Robert Ashcroft
May 2018

Plans, principles and plastics: policy in 2018

In the first five months of 2018, the IES has already made as many formal consultation submissions as we did in the whole of last year. But no, this isn’t because we spent the autumn in a David Attenborough-induced trance, chain-watching Blue Planet II and lamenting not having done something about that great idea we had to set up a business selling reusable coffee cups five years ago. It’s because the past few months have been a flurry of activity at Defra, with a large number of policy proposals and consultations being launched, as Michael Gove has striven to maintain momentum following the publication of the Government’s 25-Year Environment Plan in January.

Almost two years on from the EU referendum, with the clock ticking until exit day, there remains a great deal of uncertainty about the future of our environment, so we’ve been pleased with this new energy and to be able to feed into these consultations. But what do these papers and policies really deliver? Is the Government’s thinking developing in the right direction, and quickly enough? And will we be able to implement the required changes in time?

Health & harmony
​In my last blog, I wrote about our work preparing a response to Defra’s Health & harmony command paper, on the future for food, farming and the environment. We responded both to Defra’s formal consultation on this topic, and to a parallel inquiry of the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee.

The significance of the questions raised in this consultation for the UK is highlighted by the massive response the Government has received, numbering over 44,000 submissions. Changing the way in which we manage our land when the UK leaves the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is widely recognised as one of the main environmental opportunities Brexit presents for the UK. The State of Nature report 2016 identified policy-driven agricultural change as the most significant driver of declines in UK biodiversity. It is vital we seize this opportunity to do things differently, reverse historical trends and invest in the recovery of our ecosystems.

Public money for public goods
We were very pleased to see the principle of “public money for public goods” embedded at the heart of this consultation paper, something we have consistently called for. We also argue that the new policy should be based on an understanding of payments as ‘investments’ (linked to the delivery of bundles of ecosystem services), rather than ‘subsidies’. Such an approach, by driving practices that deliver a range of public goods and over time growing the natural capital base, should lead to a virtuous and expanding spiral.

However, for such an approach to succeed, we argue that a nuanced, evidence-based understanding of the complex socio-environmental systems which deliver these goods (and their capital stocks and flows) is required. As such, in our submission, we urge the Government to consider public goods from agriculture in relation to the ecosystem services concept. Disappointingly, Defra’s consultation took an overly simplistic approach, asking participants to rank the relative importance of different public goods. Such questions fail to recognise the multi-faceted nature of the natural and human systems involved and the complex interlinkages between natural capital stocks and the ecosystem services which are derived from them. We hope the Department will take on board this feedback as it develops this policy further.

Numerous challenges remain for the Government, and the proposals outlined in this paper will need to be fleshed out with significantly greater detail, but the prominence of this principle at the heart of the policy is promising. All stakeholders must now redouble their efforts to assist the Government in making this vision a reality.

Of the many challenges the Government faces in progressing the development of this policy, questions around devolution are probably the greatest. Once the UK leaves the EU, a common framework of standards and management systems will effectively be removed, leaving the devolved nations free to diverge from the UK Government’s approach. Furthermore, the devolved governments are not all in agreement with the approach currently being taken by the Executive in Westminster, as highlighted by the Scottish Parliament’s recent rejection of the EU (Withdrawal) Bill in Holyrood. It is widely recognised, however, that some common frameworks will be necessary to ensure the continued functioning of the UK internal market, and to enable us to effectively manage our interconnected environmental systems. Designing these frameworks is where the greatest challenge lies in terms of environmental policy.

In our submission, we argue that a new environmental land management policy should be based on a shared set of co-produced principles and common UK (legislative) frameworks to establish and ensure minimum standards (of, for instance, environmental protection and animal welfare). Historically the devolved institutions have led the way in raising standards and innovating in environmental protection, so within these frameworks, there must be the flexibility for individual devolved institutions to innovate and improve above and beyond these minimum standards.

Principles and governance
Discussions around devolution highlight the importance a co-produced and shared set of UK environmental principles will have when we leave the EU. Of course, of equal or greater importance will be governance structures and mechanisms developed to replace the role of the European Commission and Court of Justice of the European Union after Brexit. To illustrate the ability of these institutions to hold governments to account, one only has to cite recent rulings against the UK Government and others on air quality. The Government has repeatedly promised during the progress of the EU (Withdrawal) Bill that its new consultation on environmental principles and governance would address concerns around a “governance gap” and accountability on environmental law. However, the reaction from the environmental community to this document has been characterised by disappointment.

The consultation proposes to embed environmental principles such as polluter pays and the precautionary principle in a national policy statement but does not commit to enshrine them in primary legislation. Furthermore, proposals to establish a new environmental watchdog to hold the government to account currently lack ‘teeth’, with enforcement powers currently limited to advisory notices. Much greater powers, including the option to bring forward legal proceedings where necessary, will be necessary to truly fill the governance gap.

The House of Lords has recognised the deficiencies in the current proposals, rejecting them in favour of an amendment to the EU (Withdrawal) Bill. This would ensure the EU environmental principles continue to have a basis in UK domestic law after Brexit, and require ministers to bring forward proposals for primary legislation to establish an independent public body to ensure compliance. A draft Environmental Principles and Governance Bill has been promised for Autumn 2018. Reports suggest that political differences within the cabinet have thus far prevented the strengthening of these governance proposals. In the course of this consultation, the IES and others will be setting out the evidence for a strong governance regime, and our views on what this should look like. We are keen to hear from members as part of this process, as we seek to make the case for stronger proposals in the draft Bill.

In other news
Beyond Brexit, there has been plenty to keep environmental scientists busy in the policy sphere recently. Our education committee, the Committee of Heads of Environmental Sciences (CHES), has been working with the IES to feed into a consultation on the next stages of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), which from next year will be assessing teaching quality and student outcomes at subject level. The IAQM has also been busy, with a raft of consultations being launched to accompany the publication of the Government’s new Clean Air Strategy.

And of course, I couldn’t end an environmental policy update without further reference to plastic pollution, the biggest theme of the year. As well as further opportunities to revel in wonderous marine cinematography and lament missed business opportunities at our Plastic Ocean screenings, we are currently awaiting the Government’s response to its consultation ‘Tackling the plastic problem’, which explored how changes to the tax system, or charges, could be used to reduce the use of single-use plastics.

So, 2018 isn’t set to get any quieter on the environmental policy front, but is all this activity actually translating into progress? The Government's responses to these recent and current consultations will give us a clue, and we are looking forward to continuing to work with them to protect and enhance our environment at this vital time. As ever, if you’d like to contribute to any of our policy work please get in touch.