This post is by Professor Maria Lee, co-director of the Centre for Law and the Environment at UCL, and Dr Carolyn Abbot, Senior Lecturer in law at the University of Manchester. Maria has been a member of the Greener UK Brexit Scenarios Group.
There are important stories to be told about the shaping of the Brexit debate by the environmental NGO community, and about the place of legal expertise in that debate. We have been exploring these stories, examining environmental groups’ efforts to influence the Environment Bill in England, and their use and understanding of law and legal expertise. Collaboration has played a significant role in both respects.
It is probably uncontroversial to say that Greener UK, a coalition of 13 environmental organisations, has influenced both the intensity and content of the debate about Brexit’s environmental impact and the Environment Bill. There have been tensions, not all objectives have been achieved, and any organisation’s approach is contestable. But Greener UK, and the community that it represents and is part of, can claim considerable credit for important parts of the Environment Bill.
Collaboration makes the most of expertise
Collaboration brings with it well understood efficiencies for both collaborators and those they converse with, and a united voice is amplified in the public arena. Our findings in the context of the anomalously law heavy Brexit-environment process also speaks to the importance of joint work to making the most of scarce expertise.
Legal expertise is generally in short supply, poorly understood and under appreciated in the environment sector. The community’s ability to call on legal expertise in this Brexit crisis was in part due to effective NGO collaboration. Coalition working not only pooled precious legal resources, but also deepened legal expertise by creating a space for reflection and deliberation, and it raised the profile of legal experts in environmental groups.
As well as benefits, there are of course costs for collaborators, in terms of organisational resources and energy, as well as individual groups’ profile and voice. But, overall, collaboration generally is appreciated by the environmental NGO sector, and we confirmed the assumption that it can make a valuable contribution.
Importantly for the future, Greener UK has ‘worked’ as a collaboration: it has been resilient over a long and challenging period, visible and influential as a coalition, and seems to have generated trust and confidence amongst its members and externally.
Three factors made it work
Our research emphasises the importance of three factors that have made collaboration work. First, the enormous salience of Brexit for the sector, and the associated willingness of individual organisations to set aside their interests for the broader good. Second, the careful attention to working relationships and trust between the individuals and organisations involved. And third, the direct resourcing of Greener UK itself, giving individuals responsibility for the internal and external success or failure of the project. None of these matters should be left to chance. They require strategic thought and planning, commitment by member organisations and individuals, and importantly, resources.
Environmental groups will be relied on to speak out in future
The delay to the Environment Bill is increasingly worrying and, as it stands, the bill is deeply imperfect. Prospects for improvement through parliamentary processes are limited. But it is not premature to think about the role of the environmental community in the future lived experience of the Environment Act.
Any Environment Act will be supremely open ended, as likely to be responsible for environmental degradation as improvement. As ever, we rely on environmental groups to monitor progress and perhaps cry foul. Far beyond that, what the Environment Act stands for will be shaped by those who turn up. The environmental NGO community can be ‘repeat players’, choosing the battles that create the right debate, that set expectations about how the act will work, that place the hard fought new environmental institutions, processes and standards at the centre of public life.
Those who seek to tame the institutional strengths of the Environment Act will certainly be using all of their expertise, which must be matched by the environmental community. Legal expertise in environmental groups can be more than a tool for campaigners, and more than litigation: it provides distinctive ways of seeing the world and changing the world.