A toothless and needless newcomer?
A knock-on effect of leaving the European Union is major reform of environmental protection policies, laws and regulations. As part of this process an Environment Bill is making its way through Parliament. Covid means it is well behind schedule and will not be considered again before the autumn. It includes provision for an Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) and this will now be launched on an interim basis in July.
The rise and fall of the Nature Conservancy
I’m sure we all wish this new watchdog well, but we do not have great track record with bodies like this. It all started so well in 1949 with the Nature Conservancy, which became the Nature Conservancy Council (NCC) in 1973. Reasonably independent, science-based, and with well-respected leaders, these bodies built on the powers conferred by the 1949 National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act and subsequent legislation to lay the foundation for the designated landscapes and scheduled wildlife sites we have today. Unsurprisingly though they became unpopular amongst those, such as land-owners and farmers, who felt threatened by constraints imposed to protect the natural world.
The influence of these vested interests culminated in a notorious protest on the Somerset Levels in 1989 when an effigy of the then Chair of the NCC, Sir William Wilkinson, was burnt. Shortly after this, in 1990, NCC became English Nature in a major shake-up of UK countryside agencies, including the Countryside Commission. The decline had started. Although he was no longer in office this re-organisation was the legacy of Nicholas Ridley’s spell as Secretary of State for the Environment from 1986 to 1989 (often at the time rendered as Secretary of State Against the Environment).
English Nature was again merged with other agencies within Defra to form Natural England in 2006. The previous Countryside Commission and its successor the Countryside Agency were also submerged in this rationalisation of bodies. As a result their pro-active approach to people-centred environmental management is long gone in today’s stodgy culture of centralised government. Natural England has been emasculated by political interference and years of budget and staff cuts and is a mere shadow of the old NCC. It is currently unclear as to how it, and indeed the Environment Agency, will relate to the new OEP. If these two bodies were better funded and supported then perhaps the new one would not be needed.
Bark or bite?
The Government says the OEP will be “a powerful new independent regulator that will hold the government to account. Importantly, the OEP will scrutinise all government policy to ensure the environment is at the heart of decision making. Crucially, it will have the power to run its own independent investigations and enforce environmental law, including taking government and other public bodies to court where necessary”. Those public bodies could include both Natural England and the Environment Agency!
The main worry though is that ultimately the OEP will be another piece of greenwash, a toothless watchdog, mired in internal politics, diverting resources which could otherwise be used to increase the capacity of existing bodies, and then berating them for not doing better. The Government is not short of advice on how to tackle pressures on wildlife and habitats, and address climate resilience. What it sometimes seems to be short of is the will and commitment to take difficult decisions and act accordingly.
We must hope that the OEP does more than provide a mirage of action whilst everyone else gets on with business as usual.