I am the last person to shy away from criticising the European Union when they get it wrong. Indeed, one of the reasons I campaigned for us to leave the EU was because I’ve seen first hand the damage it has done to our environment.
I grew up in Aberdeen in the Eighties all too vividly aware of how the Common Fisheries policy depleted fish stocks, damaged sustainability and, in the process, undermined the long-term health of our coastal communities.
And as a worker at one point in a Farmers’ co-operative, I also saw how another arm of EU environmental action, the Common Agricultural Policy, damaged our countryside.
It paid farmers according to the amount of land they farmed, not the way they managed it, and has harmed biodiversity. Outside the EU – once we have taken back control of our agricultural, fisheries and environmental policies – we can do so much better.
But it is also important to acknowledge that there have been some changes which have occurred during our time in the EU which have helped improve our environment.
Indeed, British politicians, from Margaret Thatcher to Stanley Johnson, John Gummer to Owen Paterson, have played a part in shaping policy at the European level to improve environmental protection.
Rules and protocols that protect important habitats and endangered species have been drafted by British authors working internationally. And I want to preserve the gains we have made.
Indeed, this Government has pledged that we must be the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than we found it.
I have argued therefore that we must not only maintain but enhance environmental standards as we leave the EU. And that means making sure we secure the environmental gains we have made while in the EU even as we use our new independence to aim even higher.
Our first task is to ensure that we have a coherent, functioning body of law in place on the day we leave. That is why we are transferring all existing European law, including environmental protections, into UK law through the EU (Withdrawal) Bill. Rules and regulations in place the day before Brexit will still be in place the day after.
However, this alone is not enough. Some of the mechanisms which have developed during our time in the EU which helpfully scrutinise the achievement of environmental targets and standards by Government will no longer exist in the same way, and principles which guide policy will have less scope and coverage than they do now.
Without further action, there will be a governance gap. The environment won’t be protected as it should be from the unscrupulous, unprincipled or careless.
Of course, in the UK we benefit from a vibrant democracy and robust legal system which allow individuals and parliaments to hold the powerful to account when they do the wrong thing – whether it’s turning a blind eye to pollution or damaging our beautiful countryside.
But when it comes to protecting the environment, this is not sufficient on its own. Nature is, by definition, voiceless. Animals and plants, habitats and coastlines cannot petition parliament or defend themselves through judicial review.
That is why the EU asked the European Commission to play a role as environmental watchdog. It’s been far from perfect.
Sometimes the Commission makes decisions which fail to protect the environment, or even harm it. But on other occasions the Commission has contributed to helping raise environmental standards.
Outside the EU, we have an opportunity to learn from both the Commission’s successes and failures. We can develop new institutions which do a better job and hold us to higher standards.
So we will consult on using the new freedoms we have to establish a new, world-leading body to give the environment a voice and hold the powerful to account. It will be independent of government, able to speak its mind freely.
And it will be placed on a statutory footing, ensuring it has clear authority. Its ambition will be to champion and uphold environmental standards, always rooted in rigorous scientific evidence.
We will consult widely on the precise functions, remit and powers of the new body, but we are in no doubt that it must have real bite.
We also need to ensure that environmental enforcement and policy-making is underpinned by a clear set of principles. Environmental principles are already central to Government policy.
However, besides their mention in the EU treaties, we do not set these principles down anywhere or define their role in policy making.
So as we leave the EU, we will create a new policy statement setting out the environmental principles which will guide us. This statement will draw on the EU’s current principles and it will underpin future policy-making.
By early next year, we will launch a formal consultation on both the new environmental body and the new policy statement.
There are significant questions to answer – such as exactly what functions and powers the new body has to enforce environmental laws, exactly how a new policy statement is embedded into public policy making, and whether Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland wish to take a different or similar approach.
Of course, we will be engaging widely before bringing forward a final proposal and want to hear from as many people and organisations as possible – from business, NGOs, the farming sector, civil society, and others.
We are already working with the devolved administrations on which powers coming back from the EU should be devolved further.
We will discuss this proposal with them as part of wider conversations on how and where powers should be exercised on return from the EU, and the need or otherwise for common frameworks across the UK.
Nothing can be more vital than the future of our environment and the natural world. We are their custodians and we must safeguard their future if our ambition for a Green Brexit is to become a reality.
We have the chance to set the gold standard for environmental science and become a home to centres of environmental excellence. A new independent, statutory body and a strong statement of principles will ensure that outside the EU, we become the world-leading curator of the most precious asset of all: our planet.