OEP launched on interim basis

On 1st July 2021 the Office of Environmental Protection was launched on an interim basis. The move comes as the Environment Bill, which establishes the OEP, progresses through Parliament. The OEP has been lauded as a powerful new independent regulator that will hold government to account and ensure that environmental legislation and protections are adhered to.

OEP Appointments

On 23rd December 2020, it was announced that Dame Glenys Stacey had been appointed as Chair of the OEP. This was followed by the appointment of Natalie Prosser to the role of Interim Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Designate of the OEP on 28th January 2021. On 7th June, Defra announced that the first non-executive members of the OEP had been recruited. The new members are Dr Paul Leinster CBE, Professor Richard Macrory, Professor Dan Laffoley and Julie Hill MBE.

All four members have a strong background in matters of environmental policy, legislation and regulation. Dr Leinster is chair of Water Resources East, the Bedfordshire Local Nature Partnership, the Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment, and the BPHA housing association. Professor Macrory is an emeritus professor of environmental law at University College, London, where he set up and was the first director of the Centre for Law and the Environment. Professor Laffoley is marine vice chair of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s world commission on protected areas, and Ms Hill is the chair of the Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP), the Institution of Environmental Sciences (IES) and deputy chair of the Advisory Committee for Social Science for the Food Standards Agency. Interestingly, three of the new members have previously worked for the Environment Agency (EA). Dr Leinster joined the EA in 1998 and was chief executive of the body until 2015, whilst Professor Macrory served as a board member of the EA from 1999 until 2004. Similarly, Ms Hill was previously a board member of the EA.

Dame Stacey has welcomed the new appointments, expressing her delight at “the calibre” of the new board and the “wealth of knowledge and experience of the environment and environmental law” that they will bring to the OEP. However, the fact that the majority of the board are former employees of the EA, once again gives rise to concerns about the independence and impartiality of the OEP.

Independence of the OEP

In November 2020, we addressed the issues surrounding the independence of the OEP. The OEP has been promoted as an independent watchdog which will have the power to scrutinise and hold public bodies and regulators to account where they have acted unlawfully. The success of the OEP, then, relies on its ability to review the actions of these regulators as an unbiased body which is not conflicted or subject to political pressure. The Environment Agency is one of the regulatory bodies which the OEP will have the power to investigate. Although it is undoubtedly useful to have board members with experience of the EA’s policies, procedures and structures, the fact that the non-executive members consist almost exclusively of ex-EA employees raises the question of whether the board will be able to maintain impartiality.

If the Government is serious about creating a watchdog which is independent of it, it is crucial that the OEP is seen to be impartial. That the board mainly comprises of those who have held high ranking positions in the EA, does little to support the image of a non-partisan watchdog. To be truly neutral and fair in its approach, the board of the OEP should include members from the private sector, such as environmental consultants and waste industry experts.

There is a reason why bodies, such as the EA, undertake consultations on proposed changes to policy and law with stakeholders, namely that those impacted by such changes on the ground can provide information and details that have not occurred to the government. It is obvious that at times the interests and objectives of the government may conflict with those of the industries it regulates. It is recognised that these competing elements can be resolved with input from both sides. One has to question whether a board where 75% of the members have spent a significant period of time working for one of the bodies it is expected to regulate, is in a position to provide the well-rounded and equitable approach that the role demands.

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