The clock is ticking for a post-Brexit environmental policy

Written by: David Burrows | Published:
Environmental journalist David Burrows

While our politicians were enjoying their summer recess, the rest of us were left scratching our heads on the question of the government’s environmental policy post-Brexit thanks to mixed and oblique messages.

From 24 July to 4 September, politicians take their summer recess. This is what the press often refer to as ‘silly season’ – a period when the story seesaw tips firmly from sensible to senseless.

And the Daily Mail wasted no time – a story published on 29 July raised fears of a push for three-weekly bin collections and asked why EU targets to hit 50% recycling by 2020 haven’t been amended given that “Britain is supposed to be quitting the EU”. This from the paper that – according to its own journalists – paved the way for reducing plastic waste.

Prime Minister Theresa May has also commended the paper for its “tireless campaigning” on the issue of plastic waste and pollution.

Speaking of the PM, she managed to squeeze out some (good?) news just before leaving for her holidays/hideaway. “We will introduce an Environment Bill, and clean air will be part of that Bill,” she said in response to questions from a typically bullish Neil Parish, Conservative MP for Tiverton and Honiton and chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee.

May tried to elaborate, but got cut off. “There has not been an Environment Act since 1995, so we want to introduce an Environment Bill that will …” she said.

Had she forgotten about the Climate Change Act, which the last Labour government introduced? Indeed, the announcement almost seemed to come out by accident during a Liaison Committee of Select Committee Chairs hearing on 18 July. The only other detail she eventually offered was that the bill would “incorporate a range of issues” and be “ambitious”.

Parish then handed the baton to Mary Creagh, Labour MP for Wakefield, chair of the Environmental Audit Committee and perennial thorn in the government’s side when it comes to highlighting environmental failings.

“I want to talk about post-Brexit,” she said. After Brexit, will there be a UK body that can prosecute the UK government for environmental breaches?”

May highlighted her government’s ongoing consultation on that, which Creagh proceeded to unpick. “Why did that consultation not include any enforcement powers such as the power to fine or the power to take the government to court?” (see July’s Brexit column).

Give us a chance, May suggested, and we will take care of things, leaving the environment in “a better state than we found it”. And deal or no deal, she said, the UK will not reduce its environmental standards.

Creagh wasn’t done yet though. The UK still hasn’t met its 2010 air quality targets, she noted, and is set to miss those pesky recycling targets the Daily Mail wants rid of.

So, when the Prime Minister promised no regression of environmental standards in its Brexit white paper, is it the standards the UK signed up to but has missed by miles that it is promising not to backslide on? Again, the response was the same: it will all become clear “in due course”, so for now please give us a break.

And as it happens, they have a 41-day break in the form of the summer recess. That’s 41 days of pretty much nothing at a time when the country faces its biggest economic and political change since the Second World War. And it seems nothing can keep politicians from their hard-earned (ahem) few weeks basking in the sunshine in the south of France.

Summer holiday

Andrew Adonis, the Labour peer, proposed just a fortnight break in the House of Lords in light of the Brexit clock and was shot down. “I could muster only nine votes,” he wrote in a column for The New European.

“Not even the Labour and Liberal Democrat front benches supported me.” The date originally pencilled in for an agreement was 18 October at an EU summit. Even an emergency summit in November offers very little wriggle room.

If things go to the wire, we should all be concerned. Sure, a green agenda, kicked off by a “green Brexit”, makes sense for the party – it will help woo all those young voters and graduates. But is this “full-throated alliance between conservatism and conservationism”, as Bloomberg has called it, real?

Despite the noises and reassurances coming from May and her Environment Secretary Michael Gove, it is hard to believe the environment is really safe in their hands.

Consider this 24 hours in the department for business, energy and industrial strategy. On 23 July, Claire Perry, the energy minister, was in Newcastle hailing the success of offshore wind: “We are witnessing an unprecedented global transformation to a low-carbon economy,” she said.

A day later she gave Cuadrilla the green light to start fracking in Lancashire: “Shale gas has the potential to be a new domestic energy source, further enhancing our energy security and helping us with our continued transition to a lower-carbon economy.” Old habits, it seem­­s, die hard.

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