New Year articles and blogs often predict what is going to happen in the year ahead. But after the political upsets of the past couple years, it seems more appropriate to pose questions than predict outcomes. So here are some of the important questions that need addressing this year, starting, inevitably, with Brexit.
1. Hard questions on post-Brexit trade deals
We need a much more serious national conversation on how to reconcile the vision of high standards Britain, articulated by the prime minister, the environment secretary and others, with the idea of a buccaneering Britain, striking free trade deals across the globe with countries that have, to put it mildly, rather different views on the environment, animal welfare, food and product safety, etc.
It is good to increase trade with non-EU countries, and Green Alliance has made a strong case for the UK to push its expertise in low carbon technologies and services. But the reality is that there are two trade superpowers, the US and the EU. They set the rules which the rest of the world, including China, follow. Whatever post-Brexit trade deals we negotiate, the UK is unlikely to be a rule setter. So the question is, does the government want to remain as close as possible to the standards set by our largest and nearest market? Or does it want to follow US standards, for instance for hormone implanted beef and chlorine washed chicken? There is no third – made in Britain – way on offer.
When the UK and the EU moved on to the second stage of negotiations in December, there was a brief flurry of interest in the difference between regulatory equivalence, alignment and non-divergence, but little clarity about the government’s position. Given the timetable for EU withdrawal, we will need that clarity soon.
2. What’s the future for land management in the UK?
Michael Gove was a hit recently at both the Oxford Farming Conference and the Oxford Real Farming Conference. His commitment to a ‘public money for public goods’ agenda is hugely encouraging. Also welcome is his promise to fund farming at current levels of funding until at least 2022 (or 2024, it was not quite clear).
But farming policy is complex and we need farmers to look after the environment even when they are not planting wildflower meadows or new woodlands. What about the ordinary business of growing food? What role will regulation play in ensuring the sustainability of all farming?
Post-CAP farming policy will fail if it produces oases of very green farming with government support, while the majority of farmers are left to their own devices, without support or regulation. That would surely mean mega-farms maximising yield where it was commercially viable, with other farms going to the wall, their land used instead to build low density housing.
What about the money? At present, farmers receive around £3 billion a year in CAP payments. These should be better directed, but unless this level of funding is maintained, it is hard to see the government achieving its aim that ours should be the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than we found it. Will the government guarantee the quantum of support for land management post-Brexit, even as they redirect it to public goods?
And what will happen during the transition period? It appears that farmers could receive basic payments without meeting any environmental standards, what Michael Gove described as “the onerous existing cross-compliance rules and procedures”. It would be a serious setback for our landscape and biodiversity if cross-compliance were to be killed off without any alternative plans for ensuring basic environmental standards.
Finally, as the NFU frequently points out, all good intentions on farming policy are subject to the sort of trade deals we strike post-Brexit (see above).
3. Will the Labour Party go green?
The government is making green policies an increasingly important part of its narrative. The Clean Growth Strategy reframed action on climate change “not as a painful but worthy struggle, but instead as an enormous economic opportunity”. Theresa May made a similar case in an article in The Guardian in December. And Michael Gove has been the most effective and high profile environment secretary for many years.
This green turn is no less welcome for the fact that it is motivated, in part at least, by political calculation: most young people do not vote Conservative but do care about the environment. The calculation is that they can be persuaded to rethink their political assumptions if the Conservatives show themselves to be, by some way, the greener of the main two UK parties.
At present, this is a controlled experiment. If the Conservatives have learned lessons from the 2017 election, the Labour Party seems geared to refight it. It is not that it lacks green policies. It has some good ones, but also some serious gaps. Environmental concerns are largely absent from the party’s main narrative, strikingly so when compared with the Conservative Party. When David Cameron started to promote green policies as the new leader of the opposition in 2005 (it was in 2006 that he hugged the husky) the Labour government had to react. In 2018, will the government’s green turn – and the greater interest shown in the environment by the leadership of all the other main UK parties, the SNP and Plaid Cymru – have a similar effect on the Labour Party?
4. Will the grey departments go green?
Not all parts of the government have got the message that sound environmental policy is not only popular but also the way to strengthen the UK economy and improve living standards. The Budget showed the chancellor to be more grey than green. The Foreign Office has (carelessly) lost its climate change team. The newly named Department for Housing, Communities and Local Government has been poor on energy efficiency and, at best, patchy on protecting the countryside (more on this in my forthcoming book, How to build houses and save the countryside, to be published in March). The Department for Transport under Chris Grayling has been keener on new roads than on protecting landscapes, reducing carbon and tackling air pollution. And there is little evidence that Liam Fox and the Department for International Trade has heard the message that the UK’s economic future rests on the industries and technologies of the future, rather than the past.
Green policies cannot be the preserve of a couple of government departments, with occasional support from the PM. ‘Going green’ means all departments joining in. Will this start with an ambitious 25 year plan for the environment owned by every minister and every department?
5. Brexit, again
It looks certain that Brexit will continue to consume most of the government’s energy. There are countless questions to be answered, but here are a few.
The government has promised a strong new watchdog to hold it and future governments to account for how they care for the environment. That is very welcome. We need to find some way of replicating the vital role played by the European Commission and European Court of Justice on issues such as water quality and air pollution. But will such a body be up and running by the time we leave the EU? And will it cover the UK as a whole or just England? Pollution knows no boundaries.
Linked to this, will the UK government and the devolved administrations work together to co-design UK environmental policy post-Brexit? There is a clear need for them to do so, but there is too little evidence so far of effective co-operation.
NGOs always ask lots of questions and set challenges. It is our job. The difference in 2018 is that the environment is high up the government’s agenda and so we have a chance of getting some answers, or at least a serious debate.