Brexit continues to pose serious threats to our environment. This week, Lush Times columnist and ecologist, Miles King writes about the latest proposals to weaken forty years of hard-won protections
Now that the consultation over the future of farm support in England has finished, Defra - the UK Government‘s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs - tells us that more than 44,000 responses have been received. So many thanks to all of you who took the time to let Michael Gove know what you think about the right approach for farmers to be supported in the future.
Hot on the heels of that consultation (as if Defra was sitting on its hands and twiddling its thumbs) it has launched the next Brexit-related search for answers - namely, what to do about the “Governance Gap”.
The Governance Gap is the space which leaving the EU will create, because laws derived from Brussels are ultimately enforced by Brussels. When Brussels is no longer part of the picture, who enforces those laws?
You might think, “ah well, we won’t need to worry about that because we won’t be subject to any laws from Brussels any more.” But you would be wrong. Because the Government has committed to transfer all EU law across onto the UK statute book (the book of laws - and no there isn’t an actual book) at least in the first instance. And since most of our environmental laws are derived from Europe, this is a very, very big deal for the Environment.
European Law has helped to reverse or at least slow the continuing decline in our environment - covering everything from birds to beaches, river water to air quality, invasive species to electronic waste.
Leaving the EU (assuming that is actually going to happen) means we either lose all these protections or duplicate them. Some certainly want us to lose them - Tory politician and hard line Brexiteer Jacob Rees Mogg, who is the MP for North East Somerset, for example has suggested that we would be perfectly fine with the same level of environmental protection as India. But Environment Secretary, Michael Gove, who is keen to be seen to be ‘green’, has come under intense pressure to do the right thing.
Last Autumn, during the passage of the EU withdrawal bill through the Commons, Gove promised to bring forward proposals for a new green watchdog which would ‘plug’ the Governance Gap. We could call it the Green Plug. And last week he did just that, launching a consultation asking people’s views on what the Green Plug might look like, and how it would work.
Radio 4’s Today programme (55 minutes in) had a brief report on it last Thursday, in which, typically, anchorman John Humphrys displayed his Brexity credentials by framing the issue as “Brussels decrees and we obey”. This is arrant nonsense, but just the sort of thing Today listeners have come to expect from Humphrys, reportedly causing many life-long Today listeners to abandon the programme in protest. The BBC reported Cabinet arguments over the Green Plug, including complaints that the new Regulator would prevent the claimed Brexit Bonus of freeing up red tape.
There’s a delicious irony here, in that the Tory MP who caused Michael Gove to make the commitment to the Green Plug in the Commons was my own MP, Sir Oliver Letwin. Letwin also set up the supposedly neutral Red Tape Initiative, which was criticized soon after its creation for having a bias against regulation. The RTI has yet to publish its recommendations and it remains to be seen whether it will challenge any environmental protections provided by EU law.
Apparently the Treasury is worried about how much Regulation would cost the economy, while others (perhaps in the Housing Department) feel Ministers should be free to decide policy, unfettered by pesky regulators. And this is a story which has been running for many years, because the EU has successfully protected the environment against house-building and other infrastructure projects - Dibden Bay being a good example. The fact that sensible regulation helps the economy and society, seems to have slipped by the more fundamentalist free-marketeers in the Cabinet - again.
I can see you’re all on tenterhooks now, wondering - tell us, tell us, what will the Green Plug look like? I’m afraid it is, as you would expect, a paper tiger.
Brussels could levy fines totalling tens of thousands of Euros a day for repeated and gross infringements of EU environmental law - and it did. Just the threat of proceedings was often enough to achieve change. Having said that, Brussels could be a lot tougher as an environmental protector.
The epic battle between Client Earth and Defra over the UK’s abysmal air quality continues to run, despite repeated Court judgements against Government inaction. In this case, the EU summoned Environment Ministers from several countries to Brussels in January, giving them one last chance before court action. (It’s worth noting that in Germany, a Court threatened the Bavarian state Environment Minister with prison if he failed to act on Munich’s air pollution).
Could such a thing happen here? Could the Green Plug take Michael Gove to court under threat of imprisonment should he fail to implement an environmental law? Let’s just say that stretches the bounds of implausibility beyond breaking point. No, the proposals are that the Green Plug would issue “advisory notices” for failures. If they were ignored, then, as a very last resort, it could issue “binding notices”. But as there are no Muscles from Brussels waiting in the background to enforce these notices, they will mean nothing.
And actually it’s considerably worse than that.
Under EU law, environmental law could not be ignored on the grounds of simple short term economic interests. The Green Plug proposals seriously weaken this position. The needs of the environment will have to be “balanced” against economic competitiveness, prosperity and job creation. This completely undermines the principles of Sustainable Development, which sees the Environment as being at the heart of the economy, a key element of prosperity and helping create sustainable jobs. The Green Plug then, is a recipe for ignoring the environment when it gets in the way. It takes us back to the point before 1980 when EU environment laws started to apply in the UK.
Once again the public and Civil Society will have to use its meagre resources to advocate what is needed, to try and defend the very hard fought victories of the last forty years. I’ll update you regularly as this campaign develops, so you can all play your part.
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