I found myself buying the Sunday Telegraph for the first time in my life a few days ago, as Michael Gove chose this newspaper to announce his plans for a new environmental regulator. His proposal links back to points I have made previously about a need for a new type of regulator to take over the role of the European Commission and European Court of Justice in holding the UK governments to account once we have left the EU (see “(In)competent authority” and “Who will watch the watchmen now?”).
Gove is in a difficult position in his role of Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. His instincts, as a leading architect of the “leave” campaign, are against the European Union yet, for the environment at least, he cannot deny that there are many benefits that the EU has brought. He acknowledges this: “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 than they do now”. Too right.
His proposal is for a “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”. That sounds promising, in the same way that Gordon Brown’s decision to make the Bank of England free of political control back in the late 1990s. Of course, such bodies are never completely independent (witness the way that John Redwood, Jacob Rees-Mogg and others turn on the Bank of England whenever it dares contradict the most optimistic post-Brexit forecasts) but it is a step in the right direction.
So I will await, with interest, the consultation that Michael Gove promises in his Sunday Telegraph article. I am hoping that this means that the Environment Agency will still be the tool of official government policy whilst this new body will be independent and able to point out shortfalls in performance. I’m hoping, too, that this will bring some new thinking into environmental regulation, preserving the best of the EU systems whilst, at the same time, shaking up some of the aspects – such as the integration of environmental and agricultural policy – where the EU was notoriously weak.
The elephant in the corner of the room is finance. The Environment Agency is currently working on a shoestring and, unless more money from Government is forthcoming, they and this new Agency will simply be unable to afford to be “world-leading”. Somehow the Environment Agency muddles along, thanks to well-motivated staff, but corners are being cut and monitoring the state of the environment – one of the cornerstones of any effort to giving the environment “a voice” – has been a major casualty.
All this is going on whilst Parliament debates the EU (Withdrawal) Bill and we should, perhaps, see Gove’s announcement as a tactical move to head off rebellion in the Tory ranks. Issues such as whether existing legislation will be amended by primary or secondary legislation under particular scrutiny. I and others saw the prospect of the fine print in European environmental legislation being quietly written out of the statute books as a particular risk of Brexit so, even if this is a cynical manoeuvre, I am encouraged by Michael Gove’s words. If nothing else, it demonstrates that even arch-Brexiteers know that they have to make some concessions. However, we need to watch this story closely as it unfolds over the next few months …