CIEEM President speaks on natural environment policy post-Brexit

CIEEM President Dr Stephanie Wray CEcol CEnv FCIEEM has recently spoken at the Westminster Energy, Environment and Transport Forum event on ‘The way forward for natural environment policy post-Brexit’.

Please see below for the transcript of her talk:

Thank you very much.

I’m Stephanie Wray, I’m a Consultant Ecologist and President of the Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management. Thank you very much for the invite, I’m a last minute addition to the programme, so you might not find me in the conference packs. That’s possibly because I’m the last person in England who is still allowed to talk about this sort of thing with the General Election coming.

What I’m going to talk to you about this morning is this. I I will tell you a little bit about the Chartered Institute and what we do, I’m going to talk about Defra’s 25 year plans, the licensing changes around European protected species that Natural England are currently working on, and then of course inevitably I’m going to have to talk about Brexit.

CIEEM is the leading professional membership body for ecologists and environmental managers in the UK, Ireland and overseas, we were established in 1991 and we gained the Royal Charter in 2013. So we are a Chartered body, we are here to advise the Government in the role of experts, should they choose to take our advice, we are not a lobbying or a campaigning organisation. Our activities are around upholding standards, promoting best practice, promoting integrated interdisciplinary approaches and being an influential voice for the sector. So here I think we have a role to play as an honest broker in environmental policy.

I’m going to start first with the Defra 25 year plans for environment and farming for England. Now Defra are currently probably developing these 25 year plans around the environment and farming, and possibly something to do with forestry in one or other of those. We welcome these, they emerge from the recommendations of the Lawton Report in 2010 and I recall a colleague saying at the time that they were so named because it will take 25 years to produce them. That’s not really looking so funny anymore in 2017…

It’s hard to say where they are, a document that may be a draft plan or some sort of a framework or strategy for producing a plan has been leaked and widely circulated – and I couldn’t possibly comment on whether or not I have seen it – but Defra say they haven’t started writing yet. The stakeholder workshops that were planned over the next few months will now obviously have to be put back due to the election, so this is in a state of some flux. Our main concerns here, and what we would ask, is that these plans, when they are produced, have targets which are binding, that there is adequate investment and the capacity to deliver the public benefits therein, and that there’s accountability across Government for them.

Now being an ecologist….. and I should pause and explain what an ecologist is, for any of you who don’t know, because I think the currency of ecology has been slightly devalued over recent years, and some people think that we’re charlatans who carry newts around in buckets from place to place. Ecology is actually a very numerate discipline of the sciences; we look at the interconnections between organisms and their environment, understanding and explaining very complex systems and trying to work out how one kind of perturbation will manifest right across a complex ecosystem. Douglas Adams put it better than me, that we “triangulate the vectors of interconnectedness of all things”.

So coming from that background, we would like to see is an overarching plan; we are not enamoured with the idea of separate environment and farming plans and fisheries plans, we would like to see an overall plan on how to manage the countryside, how to manage our natural environment, and I think that sentiment has already been expressed very well this morning.

Moving on then to the changes in the protected species licensing. There are some significant and wide-ranging changes in progress at the moment, and they are coming at us really quite fast. I was going to say thick and fast but that could be deemed pejorative, let’s say perhaps they are moving faster than the speed of Government thought, and they are coming really quite poorly funded.

There are four shiny new European protected species licensing policies, which if you are not familiar with them: remove the need to trap and relocate species, if suitable compensation is in place; allow new habitat to be created elsewhere rather than associated with a development site; now allow wildlife into brownfield or mineral sites; and allow flexibility in the survey effort needed when impacts can be accurately predicted.

Now we cautiously welcome this more strategic approach. CIEEM would strongly support an approach which takes us away from putting in a lot of investment upfront in survey that doesn’t necessarily answer the questions that are important, in preference to what we see as important in managing sites for nature conservation, and managing populations of species at favourable conservation status.

The old system clearly is broken, focusing too much on individual animals, the moving newts around in a bucket, is clearly not effective and is potentially expensive. However, there is a risk that we are just moving to considering the favourable conservation of individual species, and picking them out one at a time, starting with great crested newts, and this is of concern. We need to think bigger and work at the ecosystem scale, not build newt theme parks all over the country at a district level, with no co-ordination between districts or species. We need to look for a network of bigger, better, more joined up sites, not forgetting the need that sometimes we do actually have to do something on the individual development site concerned by looking at the value of green infrastructure for landscape, amenity and public health benefits as well.

This does need to be done properly, we are concerned about the roll-out of a project that’s happened as a pilot for one species in one district for species such as bats and dormice. We have representation here I think from the Bat Conservation Trust and so I’m sure I’m not going to be alone in believing that the conservation issues surrounding bats are really rather different to those around great crested newts and perhaps the one size approach doesn’t fit all.

Done right, this is an excellent idea; done badly it’s quite literally an unmitigated disaster. There are huge legal issues associated with the piecemeal approach, there are problems in applying different strategies in different parts of the country at the same time, and the funding appears, at the moment, not to be there to do this properly. The tariffs being charged to developers in the initial trials were relatively low, but if you imagine separate policies associated with different protected species, once you’ve paid your newt tax, your dormouse tax, your bat tax, and your special bats tax, I think developers will start to look less favourably on it as well. So this is something that we need to really develop very carefully and need some much more strategic thinking applied to it.

Moving on to Brexit then, the Great Repeal Bill. There are a few issues where we have concerns, or where the Bill is perhaps unclear. The White Paper states that the law would allow the Government to amend our domestic legislation to either replace the reference to the European Commission, or remove this requirement completely, and we are keen to know what mechanism will be put in place where there’s a need to replace EU institutions, so we are not left with a scenario where Government is effectively only accountable to itself. It’s likely that most of the statutory instruments, possibly up to 1,000 of them, will be made without Parliamentary debate using the negative procedure, how will Government ensure there is sufficient Parliamentary time and resource to review those instruments and provide opportunities to debate those where there are potential issues.

And we’ve heard from Paul Leinster earlier today about principles. The White Paper states that “the treaties (as they exist at the moment we leave the EU) may assist in the interpretation of the EU laws we preserve in UK law”. How will the ‘precautionary principle’, the ‘preventive principle’ and the ‘polluter pays principle’, which are the fundamental foundations of environmental protection (detailed in Article 191 of the Lisbon Treaty), be transposed into UK law?

The Bill framework isn’t very precise on how the Court of Justice of the European Union case law will apply after the UK has left the EU, and how it will apply to amended legislation post-Brexit. And whilst the White Paper expresses the need to maintain consistent UK frameworks applying across the four nations in some policy areas, for example agriculture and environment, in order to maintain stability and the effective functioning of the UK single market, how will the Bill enable such frameworks to be developed and agreed through consensus?

In responding to the issues around Brexit we have a number of points to raise.

Many environmental issues, from climate change to the management of invasive species are of international concern and impact, and therefore demand a cross border collaborative response. Any changes to environmental legislation should be informed by best scientific evidence, the UK is a world leader in environmental research and practice and it’s vital that the Government draws on this expertise. Brexit presents not just risks but a number of opportunities to improve our current environmental policy framework. We would ask, therefore, that environmental standards should be maintained or hopefully improved following the UK’s departure from the EU, in line with our international commitments. It’s vital that we maintain and enhance our world leading reputation for scientific research and practice and should not compromise our ability to access the best staff and students from an international talent pool.

Our concerns are around the fact that Government departments and agencies such as Defra and Natural England in particular have suffered substantial reductions in both human and financial resource in recent years and concern exists about the capacity to effectively address the administrative challenges of Brexit. While the Great Repeal Bill may transfer EU regulation into UK laws, effective alternative mechanisms must be established for enforcing standards once the UK is outside of the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. And it’s important that future changes to environmental legislation are subject to appropriate Parliament scrutiny to guard against the long-term attrition of legislation through the use of statutory instruments. We will also need a consistent framework across the UK, including reporting on international obligations, including the overseas territories and Crown dependencies which represents some of the real hotspots of UK biodiversity.

The CIEEM response around Brexit, and we can share with you our position papers on some of these topics very soon, are around these five areas of land management, marine environment, protected sites, protected species, and the water environment.

On farming and forestry, and management of the countryside we would propose combining the annual 3.2 billion basic and 420 million agri-environment funds into one environmental protection account to address the current perverse incentives. We would envisage long-term, 25 years say, agreements with land owners to deliver natural capital outcomes, and we see the relationship changing from one of subsidy and support to one of a customer and service provider arrangement.

Again, with the marine environment we are dealing with complexity again; we need to bring together the food production, water quality, pollution and wildlife policies into an overarching strategy and plan. Fisheries and the economics of the marine environment and marine harvesting are a sub-set only of the marine environment and not a separate issue.

Moving on to protected sites. Since we will potentially be losing some of the language around special areas of conservation and special protection areas, we need a new hierarchy of sites that are important for nature conservation reasons, and preferably something that people find easier to understand than terms like site of special scientific interest, possibly a simple Grade 1, 2, etc. Nature Sites that people can understand what is as local site that’s important for amenity reasons, what’s something that’s an inalienable part of our natural heritage.

I’ve talked a little about species protection already, which is one of the significant areas that’s currently moving fast, even in advance of Brexit, and we have again the opportunity to design a new system that protects biodiversity generally, whilst also highlighting where we need to put in specific measures for individual species that require greater protection. Again, it’s around managing these elements of complexity, looking at the whole ecosystem scale. Similarly, with water, we need maintain standards and take a holistic approach across all of the different elements that can’t be taken in isolation.

Our message overall is around taking those principles from the Lawton Review, and integration into a National Environment Plan, a Countryside Plan, whatever you want to call it. I see it in the same way as the National Infrastructure Plan – a genuine look at how we should manage the countryside to deliver the benefits and the good and services that it offers us, that makes sense at a national and international (or biogeographic) level rather than having it done in a piecemeal approach district by district.

I hope that’s given you a flavour of CIEEM’s position. I think we are at a hugely important turning point at the moment. This isn’t rocket science. We have a chance to influence, and a choice to make, either to look back on the decisions we make in the next few years as where we turn the tide on ignoring the environment and sweeping its degradation under the externality carpet, or we can look back on it as when we placed it pragmatically front and centre of how we manage our economy since this is the only place that we have to live.

Thank you.