The Environment Secretary, Michael Gove, has gone to war with the mighty Treasury over their blocking progress on our environmental protections. There is a happy coincidence between this Cabinet bust up, the EU’s taking the government to court over its failure to act on air pollution and the Lords rejecting the government plans for a post Brexit environmental enforcement agency. It highlights why the government should scrap their current flabbyconsultation on the creation of an environmental protection agency and restart it based upon the Lords’ amendment to the EU Withdrawal Bill.
The EU has finally acted to protect public health after 8 years of illegal air in the UK; it should have happened far sooner. I’ve been writing to the Commission since 2002 asking for them to reject plans by the government and successive London Mayors as inadequate. In the meantime, tens of thousands of people have died premature deaths because of government complacency and the vested interests of vehicle manufacturers.
If Brexit is going to be a success, then it needs to be a green Brexit. That’s why I welcome legal action being taken by the European Commission, because it highlights what a UK enforcement agency, with teeth, should do. One reason for the Lords’ rejection of government plans to create a new watchdog to take over the European Commission’s role, was that their proposed agency lacked any legal bite. It would be a lame lapdog of a quango, which would inconvenience no one and what is the point of that?
My own Clean Air Bill would not only make clean air a human right, it would also create a Citizens’ Commission with the power to support individuals and communities who wish to take legal action against organisations responsible for bad air. This could provide a template for other environmental issues, with the right to clean water being an obvious next step.
The new UK enforcement agency needs to be underpinned by strong principles written into primary legislation. The existing EU principles, like polluter pays, the protection of future generations, and animal sentience, have widespread support, which is why they are included in my Clean Air Bill and the Lords’ amendment. These would inform the agencies work on policy, strategy and its recommendations for action.
While the European Commission is better at enforcing the environmental rules than our own government ,it has a far from perfect record. It got too cozy with the vehicle manufacturers and allowed the whole ‘defeat devices’ scandal to happen, with widespread cheating of air pollution standards. It has also taken the European Commission eight years to take action, despite clear evidence that our government had no plan or intention of reducing pollution by taking radical steps. That is eight years of illegal air. I hope that a UK agency will not be so reluctant to act.
There is no timetable for the government response to the Lords’ amendment, which gives us time to organise and lobby. The government is making a mess of Brexit because it is driven by a right-wing Cabinet which is reluctant to make compromises. So the Trade Bill, along with all the Lords’ amendments are waiting for Theresa May to sort herself out. Ultimately, she will be forced to make concessions in order to get anything agreed and an environmental enforcement body with teeth, is high on the list of things that will keep most people happy. I know of Conservative MPs who feel uneasy about their vote to reject Animal Sentience and the Lords’ amendment provides them with a chance to make amends. With Michael Gove’s behind the scenes backing, there is every chance that a new agency with greater powers, will become a reality.
The question is, can we make this enforcement agency even tougher and more bloody minded in defence of our environment, than what we have now? Can we have it defending communities against the corporate frackers or school childrens’ lungs against the motoring lobby? Will it stand up for the planet against the single most environmentally damaging project in this country, the expansion of Heathrow? A world class enforcement agency would and that is what the UK needs post Brexit.