Our Comment: Is Brexit taking the environmental biscuit?

Does anyone know what is happening with Brexit at the moment? If anyone has any useful summaries or insights they can provide, please let us know.

One of our jobs at SWM is to keep you up to date with the latest policy and news emanating from UK government, especially from the two departments where environmental and sustainability related policies and strategies are set: The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS). After all, our mission is still “to become the first choice in providing sustainability advice to the leaders of the West Midlands.” We hope that you feel that this is something that we’re achieving, but it is becoming increasingly difficult.

Whichever side of the debate you’re on, Brexit has undeniably thrown everything up in the air and it’s as if gravity has failed to bring it all down to earth again. We can’t do anything about it (apart from write trying-not-to-rant comments like this) but we know that the associated uncertainty is beginning to have a crippling effect on businesses and services in the West Midlands and here we stand feeling rather helpless, wanting to support our stakeholders and tell them it’ll all be okay, whilst ourselves being concerned about where the future lies in terms of the impact all this chaos has on the environmental sector too.

One thing we do know is that the government has committed to establishing a new Environment Bill, drawn up as a consequence of Brexit and to effectively try and replace the environment-related legislation that the EU has set over many years (approximately 80% of environmental related laws in the UK have been established by the EU). The dedicated Environment Bill page on the government’s website says:

“The Environment Bill will put environmental ambition and accountability at the very heart of government. It will help us make good on our commitment to leave the natural world in a better condition than we found it, and create a new environment body to make sure that we succeed. Around this new green governance, it could take direct action to address the biggest environmental priorities of our age: air quality; the protection and enhancement of our landscapes, wildlife and habitats; more efficient handling of resources and waste, and better management of our surface, ground and waste water.”

It also talks about the new Office for Environmental Protection which will ensure the Bill, and the principles of the government’s 25 Year Environment Plan, is monitored under a proper governance and accountability structure.

Our concern is that this page on the government’s website was published in December 2018, and it still refers to 30 March 2019 as our EU departure date. When in reality it could be 22 May. Or 30 June. Or 31 October. Spooky, huh?

Let me apply one of our business values – to be creative and positive – and look on the bright side here.

  • The bill exists. The Government has recognised its necessity and on paper, at least, it says many of the right things.
  • The 25 Year Environment Plan exists and indeed points out that “The Plan coincides with the once-in-a generation opportunity presented by our leaving the EU. We will make the most of the chance to improve our environmental policy framework, align it with ambitious goals we have set, and lead from the front in pursuit of higher standards across the world.” Therefore, theoretically, not only could the Plan and the Bill combined result in ensuring the 80% of EU environmental legislation is replaced, it has the potential to go above and beyond these.
  • There is an increasing movement and recognition that climate change needs greater, more urgent action (thanks, Greta) and there are more and more people with influence saying that change needs to happen quickly (thanks, Sir Attenborough).

However, it is hard to see how the environment can be a government priority whilst this uncertainty, and the likely transition that will follow whatever the final outcome is, continues. And ultimately it is the government that needs to implement the changes and policies that we need for this level of urgent change to occur. Then there is the question about their track record, which I’ll leave you to debate over a locally sourced beer and a Greggs vegan sausage roll.

So, SWM’s response to all this – apart from to try and keep you updated – is to take matters into our own hands. We can’t wait until Brexit does or doesn’t happen to start implementing our new sustainability Roadmap, which will be launched at our Annual Conference on 3 December (save the date) and implemented from 1 January 2020. We are currently hard at work making our new Roadmap reflect the urgency that we need for the right change to happen, but realistic enough that our stakeholders and regional leaders can implement this change despite the on-going national-level chaos.

Our new Roadmap will also reflect what we actually see is happening on the ground, rather than what sounds ambitious on a piece of paper, or in a Bill that may or may not yet exist. In the town where I live, the reality is that the basics are going backwards – litter is getting worse, local bus services are being ravaged, local small businesses are struggling and more people are being affected by flooding. At SWM, we need to get the balance right between keeping abreast of what is happening at government level, but supporting our stakeholders to sort out the issues that are affecting us right now.

We will be giving you the only remaining opportunity to provide your comments and thoughts on our new Roadmap at our Members Only Summer Social event on 25 June. This is your chance to shape the future of the West Midlands, so don’t miss out.

Alan Carr, Senior Sustainability Adviser, on behalf of the SWM team