RSPB's Senior Policy Office, Alistair Taylor, runs the rule over the latest assessment of how European countries are implementing the laws that protect nature.

Just last week the importance of legal protection for Britain’s special places was highlighted on this blog in relation to the Greater Wash Special Protection Area (SPA).

Today a series of scorecards have been published on how well eighteen European countries, including the UK, are doing with implementing the laws that protect such places. The scorecards have been compiled by BirdLife Europe, WWF, European Environment Bureau (EEB) and Friends of the Earth Europe (FoEE) and are based on an analysis by national NGOs, including the RSPB in the UK, of the state of implementation of two key EU nature laws, the Birds and Habitats Directives.

Readers with long memories will recall that these two laws were the subject of a Fitness Check back in 2015, intended to assess how well they were working for nature. The Fitness Check reported in 2016 that the laws were fine, but poor implementation was letting down nature, and over half a million Europeans (including over 100,000 from the UK) called on their national governments to substantially improve matters.

The scorecards published today follow on from this check, with eighteen countries being scored on how well they are doing on key aspects of these laws, including transposing these laws into national legislation, designating sites, and making funding available for nature conservation.

So how does the UK shape up? In January, at the launch of the 25 Year Environment Plan, the Prime Minister announced that “Britain has always been a world leader in understanding and protecting the natural world.” The scorecard suggests the UK still has some way to go if it is to be a world leader. Of the eighteen countries assessed, thirteen have achieved “Doing Well” scores for at least one of the 11 criteria, while the UK has not. The UK is by no means bottom of the class, with sufficient progress being made against all eleven criteria to avoid an “unsatisfactory” score, while in sixteen of the countries assessed at least one criteria attracted an “unsatisfactory” score. However, the UK notably lags behind Belgium, Denmark, Hungary and Luxemburg, with “Could Do Better” scores for site designation, species protection, funding and resources, and monitoring.

This assessment is in relation to two EU laws, the Birds and Habitats Directives, which could be under threat as a result of Brexit. In her speech at the launch of the 25 Year Environment Plan the Prime Minister stated that the UK, “will incorporate all existing EU environmental regulations into domestic law when we leave”. The scorecard published today highlights that while twelve of the countries assessed have achieved “Doing Well” scores for transposition of these nature laws into their national legislation, the UK’s score in relation to this is “Could Do Better”. A number of areas are highlighted in the scorecard where UK transposition of these laws is not up to scratch.

The scorecard also highlights that as a result of Brexit, the UK will need to introduce new governance arrangements to ensure robust regulatory, monitoring, enforcement and other functions currently provided by the EU institutions. While Environment Secretary Michael Gove has recognised the domestic ‘governance gap’ that will open up as the UK exits the EU, a consultation on a new body to enforce and uphold environment laws after Brexit has yet again been delayed.

Nature conservation laws are just one of the policy areas which UK NGOs are keeping track of during the Brexit process through the Greener UK Risk Tracker. As most of the UK’s environmental protections stem from EU law, and so could be changed as a result of Brexit, very close attention is being paid to how these laws are being brought across into UK law. You can read more about it here.

If the UK is to be a world leader, “could do better” is not the way to go about it.