Michael Gove, environment secretary, has laid out his vision for the environment when the UK leaves the EU.

Mr Gove sees leaving the EU as an opportunity to lead the world in safe guarding the environment. He said: "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."

He cited his concern about the environment as a reason for his campaign to leave the EU: "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."

Mr Gove acknowledged that there have been changes which have occurred during the union which have helped improve the environment: "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."

Looking to the future Mr Gove said: "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."

Mr Gove sees the need for a robust body of law as vital in the protection of the environment as the UK leaves the EU to avoid a governance gap.

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"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."

Learning from these successes and failures, Mr Gove encouraged the development of a new independent statutory body to represent the environment and hold decision makers to account. He also stressed the importance of environmental principles and his plans for a new policy statement to define them. A formal consultation on both the new body and policy statement is expected to begin early next year.