Robert Ashcroft
July 2016

Making sense of the new political landscape

It has been a complicated, fast-paced, and often frankly confusing month in British politics. There was barely time to take stock of the implications of the vote to leave the European Union on the 23rd June, before we were confronted with leadership battles, resignations, re-shuffles, and re-re-shuffles in a matter of days.  Sometimes it was hard to keep up.

For those areas, including science and the environment, which are likely to be drastically affected by our changing relationship with the EU, it was initially difficult to establish the best way forwards amidst the political comings and goings. Now, however (dare I say it?), matters have begun to settle down. We have a new Prime Minister, who has appointed a new cabinet and ministerial team, and structures are emerging through which Brexit negotiations will be organised. Now, those in the science and environment sectors must quickly take stock of the new landscape, and prepare to support and hold to account the new ministerial teams in forging positive outcomes for people and the environment. So, what are the big changes for our sector? And what might they mean?

A new team and new challenges for Defra

After paving Theresa May’s way to Number 10 by dropping out of the Conservative leadership race, it was expected that Andrea Leadsom would be offered a cabinet position. After Liz Truss was moved from Defra to the Department of Justice, Leadsom was appointed as Secretary of State in the Department. Theresa May has placed prominent ‘Leave’ campaigners in charge at several departments which will be most affected by the UK’s exit from the EU, and Defra is no exception.

Leadsom does have some views which will worry some in the environment sector. For instance, she has supported call for repealing the ban on fox hunting in the past, and her voting record shows that she has supported the culling of badgers, and the coalition Government's failed bid to sell-off public forests. In her previous role as a Minster at DECC, she also supported fracking. Her time in this post however should mean she has a good understanding of climate issues, which will be useful in her new job.

One of the biggest challenges the new Secretary of State will have to face is developing a British agricultural policy to replace the Common Agricultural Policy through which farming subsidies have been managed for many years. This is a particularly interesting political challenge, as the majority of farmers are reported to have supported the Leave campaign, but will be quick to criticise the new government if their expectations regarding subsidy payments are not met. Meanwhile, it is estimated that 80% of the UK’s environmental laws are derived in some way from EU regulations and Directives, and Defra will have urgently form a plan to review and replace these regulations where necessary to avoid the development of a damaging policy vacuum on the environment.

Assisting Leadsom in this task will be George Eustice, another Brexit campaigner, who has retained his post as Minister of State for Farming, Food and the Marine Environment. At a time of such major change in the department, some continuity in the ministerial team may be positive.

In another move, Rory Stewart has been moved from Defra to a position at the Department for International Development (DFID). Many in the sector will be disappointed to see him leave the Department after only 14 months in post. However, it is encouraging to see a trained scientist replace him. Dr Thérèse Coffey, who holds a PhD in Chemistry, is Defra’s new Parliamentary Under Secretary of State. It is expected that she will take up Stewart’s brief, which included the natural environment, waste and resources, air quality, and responsibility for Defra’s 25 year plan for the environment.

What about the 25 year plan?

After the referendum it was announced that the release of the draft 25 year plan was being delayed. No doubt many changes will now be required to this plan, due to the significant change in circumstances that Brexit represents. However, it is now more important than ever for Defra to establish a coherent and integrated plan which can gain cross-government support and the 25 year plan is a perfect opportunity to do so. The Wildfowl and Wetland Trust have recently published an excellent report setting out their hopes for the plan. Hopefully the new ministerial team will get behind the plan, and push on to deliver strong targets for environmental protections, rooted in legislation.

Climate change

In her reshuffle Theresa May has made some fairly major changes to the way Whitehall is structured, one of the largest being the abolition of the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) as a department in its own right less than ten years after it first opened. This move has received widespread criticism from across the sector, with many arguing this sends very poor signals about the Government’s commitment to tackling climate change. In the Guardian, ClientEarth CEO James Thornton said: “At a time when the challenge of climate change becomes ever more pressing, the government has scrapped the department devoted to tackling it. This is a statement of disregard for one of the most challenging economic, social and environmental issues humans have ever faced”, and Ed Miliband, the Department’s first Secretary of State in 2008 tweeted that the abolition was “Plain stupid”.

DECC’s responsibilities will now fall within a new department, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS). The appointment of Greg Clarke as Secretary of State at BEIS has been more positively received, as Clarke has a good record on climate issues, having shadowed Miliband in the post earlier in his career, and has spoken and written about the importance of developing the low carbon economy in the UK. Time will tell if he is successful in embedding this attitude across his department and indeed the government.

Science and Higher Education

Responsibility for science and Higher Education (HE) previously sat within the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS). The new Prime Minister has moved responsibility for higher education to the Department for Education (DoE). However, science and research funding remains at the newly renamed BEIS. Although shifting HE to the DoE seems fairly logical, separating responsibility for teaching from research could cause complications if the transition is not carefully managed. Some continuity has been maintained by the continuation of Jo Johnson in the role of Minister for Universities and Science, split between the two departments.

So who’s going to sort out this Brexit business?

Just as Theresa May placed Leadsom at Defra, a department which will have to deal with major changes when we leave the EU, she has placed other prominent ‘Brexiteers’ in similar positions. Boris Johnson has become foreign secretary, Liam Fox takes on a new role of Secretary of State for International Trade, and David Davis becomes Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, at a new department. It is this department which will be driving negotiations to define our new relationship with the EU, including on environmental issues.

Looking forward…

The future still holds many unknowns. The extent to which EU laws will continue to apply will depend on the trade agreement we reach with the EU. However, it is important for the environmental science sector to begin making the case for continuing support for research and collaboration, and the maintenance of strong environmental protections now. We will of course need to build links with the new team at Defra, and within BEIS, but must also ensure we offer the knowledge and expertise the profession can offer to those in the new departments who will be driving future negotiations. The IES is committed to promoting an evidence based approach to policy making, and we will seek to ensure the voice of environmental scientists is heard in the debates to come. We need to seize the initiative. There will be opportunities in this new era, to develop policies which are better and stronger than those which we must now replace. We must ensure we’re ready to make a strong case. The IES also promotes systems thinking, so we will be making a case for an integrated British environmental policy, which recognises the interconnected nature of our environment, and the need to move beyond silos in our approach to managing it.

Right now, not much has practically changed. Article 50 has not been triggered and all EU laws continue to apply. The UK is also still eligible to participate in EU research programmes, but we must fight the perception that UK institutions are now risky partners, and ensure our scientists are able to collaborate effectively.

Once we do leave the EU, many international environmental agreements will still apply (the Convention on Biological Diversity, the Berne Convention, the Paris COP agreements) and we must build on these. Although some environmental issues can be dealt with domestically, many environmental processes do not reflect political boundaries, and we must collaborate internationally to tackle such issues.