LEGISLATION - 29.04.2021

Green legislation weaker after Brexit

The UK has weakened its environmental protection legislation in the aftermath of leaving the EU, according to a new assessment. What has changed, how will it affect your operations, and what should you be aware of?

Gone soft?

Despite various promises to install tougher environmental laws, the UK’s green legislation is set to be weaker since leaving the European Union. A report produced by Greener UK, a group of twelve organisations that campaign for stronger regulation, says that legally binding commitments for key issues, such as pollution, waste and resource use, and nature restoration are merely being put off until 2037 (see The next step ). It also claims that the proposed new environmental watchdog, the Office of Environmental Protection, will not be powerful enough to make any real difference. It wants the body to be made more independent and given broader powers to enforce legislation. The damning assessment also says that the UK’s new environmental principles, designed to prevent any government policy from harming the environment, are pointless because they will not apply to all departments.

The group also accuses the government of repeatedly refusing to make it a legal requirement that any future environmental legislation should not be weaker than those that applied while the UK was part of the EU.

Genuine claims?

The analysis ranks eight policy areas including air quality, water, land use, fisheries and climate, using a traffic light system. Green indicates that the UK now has tougher rules, while red suggests regulation is now weaker. Four of the areas - water, land use, fisheries and climate - ranked as amber, meaning they were about the same, and four areas - air quality, chemicals, nature and waste and resources - were ranked red. None of the areas were ranked green. While the analysis is backed up by evidence, clearly the group has its own agenda to push for stronger environmental standards. Much of the criticism is aimed at proposals and consultations rather than final policy and regulation.

What does it mean for you?

It’s too early to say whether businesses will be given an easier ride in the wake of Brexit when it comes to meeting environmental regulation. The government still has time to make changes to the Environment Bill , which has been delayed due to the pandemic. Take air quality regulations as an example. The government has long recognised the need for stronger air quality targets. But ministers are reluctant to set new legally binding limits in line with current World Health Organization recommendations. But that could change, leading to tougher penalties for businesses using older, more polluting machinery on construction sites or for industrial processes, for example.

Tip. The UK is still getting to grips with the huge task of transposing EU environmental legislation into UK law via the Withdrawal Act - and it is too early to say where the gaps might be when it has finished that exercise.

Tip. Given the levels of scrutiny applied by campaign groups and the rhetoric coming from the government about “building back better”, it is unlikely that you will have less environmental regulation to adhere to, so stay vigilant.

As the UK gets to grips with transposing old EU legislation into the Environment Bill, green campaigners will no doubt expose any gaps that appear. Nothing has weakened so far, so ensure you comply with existing legislation as before and keep an eye out for further updates.

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