The UK is two years on from deciding to quit the EU. Miles King looks back over that period and concludes that whilst post Brexit promises to maintain the same levels of protection of the Environment ring hollow, plans to create a more environmentally-friendly farming system may yet happen
Can it really be two years since the Earthquake struck and the UK voted to leave the EU? It seems both much longer, and no time at all. So, on this anniversary, I thought it would be timely to explore what has happened, and what might yet happen, with a particular focus on the impacts on the environment.
Back in 2014 I was looking at what a vote to leave the EU might mean for things like environmental protections, our wildlife; and the future of our farming system. I was pretty sceptical in the run up to the Referendum, about whether things would improve at all for Nature or the Environment as a result of the vote, whichever way it went. This didn’t seem likely, when Defra minister George Eustice talked about the “spirit crushing” EU directives for nature protection, (he was clearly proposing that the protections afforded by the EU would disappear, were we to leave the EU.)
So what do we know so far? Well, thanks to last week’s clowning around in Parliament, and the Remainer Rebels failing to push through with their rebellion, we know that the EU Withdrawal Bill has now, after some major wobbles, passed through Parliament and will very soon become law. This includes a very modest improvement to the proposals for a new Green Watchdog. As I wrote recently, the original proposals were utterly toothless and an embarrassment. They had completely failed to deliver on the Government’s promise that the environmental protections afforded by being in the EU would be maintained, or even strengthened, once we had left. Thanks to the House of Lords amending the original proposals, this forced an amendment, which has improved on the original proposal, but it is still a very weak affair.
Environmental law expert Ruth Chambers, who is lobbying for stronger environmental laws as part of the Brexit process, commented: “The withdrawal bill missed out crucial elements of the EU environmental law framework and did not address the need to carry across provisions from EU directives that are not transposed into UK law.”
Thus far then, on the protection of sites for Nature, The Government scored nul points.
What about farming? The notorious Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) of the European Union has done untold damage to the UK environment - the latest figures on Butterflies show farmland populations have declined by three quarters since 1976. Brexit supporters have always said that, were we to leave the EU, we would be able to design a new farming support policy which would be much more environmentally friendly. I was deeply sceptical about this, knowing how powerful vested interests like the National Farmers Union and National Sheep Association can wield extraordinary influence over our politicians. So you can imagine my surprise when Environment Secretary Michael Gove stated that he wanted to take on these vested interests!
Could we really see a new approach to farm support, where farmers and other landowners are paid to provide public benefits, such as managing farmland with wildlife in mind; helping to clean up our rivers and seas; reducing the amount of fertiliser and pesticides used on farmland; helping to reduce the climate change impact of farming, and other benefits? Because this is what is being proposed.
The Health and Harmony public consultation has asked these questions, and over 40,000 people responded. Now we understand that an Agriculture Bill will be tabled before Parliamentary recess - that is within the next month. So it remains to be seen what will be proposed, but I get the feeling, from my friends who are much closer to the politics of this than I am, that some form of system to pay farmers to produce food and provide public benefits, will be put forward. So, tentatively, the Government gets a small hooray, on reforms to farm payments.
Naturally the National Farmers Union is working behind the scenes as much as it can to try and persuade Mr Gove that what we really need is for lots of money to be ploughed into helping farmers grow more food, which doesn’t do any environmental damage anyway.
But, what is interesting about this current debate, is that they are not being joined by the other big farm lobbying organisations, that is the Country Landowners Association (CLA) and the Tenant Farmers Association. The CLA really does seem to have got the message that the public will not stand for £3 billion a year being handed over from the ever dwindling public coffers, without anything being returned. And the Tenant Farmers have long bemoaned the fact that under the old scheme, the subsidy was paid to the landowner not the tenant, either directly, or indirectly through increased rent.
Of course all the good ideas being considered for a new farm support system could easily be torpedoed. If Trade Secretary Liam Fox succeeds in persuading the Cabinet that we have to sign trade deals which allow cheap, poor-quality (and potentially unsafe) food imports from elsewhere in the world, especially the USA, that will signal the end for large parts of the UK farming industry. Even the current proposals, which mean the UK leaves the EU single market and customs union, will be disastrous for some sectors - the sheep industry in particular.
A final thought on Climate Change. Will the UK move forward more quickly on Climate Change action outside the EU, than we would have inside it? Progress has already slowed dramatically under the Coalition and then subsequent Conservative Governments. Those on the extreme fringe of Brexit (UKIP, Farage, Arron Banks) have always denied the existence of Climate Change. They would love to see us align with the odious neo-Fascist President Trump, not just on trade, but on climate denial too. Meanwhile the EU continues to push for more action on climate change, recently committing to even tougher targets. Perhaps the European Union will be able to forge ahead now, without the UK dragging them back.
In conclusion then, two years on from the Referendum vote, it’s a mixed scorecard. Promises to maintain or strengthen protections for the environment have proved hollow. But plans for radical reform of farm support, to create more environmentally friendly farming, may just happen.
Miles King is an Ecologist, founder of People Need Nature and a regular columnist for Lush Times. These are his own views. Follow him on Twitter @Milesking10