HomeBrexitBen Pontin’s new book doesn’t make an environmental case for Brexit

Ben Pontin’s new book doesn’t make an environmental case for Brexit

pontin smallThis post is by Nigel Haigh, former director of the Institute for European Environmental Policy and chair of Green Alliance from 1989 to 1998.

Few people now remember the peculiar character of British environmental policy that existed before the EEC (now EU) began to exert an influence in the mid-1970s.  Many reading this blog may not even have been born then.

Professor Ben Pontin of Cardiff University has looked back on the ‘British way’ in a stimulating book, The environmental case for Brexit, which confronts environmentalists with an important question: to what extent will the UK revert to the British way, if UK and EU legislation diverges after Brexit, assuming it happens?

In 1972, just before the UK joined the EEC, and when the EEC was preparing to enter the environmental field, the great UN Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment established environmental protection as a major subject for international attention. The UK, which had created the world’s first Department of the Environment (DoE) two years earlier, was able to make great claims for its own long experience.  Having almost singlehandedly invented industrial pollution it could fairly say that it was a pioneer in controlling it.

Before the conference, the DoE commissioned four reports to solicit opinions and raise awareness.  Pollution: nuisance or nemesis was produced under the chairmanship of Eric Ashby, the first chairman of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution. This had a passage headed ‘The British way: each case on its merits’ and claimed that, unlike other countries, the UK could rely on several decades of practical experience.

The EU changed the view of environmental policy
Taking each case on its merits, it suggested a British aversion to centrally fixed standards and a preference for giving a large measure of discretion to the relevant authorities. This made British policy extremely opaque, as I discovered when I embarked on my first project at IEEP in the early 1980s to assess the impact that the EEC was already having.  So much was not written down and the only way I could make sense of the British way was to talk to officials, regulators, industrialists and NGOs. They convinced me that “British environmental policy is a deeply rooted plant which over the last ten years has shown fresh growth under a new stimulus”, the opening sentence of my resulting book, EEC environmental policy and Britain: an essay and a handbook (ENDS 1984).  I was able to  show how British and EEC policy were different in character (one being explicit and one not), and everything that has happened since confirms my conclusion that the EU has changed how  environmental policy is now thought about, enunciated and even put into practice.

I found, for example, that protection of water and air had quite different theoretical underpinnings, and that officials and practitioners did not even know this.  Put bluntly, British policy was a muddle and the EEC/EU helped it to clarify the muddle. We cannot, of course, say how quickly the UK would have modernised itself on its own, but there is no doubt that the EEC/EU forced the pace.  I believe that the conflicts, though often painful, allowed member states to learn from each other. We can debate whether the UK really needs the Birds Directive, but everyone knew that France and Italy, where migratory birds were regularly slaughtered, would never have legislated on their own. Birds in Europe are better off for it.

I mention my own work all those years ago because Pontin pays me the compliment of quoting from it in his book.  Few others had analysed the British way against any outside benchmark, so he sought me out and we had several enjoyable conversations. I made it clear that I disagreed profoundly with the message of his book’s title but nevertheless encouraged him to explore the ‘deeply rooted plant’ of British policy for which I have qualified affection.

Pontin devotes chapters to only four subjects (waste, rivers, air quality, habitat conservation) and then largely focuses on one item of EU legislation for each topic to make his case that the British way is better. The most valuable part is the historical introduction describing how Britain approached each topic before it joined the EU.

An unbalanced assessment
The book’s main fault is that his selection of items of EU legislation is partial and far too small from which to draw general conclusions. He criticises the Water Framework Directive (nothing new there, but he fails to say it could be cured by amendment) and he concludes that the UK, being an island, can manage on its own.

He seems not to recognise that the Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive was driven, in part, by the need to protect the North Sea.  Indeed, he avoids any EU legislation that deals with transfrontier problems such as chemicals, acid rain, ozone layer and climate change, and he does not explain how the UK will deal with them. He does not recognise that the EU can exert pressure globally in a way the UK on its own will not be able to. Brazil today is an obvious example. I cannot in this space cover all my reasons for finding the book unbalanced and I refer readers to Professor Maria Lee’s much fuller critique.

I regret that Pontin does not more precisely define the British way by contrasting it with, say, the German way, and does not analyse its cons as well as its pros.  He insists that the British way has persisted alongside EU legislation, but does not suggest what characteristics of EU policy, acquired by the UK from its EU membership, should persist in a post-Brexit Britain.

I cannot help feeling pleased that he has failed to make an environmental case for Brexit.


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Green Alliance is a charity and independent think tank focused on ambitious leadership and increased political support for environmental solutions in the UK. This blog provides space for commentary and analysis around environmental politics and policy issues as they affect the UK. The views of external contributors do not necessarily represent those of Green Alliance.

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