Since 1973, membership of the EU has played a significant role in shaping environmental policy in the UK. As stated by the Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee in a letter to the Secretary of State for Exiting the EU last July: “There are few areas...where the decision to leave the EU will have a more widespread impact than the environment.”

Although the Prime Minister’s speech on Brexit last month provided a degree of clarity on the Government’s plans for leaving the EU, the environment was notably absent. However, following the judgement by the Supreme Court on the need for Parliament to have a formal say in the Article 50 process, the Prime Minister agreed to publish a ‘White Paper’ this week setting out further details of the Government’s plans for Brexit.

The substance of the paper published at lunchtime today is similar to the speech given by the Prime Minister last month. This time, however, the environment does get a mention.

Specifically, the paper reiterates the Government’s manifesto commitment to ensuring we become the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than we found it” and also makes reference to the UK’s climate targets. In addition, it rightly notes the significant role that the EU law and policy currently plays in influencing the UK’s agriculture and fisheries sectors, including when it comes to environment-related matters. According to the paper, the Government’s plans for these sectors after the UK leaves the EU will include delivering “a cleaner, healthier environment”

However, while these are undoubtedly welcome statements, the details of how such ambitions will be achieved in practice remain unclear and many questions remain unanswered.  For example...

 ...on environmental standards

Whatever the UK’s future relationship with the EU, it is essential that the Government commits to retaining existing environmental standards if we are to leave the environment in “a better state than we found it” for the next generation.

The White Paper repeats the Government’s commitment to converting the body of existing EU law into domestic law via the so-called ‘Great Repeal Bill’ in order to provide legal certainty as we leave the EU.  However, the future of these laws post-Brexit remains far from clear.

Once we have left the EU, we will be free to decide which laws “to keep, amend, or repeal”. To date, the Government has not provided any firm reassurances that existing standards of environmental protection will be upheld.

As such, it will be particularly important to ensure that delegated powers granted to Ministers in the Great Repeal Bill allowing them to amend primary legislation via secondary legislation are both subject to appropriate limitations regarding their scope/purpose and to appropriate parliamentary scrutiny/control. Today’s announcement that the Government will produce a separate ‘White Paper’ on the Great Repeal Bill will hopefully provide further details on this critical issue.

 ...on future governance arrangements

Although the UK will be leaving the jurisdiction of the Court of Justice of the European Union, the Government has nevertheless committed to continuing “to honour our international commitments and follow international law.”  

However, what remains unclear are the replacement governance arrangements/mechanisms that the Government plans to put in place domestically so that it can be held to account in delivering against its national and international environmental commitments. To date, it has remained largely silent on this matter.

As noted recently by the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee: “...simply transposing legislation without replacing the governance arrangements will lead to significant weakening of environmental protections in many areas, such as the lack of reference to a higher court and the absence of a body updating and enforcing legislation.”

These are not the only questions that remain unanswered.  For example, although the White Paper reaffirms the important short-term commitments that the Government has already made regarding the future of EU funding streams (e.g. wildlife-friendly farming payments), there remains considerable uncertainty in the medium-to-long term regarding what might replace a range of vital EU funding streams that benefit the natural environment (e.g. LIFE).  Clearly, there is currently a large mismatch between stated government ambition for securing nature's recovery and available resources.  We hope and expect the emerging 25 year plan for nature will confirm how these resources will be secured.

It will be some time yet before we can predict with any confidence what Brexit might ultimately mean for the natural environment - negotiating UK withdrawal from the EU and then determining our future relationship with the EU is a deeply complex process.

Rest assured that we shall - as part of the Greener UK coalition - do everything in our power to ensure that the environment is not overlooked in this process and that we make Brexit work for nature.

  • I do wonder if, when talking about the environment, the Government only consider things that directly impact on humans as being important and worthy of preservation. They might value cleaner air, flood alleviation, greener energy etc, but cannot see the difference between ancient woodland and newly planted trees in mitigation -(well, they're just trees, aren't they?!)Any creature that can't be proven to have huge, irreplaceable value to humans will have no consideration.