Air quality enforcement body vital post-Brexit, says expert environmental panel

EIC launching its new report, Improving Air Quality After Brexit, in parliament.

As the UK prepares to leave the European Union, experts have argued there is no need to cut all ties with Europe when it comes to air quality regulation and an “enforcement body with teeth” is desperately needed once Britain leaves to ensure legislation is not ‘watered-down’.

The calls were made as the Environmental Industries Commission (EIC) launched its new report, Improving Air Quality After Brexit, with consultancy Aether, which looks how air quality regulation will be managed once the UK leaves the European Union. The report highlights the importance of tightening up air regulation legislation post-Brexit, with Tim Williamson, principal consultant at Aether, stating how “air quality has yet to receive any real attention in the ongoing debate”.

A key message throughout the launch was how leaving the European Union did not mean the UK had to stop collaborating with Europe on cross-border issues like air pollution. Membership of the European Environment Agency (EEA), of which Britain is currently a member, provides guidelines and vital research that helps the country meet targets and understand what is needed. Derek Osborn, former chair of the EEA was one of the panellists at the launch and he argued that resources should continue to be pooled to benefit Europe as a whole once Britain leaves the European Union.

Osborn said: “When the UK leaves the EU, its automatic membership of the EEA by virtue of its EU membership will cease. But the agency would be quite open to it trying to negotiate a suitable arrangement to immediately rejoin as a full non-EU member on the same footing as the five other EU neighbours. The EEA has no law-making or coercive powers. It is purely cooperative venture between European countries to maintain the best and most reliable information base about the environment for members’ mutual benefit. There’s nothing in its activities that need offend or cause concern to even the most ardent Brexiteer.”

The audience at the launch also got to hear from Matthew Pencharz, who was deputy mayor of London for Environment and Energy under Boris Johnson. Pencharz was responsible for leading on environmental policy during this time and led on the ultra-low emission zone. He discussed how political and public feeling to the environment has changed vastly in just four years from 2012 to 2016 but was happy to see measures introduced under his reign like zero-emission taxis coming into reality now. The former environmental aide on reflection conceded that his team could have been “tougher” when it came to implementing measures. 

He added: “Back in 2012, air pollution was not really an issue for many. I do not think it got the traction in the media or public but now you read the headlines that brings it into the public eye. There has been a huge change in four years driven by things like the Volkswagen scandal and there is now a much greater understanding of the health impacts.  In hindsight, we should have been tougher than we were, but I don’t’ think it was politically acceptable at the time.”

While little is known about the government’s intentions for air quality legislation post-Brexit, concerns remain around law makers watering down obligations for the UK. But several panel members were complimentary of early encouraging signs made by the environment secretary Michael Gove with recurring mentions of a new environmental watchdog which would "hold the powerful to account" in a bid to protect land, water, air and wildlife. But while the complexities remain unclear, chair of the panel Baroness Sheehan reiterated the need for at least a new “enforcement body with teeth” and urged people in the environmental sector to attempt to speak to Michael Gove on air quality regulation while he seemed to be in “listening mode” currently.

The EIC report sets out a series of recommendations for the government on how policy should evolve by creating a statutory committee on air quality, maintaining international cooperation and establishing clear, independent and meaningful routes of redress on environmental issues.

EIC executive director Matthew Farrow said: “Brexit poses both a challenge and an opportunity for air quality policy. The challenge is to replicate the accountability and long-term framework provided by EU Directives.  In this report, we set out practical steps the government should take to ensure we have an effective and robust air quality policy framework outside the EU.”

Click here to download the Improving Air Quality After Brexit report. 

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