The battle has been lost on principles, we need to be clear that these are not what we had before. There is no sign anywhere in the UK that that will be replaced.
The battle to protect EU environmental principles in UK law after Brexit has been lost, according to an environmental law expert.
Maria Lee, a professor of environmental law at University College London, was speaking during a Greener UK webinar on whether the UK transition should be extended due to delays in new laws on environmental governance, agriculture and fisheries due to Covid-19.
She said that environmental principles, such as that the producer of pollution should bear the cost of preventing or clearing it up, would not be legally binding in UK legislation, as they are under EU law.
Lee explained: “The battle has been lost on principles, we need to be clear that these are not what we had before. There is no sign anywhere in the UK that that will be replaced ever, let alone in time for the end of the transition."
But she said that campaign groups must continue to try and improve the legislation even after it becomes law. Campaign groups had used the law very effectively in the past to make the case for environmental protection, but there was a history of “celebrating the fact that the legislation has been passed, and walking away”, she said.
One example of this was the EU regulation on chemicals, which needed as much scrutiny after it became law as before, she said.
The environment bill is designed to replace the governance of the European Union once the Brexit transition period ends on 31 December 2020. It will be used to set targets, plans and policies covering the environment, and creates the Office of Environmental Protection (OEP), to replace the legal oversight of the European Commission.
The bill has been widely criticised by environmental groups, policy experts and some politicians as not providing the equivalent governance standards as the UK currently has under the EU. Its progress in Parliament is currently stalled due to the Covid-19 crisis.
Once the bill becomes law, environmental groups will need to be more like corporations who acted as “repeat players” in the way they use the law, having a long-term strategy, and not just focus on immediate outcomes, Lee said.
Lee continued: “If environmental groups are disciplined and work together, they will choose their complaints carefully, they will follow through their complaints carefully, they will judicially review carefully, and they will make the OEP into a creature that will do good for the environment."
The UK government has repeatedly said that it will not lower environmental standards once the UK has left the EU, but campaigners want it to commit to a “non-regression” clause to implement this. So far, it has resisted this.
When asked why the government had not added such a clause to the bill, the environment department (Defra) did not respond directly to the question, but said that the bill would deliver "the most ambitious programme of any country on earth", and "would transform our environmental governance by creating a new system which is tailored specifically to a UK context".
Also speaking at the webinar, Jill Rutter, senior research fellow at UK in a Changing Europe, said that environmentalists should shift their focus from whether there is a deal or not. “If the environment becomes something we’re only looking after because we were forced into it by an EU trade deal, you’re on the back foot immediately, there are huge opportunities to bring this back home.
Rutter said: “I think the nation is very pro-environment, and has suffered from seeing environment as an imposition from the EU, so I think campaign groups should see this as domestic legislation and use that to mobilise and drive the UK to be an environmental leader."
Catherine Early is a freelance environmental journalist and chief reporter for the Ecologist. She can be found tweeting at @Cat_Early76.