Prime Minister May needs a bold plan to protect Britain’s environment post Brexit

British landscape in SummerBritain may be a divided nation but the environment is one thing we all still share. The loss of 40 years of EU environmental agreements will have a detrimental effect on the quality of our rivers, our fields and our lungs. Want to develop a new container port on that estuary? Wait for the European habitat law to go and then you only have to convince the Treasury to overrule guidance by Natural England. Live in an air pollution hotspot? Move out or suck it up, because current British legislation won’t protect you. While Brexit threatens a race to the bargain basement, with weak environmental standards and shoddy products, the prospects get a lot brighter if Prime Minister May champions a greener Britain with a Brexit plan that fills the big holes in the UK’s legal fabric and strengthens the powers of government agencies to protect our health and environment.

Prime Minister May says she wants to create a better Britain. Here’s how she can do it:

  1. Make a green Brexit offer

Surprise everyone and offer a no quibbles guarantee to the British people and to the EU that Britain would match or exceed all European environmental standards and carbon targets. This would strengthen our hand in negotiations on access to the single market, save time and give business greater certainty. We already make a big contribution to EU carbon emissions reduction and the UK’s continued role in Europe’s low carbon transition would be highly valued by our neighbours.  She would avoid years of acrimonious niggling over the existing 100 EU environmental agreements.

  1. Pass a new British Environment Act

Brexit is our chance to turn the great British love of the environment into robust domestic law. A new act would fill gaps left behind by the loss of EU regulation, and establish new powers to restore the health of our natural systems and protect human health. The act could give landowners responsibility to collaborate upstream to minimise flooding in shared river catchments; create a tougher British vehicle pollution testing regime to ensure another dieselgate never happens; and give the Environment Agency the means to enforce those environmental laws which, like air pollution standards, are currently ignored.

  1. Create a new zero carbon industrial strategy

The new PM says she wants an industrial strategy and to protect decent manual jobs, some of the best of which are created in the green economy.  She should start by shoring up confidence in the automotive, energy and construction sectors that have been battered by an Osborne Treasury which ditched previously agreed policies (remember zero carbon homes?) They should be left in no doubt that the future of UK industry is net zero carbon. May should also pay serious attention to the many major car manufacturers who have invested heavily in the UK as a route to the European market. Three quarters of a million Britons work in the UK automotive sector, known for outstanding engineering and low carbon innovation. Nissan in Sunderland, Toyota in Derby and Honda in Swindon may all be based in communities which voted to leave the EU but their factories’ collective future depends on exporting to it. Just so the Siemens wind turbine factory in Hull. All will go into slow decline without a good Brexit deal and a continued drive to low carbon innovation in UK transport and energy markets. As the pound falls the cost of raw materials will rise, so UK industry policy must encourage better circular economy practice to keep materials in the economy and reduce unnecessary import costs.

  1. Back small farming and fishing over big firms

No one should mourn the passing of the EU Common Agriculture Policy, which has pumped billions of pounds of subsidy into the biggest, most intensive and most damaging farms. But something has to replace the good funding the EU provided to high nature value farming, often on smaller upland farms, and the direct funding of conservation in agriculture. A new British agriculture policy can do this by focusing on small farms over big agribusiness, and only providing financial support to farming which restores the health of our soils, waterways and natural habitats. The Common Fisheries Policy has been more successful at stopping over exploitation, but the way we have run our quota system has benefited big fishing fleets over small. No one knows quite how we extricate ourselves from the Common Fisheries Policy, but getting a better deal for small inshore fishing boats should be a priority.

  1. Break up the Treasury

During the referendum campaign, environmental leaders feared one thing above all else: an unchecked Treasury after the loss of EU law. Chancellors Brown, Darling and Osborne all enjoyed overweening power concentrated in the exchequer, but with EU legal agreement as the main counterweight. If you were surprised that Osborne agreed to spend up to £8 billion on renewable energy, look no further than the legally binding EU 2020 renewable energy target and the threat of EU fines if we didn’t do our bit. The heft of an unchallenged, domineering Treasury is a hindrance to entrepreneurial government. If May’s new industrial policy isn’t to be vetoed by the Treasury, just as it reversed attempts to develop a carbon capture and storage industry in the last parliament, the new prime minister will need to set up a new department of sustainable growth. That way the Treasury can limit itself to being a more streamlined finance ministry. 

Our new Prime Minister has had little time to think about the environmental modernisation of the country she now leads, but the environment really is the one thing we’re all in together. Championing a greener Britain would give a fresh, optimistic direction to the economy and could avoid us getting dragged backwards by years of lengthy Brexit negotiations. A bold green plan is just what Theresa May needs if she’s to help the nation make a long term success of Brexit.


  • Usual and erroneous conflation of environmental policy across the UK, when in reality it is devolved to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Green Alliance should really know better.

    • Matthew Spencer

      Valid point. It’s true that many environment issues are devolved, and therefore the response in Wales , Scotland and Northern Ireland to losing EU legislation could be very different. My point is that there will be big gaps between EU law and national regulation that need to be addressed, whether it remains UK as with energy policy, or devolved as with the natural environment. So perhaps we will need English / welsh/ Scottish environment acts, rather than one British law, but the Brexit negotiation will have to been done on a UK wide basis.

      • Thanks for the reply Matthew – it’s more than I expected! It’s not the first time the GA has lumped all UK environment policy together, and I think that your main points – which I wouldn’t disagree with – are tarnished by a seeming lack of awareness about the very positive steps which are being taken elsewhere.

        There are many people working in the devolved sector(s) in Wales who would be happy to support your efforts to demonstrate the differences and highlight good practice. I published a starter for ten a while back on LinkedIn. The Well-Being of Future Generations Act is the one to watch from here.

  • Richard Burnett-Hall

    Good article. With the environment sadly playing virtually no part in the referendum discussions, if they deserve to be called that, and not being a topic likely to surface often at the Home Office, it must be right to ensure Mrs May gets to grips early on with what a post-Brexit environment policy should contain. Especially as she is likely to be surrounded by Brexiteers most of whom evidently have little or no time for our concerns at all. So we must do our best to have the public and the media well informed and behind us too.
    A few further points I would add:
    1. The Environment Agency should have more than just the power to enforce compliance with relevant standards: it should have a statutory duty to do so, even (perhaps especially) where the offender is a Government department. A big loss from not having directly applicable, and so enforceable, EU legislation will be the inability of citizens to take non-compliant Government bodies to court, and the strong risk of Departmental ministers leaning on the Environment Agency to prevent effective enforcement action against them. “Taking back control” has to be for the citizens’ benefit, not the Government’s, so should not mean our losing control altogether.
    2. Water neutral homes, and not only zero-carbon ones, should also be a top priority, at least in the south-east of England, where many more houses are likely to get built quite shortly, even though there are already no spare water resources to supply them.
    3. One reason the Treasury’s influence on environmental matters is so malign is its obsession with achieving constant, and preferably large, GDP growth into the indefinite future. Dieter Helm’s book “Natural Capital” shows how misguided this is, if the current conventional definition of GDP is not altered to take into account losses of environmental assets caused by economic activities. If “sustainable growth” is to have any useful meaning, we have to start with a review of what is and what is not being measured when determining if there has been any truly sustainable growth at all.
    4. We should also work towards introducing tariffs on imported goods that reflect GHG emissions created in their production, so as to prevent “dirty” goods from unfairly undercutting “clean” home-produced ones that are more expensive solely due to their use of less polluting processes and energy. This would have to involve the WTO, so couldn’t be done overnight, but now is the time to start.

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