The Office For Environmental Protection

And through it all the Office for Environmental Protection

A lot of love and affection

Whether I’m right or wrong..”

The Secretary of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Michael Gove, presented the draft Environment (Principles and Governance) Bill to Parliament on 19 December 2018.

It is important that we understand the new regime that is proposed and start to form views as to whether it is fit for purpose, given that (1) its provisions will replace the environmental protections currently provided by way of EU law and that (2) it would be unfortunate if any new system were to introduce additional uncertainties, unnecessary requirements or causes of delay. What will the implications be for the English planning system?

Having said that we don’t yet have the full picture.

First, because (following a commitment given by the prime minister in July 2018) this draft Bill is going to be rolled into a wider Environment Bill in 2019 which, according to the draft Bill’s foreword by Michael Gove, “will contain specific measures to drive action on today’s crucial environmental issues: cleaning up our air, restoring and enhancing nature, improving waste management and resource efficiency, and managing our precious water resources better.”

Secondly, because this draft Bill does not yet include the Government’s commitment in the withdrawal agreement to “non regression” from current EU environmental laws (see my 16 November 2018 blog post Big EU News! (Latest CJEU Case on Appropriate Assessment & A Draft Withdrawal Agreement))although of course we wait to see what happens to that agreement, yet to be approved by Parliament.

Thirdly, because the provisions in the draft Bill are a framework for more detail to come forward by way of, for instance, a Government policy statement on environmental principles and a strategy to be prepared by the proposed Office for Environmental Protection setting out how it intends to exercise its functions. More on this later. What this draft Bill does do is discharge the requirement in section 16 of the EU (Withdrawal) Act 2018 for draft legislation to be published setting out the way in which environmental principles will be maintained post-Brexit, and the statutory body that will be established to police them (see my 18 September 2018 blog post Planning, Brexit).

Deal or no deal?

The intention is that this new legal regime should in place ready for when we leave the jurisdiction of EU law. Whilst if we have a withdrawal agreement this will be at the end of any transition period, we could be left with a potential hiatus in the case of a “no deal” Brexit. If there’s no deal there will be more urgently newsworthy issues than the implications of that situation for the environment (it was noteworthy that the publication of the draft Bill last week attracted no real attention from the mainstream media as far as I could see) but this was rightly a matter of concern for the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee in its report on the Government’s 25 Year Plan for the Environment, to which the Government in its 6 November 2018 Response said this:

Government is confident of leaving the EU with a deal on an implementation period, which the EU has also confirmed it would like to agree. However, we are stepping up preparations within government and Defra to make sure that a new statutory body is in place as soon as is practically achievable in the event of a no deal exit, with the necessary powers to review and, if necessary, take enforcement action in respect of ongoing breaches of environmental law after the jurisdiction of the CJEU has ended. This will mean that the Government will be held accountable as under existing EU law from the day we leave the EU.

As mentioned previously, the EU (Withdrawal) Act will ensure existing EU environmental law continues to have effect in UK law after exit, providing businesses and stakeholders with maximum certainty as we leave the EU. Until the new body is in place, for example, existing mechanisms will continue to apply: the Parliamentary Ombudsman will process complaints about maladministration; and third parties will be able to apply for Judicial Review against government and public authorities.”

The draft Bill

If you click into the draft Bill – and please do because this blog post is not a complete summary – you will see that the draft legislation itself (34 clauses and a schedule) is sandwiched between:

⁃ Michael Gove’s foreword – the first paragraph will give you an idea of the tone:

Leaving the European Union is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for this country to help make our planet greener and cleaner, healthier and happier. We are seizing this chance to set a new direction for environmental protection and governance, in line with the government’s ambition to leave our environment in a better state than we inherited it.”

⁃ A long set of explanatory notes which include an explanation of the policy and legal background as well as a detailed commentary on the provisions of the draft Bill, including much by way of statements of what is intended that is absent from the draft Bill itself.

The foreword describes the two main strands of the draft Bill (although in the reverse order to how they are actually dealt with).

Firstly, we will establish a world-leading, statutory and independent environment body: the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP). This body will scrutinise environmental policy and law, investigate complaints, and take action where necessary to make sure environmental law is properly implemented.

Secondly, we will establish a clear set of environmental principles, accompanied by a policy statement to make sure these principles are enshrined in the process of making and developing policies

Definitions

The “environment” can often have a broad meaning.

For instance in the Environmental Impact Assessment Directive the following factors need to be addressed in environmental impact assessment:

“(a) population and human health;
(b) biodiversity, […];
(c) land, soil, water, air and climate;
(d) material assets, cultural heritage and the landscape;

(e) the interaction between the factors referred to in points (a) to (d).”

However, in the draft Bill a much narrower definition is adopted:

“31 (2) Environmental matters are—

(a)  protecting the natural environment from the effects of human activity;

(b)  protecting people from the effects of human activity on the natural environment;

(c)  maintaining, restoring or enhancing the natural environment;

(d)  monitoring, assessing, considering, advising or reporting on anything in paragraphs (a) to (c).”

So this is just about the “natural environment“, defined in clause 30 as

“(a)  wild animals, plants and other living organisms,

(b)  their habitats,

(c)  land, water and air (except buildings or other structures and water or
air inside them),

and the natural systems, cycles and processes through which they interact.”

Environmental law” is even narrower, as it is defined as any legislative provision (other than legislation devolved to the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly or, without the Secretary of State’s consent, the Northern Ireland Assembly) that is mainly concerned with an environmental matter and that is not concerned with an excluded matter – excluded matters are:

⁃ greenhouse gas emissions;

⁃ access to information;

⁃ the armed forces, defence or national security;

⁃ taxation, spending or the allocation of resources with government.

The Secretary of State can by regulations specify specific legislative provisions as falling within or outside the definition of “environmental law“.

The explanatory notes to the draft Bill say that, based on these provisions “most parts of legislation concerning the following matters, for example, would normally be considered to constitute environmental law:

⁃ air quality (although not indoor air quality);

⁃ water resources and quality;

⁃ marine, coastal or nature conservation;

⁃ waste management;

⁃ pollution;

⁃ contaminated land.

They go on to assert that the following matters would not normally constitute environmental law:

⁃ forestry;

⁃ flooding;

⁃ navigation;

⁃ town and country planning;

⁃ people’s enjoyment of or access to the natural environment;

⁃ cultural heritage;

⁃ animal welfare or sentience;

⁃ animal or plant health (including medicines and veterinary products);

⁃ health and safety at work.

“”Environmental principles” means the following principles—

(a)  the precautionary principle, so far as relating to the environment,

(b)  the principle of preventative action to avert environmental damage,

(c)  the principle that environmental damage should as a priority be rectified at source,

(d)  the polluter pays principle,

(e)  the principle of sustainable development,

(f)  the principle that environmental protection requirements must be integrated into the definition and implementation of policies and activities,

(g)  the principle of public access to environmental information,

(h)  the principle of public participation in environmental decision-making, and

(i)  the principle of access to justice in relation to environmental matters”

What the Secretary of State must do

The draft Bill provides that Secretary of State must prepare a policy statement on environmental principles. “The statement must explain how the environmental principles are to be interpreted and proportionately applied by Ministers of the Crown in making, developing and revising their policies.” It may also explain how ministers, “when interpreting and applying the environmental principles, are to take into account other considerations relevant to their policies.” Ministers must “have regard” to the policy statement “when making, developing or revising policies dealt with by the statement“. Nothing in the statement shall require a minister to take (or to refrain from taking) any action if it “would have no significant environmental benefit” or “would be in any way disproportionate to the environmental benefit“.

Wow! Regardless of how robust or otherwise the policy statement turns out to be, count the get-outs in that last paragraph.

The draft Bill also provides that the Secretary of State must prepare an environmental improvement plan. The first one will be the current document entitled “A green future: our 25 year plan to improve the environment” (11 January 2018). It must be kept under review, with the next to be completed by 31 January 2023 and thereafter at least every five years.

The Office for Environmental Protection

Details of the membership, staffing and functions of this new body are set out in the schedule to the draft Bill.

The Office for Environmental Protection would monitor and report on environmental improvement plans, monitor the implementation of environmental law, and advise on proposed changes to environmental law. It would also have an important enforcement role.

It must prepare a strategy setting out how it intends to exercise its functions, including its complaints and enforcement policy, having regard to “the particular importance of prioritising cases that it considers have or may have national implications, and the importance of prioritising cases—

(a)  that relate to ongoing or recurrent conduct,

(b)  that relate to conduct that the OEP considers may cause (or has caused) significant damage to the natural environment or to human health, or

(c)  that the OEP considers may raise a point of environmental law of general public importance.”

The explanatory notes suggest that individual planning decisions will not be a focus of the OEP’s attention:

The definition of national implications will be for the OEP to determine, but this provision is intended to steer the OEP to act in cases with broader, or more widespread significance, rather than those of primarily local concern. For example, an individual local planning or environmental permitting decision would not normally have national implications, whereas a matter with impacts or consequences which go beyond specific local areas or regions could have.

Anyone except public bodies can raise a complaint with the OEP where a public authority has failed to comply with environmental law. The public authority’s internal complaints procedure must first have been exhausted. The explanatory notes state:

A wide range of bodies including the Environment Agency, Natural England and the Planning Inspectorate, for instance, operate complaints procedures which will apply to their functions concerned with the implementation of environmental law.”

Complaints must be made within a year of the failure complained of, or within three months of when any internal complaints procedure was exhausted. The OEP “may” carry out an investigation if in its view the complaint indicates that the authority has failed to comply with environmental law and “the failure is serious“. It must provide to the authority a report as to whether it considers that the authority has failed to comply with environmental law, its reasoning and recommendations (whether for the authority or generally) in the light of its conclusions. There will be a process of information notices and decision notices. The authority receiving a decision notice must respond within two months or such later timescale is given, setting out whether it agrees with the notice and what steps it intends to take.

There is then a curious clause, clause 25, which deals with enforcement. Within three months of the deadline for the authority responding to the decision notice, the OEP can make an application to the High Court for judicial review. After any such proceedings, the relevant authority must publish a statement “that sets out the steps (if any) it intends to take in light of the outcome of those proceedings“.

So what would these proceedings seek to achieve? A declaration from the court or something more, some kind of enforcing order? Would the authority’s decision that is the subject of the complaint be liable to be quashed? If so, plainly concerns arise that decisions will no longer be able to be safely relied upon by parties where the usual judicial review period has expired – it would be worrying if decisions could be at risk for much longer via this elongated OEP complaints procedure.

Concluding thoughts

Without seeing the rest of what will be in the eventual Environment Bill, and without see the nature of any “non regression” commitment (if indeed it survives the current politics), I’m left feeling entirely unclear what practical role the mechanisms in the draft Bill will really have. There are certainly numerous questions:

⁃ Are the definition of environmental matters and environmental law too narrow?

⁃ Will the policy statement on environmental principles either be too weak or alternatively extend its reach into other regimes, for instance leading to the risk of causing confusion as to the application of principles set out in the National Planning Policy Framework?

⁃ Are there too many get-outs on the part of Government?

⁃ Will the OEP really be able to influence the Government’s approach when it comes to politically contentious issues? The Committee on Climate Change has not been a good precedent.

⁃ Is there confusion as to the role of the OEP when it comes to investigating possible breaches of environmental law, in that surely this is a matter for existing enforcement bodies such as the Environment Agency and for the courts?

And whilst from the explanatory notes the intention appears to be that this regime would not directly affect town and country planning, in reality matters such as environmental impact assessment, strategic environmental assessment and the treatment of protected nature conservation sites are central to the planning process, so it seems to me that unfortunately this isn’t a debate that planners and planning lawyers can ignore.

Simon Ricketts, 22 December 2018

Personal views, et cetera

Author: simonicity

Partner at boutique planning firm, Town Legal LLP, but this blog represents my personal views only.

2 thoughts on “The Office For Environmental Protection”

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