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19 Oct 2020

Fighting for a strong environmental watchdog

Written by Rebecca Millar, Policy Officer
A red grouse perches on a rock in Mar Lodge Estate
Mar Lodge Estate is one of the most important nature conservation landscapes in the UK, home to wildlife such as deer, golden eagles, red grouse and mountain hares.
We’re asking people to sign our petition, calling for the Scottish Parliament to protect Scotland’s natural environment after Brexit by creating a strong environmental watchdog.

The Trust cares for some of Scotland’s most special natural environments, such as St Kilda, which has the most significant seabird colonies in Europe, and the wild, open landscapes of Mar Lodge Estate, home to a rich diversity of species and habitats. Such places provide us with a sense of identity and contribute to our health, wellbeing, economy and climate change ambitions.

Dozens of gannets fly over the sea, close to the shore of St Kilda.
Gannets fly near the cliffs of St Kilda.

Over the past four decades, the European Union has set 80% of the UK’s environmental laws, creating environmental standards that have been fundamental to protecting natural spaces. The EU, through the European Commission, has also monitored how compliant member states are and holds them to account when they have failed to comply with their environmental obligations. The European Commission can formally request member states rectify their non-compliance and, if necessary, refer cases to the European Court of Justice, which has the power to financially sanction member states.

This watchdog function of the EU has been instrumental in maintaining a high level of environmental protection in the UK. It has ensured that where the UK has not met its obligations (around areas such as the protection of marine life, the health of our waters and pollution levels), the UK government has been held to account and forced to take action, resulting in a healthier environment for people and nature. This function will be lost when the UK leaves the EU.

A meadow beside the sea on a sunny day, with the sun twinkling on the blue water. Tall yellow flowers grow in the foreground.
Balmacara’s diversity means the estate supports a wide variety of wildlife and plants native to the Scottish Highlands.

In recognition of this vital role played by the EU, the Scottish Parliament has laid out proposals in the UK Withdrawal from the European Union (Continuity) (Scotland) Bill to form its own watchdog – Environmental Standards Scotland – after Brexit.

However, the watchdog proposed in the Bill falls short of what Scotland’s environment needs. Here are some of our concerns:

  1. The ability to take action on specific complaints is a key strength of the EU watchdog function – the investigation of specific potential breaches has led to overall improvements in protections. Under the Continuity Bill, the watchdog won’t be able to take enforcement action on complaints from people who believe their local environment is being harmed due to the action (or inaction) of a public body. We must have a watchdog that empowers people to have a voice and is able to take enforcement action on specific complaints about local environments.
  2. It’s proposed that the Scottish Parliament will approve the watchdog’s Board members but will have little input in the appointments process, undermining the transparency of the process. Board members should be nominated by the Scottish Parliament in a transparent way and in terms of their areas of expertise in environmental matters.
  3. The Continuity Bill proposes that the watchdog will be part of the Scottish Government, rather than reporting directly to Parliament. Moreover, Schedule 1, 1(2) of the Continuity Bill makes provision for the Scottish Government to direct the work of the watchdog, which will fundamentally undermine its independence. To genuinely protect Scotland’s environment, the watchdog should report to Parliament, and this provision should be deleted.
  4. The Continuity Bill does not contain provisions for the secure and transparent funding of the watchdog. Instead, the watchdog’s financial resources will be subject to the Scottish Government’s annual budget process. To be fully effective, the watchdog needs its funding to be ring-fenced and multi-annual. It should report annually on its funding.

Ultimately, environmental protections are only as strong as the mechanisms that enforce them. For the new watchdog to be as effective as the current EU watchdog function, we need the above criteria to be incorporated into the Continuity Bill. The public agrees with us – 70% think the watchdog should be independent of government and 71% believe it must be able to accept complaints from the public.

Two women wearing light hoodies kneel beside a grassy bank, planting. Both wear gardening gloves.
Local communities offer valuable support in caring for our places.

This is why the Trust has joined other environmental bodies under the banner of Fight for Scotland’s Nature to campaign for a strong, independent watchdog. We’ve launched a petition to show our politicians that we need the new watchdog to go further than what’s currently proposed to protect our environment post-Brexit. The petition will run until early November.

Please show your support by signing the petition today.

As we exit the EU, Scotland faces a crucial juncture, one we must get right if we want our natural environment to be the best it can be, now and for future generations. Please join the fight for Scotland’s nature and sign our petition to make Scotland’s environmental watchdog as strong as possible!

Pledge your love for Scotland

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