Brexit puts Britain’s environment at risk – can the cabinet be trusted to protect it?

There's good and bad news

wind farm
Credit: Thomas Nugent

After a reshuffle that made Macmillan’s night of the long knives look like the twilight of the toothpicks, a radically re-shaped government will now be addressing a radically different legislative environment.

Environmentalism became a significant political issue as the EU became a significant political force, and so it’s not surprising that, having grown up together, the two are closely linked.

We are, of course, still members of the EU, and are likely to remain so for several years, but the direction of travel is out, and so the long-term status of most of the UK’s environmental protections is in flux.

The current government will have more control over environmental policy than most of their predecessors did, so how are they likely to use that power?

The Department of Business has lost its international brief to the formerly disgraced formerly former Minister Liam Fox, now Secretary of State for International Trade. He seems likely to give environmental protections a fairly low priority in future trade deals.

However, the significance of his role is difficult to gauge, as the UK are not formally allowed to negotiate trade deals until we are out of the EU, and so the immediate concern will be David Davies’ Brexit department, and his attitude to the various EU directives which may become bargaining chips in that mother of all negotiations.

If Davies decides to oppose the Brexit right of his party in defence of civil liberties, he may feel that environmental protections are a necessary sacrifice to placate them.

What remains of Business has been merged with DECC to become the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

The absence of the phrase ‘climate change’ from the name of any department is worrying, but we can balance that symbolic retreat against some good news. Greg Clark, former Communities Secretary, has been given control of this enlarged department.

Yes, the promotion of the man who has been shoving fracking down the throats of reluctant communities is, in this context, good news.

Government support for fracking and Hinkley C seems unlikely to waver, but Clark is far more knowledgeable about climate change and far more supportive of renewable energy and other progressive measures to stop it than the average minister.

If he lives up to his reputation as The Green Tory (I know, but bear with me) then combining business, energy and industrial strategy under his control might be a step forward from the old DECC silo.

Mixed news (you’re just going to have to recalibrate, OK?) at DEFRA, where Andrea Leadsom has taken control. Leadsom was, allegedly, persuaded by her advisors at DECC that climate change was indeed a real thing, but this didn’t stop the climate denial lobby, including the GWPF’s Lord Lawson and Viscount Ridley’s spokesman Owen Paterson, from supporting her leadership bid.

This is of deep concern, as the deniers are motivated less by doubts about climate science and more by an unshakeable conviction that all regulation is just red tape holding Britain back from being the free-market utopia of their dreams.

Leadsom has stated that she has ‘no plans to change current levels of protection’, but whether she will maintain that position under pressure from her political allies and the industry and farming lobbies, whilst potentially slashing the farming subsidies formally distributed by the EU, seems open to question.

Her record at DECC is not encouraging.

At the Treasury, more good (by the 2016 definition) news. Hammond, whilst immediately coming out in favour of the spectacularly wobbly Hinkley C, is almost certainly a big improvement over Osborne.

Last year he told the climate sceptic think tank the American Enterprise Institute that ‘the costs of doing nothing are, potentially, catastrophic – beyond anything that can easily be quantified in economic terms.’ Which brings us to the top job.

In recent years May has said little about issues falling outside her brief at the Home Office, but a little research finds her speaking out against both Heathrow’s third runway and subsidies for new nuclear power stations, mentioning climate concerns in both cases.

She has also been less enthusiastic about fracking than the last administration. However, one of her most trusted advisors, Nick Timothy, has described the Climate Change Act as a ‘unilateral and monstrous act of self-harm’.

Furthermore, the more worrying of the recent appointments were, of course, chosen by May. Appointing Leadsom to DEFRA might be a way to force the Brexiteers to take responsibility for their own mess, but it doesn’t really demonstrate much commitment to protecting the environment on the part of May.

Overall, we have a new government which has both the motive and the opportunity to slash the regulations which keep our food safe to eat, our water safe to drink, our air safe to breathe, and protect our landscapes, wildlife and climate.

So the news isn’t all good and we need to be ready, come what may.

Daisy Sands is head of energy at Greenpeace

4 Responses to “Brexit puts Britain’s environment at risk – can the cabinet be trusted to protect it?”

  1. CR

    That photograph at the top is an excellent example of the sort of pollution that is destroying the beauty of our countryside.

  2. philip

    At least in 2020 you will have the option to elect a government which will do all the things you want if this lot don’t do the job properly, whereas within the EU you have 0ne 28th of a voice only, and likely to be overruled as well.

  3. Michael WALKER

    Overall, we have a new government which has both the motive and the opportunity to slash the regulations which keep our food safe to eat, our water safe to drink, our air safe to breathe, and protect our landscapes, wildlife and climate.”

    So the writer implies the Government is going to poison our food, make us drink impure water , breath foul air and build over all our landscapes..

    I know Greenpeace have got to set out their stall but this kind of gross exaggeration ruins a good article.
    The biggest current problem we have at present is air quality in cities caused by diesel engines. These pass current legislation from the EC – which is full of holes.

    You can pass all the laws you want but if they are a nonsense, it’s waste of time…

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