The government is ignoring its post-Brexit green watchdog over the removal of air quality regulations, in a move that has been described by experts as “a clear example of deregulation”.
The Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) was set up in 2020 to replace the role the EU had played in regulating and enforcing environmental law in the UK. Campaigners raised concerns at the time that it might not have the same teeth as the EU and that it would not be able to stop the government riding roughshod over environment protections.
Last week the OEP wrote to the environment secretary, Thérèse Coffey, arguing that core parts of the national emissions ceiling regulations (NECR) should not be deleted under the Retained EU Law Act (REUL). However, Coffey has made it clear that the department will ignore the advice of the OEP.
The act, which became law in June, will scrap hundreds of EU laws by the end of this year, including environmental protections, and the government voted down an amendment in the Lords that would have prioritised the environment.
Dame Glenys Stacey, the chair of the watchdog, wrote: “In our view, the revocation of these regulations weakens accountability and transparency and in the absence of an alternative, comprehensive plan it has the potential to weaken environmental protection.”
The parts of the regulations to be deleted require the government to prepare and implement its plan to reduce pollutants like nitrogen oxides and ammonia, and to review it if emissions are projected to exceed targets. The regulations also demand public consultation before revising the programme.
She added these duties appeared even more important considering that the government “did not meet the emission reductions required for PM2.5 in 2021 [fine particulate matter]” – indicating insufficient progress is being made towards the UK’s legally binding emission reduction commitments.
In her response Coffey indicated that the plans would proceed, and disagreed that there would be a “reduction in the level of environmental protection”. She claimed the “intent in removing regulations 9 and 10 of the NECR is to reduce administrative burdens and aid transparency regarding air quality emissions policy”.
Lawyers and environment experts have criticised her response, saying it amounts to weakening existing legal air pollution protections.
Ruth Chambers of the Greener UK coalition said: “The government has repeatedly claimed it will not weaken environmental protections, but deleting these safeguards without alternative plans in place is a clear example of deregulation. Next year ministers could be under fewer obligations to improve air quality.
“Until there are plans across the UK to enforce commitments to reducing air pollution, these regulations should be retained.”
Emily Kearsey, a lawyer at the charity ClientEarth, said: “While air quality in the UK is already at public health crisis levels, this government is now trying to weaken existing legal protections for the air we breathe. This is wholly unacceptable – particularly from a government that has committed to making the UK an environmental leader.
“This government claims that the retained clean air regulations they plan to scrap are not needed because of the post-Brexit Environment Act. This simply doesn’t bear scrutiny. The Environment Act does not include any equivalent legal requirements for plan-making or public consultation, which has grave impacts for government transparency and accountability.
“This government has now heard the warnings from both civil society organisations and its own environmental watchdog on how repealing retained EU law on clean air could jeopardise the UK’s public health and environmental targets. It’s well past time they listen to them.”
A spokesperson for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: “These targets remain unchanged and there has been no reduction in the level of environmental protection. As the secretary of state said in her response to the OEP, we remain committed to achieving the reduction targets set out in the national emission ceilings regulations and are maintaining the reporting provisions to ensure there is transparency on our progress.”
Source : The Guardian