How can we move beyond a salvage operation for nature conservation as the Brexit arrangements unfold?
Keeping what we’ve got
I will be pretty amazed if nature conservation gets more than a fleeting acknowledgement over the next two years as the Brexit negotiations develop. In seven years of Conservative government, the environment has consistently been little more than a footnote in Westminster thinking. The Great Repeal Act may well transpose the Habitats and Species Directives into English law but without the threat of sanctions to enforce the law as currently happens with European Directives, the UK Government is likely to pick and choose the situations where they will take the transposed Directives seriously. It may be that in the medium to long-term SSSIs will once more become the cornerstone of our wildlife protection as was the case prior to the Habitats and Birds Directives. Collectively we should be focusing upon improvements to the existing domestic legislation that protects our wildlife rather than hoping for something new to come out of the Brexit negotiations.
The ‘action man’ Minister
It would not surprise me to learn that the collective intake of breath upon the announcement of Michael Gove as SoS Environment, was enough to result in a tidal surge! The big question is, has he learned from his time as Education Secretary? His initial comments following the election acknowledged that the Government needed to look to develop more consensus in its policies and action. Was he sincere in saying this? Only time will tell but this is what we know about the man: he is ambitious; he is bright (whatever we like to think) and he will want to make his mark. There is no way he will sit, practically invisible, like his predecessor. There is another thing, he is a political heavyweight. If he can be brought on side then he could make a significant contribution. His first task will be to deal with the two nature conservation-related infraction proceedings that currently hang over the UK, the first relating to conservation objectives on SACs and the second on rotational burning of vegetation on blanket bog. His response to resolving these will tell us something of his attitude to the environment.
Renewing the conservation sector with a strength of conviction
Peter Shirley is right in that the nature conservation sector should focus upon science and evidence relating to nature conservation. People understand the importance of clean air and clean water as the integrity of ‘the environment’. But these in themselves will not turn around the wildlife declines of the last 40 years. I agree that there is a great opportunity before us but I fear that it will not be an opportunity that will be exploited positively. The first indication that the (failed) business-as-usual model is continuing will be the approach to any new agri-environment scheme. If all the discussion is around prescriptions or cutting red-tape then it will have failed before it has even begun.
The nature conservation sector as a whole is weak and lacking in both leadership and conviction. The problem that faces us is not lack of evidence or science but the lack of will to do something about what the evidence is telling us. Our nature conservation leaders are failing us and they need to be replaced. The question for me is not around the future after Brexit but rather something more fundamental: how we go about developing nature conservation leaders who are able to convince the public and in turn the politicians, that urgent and sustained action is required to restore the natural heritage of the nation.
An ecologist specialising in the English uplands. Over the last 24 years he has worked for JNCC, RSPB, English Nature and Natural England.
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