The interim Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) was launched today, ahead of its formal role as the ‘Board of the Office for Environment Protection’.
Defra has said the interim OEP “will provide independent oversight of the government’s environmental progress on a non-statutory basis, in advance of the full OEP being legally created”. The OEP, alongside maintaining governmental accountability, will also be responsible for publishing independent progress assessments, developing enforcement policy and managing public complaints.
The interim body will be steered by the Chair, Dame Glenys Stacey, and Interim Chief Executive, Natalie Prosser, together with other non-executive directors to be appointed in the coming weeks. The full OEP will be created after the Environment Bill has been passed, when it will become an independent legal entity.
The announcement comes just over a month after the Select Committee on the Constitution released their 4th report on the Environment Bill, which entered House of Lords in June. The Select Committee scrutinises aspects of legislation passing through parliament, and they describe the Environment Bill as having ‘two main affects’. Namely, to establish new environmental governance by way of the OEP, and provide “environmental protections in a number of specific areas”.
Clause 21 of the Bill states the objective of the OEP “is to contribute to environmental protection and the improvement of the natural environment”. Essentially, post-Brexit, the OEP needs to provide accountability previously maintained by EU governance.
However, as the recent Select Committee report on the Environment Bill outlines, there are constitutional areas where this could be compromised. One of them is the independence of this office – it necessarily needs to be removed from government and its influence.
Nonetheless, the Bill states the Secretary of State may provide ‘guidance’ on enforcement, prompting the report to state that the “House may wish to examine the appropriateness of guidance in the context of the Office for Environmental Protection’s purported independence”.
Questions over independence remain
If there is not a comprehensive and solid accountability framework for UK environmental governance in the future, this could mean a worrying weakening environmental standards, unachieved targets, and detrimental ecological outcomes. We are expecting the Environment Bill to be passed and gain Royal Assent by the end of this year. This is much needed primary legislation as the UK has been without binding environmental law for over four years.
Innovation and policy director Robbie Staniforth commented "The establishment of this interim office marks good progress with filling the governance void created by leaving the EU. The UK has a good reputation for political and legal governance and we hope this continues once the OEP becomes properly established."
"However, it will take some years before the true independence of the OEP can be assessed. The concern that it might become too close to Government to keep it in check remains."
As Policy advisor Louisa provides key support to our team, including preparing reports on environmental policy issues and maintaining awareness of new developments. As such she will often be found coordinating responses to policy consultations, advocating policy positions and providing internal guidance to current legislation.