The government has been urged to create a new environmental watchdog which will enshrine biodiversity and soil quality targets after the UK leaves the EU.
The cross-party Environmental Audit Committee has today (24 July) called for the establishment of the new independent oversight body — the Environmental Enforcement and Audit Office (EEAO) — modelled on the National Audit Office (NAO).
The body would govern, enforce, and carry policy functions currently carried out by the European Commission and European Court of Justice. It would also have the power to take the government and other public bodies to court where standards are breached.
The government has promised a new Environmental Principles and Governance Bill covering air, waste, water, chemicals that cannot be copied and pasted into UK law through the EU (Withdrawal) Act.
But the Committee is calling for the government to go one step further and to enshrine biodiversity targets, habitats, soil quality targets, and access to justice in UK law for the first time.
Support for farmers to create 500,000 hectares of new habitat for endangered species and helping farmers replenish depleted soils are already plans tipped for the 25-year Environment plan.
Defra Secretary Michael Gove has been vocal on the subject of soil health in particular. He said the UK will see the "fundamental eradication of soil fertility" because industrial farming has "damaging the earth".
But the Committee criticises a "worrying lack of detail" in the government’s 25-Year Environment Plan as to how the environmental objectives will be achieved.
It recommends that legally-binding targets should be introduced on key environmental indicators – with five yearly action reports along the model of the 2008 Climate Change Act.
The Committee also recommends the government brings forward details on targets, implementation, governance and funding before the publication of the draft Environmental Principles and Governance Bill.
Mary Creagh MP, Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee said the UK "needs a world-leading environmental watchdog if it wants a world-leading environment".
“But in recent months the Government has been referred to the EU’s highest court for failing to tackle illegal levels of air pollution in the UK. We are facing a biodiversity crisis and risk losing iconic species like the hedgehog,” Ms Creagh said.
“The Government’s 25 Year Plan is high on ambitions, but low on milestones. The Government has more experience of getting rid of environmental watchdogs than of setting them up.
“We want an Environmental Governance and Principles Act that sets legally-binding targets and creates a new Environmental Enforcement and Audit Office to measure progress and enforce this new law.
Ms Creagh added: “The Government needs to set out detailed delivery and funding proposals for the Plan and departments across Whitehall need to commit to its ambitions, rather than trying to water them down behind the scenes.”
Any proposed environmental watchdog has come under attack by the farming industry and green campaigners.
The CLA, a rural organisation representing farmers and landowners, has criticised the potential watchdog as "adding confusion and complexity" to environmental policy.
CLA Director of Policy and Advice Christopher Price said the body could add "increased bureaucracy" to the system.
“We are concerned that what is suggested in this consultation could add significant cost, complexity and bureaucracy to the system and put at risk the better delivery of environmental policy,” Mr Price said.
“As we consider the proposals in detail and discuss the issues with officials and ministers, we will be challenging the Government on why it is not looking at a more fundamental consolidation of the many enforcement and reporting agencies currently involved in environmental governance.
Mr Price added: “The worst case scenario is that this agency could end up duplicating or confusing existing arrangements for scrutiny and enforcement in Parliament, existing public authorities and the courts.”