Prioritising trade deals is pushing government into a much less green Brexit

Written by: David Burrows | Published:
David Burrows

June marked the first anniversary of Michael Gove as Environment Secretary. (There’s a sentence I never thought I’d write).

And it’s been a manic 12 months of activity, which I for one am struggling to keep up with. Thankfully, Defra’s press officers have pulled together the “key pieces of work” and posted them on the department’s blog. Among the seven entries, two have relevance for the resources sector.

The first was the publication of the 25 Year Environment Plan, which of course focused (too?) heavily on plastic. The second is (also) all about tackling plastic waste: the ban on microbeads (which came into force in June); the upcoming consultation on banning plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds; the planning for implementation of a deposit return scheme for drinks containers; and a “comprehensive” new Resources and Waste Strategy.

The focus on this forgotten sector has to be applauded (as CIWM chief executive and former director of waste at Defra, Dr Colin Church, quipped at a recent conference: “It’s great to see government taking this seriously after so many years of neglect … and four of them were mine.”). However, I am starting to worry that we are not actually getting anywhere – and Brexit is to blame.

As Biffa put it in September: “The June 2016 UK referendum on EU membership has thrown something of an unexpected rock into the pond.” Ten months on (and just eight months from the official divorce date between the UK and the EU) and that’s looking like an understatement.

It’s more like a bloody big boulder and it has already started squashing policies that could enhance environmental protection after March 2019.

A case in point is the current consultation on the Environmental Principles and Governance Bill. Gove has been tossing tweets at Brussels for months in a bid to prove the UK can lead the way on environmental standards, but has gone quiet all of a sudden.

Indeed, look at the proposals and perhaps he should have been working harder to convince his own colleagues of the merits of a truly “green Brexit”.

The document proposes the creation of a watchdog to replace the European Commission and European Court of Justice, as well as place the precautionary and polluter pays principles in UK policy.

The bill “will ensure core environmental principles remain central to government policy and decision-making”, said Gove, while the “independent and statutory watchdog […] will hold governments to account”. Will it?

Gove reportedly wanted the UK’s new environmental watchdog to have the same powers as the European Commission, but that isn’t what’s on the table.

This is “probably the most significant moment yet in the government’s recent environment drive, wrote Benjamin Halfpenny on the Green Alliance blog, but “there are glaring holes in the plan”.

For example, the new body won’t have the power to take the government or public authorities to court, nor does the bill ensure compliance with the 25 Year Environment Plan. Missed recycling targets, who cares? Air pollution way above legal limits, hey ho. That is if there are any targets, which isn’t yet clear (the circular economy package came into force on July 4, but how long the UK sticks to those regulations is anyone’s guess).

Given that the 25 Year Environment Plan promised a world-leading environmental watchdog, many are understandably peeved. “Some may think it churlish to criticise a proposal that meets so many criteria,” Halfpenny wrote.

“Yet the disappointment, expressed clearly by so many organisations, is not founded in over-expectation. It is felt because the government has failed to meet the minimum requirement for maintaining the current level of environmental protection.”

In other words, it’s fallen at the first hurdle towards that green Brexit goal. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to have a stab at what’s happened: tougher environmental laws and standards will make it harder to do trade deals. Indeed, the Treasury is apparently to blame for watering things down – and very successfully, it seems – in a bid to ensure trade deals are easier to forge.

The Environmental Audit Committee, which is leading an inquiry into the consultation, wrote to the Treasury to ask for a minister to come and explain what’s happened. There’s been no response as yet.

EAC chair Mary Creagh also pointed out that time is ticking; there’s a risk of “zombie legislation”, she said, which is no longer monitored, enforced or updated. Indeed, for all the activity at Defra HQ in recent months, almost nothing has been decided.

Sure, there are consultations, plans and ambitions, but microbeads ban aside, has anything been delivered yet? Perhaps it will all be neatly wrapped up in the new Resources and Waste Strategy?

The strategy’s publication was originally planned for the end of the year, but reports breaking as I write this suggest Gove wants one by the autumn. Early publication almost never happens, which makes me wonder if it will be another raft of proposals that are then opened to more consultation.

It’s happening elsewhere, after all: the “second chapter” of the government’s Childhood Obesity Strategy was packed full of interesting plans and ideas, but had only one firm commitment to change any laws or introduce any new policies. So, in your second year, Mr Gove, can we stop chewing the fat and get on with things, please?

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