BY JAMIE FOSTER
Michael Gove has announced a new Environmental Watchdog which will be created to protect Britain’s wildlife, land, sea and air following Brexit. It is intended to be a bulwark against the powerful and to ensure that environmental standards don’t slip when we leave the EU. A cross party environmental committee has expressed concern about what will happen in the aftermath of Brexit. The problem is that most environmental law is based in EU law. While the Great Repeal Bill will enshrine most of the regulations in UK law, there remains concern that the laws could be watered down without parliamentary scrutiny.
It is unclear at this stage how such a body would work with the Environment Agency, which is currently responsible along with Natural England for enforcing environmental regulations. There are further concerns that standards will be allowed to slip to make a trade deal with the US. Michael Gove stated that this would not be the case and that the new watchdog was intended to ensure that we Britons had a ‘Green Brexit.’ Farming is the other area in which concerns arise. Gove says that we will continue to support farmers following Brexit. Up to 50% of farm incomes currently come from the Common Agricultural Policy subsidies. How these are to be replaced remains unclear.
There is clearly scope to improve the basis of subsidies. The current system is based on land ownership, so the RSPB and the National Trust are amongst the largest recipients of the subsidy. While there will need to still be a clear environmental basis for subsidies, they could be better targeted at those areas of the farming industry that need support more. The dairy industry is a clear case for subsidy which could benefit from a new approach.
There is a huge amount of work to do to ensure that our environmental standards are maintained and that our farming industry is supported. It will be a major challenge to the effectiveness of our current institutions, such as DEFRA, which have not shown themselves to be efficient in the past. It has been argued that our membership of the EU has deskilled these institutions and that Brexit is an opportunity for them to step up to the mark but the size of the challenge facing them should not be underestimated.
Gove was keen to point out that our farming industry is a world leader and that it is essential that it is maintained. One piece of the jigsaw is that our farmers, like the rest of us, tend to be very good at following rules. Unlike our European neighbours, rule following is part of the British culture and so there is a high level of compliance with environmental regulations in this country. The question would then seem to be to ensure that the rules themselves are maintained, which is a job for parliament and government. It would seem that the powerful which the new watchdog is being set up to guard against are mainly seated in the Houses of Parliament. It is hard to see how a watchdog could be established to ensure that both parliament and the government discharge their duties to maintain environmental standards.
While there is no reason why we should not be able to maintain environmental standards, and support our farming industry post Brexit, it will require serious work. The politics mean that in the lead up to Brexit vested interest groups are keen to ensure that their own areas are highlighted. Michael Gove’s announcement may seem to be directed at ensuring that these groups are satisfied and that the problem is addressed. The creation of a watchdog is not a complete fix to the challenge of maintaining standards however. This will require work at a governmental and parliamentary level to ensure that our regulatory system is fit for purpose. Time will tell if we are able to achieve that.
However, Gove deserves credit here. It is a positive step to create a watchdog that has real bite and can ensure that no harm comes to the environment because of Brexit. It will be fascinating to see if such a body can achieve the ends it is created to achieve, and the Squires wish Mr Gove the Best of British with the watchdog he intends to build.