About complaints 

What can you complain about?

Your complaint must relate to a suspected failure to comply with environmental law.  The Environment Act defines environmental law as any legislative provision (other than devolved provisions in Scotland or Wales) to the extent that it is mainly concerned with environmental protection.

Environmental protection means any of the following:

  1. protecting the natural environment from the effects of human activity
  2. protecting people from the effects of human activity on the natural environment
  3. maintaining, restoring or enhancing the natural environment
  4. monitoring, assessing, considering, advising or reporting on anything under points (1) to (3).

The natural environment means any of the following:

  1. plants, wild animals and other living organisms
  2. their habitats
  3. land (except buildings or other structures), air, water and the natural systems, cycles and processes through which they interact.

Examples of environmental law include legislative provisions covering:

  • air pollution
  • water pollution
  • contaminated land
  • nature conservation
  • waste and resource use
  • climate change
  • environmental assessment and monitoring

If your complaint does not relate to environmental law, we will not be able to consider it because it falls outside of our remit. However, we may be able to advise you on what you could do next (for example, whether you could complain to a different body).

If you have a complaint about environmental law in Scotland please contact Environmental Standards Scotland. Their website and contact details can be found at: www.environmentalstandards.scot.

If your complaint relates to Wales please see: https://gov.wales/raising-concern-about-functioning-environmental-law


What is an excluded matter?

The Environment Act defines excluded matters as 

  • disclosure of or access to information
  • the armed forces or national security
  • taxation, spending or the allocation of resources within government.

We are not able to investigate complaints relating to these matters.


Is there a time limit on complaints?

You can complain about an event that has happened at any point in time, even if it took place before the OEP started operating. However, please keep in mind there is no guarantee that the OEP will investigate any individual complaint, and the OEP may choose not to prioritise investigations into historic matters.

Complaints should normally be submitted within certain time limits and the OEP should only exceptionally consider complaints outside of these limits. The time limit is whichever is the later of:

  1. a year after the environmental law was last broken, OR:
  2. three months after you finished the public authority’s complaints procedure, if they have one. 


Who can I complain about?

Your complaint should relate to a “public authority”. The Environment Act defines a public authority as a person carrying out any function of a public nature, apart from certain bodies which are specifically excluded such as a court or tribunal, or Parliament. Public authorities therefore include central and local government, government agencies and other public sector organisations. They can also include private or third sector organisations, but only if they are carrying out functions of a public nature. 

How might a public authority have failed to comply with environmental law?

The Environment Act describes two ways in which a public authority could fail to comply with environmental law.   Firstly, a public authority might unlawfully fail to take proper account of environmental law when exercising its functions. For example, a public authority could fail to carry out an environmental impact assessment that is required by law.  Secondly, a public authority might unlawfully exercise, or fail to exercise, any function it has under environmental law. An example of this would be an authority responsible for licensing environmentally harmful activities failing to properly regulate those activities (for instance, by applying standards that are less rigorous than the law demands).

What if more than one public authority is involved?

If your complaint relates to more than one public authority, you only need to submit one complaint. However, you should list all the authorities you think are involved. Please also submit any evidence you have about all of the authorities that you identify. 

Do I need a lawyer to help me submit a complaint?

No. The complaint form has been designed to be filled in by anyone.

How does the OEP manage conflicts of interest?

We have put measures in place to manage potential conflicts of interest:

  • our staff have access to independent legal advice
  • our staff work under the leadership and direction of an independent Board
  • complaints are handled and processed on an independent IT system


About OEP

What is the OEP’s role in Northern Ireland?

The Environment Act gives the OEP a remit to cover England, Northern Ireland and UK-wide reserved matters. 

Reserved matters are those where the ability to create legislation rests with the UK Parliament in Westminster and has not been devolved to the parliaments and assemblies in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland.

Our functions commenced in Northern Ireland on 28 February 2022.


About environmental concerns

How do I know if the OEP is the right organisation to contact for my environmental concern?

The OEP can consider complaints about serious potential failures to comply with environmental law by public authorities. Other environmental concerns may be better dealt with by alternative organisations. Our useful contacts for common environmental issues and concerns can be found here.


How does the OEP consider planning issues?

In most cases, planning issues are not normally something the OEP would consider unless it clearly relates to a public authority potentially breaching an environmental law.

If your issue is about an ongoing planning application, you should engage with the local authority’s planning process and the relevant complaints procedure of the local authority. You can find your local authority details here: Find your local council - GOV.UK (www.gov.uk).

If you remain dissatisfied with the local authority’s decision you may be able to appeal to the Planning Inspectorate in England or the Planning Appeals Commission in Northern Ireland. The Planning Inspectorate deals with planning appeals, national infrastructure planning applications, examinations of local plans and other planning-related and specialist casework in England. The Planning Appeals Commission makes decisions on appeals against council decisions on a wide range of planning and environmental matters.


How does the OEP deal with Tree Preservation Orders?

A Tree Preservation Order (TPO) is an order made by a local planning authority in England or Northern Ireland to protect specific trees, groups of trees or woodlands in the interests of amenity. An Order prohibits the:

  • cutting down
  • topping
  • lopping
  • uprooting
  • wilful damage
  • wilful destruction
  • cutting of roots

of trees without the local planning authority’s written consent. If consent is given, it can be subject to conditions which have to be followed.

Anyone who contravenes an Order by damaging or carrying out work on a tree protected by an Order without getting permission from the local planning authority (LPA) is guilty of an offence and may be fined. When faced with what they believe are unauthorised works to protected trees, the LPA may:

  • do nothing – but only if justified by the particular circumstances;
  • negotiate with the owner to remedy the works to the satisfaction of the authority;
  • consider the option of issuing an informal warning to impress on the tree owner or others suspected of unauthorised works that such work may lead to prosecution;
  • seek an injunction to stop on-going works and prevent anticipated breaches; or
  • consider whether the tests for commencing a prosecution are met.

In considering what to do, LPAs should consider whether it is in the public interest to prosecute the individual(s) implicated in an offence, and proceedings cannot commence more than three years after the date the offence was committed.

Please see Government’s guidance for more information: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/tree-preservation-orders-and-trees-in-conservation-areas#enforcing-tree-protection-offences and you can find your local authority details here: Find your local council - GOV.UK (www.gov.uk).

The OEP can only consider complaints about trees and TPOs if there is clear evidence that the LPA responsible for the TPO may have breached environmental law.


How does the OEP deal with statutory nuisances?

Local authorities are responsible for dealing with statutory nuisances and should serve an abatement notice on the person(s) responsible.

A statutory nuisance can include:

For the issue to count as a statutory nuisance it must do one of the following:

  • unreasonably and substantially interfere with the use or enjoyment of a home or other premises
  • injure health or be likely to injure health

Please see the government’s guidance for more information: Statutory nuisances: how councils deal with complaints - GOV.UK (www.gov.uk) You can find your local authority details here: Find your local council - GOV.UK (www.gov.uk).

In some instances, the Environment Agency (EA) or Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) controls some potential statutory nuisances like noise, smell and dust with environmental permits. In these instances, the council and the EA/ NIEA should work together to deal with the issue. If you believe the site is permitted, you can report an incident to the EA here: Report an environmental incident - GOV.UK (www.gov.uk) or the NIEA here: Environmental quality in your area | nidirect.

The OEP would only consider looking at statutory nuisances where the public authority, responsible for the dealing with the statutory nuisance, may have breached environmental law and their legal duties to ensure the nuisance was dealt with accordingly.


About public authorities

Can public authorities pass environmental complaints to the OEP?

No, the complainant should be the person who contacts the OEP with their complaint. However, the public authority may suggest to the complainant that they can contact the OEP once they have finished the public authority’s complaint procedure, if relevant. In some cases, the ombudsman may be more appropriate.

The complainant should fully exhaust any complaints procedure a public authority has before contacting the OEP. This is to give the public authority the opportunity to remedy the issue before it is raised with the OEP. When the complainant contacts the OEP they should provide a copy of the final correspondence with the public authority. The OEP may then use the contact details in this correspondence to confirm completion of a complaint process and ask for any supporting information. This process is in line with the requirements in the Environment Act.    


At what stage does the OEP contact a public authority regarding a complaint or investigation?

In most cases the OEP will contact a public authority early in the process to check that their complaints procedure has been exhausted. The complainant should provide correspondence with the public authority and the contact details on this correspondence will be used to identify a point of contact at the public authority. Depending on the circumstances there may be situations where the OEP would contact the Chief Executive or the complaints team. You can find out more about working with us in our guidance for public authorities and our briefing note on public authorities’ duty to cooperate with the OEP.


Where can I find out about the OEP’s complaints and investigations so far?

We publish a quarterly complaints report which provides an overview of the complaints received and enforcement activity undertaken by the OEP. 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. Where we reach resolution by agreement with public authorities, we will normally make this public unless there are good reasons not to. As a result, much of our work centres on the resolutions we achieve outside of our formal enforcement powers. This is summarised on our investigations webpage.


What is the relationship between the OEP and the National Audit Office?

The driver for the OEP is to ensure that environmental legislation is fit for purpose to protect the environment and human health as it relates to the environment. While there is some overlap in topics covered, the National Audit Office takes an interest in value for money, which is a different focus from the OEP.  

As part of the OEP’s assessment of complaints, we will consider whether the issue raised is being addressed through any other organisation, such as the National Audit Office.


Could a complaint be raised with both the OEP and the ombudsman? Could a complaint handled by the ombudsman be referred to the OEP?

A complaint can be raised with both the OEP and an ombudsman such as the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman or Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman. A complainant would need to exhaust the complaints process of the relevant authority before they could approach the OEP, but the OEP could potentially consider a complaint without it being considered by the ombudsman.  

While there are potential areas of overlap, most of the complaints handled by the OEP fall clearly into the remit of failing to comply with environmental law. It may be that the ombudsman will deal with the aspects of a complaint that are relevant to them, then pass the case over to the OEP if they are concerned about a failure to comply with environmental law, and vice versa.  

In terms of remit, the ombudsman can consider individual disputes, whereas the OEP’s involvement in a case is more likely to be strategic and outside the scope of redress for an individual.


Can a public body ask the OEP to investigate another public body?

No, the Environment Act 2021 does not allow a public body to raise a complaint about another public body. The complaints process is available for those reporting in their personal capacity only.


What is the OEP’s interaction with the land use planning system?

This issue is commonly raised with the OEP through complaints and enquiries. In respect of the OEP’s complaints and enforcement functions, in most cases, planning won't come under the remit of the OEP unless it's specifically related to a matter of environmental law. That requires an assessment of the intricacies of each individual complaint to make that determination. 

If the complaint is about an ongoing planning issue, those who contact the OEP will usually be signposted to resources to help them engage with the planning process and the relevant complaints procedure of the public authority.

More generally, the OEP’s work does intersect with the planning system, for example, we have a duty to monitor the implementation of environmental law. In 2023, we published a report looking in detail at the implementation of the three environmental assessment regimes: Environmental Impact Assessment, Strategic Environmental Assessment and Habitats Regulations Assessments.