This post is by Donal McCarthy, senior policy officer at the RSPB and co-ordinator of the Greener UK ‘Brexit and Devolution’ working group.
From the coverage surrounding the launch of the UK government’s long awaited 25 year environment plan last week, one could easily have been forgiven for thinking it set out a long term strategy for restoring nature across the four UK nations. In fact, most of its proposals will only apply to England and, to a more limited extent, the UK Overseas Territories.
No vision for collaboration between UK nations
Since the late 90s, most areas of environmental policy have been devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. As such, the new plan largely focuses on those aspects of environmental policy reserved to the UK government.
Of course, many environmental issues do not respect political borders. From the conservation of migratory and wide-ranging species to the management of shared river basins and other natural habitats, few environmental issues can be effectively addressed by working in geographic isolation. As such, it is great to see a commitment in the plan to working with the devolved governments on areas of common interest.
But, beyond this, the plan fails to set out clearly how the four nations could collaborate more effectively to restore the UK’s shared natural heritage. And that is before the challenges posed by Brexit are considered.
Without common EU frameworks, environmental policies could diverge
Most of our environmental standards are currently set at EU level. No other area of policy involves a greater intersection between EU law and devolved powers. Under the current devolution settlements, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are free to make their own environmental policies as long as they comply with the UK’s international obligations, including those set out under EU law.
Therefore, in practice, EU membership has meant the maintenance of a relatively consistent set of approaches to environmental issues across the four nations. Each jurisdiction has been able to operate with a considerable degree of flexibility, but within limits established by the EU’s set of common environmental frameworks.
Remove these, and there is a risk that policies could diverge substantially, undermining effective co-operation and resulting in a less coherent approach to managing shared environmental challenges. In a worst case scenario, it could even lead to a ‘race to the bottom’, ie a damaging process of competitive deregulation whereby individual jurisdictions face pressure to seek a short term economic advantage by lowering their environmental standards, forcing the others to follow suit.
The 25 year environment plan lacks detail
The 25 year environment plan clearly acknowledges the role currently played by EU rules in creating “a consistent approach” to the protection of “common resources” across the UK. However, beyond a high level commitment to working with the devolved governments “to uphold environmental standards”, there is a worrying lack of detail in the plan on how this might actually be achieved.
For example, it contains a welcome commitment to consulting on a new environmental watchdog to fill the post-Brexit environmental governance gap, but fails to acknowledge that this will be a UK-wide gap and so will need to be addressed collaboratively with the devolved governments. Proposals for an England-only watchdog that the devolved nations are free to “make use of” hardly represent a shining example of collaborative working.
In short, the 150 page plan is disappointingly short on specifics when it comes to the future of environmental protection on these islands beyond the borders of England.
A new approach is needed to achieve a Greener UK
Significant decisions regarding our current set of common environmental frameworks are being made in behind closed doors negotiations between a small group of ministers from the UK and devolved governments that sit on the Joint Ministerial Committee (EU Negotiations). Against the backdrop of a major political disagreement regarding the “constitutionally insensitive” European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, it is all too easy to see environmental considerations being overlooked.
Worryingly, a statement issued following the last JMC (EN) meeting appeared to suggest that a decision had “in principle” already been made and that common legislative frameworks would only be maintained “in a minority of areas” post-Brexit. The statement made no mention of what this could mean for the environment, or if any proper assessment of potential environmental consequences had been undertaken.
To some extent, the fate of these frameworks will be determined by the outcome of the UK-EU negotiations, not least because of the commitment by all sides to preserving North-South environmental co-operation on the island of Ireland. Nevertheless, it would be foolish to downplay the significance of the ongoing JMC (EN) negotiations.
If we are to achieve Greener UK’s vision of restoring nature in a generation, we urgently need to see a much more open, transparent, consultative and collaborative approach by the UK and devolved governments in relation to the future of our common environmental frameworks and associated governance arrangements. And we need a much greater focus on securing the best possible environmental outcomes across the four nations.