Brexit or not, Britain will still be a global pioneer on the environment

5860924394_6fe437582a_oThis post is by Andrew Sells, chairman of Natural England, and is a response to the recent post by Lord Chris Smith

I very much welcome Lord (Chris) Smith’s return to the environmental fray in his recent blog. He knows better than most the politics of the environment and the delicate relationship between central government and public bodies.

Lord Smith focuses on his area of expertise, the Environment Agency, which has primary responsibility for air and water quality, flood prevention, waste and fisheries. I would like to offer Natural England’s perspective, as the government’s adviser on the natural environment. We have a statutory duty to “conserve and enhance for the benefit of present and future generations”. I understand some of Lord Smith’s concerns but may be able to offer some reassurance in relation to the areas we cover.

Chris Smith’s first concern is that Brexit could have an impact on the range of environmental protections we have in Britain. And indeed it could. As he says, many of our safeguards stem from European legislation. He wonders if parliament will be able to resist watering down these safeguards.

The European Union has given us the Birds and Habitats directives which form the cornerstone of the EU’s nature conservation policy. Both are enshrined in UK law. Likewise, there is the Water Framework Directive which improved on more piecemeal EU water legislation, establishing a framework for the protection of rivers and lakes, estuaries, coastal waters and groundwater. It too is already incorporated into UK law.

UK has been an international environmental legislation pioneer
What is less appreciated is that, long before the UK joined the EU, we were pioneers of environmental legislation, and that we are also signatories to many international treaties to protect the environment. Indeed, the UK has a proud record of promoting international conventions.

We were a founder signatory of the Ramsar Convention. Named after the Iranian city on the south side of the Caspian Sea where the Convention was signed in 1971, this treaty protects wetlands, which are among the world’s most productive environments. Their management is a global challenge; they act as hubs of biological diversity, providing an environment on which innumerable plants and animals depend. Wetlands bring us benefits too, ranging from freshwater supply and food, to flood management and climate change mitigation.

We are also signatories to the 1979 Berne Convention, designed to conserve and protect over 500 wild plant species and more than 1,000 wild animal species, together with their natural habitats; the Bonn Convention, also 1979, set up under the auspices of the UN to protect migratory species; and the 1998 OSPAR Convention which protects the marine environment of the north-east Atlantic.

Outside the EU, we will of course still be signatories to all these treaties, and more recent ones, such as the Paris Agreement on climate change. And we have a wealth of domestic legislation supporting our National Parks, SSSIs, access to the countryside, Marine Conservation Zones and so on.

We will still work together with the EU
None of this is to deny that the EU has had a positive impact, nor is it meant to sound complacent as we still suffer problems like declines in biodiversity and poor air quality. The EU has achieved a substantial reduction in most industrial sources of air and water pollution, particularly by improving urban air quality and in tackling diffuse water pollution, for example from farming. International conventions provide leadership, impetus and the understanding that many environmental issues are cross-border in character or impact, and are better addressed by working together rather than unilaterally. I’m sure this country will still play an active part in that.

Lord Smith’s second concern is that the Environment Agency’s public voice has been limited, and that it needs to provide high quality impartial advice to both government and the British public. Speaking for Natural England, since I have been its chairman it has spoken up publicly in favour of the greater protection of ancient woodlands and the introduction of conservation covenants. It has also made telling contributions to the debate about a planned energy development affecting the rare grassland of Rampisham Down in Dorset. We recently published our conservation strategy for the 21st century and a detailed report into the environmental impacts of HS2, setting out what it needs to do to meet its target of ‘no net loss of biodiversity’.

The challenge for us all is clear: we need to adopt, and maintain, the best of EU environmental legislation, and improve on its weaknesses, which often stem from a common approach applied to 28 countries with different problems; we need to extend our reach beyond static protection of individual sites and species, and build functioning ecological networks, at a landscape scale;  we need to continue to work at an international level; and, yes, we need to speak out to ensure that the voice of the environment is heard.

[Image: Meadow flowers, courtesy of Mike Freedman from Flickr Creative Commons]

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