Following the election, Brexit, hard or soft, looks much more difficult. Among many other complications, the hung parliament will make it harder to agree the Great Repeal Bill. The purpose of the election (for the Daily Mail, at least) was to “crush the saboteurs”, ie anyone raising objections to the hardest of hard Brexits. Now the bill will be subject to intense scrutiny and possible amendment. Party political calculation and intra-party factionalism will have full rein.
A mixed blessing
For anyone who cares about our environment, this is a mixed blessing. The broad outline of what the government is promising is positive: to carry the acquis communautaire, the body of all EU laws, into UK law. Eighty per cent of UK environmental law comes from the EU, which has been a largely positive force in cleaning up our rivers and beaches, protecting wildlife and tackling climate change. The promise to entrench this in UK law was important.
For Greener UK, the coalition of 13 groups working together for the best environmental deal following Brexit, concerns about the Repeal Bill centre on three things. First, it will not include the principles that underpin EU environmental law, such as the precautionary principle and the polluter pays principle.
Second is the question of who will defend our environmental laws once we leave the EU. Currently, the European Commission and the European Court of Justice ensure that member states abide by EU directives and EU agencies monitor and evaluate compliance. What is to prevent a future British government from weakening environmental protections? The UK has had to act on issues such as air quality because of the EU; where will that pressure come from when we leave?
Third, and following on from these concerns, the bill must ensure that after we leave the EU, any substantive aspects of EU-derived law have the status of primary legislation and cannot be altered without full parliamentary scrutiny.
New political opportunity to promote an ambitious green agenda
A hung parliament changes politics in many ways, including giving greater scope to improve the Repeal Bill. The Opposition is now more important. In the last parliament, Labour was not a strong opposition and the frequent changes to its front bench did not help. It can now, if it chooses, exert a beneficial influence over policy, as David Cameron’s ‘vote blue, go green’ opposition did in the 2005 parliament policy. The environment hardly featured in the general election campaign, but the big narrative underpinning Labour’s surge was support for hope over gloom. If politicians want to fight for the optimistic youth vote, an ambitious green agenda is a good place to start.
The increased influence of Ruth Davidson and the Scottish Conservatives is also welcome. The policy document they issued earlier this year, Global challenge, local leadership, is first rate. In her foreword, Ruth Davidson says:
“Scotland has heard too many warm words and seen too much inaction when it comes to building a sustainable future. It is time we set aside the notion that missed targets and slipping deadlines are something simply to be accepted. Our approach will provide Scots with a greener and more pleasant land to call home. We set ourselves this task because it is one of the greatest challenge of our times. It is for this generation to tackle the issue and ensure that the next will live in a better, more productive and more sustainable world.”
That is the tone of an opposition party, but the Conservatives are not in opposition in Westminster. Scottish Conservatives are now in a position to advance the green agenda for the whole of the UK.
What of the new ministers and other appointments?
Greg Clark’s reappointment as secretary of state for business, energy and industrial strategy is very welcome. He should have more scope in this parliament to promote green jobs and a low carbon, resource efficient industrial strategy. And it is good to see Gavin Barwell in the role as the prime minister’s chief of staff. Barwell was a good housing minister; he is someone who listens and he understands the importance of tackling climate change.
Michael Gove’s appointment as environment secretary was more controversial, not least because of his criticism of EU directives. Britain is losing wildlife and plant life, soil quality continues to decline, air quality is poor. We need to do much better, and this will require effective regulation. Since his appointment, he has been at pains to reassure people that he is not on a crusade to tear up regulations. A ‘shy green’, he supports the Conservative manifesto aim that ours should be the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than we inherited it: “I think it’s a tremendous opportunity as environment secretary to do a job at the heart of government to make sure that we enhance one of our greatest assets, which is our countryside. And I want to do everything I can to make sure that we pass on the environment in a stronger condition to the next generation.”
This is particularly encouraging because the government should not aim merely to maintain current protections; we need to restore nature and improve the environment, starting with a new environment act.
Of course, all environment secretaries come in saying the right thing, but Michael Gove has the chance to do the right thing. He is the fifth person to hold the position in the last seven years, and the biggest hitter. He will be able to get airtime and fight Defra’s corner within government. He also has the intellect and curiosity to grapple with the huge challenges that Brexit poses for farming and the environment. We look forward to working with a strong environment secretary at this crucial time, one who listens to all views, who can – if he chooses – be a bold and effective champion for our environment.