How green is our Brexit?
So what’s the future for our natural heritage once this country has departed the EU? CPRE environment expert Graham Warren considers the options…
The natural environment barely got a mention in the pre-Brexit referendum barrage of half-truths and ‘alternative facts’ and would, even now, struggle to make the top 10 of the government’s shopping list.
It is difficult to evaluate clear environmental gains and losses in isolation from agriculture and other aspects of land use and our natural heritage will perhaps prove especially vulnerable – ‘up for sale’ as it were – in the late-stage trade-offs in the Brexit negotiations.
Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, sees our proposed departure from the EU as an opportunity to treat agriculture and the environment as paired objectives.
The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which is paying landowners £3 billion a year based on farmed acreage, would be replaced with schemes for farmers who enhance the natural environment by planting woodland, establishing wildlife habitat, increasing biodiversity, improving water quality and returning cultivated land to wildflower meadows.
This vision was revealed in Defra’s 25 Year Environment Plan, launched in January with a pledge to eliminate waste, create new safeguards for wildlife, connect more children with nature, improve air and water quality and curb the scourge of plastic waste in the world’s oceans.
The agenda for this ‘green future’ includes:
Extension of the five-pence plastic-bag charge to small retailers, with restricted dependence on single-use plastics and inclusion of plastic-free aisles in supermarkets.
Creation of 500,000 hectares of new habitat for endangered species and support for farmers in turning fields into meadows and replenishing depleted soils.
Provision of £5.7 million to establish a ‘northern forest’.
Increased investment in overseas aid to combat poaching and illegal trade in wildlife and to extend marine protection areas.
A new environmental watchdog to hold government to account for environmental standards and set out an approach to agriculture and fisheries management.
Promotion of a net environmental-gain principle, locally and nationally, enabling housing development “without increasing the overall burden on developers”.
Creation of green corridors linking otherwise isolated habitats.
The plan embodies the principle of ‘natural capital’, founded on:
A better understanding of the benefits from nature.
Recognition of the environmental assets of clean air and water, wholesome food and opportunities for recreation.
A commitment to interact with our natural environment as an essential element in sustaining the economy.
The plan sits alongside the programme for implementing the Paris Agreement to cut carbon emissions and control climate change.
There will also be a review of the national planning and building regulations to ensure the planning system delivers improved flood resilience and sustainable drainage systems and makes provision for new developments to deliver a ‘biodiversity net-gain’, aiming at the least environmentally damaging locations.
An outline of a 25-year environment plan put forward by Defra in September 2015 envisaged an investment of £3 billion from the CAP to enhance the countryside with a programme focused on Green Belts, Areas of Outstanding Beauty, National Parks and Sites of Special Scientific Interest.
However, this will no longer be available post-Brexit.
Other investments totalling £20m were also identified but will be UK-funded and incorporated in the 25 Year Plan announced this year.
Have these been fully costed and what are the chances of this ambitious programme surviving Brexit, given that our departure would evidently incur severance penalties and possibly trigger a recession?
Further, our national debt has increased over the last 10 years from £560bn to £1,760bn (36 per cent to 85 per cent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), a rate unprecedented in peacetime) and is expected to increase.
This is bad timing for a government facing a general election with an electorate preoccupied with the immediate outcome of Brexit and the prospect of a radical reordering of our national priorities to accommodate the strictures of a sinking economy (and there seems little remaining doubt that it will indeed shrink).
In any event, we can expect a new look for the ‘top 10’ agenda, possibly:
National Health Service and welfare
The Brexit Bill (estimated at £50bn-100bn)
Defence (a 50 per cent increase to 3 per cent of GDP)
Immigration control and border security
National transport infrastructure
Servicing national debt
The environment may begin to look like a luxury we can no longer afford. There is already talk of the ‘zombie list’, a review of the 800-1,000 items of environmental legislation inherited from Brussels for incorporation in UK law; many of these could face ‘reform’ by statutory instruments.
In January last year, MPs warned government that environmental protection must not be weakened after Brexit, while the Environment Audit Committee (EAC) chaired by Mary Creagh called on government to introduce an Environmental Protection Act under the Article 50 negotiation and warned of the risks to our countryside, farming and wildlife currently protected under EU law.
There is also a wider global perspective of environmental issues with a direct bearing on our post-Brexit strategy.
Many of the, mainly tropical, countries that export foodstuffs to the UK face increasing levels of water demand for irrigation due to the impact of climate change and over-abstraction, evidenced by depleted river flows and falling groundwater levels.
It is estimated that by 2025 1.8 billion people (20-25 per cent of the world’s population) will be living in water-scarce regions.
There are clear implications for the availability and cost of produce we import from some of these regions and we may need to plan on increasing the proportion of home-grown produce beyond the 40-50 percent level.
We seem to have the makings of an ideological ‘set-to’ between the need to increase the proportion of productive farmland and the counter-argument, advanced by Mr Gove, for appropriating areas for wildlife.
The latter has obvious attractions, but the penalty could be reduced food security, increased costs and a corresponding increase in the tariff bill.
To put this in context, this country’s net contribution to the EU budget has been estimated as costing the UK taxpayer an average of some £160 a year; this figure includes environmental protection. Compare that with the current level of national debt interest payments per person of more than £200.
As to what all this could mean for our region, it would seem reasonable to plan on the assumption that any environmental outcome of national significance arising from Brexit and severance from the Single Market and Customs Union will also apply locally… in some cases, such as traffic disruption, air pollution, immigration and the disproportionate loss of greenfield acreage, to a relatively high degree.