The creation of a new body to hold the government to account on environmental issues is significant and could have implications for decades to come, says Matthew Farrow.
I’ve been lucky enough (or unlucky enough, depending on your view!) to work with many ministers over the years in my career at different trade associations. While they varied in personality and political affiliation, they generally divided into two camps. The first camp, by far the majority, was those whose main focus was what you might call ‘safety first’: avoiding any action or utterance that might harm either their own careers or would be seen as not in tune with the general values and mood of their party.
Bear in mind that it is rare for ministers to have prior expertise or in-depth understanding of their portfolio. So they might think: “I am a Conservative minister, therefore I will broadly take the advice of my officials but will err towards options that promote enterprise and business” or alternatively “I am a Labour minister, therefore I will broadly take the advice of my officials but will err towards options that promote social inclusion”.
The second group, the minority, are also unlikely to have any prior expertise on the topic, but have a genuine intellectual interest in the issues involved and back themselves to think these issues through from first principles and draw conclusions regardless of whether they fit with party orthodoxy and officials’ advice. Of the eight environment secretaries I’ve worked with, the only ones who fit into this second category were David Miliband (who on his first weekend in the job, summoned his senior officials to a Sunday afternoon meeting to discuss “What is Defra for?”), and the current incumbent, Michael Gove.
Six months ago, the official government view, loyally espoused by Gove’s predecessor Andrea Leadsom, was that once Brexit removed the ability of the European Commission to fine the UK for failing to meet environmental targets there was no need for any replacement mechanism – parliament would hold ministers to account.
Within weeks though of Michael Gove replacing Leadsom, he had changed a number of policies and this one he fully reversed. The official line now is that there is a need for a new body to be created to hold future governments to account and there will be a wide-ranging consultation next year as to how such a body would work and what scope it should have.
This will be one of the most significant green issues next year, because the shape and powers of the new body could have implications for decades to come. Take the passing phrase in the industrial strategy about “infrastructure upgrades” being required to “enhance natural capital”. Left to their own devices, ministers may let this line, buried in a 250-page document, be forgotten. An independent body however might decide to sanction government if it decided that road or housing schemes failed to improve biodiversity for example.
Before we get to that, though, many issues need to be resolved. Will the body cover just England or the whole of the UK? Will it focus on holding central government’s to account or include scrutinising of environmental actions and policies at local government and quango level as well? Will it mimic the EU’s scope and just look at environmental policy which used to be within the EU control, or will also scrutinise performance in areas such as contaminated land where most legislation is nothing to do with the EU?
And perhaps most importantly, what sanctions will it have to bring ministers into line? One proposal is that it should be able to levy hefty fines which government would have to pay into a National Environment Fund controlled by a non-political commission, to be used at parliament’s discretion.
Alternatively, of course, Michael Gove might be reshuffled before any of this has happened, in which case we could have another change of course. Interesting times . . .
Matthew Farrow is director of the Environmental Industries Commission, the leading trade body for environmental firms.