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19 August 2016updated 29 Jul 2021 11:22am

Leave voters didn’t vote Brexit to see environmental protections undone

The country’s conservation watchdog, Natural England, has had its budget cut.

By John Sauven

Thanks to Brexit, we are told, our political masters will all be accountable to us at the ballot box. No longer will we be governed by opaque bureaucracies manipulated by industrial lobbyists in Brussels. The will of the British people will once again be sovereign.

In abstract, this is all well and good, but when you start looking at what it could mean in practice, for example, for our environment, that’s where the utopia starts unravelling. I’ve been told by many Brexiters that the EU’s environmental regulations are flawed and give too much away to vested interests whilst imposing blanket controls over a diverse European continent where local knowledge should be respected. I have also been told that all of these flaws can be ironed out now that we have taken back control.  

And it’s that last bit that worries me. The UK government has a long and ignoble tradition of dragging its heels on environmental regulations, trying to block or water down new protection and generally siding with those industry lobbyists the EU has failed to resist. From the current conflicts over urban air pollution all the way back to sewage outflows on our beaches in the seventies, the UK had to be dragged kicking and screaming through the courts before we stopped poisoning ourselves. Does that reflect the views of the British people? Does Britain have a penchant for a bit more texture in our air? Are we, as a nation, quite happy to swim through shit if it helps boost water companies’ profits? 

Recent polling found that 5 per cent of Britons would like to see our environmental protection relaxed or weakened, whilst 51 per cent would like to see them strengthened. And yet last week, we discovered that the country’s conservation watchdog, Natural England, has had their budget cut, and will “make more proportionate use of our regulatory powers” and “provide advice to government that is politically aware”. In case you don’t speak quangolese, that means weakening environmental protection. Our government clearly thinks that it can do this and get away with it, regardless of what the majority of the public wants.

There have been warm words from ministers such as Secretary of State for the Environment Andrea Leadsom, promising that Brexit will bring no reduction in environmental protection. But then last week her department revealed that the 40 per cent of our EU contribution which goes on farming subsidies to rich landowners will not, as previously promised, go to the NHS, but continue to subsidise the same rich landowners until the next decade. Brexit promises are rarely worth the Boris buses they are written on.

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During the Brexit debate, George Eustace, minister for farming, food and the marine environment, described EU green directives as “spirit crushing” and called for more flexibility. The spirit being crushed is presumably that of unbridled free enterprise. One of the main motivators of euro-sceptic Tories has always been a desire to deregulate and to take back control, not for the UK electorate but for the unaccountable free market. 

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But the motivations of the Tory right were not necessarily the motivations of the average Leave voter. In fact deregulation and cutting red tape didn’t feature in the top reasons people gave for  voting leave, where the number one reason was to regain sovereignty – not to increase the power of multinationals and their lobbyists. 

And so any attempt to use Brexit to remove or relax environmental protection is anti-democratic in two respects. First because this is not what Britain voted for or, according to the polls, wants. Second because this moves power from politicians who are accountable to voters, to industry lobbyists who are not. It is vitally important that we do not allow the power Brexit takes from the EU to be handed to the industry lobbyists whose clutches we were trying to escape. That’s why Greenpeace UK have launched the Laws of Nature campaign, to protect our environment from those who would use the opportunity to improve EU regulations by removing them.

The truth is that, so far, we haven’t taken back control. We’ve created a power vacuum, which someone will step into to rearrange our relationship with nature. It could be the Brexiteers, it could be the lobbyists, it could, if we’re quick, still be us.

John Sauven is Greenpeace UK’s executive director.