SCOTLAND’S preparations to protect its world-renowned natural environment after Brexit remain “inadequate” and “urgent” action is needed to address gaps which it is feared will cause devastation, a major new report has revealed.

The report by Professor Campbell Gemmell, former head of Scottish Environment Protection Agency, the national regulator, said there was a need for a “new and coherent” governance system to act as a safeguard once EU protections and oversight disappear after Britain’s departure from the bloc.

Last year, The Herald revealed Scottish Environment LINK’s concerns that Scotland’s rarest species north of the Border face being obliterated in the fall-out from Brexit unless urgent new laws and funding are brought in to safeguard vital conservation work.

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But the coalition of more than 30 leading charities - which had warned at-risk animal species such as the red squirrel, some birds of prey and sea mammals were in jeopardy because of a lack of action to ensure vital post-Brexit environmental protections are provided - remains concerned that not enough is being done.

Nearly two weeks ago, the UK Government published a wide-ranging Environment Bill for England that pledges, among other things, to set targets to reduce plastic pollution, improve air and water quality, and creates a new Office for Environmental Protection (OEP). 

But environmental groups are concerned that, with 80 per cent of Scottish protections stemming from EU legislation, ministers in Edinburgh have not yet made similar moves.

Professor Campbell, in a report for the union of conservation groups, concluded that “what we stand to lose is serious and must be addressed and that serious reform of our governance arrangements is necessary with or without the UK’s EU withdrawal and its consequences for Scotland”.

It states: “For the functions being lost to Scotland by the UK’s withdrawal from the EU and the resultant gaps in oversight, application of powers of the Commission and the Court of Justice of the European Union and expert knowledge exchange dimensions of the EU institutions and fellow member states, it is clear and ought to be publicly stated and agreed that existing arrangements at the Scottish and UK level are inadequate...,” he said.

Mr Gemmell, who chaired the recent independent review of air quality, argues that there is a case to be made for establishing new institutions in Scotland to carry out scrutiny and enforcement of environmental law, as well as strengthening existing arrangements.

While he said that Scotland possesses “significant elements of a good system” there were also “clear weaknesses”.

Mr Gemmell, a professor of environment policy, regulation and governance at the University of Glasgow suggests the creation of a Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment and a dedicated environment court.

He also suggested a dedicated parliamentary commission for the environment reporting to the Scottish Parliament appears “essential”. It would have the powers and resources to perform independent assessments, checks and investigations, sitting outside the government of the day and its agencies.

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“This would help not only to deliver the Scottish Government’s commitments to environmental standards and policies post-Brexit but would help to ensure appropriate, efficient and effective alignment and coherence between the components of the current set up: implementing agencies and authorities, government departments and ministers, and parliament, business, NGOs and the population at large,” he said. “With these additions, the environment can be better protected and the laws and policies in place better implemented, enforced and visible to the public.”

The Scottish Government launched a consultation on environmental principles and governance in Scotland in February 2019 which sought views on the risks a potential EU exit creates for the environment. 

In this consultation, which closed on May 11, the Government sought views on the environmental governance gap, its nature and potential solutions. 

LINK welcomed a Scottish Government commitment that measures on environmental principles and governance were expected to be included in a new Continuity Bill, but have said that they must be “meaningful, adequate and equivalent to existing EU processes”.

Deborah Long, chief officer of Scottish Environment LINK, said: “Scotland is internationally recognised for its environment, land and seascapes. We rely on EU laws to enforce the strong environmental protections we have in place in Scotland and these are at risk from Brexit. Despite the chaos of politics today, we must ensure we can tackle today’s climate emergency and nature crisis through effective laws.

“We urge the Scottish Government to embed the protections our environment needs into Scottish law now and in the event of whatever may happen with Brexit.”

LINK said of the recommendations in the Gemmell report: “This would form a comprehensive response to the risks of EU exit and mean that Scotland’s institutions are as strong as the environmental protections they uphold. 
“It would ensure that government and its agencies are held to account, providing a fundamental democratic safeguard and giving the environment a strong voice at a time when it urgently needs to be heard.

“Regardless of the outcomes of Brexit, the strength of our environmental governance system in Scotland is more important than ever if we are to tackle the twin climate and nature emergencies and meet the Scottish Government’s ambitions in this regard.”