This post is by Richard Benwell, head of government affairs at WWT.
A hung parliament, with a packed legislative agenda, blank slate of policy and limited time on the Brexit countdown clock: these are good conditions for great environmental accomplishments. Without a commanding majority, the government will need to search for areas of political unity to build political capital, like the environment.
The green movement can make the most of this balance of power to press for action in parliament and in wider policy. To succeed, however, we need to elevate environmentalism from a ‘complacent consensus’ to a ‘creative consensus’.
The debate in the run up to the general election demonstrated the problem: everyone (credible) agrees that climate change, pollution, protecting wildlife and access to nature are important, but this unity of intention is obscured by a lack of agreement about what needs to be done about it and scant public debate about the urgency for action.
We should move from defending the environment to progressive ideas
The UK has moved from the active consensus that gave rise to the Climate Change Act in 2008 to a passive agreement that “something must be done”. The situation hasn’t been helped by the (small c) conservative approach of conservation organisations. We’ve focused on defending our established environmental laws against the risks of deregulation and Brexit. Instead of demanding improvement, we’ve been fighting a rear guard action against decline.
Now, though, we can’t afford to look back; the policies that support our farmed environment, protect wildlife and reduce pollution will surely change. Of course, we will resist any weakening of current environmental law. We’ll campaign against unrestricted Henry VIII clauses or delegated powers that let ministers rewrite laws with little parliamentary scrutiny. To ensure a green Brexit, Mr Gove needs to fully transpose the EU green acquis, backed by the principles of good environmental governance and strong accountability mechanisms. He must secure the letter of the law, the spirit of the law, and adherence to the law.
But we must also forge a forward-looking consensus around progressive, creative ideas for change. The only way to stave off the environmental risks of Brexit is to recognise that change is a chance to do better. Unless we take the initiative and press for strong new Environment Act, an ambitious climate change strategy and major environmental investment, the biggest ‘Brexit bill’ could be the opportunity cost. If the work of the government is consumed by Brexit at the expense of environmental improvement, the hidden price could be huge.
Opposition parties, businesses and campaigners all have a role to play in breaking the complacency to create the right conditions for an active environmental alliance. And the time is right for bold ideas. Together, we must rally the public behind unambiguous calls for change: a creative consensus. And we can use the balance of a hung parliament to make every step the government takes conditional on transformational environmental action.
There are some big opportunities ahead, where we can translate broad political support into clear, public calls for reform:
The 25 year environment plan
The government has made a manifesto commitment to a 25 year plan to leave the environment in better condition. Who could argue with that? But most people have never heard of the plan, or the need for it. To make it credible, we need wide ranging public consultation that reaches people from all social, ethnic and economic backgrounds. And to make it effective, we need a commitment to an Environment Act, setting bold, legally binding objectives for wildlife, water and air quality, combined with the investment and accountability required to deliver them.
Farming occupies a huge portion of the land and our economy, with a formative role to play in public health and our national identity. It can also be a lynchpin of sustainability. Again, though, most people are detached from the reality of farming: how much tax is spent supporting farmers and the value it delivers; the declines in farmland wildlife; or the struggle that traditional farming faces for survival. Reform in the UK has been at a glacial pace, held back by the Common Agricultural Policy. Now we have the chance to press forward. The right reforms could turn around losses of farmland wildlife and deliver huge benefits for society. We should build on the consensus that’s emerging around natural capital value, move away from area-based payments, and commit public and private funds to the most economically and ecologically efficient investments.
Paving over more and more of our green spaces is eroding the UK’s green infrastructure base and the services it provides for people and wildlife. Surface water flooding is now responsible for a third of the flood damage we experience each year, causing misery and costing millions. Agreement around the need for new homes needs to be matched by a recognition that green infrastructure requires investment just like any other asset. The latest work of the National Infrastructure Commission represents a huge step forward here; its findings must now be translated to policy. Previous government decisions to abandon zero carbon homes and sustainable drainage requirements were short sighted. Massive investments expected in transport, energy and housing should be accompanied by an ambitious programme of investment in green infrastructure.
There is sometimes a view that a hung parliament can lead to political paralysis. Today, this risk is amplified by the amount of time and energy that Brexit will demand from Westminster and Whitehall.
But consensus issues can acquire privileged passage at times of political balance. Making the most of it means breaking the complacency of recent years. We must combine public action and bold proposals to forge a new creative consensus for our environment.