will probably look to scrutinise waste management laws in more detail in due course. Issues that we may anticipate it addressing include the definition of waste, what happens when central government and local authorities fail to meet targets, regulations of the consistency within collections, regulations of waste exports and the procedures for enforcement.

The original plan was for the OEP to be fully functioning and working on the 1st January, but its formal establishment is dependent on the Environment Bill receiving Royal Assent and the relevant parts of it to come into force by that date. As at the time of writing, the Bill still remains in the House of Commons with a third reading to go. It then needs to go through the House of Lords. It therefore seems unlikely it will be functional immediately in the New Year. Like so much of the wider changes we can expect as part of our final transition from the European Union, we will simply have to wait and see when it will begin.