The Future of the Natural Environment after the EU Referendum Contents


This report arises from the first in a series of inquiries that the Committee intends to undertake in relation to leaving the EU. The UK’s membership of the EU has been a key factor in shaping environmental policy over the past 40 years. Land management, which is crucial for promoting biodiversity, is significantly influenced by the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). The legislative landscape within which the UK environment is protected is also heavily influenced by the EU, as are the international arrangements that control the markets within which the agricultural sector operates. In this report we examine the international, legislative and financial issues that the Government must successfully manage in order to ensure that leaving the EU does not put at risk the Government’s manifesto commitment to “be the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than it found it”.

The Prime Minister has indicated that the UK is likely to leave the single European market and the Customs Union. Leaving the EU will probably involve changes in the UK’s relationship with international markets. Changes in the UK’s relationships with international markets carry a triple jeopardy for UK farmers. First, leaving the Common Agricultural Policy will threaten the viability of some farms. Second, trade agreements which impose tariff or non-tariff barriers to UK farm exports similarly threaten farm and food business incomes. Third, new trading relationships with states outside the European Union could lead to increased competition from countries with lower food standards, animal welfare standards and environmental protection. This risks putting UK farmers at a competitive disadvantage and may make it more difficult to agree and implement a strong future UK environmental policy. The Departments for Exiting the European Union and for International Trade must recognise the influence their negotiation work and trade arrangements will have on the UK’s natural environment, and must coordinate with Defra’s development of plans for the future of farming and the environment.

The EU provides a number of strong legislative protections to the UK environment. The Birds and Habitats directives will no longer apply in UK law even if the UK remains in the Single Market, which has the potential for far-reaching negative impacts on the UK environment. The Government should legislate for a new Environmental Protection Act whilst Article 50 negotiations are ongoing to maintain the UK’s environmental standards. The Act should be in place before we leave the EU. This would reduce the risk of ‘zombie legislation’, which is a term which describes EU legislation transposed into UK law which is no longer updated and which can be eroded through statutory instruments with minimal parliamentary scrutiny.

In order to achieve its manifesto commitment to “be the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than it found it” the Government must provide an equivalent or better level of protection after leaving the EU. Some legislation will be difficult to transpose into UK law, and will require new governance arrangements to be established to avoid ‘zombie’ legislation. Government must identify legislation with potential transposition issues sufficiently far in advance of leaving the EU to ensure proper scrutiny and must address the resource implications of this task on Defra.

Financially, much of the public funding in the environmental sector is provided through the EU, which has provided a common framework within which the devolved nations have been able to develop their own environmental policies. Government must establish clear objectives for future environmental protection in the UK and must determine and commit to the level of resources necessary to deliver these. Any new scheme of financial support for land managers must have clear objectives, focused on the provision of public goods, while allowing flexibility in approach where appropriate.

The international, legislative and financial impacts of leaving the EU are united by a need to establish clear objectives to replace the framework of environmental protections previously provided by the EU. Defra is currently preparing two 25 year plans, one for the Natural Environment and one for Food, Farming and Fisheries. These plans will be an important tool to direct post EU environmental policy. The Government must ensure that they are fully coordinated as part of a combined strategy and provide clarity on how the links will be communicated and acted upon.

This report makes seven recommendations to the Government. These are the actions that must be taken by Defra and other government departments at the outset of the process of exiting the EU, both before the UK begins negotiations by triggering Article 50 and in the months after. Failure to do so risks weakening environmental protections once the UK has left the EU, disrupting food production and presenting risks for farm businesses, leading to further degradation of the UK’s natural assets and higher costs of subsequent intervention.

Our recommendations are:

(1) In order to meet its manifesto commitment to “be the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than it found it”, the Government must, before triggering Article 50, commit to legislating for a new Environmental Protection Act, ensuring that the UK has an equivalent or better level of environmental protection as in the EU.

(2) Government must, as part of its initial work to leave the EU, assess the resources necessary to replace existing EU environmental funding to ensure that farm businesses remain viable, and that animal welfare, food security and food safety are protected, both in the UK and the Overseas Territories. Government must also provide evidence to allay our scepticism over the capacity of Defra to meet the additional pressures that exiting the EU creates for meeting the Government’s manifesto commitment in a cost-effective manner alongside its non-environmental priorities.

(3) Government must recognise the interdependence of its two 25 year plans and ensure that they are fully coordinated as part of a combined negotiating strategy, including providing clarity on how the links will be communicated and acted upon. The plan frameworks should be published and consulted on before Article 50 is triggered so as to inform the Government’s negotiating position and form the basis of a new Environmental Protection Act.

(4) The EU negotiations led by the Prime Minister and supported by DExEU must address the impact of international issues, including future trade arrangements, on the UK environment and agriculture. The Birds and Habitats directives are at risk even if the UK remains a member of the EEA. If the UK leaves the Single Market then the Government should state clearly what new measures need to be put in place to maintain food safety and security, protect British agriculture from tariff and non-tariff barriers and ensure the UK maintains our current level of environmental protection. The Government should also undertake a gap analysis to establish whether additional animal welfare and food safety standards legislation is necessary.

(5) Before Article 50 is triggered the Government must identify legislation which may be difficult to transpose to ensure full public and parliamentary debate and scrutiny. The Government should introduce a new Environmental Protection Act to maintain and enforce environmental standards after we leave. This is needed to ensure environmental standards are not weakened when we leave the EU–whether through leaving the Single Market, changes in trading status or through the creation of “zombie legislation” resulting from our departure from EU governance and enforcement structures. Government should address the resource implications of this for Defra. Finally, the Government should guarantee that it will not trade away environmental protections, animal welfare and food safety standards, as part of the negotiations to leave, or as part of future trade deals.

(6) Before Britain leaves the EU the Government must have clearly established the environmental objectives and governance model to be used for any future land management payments. Objectives should be clearly linked to the public goods that are to be achieved through funding rather than simply providing income support to farmers: these public goods should be supported by strong evidence of the benefits they provide and the market failure they correct. The Government must produce evidence which enables an outcomes focussed approach and supports innovation.

(7) Defra must, as part of leaving the EU, ensure that plans for post-EU environmental coordination between the countries of the UK is sufficient to ensure that funding is allocated fairly and transparently, with shared strategic objectives complemented by minimum environmental standards, so that the UK can continue to meet its international obligations. The Overseas Territories must also receive sufficient funding and support to ensure they can meet their international obligations.

21 December 2016