Research Impact


UCL researchers driving generational transformation of UK environmental law

Researchers at UCL’s Centre for Law and Environment found gaps in post-Brexit environmental law, shaped the new English environmental body, and forged a better approach to air quality law.

field of corn

28 April 2022

Researchers in UCL’s Centre for Law and Environment have been at the forefront of systematic study of UK environmental law for over two decades. Their expertise in analysing the far-reaching influence of EU law on environmental protection in Britain, as well as wide-ranging research in UK environmental law, placed CLE researchers in an ideal position to analyse the legislative gaps – and opportunities for innovation – associated with Britain’s exit from the European Union.  

A key impact of this work involved demonstrating that a simple ‘roll-over’ of EU legislation on Brexit would mean a loss of key UK governance and enforcement mechanisms.

Working towards a draft UK/English Bill

Professor Maria Lee showed how EU law and institutional arrangements underpin environmental decision-making, while Professor Richard Macrory developed best practice criteria for environmental enforcement and sanctioning mechanisms. In light of this research, the pair highlighted the risk for UK environmental protection brought by the loss of EU governance structures.

In the lengthy debate about structuring UK/English environmental governance post-Brexit, Professors Maria Lee and Eloise Scotford raised concerns about how to retain EU environmental principles within a British political culture reluctant to legislate for policy goals, and Macrory and Thornton (QC, now High Court Judge) developed research suggesting principles should be set out in policy documents and linked to decision-making through legislation.  

Through providing parliamentary evidence of these post-Brexit governance gaps and risks, and through collaboration with Greener UK (a coalition of 12 of the UK’s most prominent environmental NGOs), Lee contributed to the development of Lords amendments to section 16 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act (EUWA) 2018 introducing the EUWA’s only sector-specific commitment.

These amendments required a draft UK/English Bill to be introduced to Parliament. The resulting draft Environment (Principles and Governance) Bill 2018 represented progress, but scrutiny of the draft Bill by UCL researchers and evidence provided to the Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Committee and to the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) contributed to further strengthening of the draft Bill. The Committees’ reports acknowledged weaknesses in the draft Bill’s wording that Ministers ‘have regard to’ new environmental principles and recognised risks associated with relegating formerly legally entrenched environmental principles to the status of policy. These requirements were subsequently tightened up in the full Environment Bill that was introduced in 2019.

Helping shape the new Office for Environmental Protection

A second key impact was Professors Lee and Macrory’s advice on the design of the new English Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) under the Environment Bill (now Environment Act 2021), where detailed analysis and oral evidence to the EFRA Committee contributed to important changes. These included: powers allowing the OEP to intervene in environmental judicial reviews; power to involve central government in enforcement action against other bodies; power for the OEP to undertake investigations without prior complaint; and a heightened attention to the OEP’s independence.

A new approach to air quality law

A third key impact came through Professor Scotford’s research into air quality law, where she found opportunities for innovation brought about by updating local air quality management structures in the Environment Act 1995 (through the Environment Act 2021). Her work showed that post-Brexit English air quality law reform offered opportunities to reduce overreliance on local authorities and create a more ambitious coordinated governance structure. Professor Scotford presented her recommendations to central and local government and parliamentarians, leading to key amendments to the Environment Act, which should now better govern air pollution controls and protect human health.

Research synopsis

Driving generational transformation of UK environmental law

'Researchers at UCL’s Centre for Law and Environment (CLE) demonstrated the need to address the environmental legal gaps arising from EU withdrawal through new legislation. They inspired a brand-new environmental oversight body for England – the Office for Environmental Protection – and forged a better approach for air quality law. This work has helped safeguard and develop the UK’s environmental law for the future, benefitting both nature and human health and wellbeing. 




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