Last week saw the opening salvo in the negotiations about the future of the UK-EU trading relationship.  The EU released its draft negotiation mandate (33 pages) and the UK its written statement (2 pages) on the same topic. 

While both sides generally take very different approaches to negotiations – the EU being very open so that the 27 Member States can align behind a position while the UK keeps its cards close to its chest – these announcements give an early indication of intent.

This matters from an environmental point of view as we do not want either side to gain competitive advantage by trashing the environment.  This has been an underlying principle guiding the Single Market so it is logical that if friction-less trade (with zero tariffs and zero quotas) is to continue in the future then there should be a level playing field in terms of environmental standards and independent arrangements to ensure compliance.

Yet, it is unclear whether this is what the UK wants.  While it is theoretically possible to have regulatory autonomy and maintaining similar standards, early signs from the UK are not good.

First, we revealed last week (in a report commissioned by the RSPB, WWF-UK and The Wildlife Trusts) that the Agriculture Bill for England has a significant loophole as the obligation for all farmers to respect certain environmental standards such as hedgerow management and soil protection is lacking.  This would seriously undermine the welcome reforms to farm payments.  We need a level playing field to ensure that the majority of farmers who want to manage their land sustainably are not undercut by the few who do not (either at home or through any trading relationship).


 Yellowhammer flock returning to hedgerow after feeding on the ground at RSPB Hope Farm (Ben Andrew

Second, as I wrote last week all the good intentions to secure environmentally responsible fishing through the UK Fisheries Bill will be for nought without mechanisms to hold people to account for failure to end overfishing and uphold the discards ban. 

And third, the Financial Times reported last week (behind their paywall here) that the Chancellor intends announce, as part of next month’s Budget, a Brexit Red Tape Challenge to invite people to nominate areas where they want environmental divergence from the EU.  We knew this was coming as Mr Javid had announced his red tape challenge at the Conservative party conference in October but it was put on hold because of the December general election.  He promised at the time: “From retail to green tech, we’ll have the opportunity to design smarter, more flexible regulation.  Liberating our entrepreneurs, small businesses and consumers from the burden of overbearing bureaucracy, wherever we see it. Doing what a good pro-business government does.” 

Yet, as my colleague Kate Jennings laid out in a series of tweets in response to this announcement, this does feel a bit like Groudhog Day.  Kate said

Yet another 'red tape challenge' - which will, one can only assume, result in the same conclusions as all of the previous ones…

…that the public, industry and NGOs support good regulation as a fundamental prerequisite for securing public goods like clean air and water and the protection of nature - not to mention health and safety, building standards etc…

…And it's not like we're short on recent examples of what happens when regulations are inadequate and/or are not robustly implemented - #Grenfell  for a start. 

…AND it's not like we haven't had a Red Tape Challenge asking exactly this question since the referendum. Oliver Letwin's Red Tape Challenge which reported in Nov '18 asked these questions of members of Tory, Lab & LibDem, industries & NGOs see here

…only to find that in many cases what was wanted was more consistent and robust implementation.  This was certainly the case for our nature laws eg see here

…So how about for once instead of spending tax payers money on another review, it be used instead to take forward the spectacularly consistent recommendations of all previous Red Tape Challenges to improve the state of the places we live & our natural life support systems?”

Damage to the environment is one of the clearest examples of market failure which is why need active governments prepared to intervene.  It is also why we shall (both here in the UK and with our BirdLife partners in Europe) be doing everything that we can to ensure the future UK-EU trading relationship leads to a race to the top for environmental standards.  This would be the right response to the climate and ecological emergency.