MINISTERS have been warned that new laws to ensure Scotland keeps pace with environmental protections in the European Union will not properly safeguard Scotland's precious landscape and wildlife.

The Scottish Environment LINK (SEL) coalition of more than 30 leading charities has warned that a the new 'continuity' bill is just not strong enough and does not explicitly stop any regression of environmental standards after Brexit.

And in a critical analysis, the groups warned that the proposed new watchdog, Environmental Standards Scotland which would seek to ensure the protection of Scotland's world-renowned landscape and species, lacked teeth and independence.

It comes after the SEL launched a Fight for Scotland's Nature campaign which is called on the Scottish Government to produce stronger policies to protect our environment as Brexit is concluded.

Among their concerns has been a method to replace the European Commission's LIFE-Nature Fund which has given £25 million over 25 years to Scotland to help with more than 25 vital conservation projects protecting the country's at-risk wildlife and landscape.

READ MORE: Charities want new legislation to protect environment after Brexit

They previously warned the losers would include a bid to stop Scotland's red squirrels from becoming extinct, as well as moves to protect the hen harrier, harbour porpoise and the corncrake, one of Scotland's rarest birds.

LIFE has also helped preserve some of Scotland's treasured landscape because of their European importance.

Receiving support was the restoration of the Flow Country peatlands in Caithness, one of the last great wildernesses in the UK and the preservation of primeval Celtic rainforest, the native Caledonian pinewoods and Scotland's coastal meadows, called machair.

In a new analysis, the SEL while welcoming parts of the European Union (Continuity) (Scotland) Bill which seeks to embed environmental protections into Scots law, said there was still some crucial parts missing.

The umbrella group, which includes members such as the National Trust for Scotland, WWF Scotland, Marine Conservation Society, Friends of the Earth Scotland and the British Ecological Society, said that it lacks provisions to give citizens rights to raise complaints about their local environment and to see these fully investigated and enforced.

SEL said: "There is some weak language in the Bill that could be tightened, for example it allows ministers discretion to choose when they will align with EU law. There is nothing in the bill to explicitly prevent any regression of environmental standards after Brexit.

"Strong environmental standards are a crucial part of securing a green recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic, by ensuring our natural habitats and wildlife continue to be protected. Our world-class natural environment and iconic species relies on strong laws."

And they were concerned about the independence and the lack of powers of any environmental standards watchdog as its members and chief officer would be appointed by ministers with approval of Parliament.

SEL has previously argued that the watchdog should take the form of an independent parliamentary commission, backed up by research from Professor Campbell Gemmell.

Scottish Natural Heritage's video devoted to red squirrels.

It added: "We have major concerns that the watchdog doesn’t have powers to enforce environmental law in individual cases – for example, individual decisions taken by ministers or another public authority that may not comply with environmental law. Instead, the watchdog will only investigate high-level systemic problems in Government policy and programmes.

"Under the current European system, any organisation or citizen can raise a complaint about a decision that affects their local environment and the EU will investigate."

In 2007, community campaigners in Argyll made a successful complaint to the European Commission about damaging scallop dredging that was taking place in the Firth of Lorn Special Area of Conservation (SAC).

The site was protected for its rocky reefs that were in danger of serious damage by dredging of the seabed.

The complaint to the European Commission was successful and the Scottish Government brought forward secondary legislation to ban dredging in the protected site. That set a legal precedent that allowed dredging to be banned in other SACs.

"We have concerns that, by focusing on high-level government strategies and plans, citizens could miss out in their right to raise complaints about their local environment and to see these fully investigated and enforced," the SEL said.

The bill plans to incorporate four EU environmental principles into Scots law – this includes the principle that polluters should pay for environmental damage they cause and that caution should be exercised by choosing not to carry out activities unless it can be proven that they won’t cause environmental harm.

The legislation will give Scottish ministers a discretionary power to align Scots law with EU legislation after the transition period ends on December 31.

Deborah Long, chief officer of Scottish Environment LINK, said the bill was a "step forward" but added:"To be effective, the watchdog needs to be fully independent of the Scottish government, with powers to investigate and enforce measures relating to concerns raised by organisations and citizens about decisions affecting their local environments - something we enjoyed as part of the European Union. As it stands, this is not yet the case.


“For the bill to be meaningful, we expect the Scottish government to take heed of the importance of establishing a truly independent watchdog ‘with teeth’ which has the powers to protect Scotland’s nature effectively and hold actors to account.”

A survey undertaken last year for the umbrella group of Scotland’s leading charities, revealed a huge strength of feeling among Scots for the safeguarding of country’s world-renowned nature.

Some three in four Scots(86%) said they are concerned about the potential threats to wildlife from climate change, habitat loss and pollution.

And 94 per cent said they see Scotland’s natural environment as "very important" or "quite important" to both Scotland’s economy and its national identity, a position described as "staggering" by the umbrella group.

Some 84% of people believed the Scottish Parliament should pass laws requiring the same or higher levels of environmental protection than current EU laws if the UK leaves the EU.

The survey found that nearly half of Scots either fear that environmental protections will get worse post-Brexit or don't know what will happen.

It also revealed that more than half also believe that EU environmental principles should be passed into law by the Scottish Parliament and that either the Scottish Parliament or a new independent watchdog should have the power to issue instructions and enforce penalties against the Scottish Government if it fails to meet environmental standards and targets.

The Scottish Government was approached for comment.