Let’s face it, it’s been a pretty disastrous couple of weeks for our Prime Minister Theresa May. After the apparent success of the Chequers Brexit agreement, May has lost two of her most outspoken pro-Brexit ministers, whose departure triggered a further wave of resignations.
No sooner was the ink dry on the Chequers deal when it was unceremoniously ripped to shreds by Jacob Rees-Mogg and his band of extreme Brexiteers, in the European Research Group (ERG). The Government had to cave in to the ERG’s demands to destroy the heart of the Chequers proposals, making them completely unacceptable to the European Union (though they were almost certainly going to be rejected anyway.)
To add insult to injury, May last Friday announced that she was abandoning her commitments, made last December, to the Northern Ireland border “backstop” agreement. This will be seen as a betrayal by both the EU negotiators, and by our neighbour across that particular border, the Republic of Ireland. The backstop was put in place to ensure that the terms of the Good Friday Agreement were not broken, and to ensure that a hard border between the Republic and Northern Ireland did not return, with all the many problems that hard border brings with it.
What all this manoeuvring points to, is that we are headed for a no-deal crash-out Brexit. So it is in this context that we should consider whether to celebrate the announcement, by Theresa May, that her Government will bring forward an Environment Bill.
May made the surprising announcement in her regular appearance in front of the House of Commons Liaison Committee – formed from all the chairs of all the Select Committees from the Commons. In normal times, this sort of thing would either have been written down in a Queen’s Speech, or announced by the relevant Secretary of State (Michael Gove) to the House of Commons. Presumably May thought this would be a good opportunity to pull a political rabbit out of the hat, to wrong foot her opponents. On this occasion the person who was questioning her was Tory MP and chair of the Environment Food and Rural Affairs select committee Neil Parish. Parish was pressing her on the Government’s failure to do anything about our appalling air quality in the UK. Air quality which continues to fail to meet standards set by the EU and air quality which has seen the EU taking repeated legal action against the UK.
May seemed quite pleased with herself with this particular rabbit-pulling trick. Perhaps it helped her to forget, for a second, just what a disaster Brexit has been, and continues to be, for her, for her party, and for the country. May bragged that it would be the first Environment Act since 1995, as if no laws on the Environment had been created in the past 23 years. In fact, the ‘95 Act made relatively few changes – it enabled the creation of the Environment Agencies and National Park Authorities. Somewhat ironically, it also created a duty to prepare a National Air Quality Strategy. May then conveniently forgot about the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000; the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006; the Climate Change Act 2008 and the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009. There have been no significant new pieces of legislation on the Environment since 2009, other than where the EU has created new environmental law which the UK has adopted. (For an excellent review of May’s stumbling responses to her environment questions, read this by James Murray on the Business Green website.)
Michael Gove, who is keen to make his mark during his tenure at Defra, must be wondering whether this is a golden opportunity, a poisoned chalice, or a dead duck? On the one hand, a new Environment Act could introduce laws which help Gove move towards his stated aim of leaving the Environment in a better state than he found it. But even just to maintain the current situation (the latest set of environmental indicators show a steady decline), he would need to ensure that all the elements of environmental law which currently flow from the EU, were enshrined in this new Environment Act.
As I have already related, the Government’s latest proposals to replace the “watchdog” or legal enforcer role the EU has played, are insufficient to meet this test (though better than the original proposals). Gove also has to counter moves from Trade Secretary Liam Fox who, following the latest Brextremist victories, is filled with renewed fundamentalist zeal as he goes about his business of ripping up environmental protections, food safety, workers rights and other hard-won victories. Then there is the distinct possibility that this Parliament will be in a state of permanent paralysis, or indeed will have collapsed, long before the Environment Bill makes its way through to becoming law.
Having said all that, I have been wondering what might be put into such a Bill? May has specifically mentioned action on clean air. I would add in a few other things. I would introduce a duty on the Government to designate all remaining areas of wildlife which meet the standard for a Site of Special Scientific Interest as such. This would probably double the area of best wildlife sites under legal protection. I would also create a very strong duty to protect wildlife outside these special sites – some have suggested picking a few iconic species to which this duty would apply (e.g. the Hedgehog.) I would throw the net widely to encompass a wide range of species and habitats. I would also introduce a law which required 40% of all new housing developments to be green space, to be specifically maintained for wildlife.
And I would place a legal duty on the Government to make 10% of the UK into new wild land. Wild land could include places like the Knepp Estate, as well as areas of the uplands which were restored to healthy blanket bog, and naturally regenerating woodland. In the marine environment 10% of our seas would become no-take zones, effectively rewilding them.
New laws are a great way to help change people’s actions which affect the Environment. They can also help change attitudes towards environmental change. I’ll update you, as we get more details of what might go into this forthcoming Environment Bill – and what you can do to help make it as good as it can be.
This article first appeared on Lush Times.