The Government’s new environmental regulator will be toothless and in the pocket of ministers, the National Trust and other green groups have warned.
A proposed regulatory body, the Office for Environmental Protection (OPE), will have its board and budget determined by ministers and cannot be trusted to regulate fairly, the groups have said.
The body will be created by Boris Johnson’s Environment Bill, the Government’s flagship green legislation, which is currently finishing its passage through the House of Lords.
Peers are attempting to force amendments on the Government to make the regulator more independent.
Seven environmental groups, led by the National Trust, have backed an amendment to remove control over the regulator’s board members and budget from ministers.
In a letter to The Daily Telegraph, they accuse the Government of promising more stringent environmental regulation after Brexit but setting up a toothless regulator to oversee it.
“Current proposals for the new Office for Environmental Protection…will see ministers able to guide the body on decisions that directly affect them,” the groups warn.
“The government will determine the body’s budget and board, while the courts will be unable to stop environmental damage taking place as the result of an unlawful decision.
“With a body weaker in independence and power than its predecessor, we will not surpass but fall behind our European neighbours.”
The letter is signed by representatives from the National Trust, RSPB, The Wildlife Trusts, Green Alliance, Marine Conservation Society, Woodland Trust and Friends of the Earth.
They drew attention to an article in The Daily Telegraph by Michael Gove, then the Environment Secretary, who argued that the UK would be able to regulate on environmental issues more after Brexit.
But since then, the EU has introduced new environmental regulations that do not apply in the UK – such as a ban on disposable plastic cutlery and polystyrene cups.
The Government argues that while ministers will have control over the OEP’s composition and budget, the Environment Secretary will not have the ability to intervene on individual cases.
‘Giving ministers undue control over a public body designed to hold them to account would be unethical’
The regulator, based in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, will have its own powers to investigate local authorities and take enforcement action against them.
An interim regulator, established earlier this year, does not yet have legal powers to enforce environmental rules.
A government spokeswoman said: “We are committed to building back greener, which is why we are leading the world by setting ambitious goals for nature and biodiversity in our landmark Environment Bill.”
Craig Bennett, Chief Executive of The Wildlife Trusts, said: “I can’t stress enough how important it is that the Office for Environmental Protection remains entirely independent from those in power.
“Giving ministers undue control over a public body designed to hold them to account would be unethical.
“A robust OEP will help to ensure the right decisions are made for wildlife and people, enabling us to restore nature and combat climate breakdown.
“Our government has pledged an ambitious and transformative green agenda. It is imperative it follows through with those promises and an impartial OEP is critical to making that happen.”
The proposed amendment on the OEP is among 130 suggested for discussion in the House of Lords this week. Not all will be selected by the Speaker, Lord McFall.
If any amendments pass, the bill will enter a stage of “ping-pong” between the House of Commons and House of Lords.
Ministers are reportedly concerned the process could mean the Bill is not passed in time for the international COP26 climate conference, which is taking place in Glasgow in November.
Failing to pass Mr Johnson’s flagship green policies in time for the UK’s hosting of a major conference would be seen as an embarrassment for the Government.
The Environment Bill has been delayed three times, prompting fury from campaigners who argue that it leaves the UK with outdated regulations from the pre-Brexit era.
The Government said the Covid-19 crisis had left too little time for debate of the Bill, which runs to 272 pages.
It has been amended by ministers since it was initially proposed to include new protections for habitats, biodiversity and landscapes.
The draft legislation now includes legally binding targets for biodiversity, plus provisions for the new regulator.