The OEP has a mission to protect and improve the environment by holding government and other public authorities to account. Where we act, we will act strategically. This means we will not investigate every complaint we receive. Connected with this, the use of our powers is subject to meeting legal requirements, principally that a suspected failure to comply with environmental law would be, if it occurred, ‘serious’.
Please see our Enforcement Policy for more information including on how we approach the determination of seriousness.
How we enforce
Our enforcement functions encompass a range of powers and duties, and we take a proportionate approach to our enforcement activities.
This means we will normally aim to resolve non-compliance through co-operation, dialogue, and agreement with public authorities. As a result, much of our work centres on the resolutions we achieve outside of our formal enforcement powers.
Where a satisfactory outcome cannot be reached through these means, we may instead use our formal enforcement powers which may include conducting investigations and commencing legal proceedings.
How we conduct investigations
Where we have information which indicates that there may have been a serious failure to comply with environmental law by a public authority, we can carry out an investigation. Where we commence an investigation, the complainant and the public authority will be notified.
We will then commence our information-gathering stage. There may be more than one round of information requests sent to the relevant public authority and this stage could continue for some time. Public bodies have a statutory duty to co-operate with the OEP which can extend to the provision of information.
This stage may involve serving an information notice on the public authority. Where we serve an information notice, the public authority must respond providing the information requested so far as it is reasonably practicable to do so.
We analyse the information received to help us determine whether or not there may have been a failure to comply with environmental law.
The next stage depends on the outcome of our analysis. If we are satisfied on the balance of probabilities that the public authority has failed to comply with environmental law and that the failure is serious, we may take a number of next steps including:
- Issuing a decision notice to the public authority describing the failure, why we think it is serious and the steps the authority should take in relation to the failure
- Proceeding to an environmental review in the English High Court or a review application in the Northern Ireland High Court. These processes enable the Courts to determine the matter in law
In cases where we consider that it is necessary to do so in order to prevent or mitigate serious damage to the natural environment or human health, we may apply to the court for an urgent judicial review or statutory review.
There are a number of options available to us to reach a satisfactory outcome and we may choose not to take any of the steps outlined above. The commencement of an investigation does not prevent us from using non-statutory tools, such as advice and guidance, if we consider that this is appropriate.
At the end of an investigation once we have concluded we will prepare an investigation report which sets out our recommendations. This will be shared with the public authority. We may also choose to publish all or part of this report on our casework page.