Big questions over green policy post-Brexit

With 40 years of EU control of green regulations about to end when the UK exits the European Union, who or what will set the direction of environmental policy after Brexit, asks Matthew Farrow.

They say that death and taxes are the only certainties in life, but for the last 40 years environmental businesses could add another - a steady and inexorable tightening of green regulations through the steady hand of the EU.

Of course, many EU-derived environmental laws aren’t perfect. Poor drafting and the need to craft laws that were workable from Newcastle to Nicosia meant headaches aplenty, but they allowed UK governments to run green policy on autopilot and environmental consultants and contractors to plan and grow their business activity effectively.

Post-Brexit though, this may no longer be the case. Of course, it is still just about possible that we may stay in the single market (though my personal view is that this is unlikely) in which case we would continue to be bound by EU laws. 

Alternatively we may sign a UK-EU trade deal in which our compliance with green laws from Europe is part of our obligations (the EU Parliament recently said that insisting on this should be a ‘red line’ in the EU’s negotiations with the UK), but it is clearly possible that once we leave the EU we will have ‘taken back control’ of environmental law and parliament will be free to make changes to the many thousands of EU environmental regulations transferred to the UK statute book by the imminent Great Repeal Bill.

The question then arises, who or what will set the direction of environmental policy? If you believe the Conservative manifesto, a “25 year environmental plan” to be produced over the coming year by ministers, will do the trick. I think despite the election result we may still see the plan and in principle I think a long term framework of this type is a good idea, but I suspect it will be high level and once we have had another couple of ministerial reshuffles it will be soon forgotten about.

Instead, I think that in a post-Grenfell fire world, environmental policy will be driven by reactions to random failings of regulatory enforcements that develop political momentum. EIC has members spanning every aspect of environmental work, from land remediation to smart meters to air quality, but one thing that binds them all together is a growing concern that our enforcement systems across local authorities and the Environment Agency have been hollowed out.  

To take but one example, the GLA has introduced a good scheme to set emission performance standards for construction site vehicles, to combat the 17% of London’s air pollution from construction sites.  But the GLA does not have the legal powers to enforce its own scheme, while it is unclear how far London boroughs are doing so - certainly many EIC members in this field believe many contractors are not exactly rushing to become compliant. The inevitable teething issues with a new complex policy, or a scandal waiting to happen (“illegal fumes from construction poisoning neighbouring school children”?).

For businesses in this sector, this will add to uncertainty and the likelihood of ‘feast to famine’ procurement.  And given how interconnected many environmental issues are, hardly a great way to run a national environment policy either, however welcome some political ‘kneejerk’ reactions may sometimes be. 

Matthew Farrow is director of the Environmental Industries Commission, the leading trade body for environmental firms.