Brexit and the Environment

By Logan Robin

One of the things which sets Hope For The Future apart from other organisations is its location. Being situated in the heart of Sheffield has enabled HFTF to access large pools of talent at the city’s two large universities - Sheffield Hallam and the University of Sheffield - and forge links with key academics and think tanks, of which there is a large number. One example is SPERI - the Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute - which has produced a lot of research on the links between growth and the environment. A further example is Brexit & the Environment whose co-chair, Professor Charlie Burns, is based at the University of Sheffield’s politics department. 

Professor Burns gave her inaugural lecture on Wednesday the 21st of November, titled ‘Can the Awkward Partner be a Green Leader? Brexit and the Future of UK Environmental Policy.’ The lecture dedicated itself to the EU Withdrawal Agreement which had been published just one week earlier. The quick turnaround time from the information being made public to Burns presenting the lecture speaks to her ability to quickly condense huge swaths of information, and this was also in evidence in the way she presented the information. She was kind enough to summarise her answer to the lecture’s title before it even officially started: “yes in principle but probably not!”

Professor Burns began by pointing out that three of the policy areas most impacted by Brexit - environmental, farming, and fisheries policies - fall under the purview of the Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs [Defra]. This is further hammered home by the fact that Defra has received £100 million in extra funding, out of a total of £400 million put aside by the treasury to deal with Brexit (including the creation of two new departments: the Department for Exiting the European Union [DexEU], and the Department for Industry and Trade [DIT]). With this money Defra intends to have hired 1,200 new members of staff by March 2019. (Institute for Government). 

Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs 

The focus of the lecture then turned to Defra’s Secretary of State Michael Gove. He has been a far more environmentally active secretary of state than many had expected. Prior to his arrival in post, the Government had pushed many key environmental policies in to the long grass. But within a very short time of his arrival the Government announced a new 25 year action plan. It is highly likely that having a “big beast” politician like Gove is a huge asset to Defra in terms of getting policy moving (where less experienced ministers might succumb to inertia or outside influences), and in terms of fighting for his department’s interests in cabinet so it can get the money it needs and time in parliament to pass its bills. 

However Defra can come unstuck in the detail of policy. Professor Burns pointed out that whilst the action plan gives the impression of phasing out all waste by 2050 (and all plastic waste by 2042) the document often uses qualifying phrases. The pledge is actually to “work towards eliminating all avoidable waste by 2050 and all avoidable plastic waste by end of 2042”. Key words here being “work towards” and “avoidable”. It could be argued most current waste (plastic or otherwise) is not “avoidable” and therefore the pledge is already largely achieved. 

Agriculture Bill 

This slight weakness is detectable in other Defra areas also. For instance, the Agriculture bill is currently on its way through parliament. The purpose of the bill is to replace the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) - the mechanism by which subsidies are given to rural farmers (helping maintain the countryside). The CAP has been heavily criticised over the years for giving money indiscriminately and often to large landowners at the expense of small scale farmers. Replacing the CAP then is one of the major ways Gove has pledge to achieve a “Green Brexit” which will put “environmental policy at the heart of England’s domestic and international priorities.” 

The problem lies in the weakness of language. For instance, the opening of the bill reads: 

The Secretary of State may give financial assistance for or in connection with any of the following purposes—

(a) Managing land or water in a way that protects or improves the environment

(b) Supporting public access to and enjoyment of the countryside, farmland or woodland and better understanding of the environment;

(c) Managing land or water in a way that maintains, restores or enhances cultural heritage or natural heritage;

(d) Mitigating or adapting to climate change;

(e) Preventing, reducing or protecting from environmental hazards;

(f) Protecting or improving the health or welfare of livestock;

(g) Protecting or improving the health of plants

The problem here lies in the word “may”. Indeed it has been suggested by MPs on the public bill committee responsible for line-by-line scrutiny of the legislation that this word should be replaced with “must” to ensure that current and future Defra Secretaries of State continue to pay money towards these worthwhile goals, especially climate change mitigation and adaptation (point d). If the bill passes in its current form there will be no such obligation. 

The Withdrawal Agreement : Back Stops & Governance Gaps 

By this point Professor Burns has set up much of the background of UK environmental governance, so begins looking to the future about what the Withdrawal Agreement could mean for UK environmental policies if it comes in to force. 

The important part of the Withdrawal Agreement is the ‘back stop’ which will come in to force if no long term relationship can be agreed after the end of the transition period, some time between 2020 and 2022. What the agreement and its accompanying political declaration does say is encouraging. Not only has a non-regression clause been included in the agreement, but also specifies that new bodies will need to be created to oversee this, creating accountability. The point of the non-regression clause is to ensure that the UK maintains separate but equal regulations after the end of the transition period, and stop either side undercutting the other or creating a ‘race to the bottom’ on environmental standards. 

Defra has already been reluctant to spell out exactly what this new body might look like, but has done so in response to pressure from NGOs, especially the umbrella organisation Greener UK. The details showed that they had made a body which only covered England, not the entire UK. So - as plans currently stand - if the back stop comes in to force there will be a governance gap where Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland’s situation and obligations vis-á-vis environmental regulation will be entirely unclear, and maybe even unregulated. 

Additionally, it is unclear what will happen if either side improves their environmental standards - as both have pledged to do. If both sides had committed not only to non-regression (i.e. neither side may let its environmental regulations get worse) but also to parity or ‘dynamic alignment’ (i.e. if one side improves its regulations, so must the other) then it could create a “race to the top” instead of a ‘race to the bottom’. (ukandeu.ac.uk) 

Next Steps 

No one can know at this stage if the Withdrawal Agreement will even be passed by parliament. Burns herself made the point that she may have to come back in a few weeks to give the lecture all over again as the political situation changes. But notwithstanding the possibility of the rejection of the Withdrawal Agreement on 11 December there are some key messages to take away from the research. Brexit will have enormous consequences for environmental governance. Whether or not that will be a good thing depends highly on the political developments of the coming months and years. Defra and its leadership have made a public effort of trying to achieve a “Green Brexit”, but they seem unlikely to deliver without external pressure. Much of this pressure will have to come from parliament and the MPs who sit in it. And those MPs will not create that pressure unless they themselves are being talked to by NGOs and concerned constituents.