The environment community is in shock. Forty years of environmental agreements with our neighbours are now threatened by a vote in which the environment didn’t feature. The electorate voted by a small margin to build higher walls, but walls don’t work in the natural world. Within the next two years we will lose the best enforced nature laws in the world, which the UK did so much to help create. No one in government has a plan for how to fill the gaping hole the EU birds and nature directives will leave behind. We should be able to celebrate the demise of the loathsome Common Agriculture Policy (CAP), but not if it is replaced by UK agriculture subsidies that reward intensification. What about the £1 billion a year of CAP that goes to support high nature value farming and environmental schemes? No one thinks the Treasury will protect them amidst a race to stop the UK economy imploding.
Economic emergencies damage environmental progress
It is economic emergencies which do the greatest damage to UK environmental and climate progress, as we have seen in the energy sector where the backwash from the last recession led to policy retreat on energy efficiency, renewable energy and zero carbon homes. This means it won’t just be EU legislation that is threatened by Brexit. Economic instability will allow cross party domestic legislation such as the Climate Change Act to be questioned on competitiveness grounds by the small but vocal group of people who have never accepted the need to act on climate change. The same risk applies to the UK land use planning system, much weakened, but still stopping the worst developments happening on green fields. An economic emergency will justify another attempt to challenge the planning principle that some areas are sacrosanct and should not be sacrificed to housing or infrastructure.
That’s why Brexit is the biggest threat to the UK environment and countryside in our lifetime. But citizens did not vote for a race to the bottom, and the half of the population that voted to remain need reassurance that the leavers care about more than immigration and trade, that they care about the fields, woodlands and rivers that make Britain special. A search for a new English identity was at the heart of the referendum campaign, but there is no Albion without the poetry and prose of the English countryside, and even disgruntled UKIP voters would pay homage to it. Britten and Wordsworth won’t feel like much comfort in the chaos of the coming months, but strong collective advocacy can.
We must now strengthen UK environmental law
The environment community is as one on this, we would have wanted to stay in the EU because we are part of an interconnected world in which we are always better working together but, now that we are leaving, our priority is to strengthen UK environmental law and its enforcement. British citizens would expect our government to uphold environmental standards, so that they will be as strong or stronger than those we would have had as a member of the EU. We will work with our allies in civil society and business to work out how we fill the gaps left behind by jettisoning EU environmental rules, and we will expect government to come up with a plan to achieve that.
Economic turmoil is no excuse to unwind domestic protection, and the electorate gave government no mandate to do so. After the shock has subsided we must make sure that the voice of the big hearted, nature loving public is heard. We will have to organise the mother of all campaigns to give our sector and our supporters a voice to ensure that politics addresses the future of Britain’s environment. The nation appears divided, yet our love for the environment will always be something we have in common.