Natural England said its new 'civil' sanctioning powers would enable it to stop illegal activities; order the restoration of environmental damage, and accept voluntary enforcement undertakings from offenders. Previously the body could only issue warning letters or proceed to full criminal prosecution.
Natural England is the principal advisor on the natural environment and is responsible for looking after designated conservation areas such as Sites of Special Scientific Interest, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and National Parks and preventing heather and grass burning; breaches of certain wildlife licenses; breaches of the Environmental Impact Assessment (Agriculture) Regulations, and damage caused by certain regulated 'injurious weeds'.
The new civil sanctions were approved following a public consultation process, which Natural England said showed "strong support" for the new powers. They include fixed and variable monetary penalties; compliance and restoration notices; 'stop' notices, requiring an offender to immediately cease an offending activity.
Natural England can now also accept voluntary 'enforcement undertakings', giving the offender the opportunity to make an offer to take steps to correct its behaviour and make amends for any effects that behaviour has already had on the environment.
Annex 5 of the regulator's updated Enforcement Guidance sets out which sanctions are available for which offence.
Simon Colvin, an expert in environmental law with Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said that although Natural England would find the more formal sanctions a valuable tool issuing fines would not always be the most appropriate enforcement option.
"Experience would suggest that certain of the sanctions will be more popular than others - variable monetary penalties are very complicated and the expectation is they will be used sparingly," he said.
"Enforcement undertakings are a much more 'offender friendly' option – the last 12 months have shown these to be an effective solution and they have been accepted by the Environment Agency on a number of occasions. Those who commit offences for which Natural England is the regulator should explore whether civil sanctions are an available alternative to criminal enforcement action," he said.
Janette Ward, director of regulation at Natural England, said the new powers would give the body a "welcome degree of flexibility", allowing it to protect the environment and rectify damage without imposing unnecessary penalties and costs.
"Our aim is to help people and businesses to comply with the laws protecting our wildlife and natural environment – enforcement action is a last resort," she said.
The Environment Agency has already introduced civil sanctions for a limited number of the environmental offences it has regulatory responsibility for. It announced that it had imposed its first civil sanction – a £21,000 restitution offer for packaging waste offences from a London-based engineering and information technology company - in July.