Environment and wildlife groups are busy trying to influence policies before and after the election and following the Great Repeal Act. As we fight our corner we should stick closely to the real priorities in nature conservation and promote the science and evidence which justifies our agenda.
Not only do we have to come to terms with the Great Repeal Act, which will transfer EU laws and their accompanying regulations into UK law, but we also must deal with a general election. Despite all the protestations to the contrary from the leavers, the remainers will inevitably use this to extend the debate about whether we should leave or not, the terms of either path, and the effects on the UK’s environmental, social and economic infrastructure. The Government can surely no longer pretend that this will be both straightforward and effective, especially in the case of environmental and wildlife protection laws, most of which are tied to our EU membership.
Everybody wants reform
Merely transferring laws is not enough, the opportunity should be taken to reform and strengthen them. This is being campaigned for by the Greener UK Coalition, a grouping of 13 of the usual culprits (including the Wildlife Trusts, Greenpeace, the National Trust and the RSPB). They are not alone in seeking legislative reform, but most business organisations, and many politicians, want a lot of the laws weakened or rescinded. Developers are rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect of EU ‘red tape’ disappearing. That’s the red tape of course which protects species such as bats and great crested newts, and rare and vulnerable habitats such as heathland, woodlands and wetlands. Many of our most valuable wildlife sites are only protected in a European context and this will no longer apply. We will not have bodies to hold others to account and impose sanctions: currently, within the EU, the Government itself can be sanctioned for not enforcing legislation. It cannot hold itself to account when we leave.
Another issue is that many relevant provisions and protections are in other sectors, in particular agriculture, where major reform of the mish-mash which is farm support is inevitable. Remember that the UK was in the forefront of resistance to the EU ban on neonicotinoids, a once widely-used pesticide which has been proved to harm bees and other pollinating insects. With all aspects of the huge body of law now open to scrutiny in Parliament, there are bound to be further challenges to the ban. There are also those who would like us to allow continued use of glyphosate and other chemicals proscribed in the EU.
Never mind the countryside, feel the functions
In this field, so to speak, former Environment Minister Owen Paterson is active in the debate about reform of the Common Agriculture Policy in particular. He may not find favour amongst environmentalists, but, setting aside his membership of the Ridley dynasty, he does seem to understand the issues, including soil health, water management and pollinators, and sounds persuasive when he talks about removing all farm subsidies. He looks to be an unlikely ally of George Monbiot with regard to reducing sheep numbers, pointing out that when New Zealand stopped subsidising sheep farming its national flock more than halved from about 70 million to 30 million.
That apart, his thinking, alongside that of the Greener UK Coalition, may provide a useful prism in splitting the spectrum of countryside management into its food, social, cultural, wildlife and environmental services components. He even talks about paying for public goods with public money, a very unfashionable concept in this neo-liberal age.
Not only, therefore, Owen Paterson and others of his ilk, but also the Greener UK Coalition, recognise that the current anomalies and difficulties could be mitigated by major legislative reform. Perhaps the different camps can agree on that, if not on the purpose, shape and content of the new laws and regulations. The Government is, or was, preparing a 25-year plan for the environment, including wildlife protection, and a similar document for agriculture. It’s not clear to me whether these commitments will be carried forward if (when?) the Conservatives win the election. This is a unique opportunity for bold reform, perhaps merging these two elements into one world-leading piece of environmental legislation. The Wildlife Trusts, as a member of the Greener UK coalition, says: “We believe that the people of these islands deserve a world-class environment: clean air, clear water, a stable climate, healthy seas and thriving wildlife in the places we love.”
The Coalition itself quotes a House of Lords report published in February which “…identified the risk of a vacuum in the oversight and enforcement of environmental legislation, and the challenge of effectively maintaining the extensive existing environmental protections through the Repeal Bill”. The Coalition wants to achieve a greener UK, essentially by not only keeping the best of our current EU protections, but also reforming the rest, in the fields of nature conservation, resource use, waste and pollution, farming and fishing. This is very challenging, to say the least. There will be much competition for politicians’ attention, other interests will want different approaches and outcomes, and the background noise of the election and its aftermath will obscure and distort the debate.
Focus, focus, focus
This may be controversial, but I think that the nature conservation world should let its environmental allies do the worrying and the work on wider issues, such as waste, air and water quality and wellbeing. Without, of course, losing sight of our connections and mutual benefits to and with these, so the links with nature are made. We need to focus on exactly what is needed to maintain and improve species, sites and habitat protection. The package has to include robust research and monitoring systems, effective mechanisms, including sanctions, to ensure compliance with laws and regulations, adequate resourcing, and meaningful cooperation with partners in the EU and other countries untainted by political prejudice. This is not the time to spread ourselves too thinly, but to drive home key messages about nature’s vital underpinning of all of the other agendas.
We are faced with what maybe a once-in-a-generation opportunity for radical changes in thinking, policy and activity. It would perhaps not be amiss to return, at least partly, to the science-driven days of the 1950s and 60s. This would complement the current more holistic approach which has evolved in recent decades. As I am drafting this in the week that scientists all over the world took to the streets in defence of their work and methods, this idea also seems to be against current trends, but we all know how important the science base is, and how much stronger new legislation and policies will be if they are founded on that base. Those of us with ‘the gift of the gab’ may be good at the ‘oohs and ahs’, and ‘isn’t nature wonderful’ stuff, but the scientists are needed to provide evidence and justification, to ensure it’s all there for future generations.
So, we need not only the usual earnest hopes, appeals and aspirations, but also some innovative thinking, recalling and reviving some successful past ways of working, and a close focus on core issues such as what the priorities should be for wildlife.
Former Chair of BANC, nature columnist with the Birmingham Post, and former Director of the Wildlife Trust for Birmingham and the Black Country.