This post is by Richard Benwell, head of government affairs at WWT.
The government has published its Industrial Strategy, its Housing White Paper and its Digital Plan, but three flagship environmental promises remain mired in Whitehall wrangling: the 25 year environment plan, the 25 year food and farming plan and the clean growth plan are all delayed.
These strategies are about looking beyond short term politics to create a greener UK. The promise of each plan was greeted enthusiastically by environmentalists as a sign that ethical and economic arguments for action were being taken seriously. Yet, in the melee of Brexit, the environment has been pushed to the back of the political queue.
Of course, some delay is understandable. Brexit adds brain boggling layers of complexity. But these plans are needed now to define the future of our economy and society. If we charge into Brexit with only development, industry and competition in mind, then all our progress toward a clean economy could be undone.
And other environmental decisions are delayed too. We are still waiting for news on the levy control framework, the carbon price, tidal lagoon power and air quality controls.
Environmental policy underpins our way of life
It may seem like we can afford to wait, but that would be to misunderstand the formative role that environmental policy plays in our way of life, and how much it could change.
Inside the EU, government leeway on environmental decision making was constrained. For some time now, we have trod faltering steps but along a firm path to a more sustainable Britain, guided by EU targets and rules to protect sites, species and standards.
Outside the EU, the government can negotiate new trade deals and product standards (currently defined as an EU bloc), change environmental law (most of which comes from the EU) and reimagine land management subsidies (which are dominated by the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP)).
If we trade away standards in a rush for new markets, we could open the floodgates to harmful chemicals, industrial intensification and unsustainable processes. If we follow a deregulatory agenda, focused on business, laws like the Habitats Regulations could be brushed aside in favour of development. If we fail to replace the CAP with a sustainable alternative, only the most industrialised and resource hungry farms will survive.
Outside the EU, then, government can change the quality of the food we eat, reshape our countryside, or strip away regulations that protect wildlife. In other words, environmental policy cannot be confined to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ (Defra) brief. It affects and is affected by the big decisions across government, from trade policy to planning regulations. So, it is critical that these three plans set a green foundation in place before we make policy in other areas, or serious regression of environmental standards could be locked in before we even begin to consider Defra’s own objectives post-Brexit.
Will the UK be an environmental pioneer or a ‘Dirty Man’ in future?
Of course, these are worst case scenarios. More likely, we will end up with pallid copies of the protection we enjoyed in the EU. The gargantuan task that faces civil servants in converting EU law into UK law should not be underestimated. Add the Defra cuts announced in the Budget – 54 per cent in this decade – and the chances of a forward thinking UK environmental policy seem remote.
Even in areas where there are opportunities for improvement, such as replacing CAP, the scale of the task means we may well find ourselves with something resembling the status quo; perhaps with a rulebook that’s a bit slimmer and a purse that’s a little lighter.
Andrew Sells noted in his recent blog that Britain was an environmental pioneer before it was an EU member state and, of course, that’s true, but we shouldn’t forget that the UK was also known as the Dirty Man of Europe. What are the prospects for future pioneering policy if the plans are delayed much longer?
Why are we waiting?
As there will be months of consultation on each plan once the initial frameworks are published, the government should be considering now what powers and commitments are needed to ensure the final strategies can be pioneering and credible. In many cases, these are not Brexit-dependent:
- The environment plan should set out clear ambition for improvement. To make this happen, the final plan needs legally binding targets for natural assets and the government should commit now to a new Environment Act.
- The farming plan should signal a shift towards catchment management. In practice, this will need new governance to redirect public and private money towards investments in natural capital. These spending plans and processes could be signalled today.
- The clean growth plan should chart a path to meeting post-2020 climate targets. The government should make the moral case as well as the utilitarian case, with action to support local energy and household energy efficiency.
With so much at stake, green businesses are increasingly alive to the risks to their markets and consumers are waking up to the worry of food, water and air quality.
Businesses, NGOs, the public and the Opposition are all now asking “why are we waiting?”. The government should act quickly to reprioritise its environmental plans, before its credibility on a clean, green Britain is lost.