Will the UK’s 25 year environment plan set its sights higher than Europe?

27385182381_71be35c9c8_kThis post is by Richard Benwell, head of government affairs at WWT.

The government has promised legal continuity on ‘Brexit Day’ but, as it stands, the EU (Withdrawal) Bill would fail to achieve equivalence in environmental protection. As a result, the focus of campaigning on the bill has been on achieving continuity.

But it would be a tragedy if the environmental movement spent the years ahead campaigning only for equivalence. If we emerge from Brexit negotiations with nothing more than a pale national reflection of EU international law, we will have failed.

Fortunately, Michael Gove has set himself a high ambition that should move our campaigning crosshairs higher: he is aiming to leave the environment in better condition for the next generation. We should applaud that ambition but recognise that success will require far more than simply replicating EU standards. We must do more, even, than improve the ‘easy’ areas, like farming and fisheries. To succeed will entail improvement across the board, even in areas like justice where the EU sets an international gold standard.

That will require a concerted campaign for improvement. At WWT—in support of our work with Greener UK—we’re launching a campaign for the strongest possible 25 year environment plan (see www.wwt.org.uk/support/timetobeheard #TimeToBeHeard).

A firm foundation
As the committee stage of the EU (Withdrawal) Bill approaches, it will be it imperative to improve the bill to preserve the functioning of EU-derived law. The big changes required are as follows:

  1. The principles of environmental law (eg polluter pays, sustainable development and the precautionary principle) perform three legal functions. They help to interpret the law, guide future decision making and action can be taken in court if they are contravened. Currently the bill only provides for the first. It must be amended to achieve all three.
  2. The governance gap left by lost EU institutional functions must be filled. The most important include (1) affordable, equitable access to justice (2) independent, expert advice and co-ordination (3) judicial accountability for government failure, including remedies like fines. The bill currently includes powers to create new institutions, but no obligation to do so.
  3. The detail of the law must not be lost in conversion, such as proper implementation and technical requirements like reporting. The government expects thousands of laws to be converted and thousands of statutory instruments to correct them. The process of scrutiny and the leeway for ministerial action must be amended to ensure faithful conversion.

The low hanging fruit
Improving the Withdrawal Bill will help firm the foundation provided by EU law. But atop that foundation, government must completely refashion policy in those areas where EU rules are weakest: farming and fisheries.

Parliamentarians across the political spectrum have already recognised the opportunity. We welcome Mr Gove’s early indications that the UK will move away from paying landowners for holding land, toward a system of payments for public goods.

Now, the challenge will be to direct payments fairly, supporting wildlife-friendly farming, enhancing the ecological asset base of agriculture, and contributing to public services like flood risk reduction. Environmentalists must stand shoulder to shoulder with farmers to ensure the amount of public money supporting good land management is not skimmed away by the Treasury.

By capitalising on these obvious areas for improvement, the government can go some way to achieving its environmental ambition.

Beating the best
In other areas, though, the EU sets an international environmental gold standard. These too must be improved to stand a realistic chance of turning round the state of nature.

On site and species protection, the Birds and Habitats Directives are preeminent and, on accountability, the combination of the EU Commission (with the power to bring cases against governments) and the European Courts (with powers to issue infraction notices and fines) is unparalleled.

Today, WWT has published Nature’s way: the environment for success, setting out the hallmarks of a successful environment plan.

We argue that an effective plan must set a new gold standard: with long term legally binding targets for nature, set out in a new Environment Act. These should be the basis for directing new markets in private innovation and investment in nature, alongside public subsidy, and guided by new ecological opportunity mapping.

Delivery should be informed and enforced by two powerful new institutions: an Office for Environmental Responsibility (for target setting, advice and reporting), and a new Environment Commission (guaranteeing access to environmental justice and with rigorous powers to hold wayward governments to account).

Behind the policy, though, a successful plan will need vocal support from the public and politicians. At the moment, the public has no say at all in the creation of the 25 year environment plan.

That’s why we’re asking everyone to back our call for a better EU (Withdrawal) Bill, but then to go further and demand more. If we want to realise the ambition of a better environment, it’s #TimeToBeHeard: the 25 year environment plan must deliver the action to match the aspiration of a greener UK for everyone.

You can add your influence and email your MP.

[Image: Emerald Pool Fishery – Dawn by Lee Scott Wylie from Flickr Creative Commons]

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