The 25 year environment plan: The elephant in the room

Serving Prime Ministers in the UK don’t normally make big environmental speeches.  Fewer still launch big, strategic environmental plans that look many decades into the future.  The last prime minister to attempt both was probably Mrs Thatcher.  Her speech to the Royal Society in 1988 electrified the environmental movement.  Two years later in 1990 she launched a comprehensive White Paper on the environment –the first ‘whole of government’ environmental statement to be made by a UK government since 1970.

Divided reactions to an historic speech

Therefore, what Mrs May and Mr Gove initiated last week really does merit careful scrutiny and serious attention: it is potentially that important.  However, the immediate reactions to it all were sharply divided.  Some welcomed the positive vision that she and the Plan set out, the new metrics (environmental net gain) and the multitude of new targets; others bemoaned the non-committal language (far too many ‘we will investigate x’ or ‘consider y’), the lack of concrete plans for legislative action and the paucity of detail on how the whole lot will be put into practice.

The elephant in the room

What almost all the commentators somehow managed to miss was the big elephant sitting in the corner of the room: Brexit.  I performed a quick word search of the Plan and found only 4 direct uses of the B word, which is kind of understandable given that many politicians are keen to look forwards, rather than dwell on the past.  To be fair, the term European Union is employed more frequently – around thirty times – but mostly in the context of the (very unspecific) aspiration to build on the progress (largely assumed) that the UK made when it was a member state.  Interestingly, there isn’t actually a specific chapter on Europe; for the purposes of 25 year planning, Brexit has magically taken place, and Europe and the European Union have become part of the wider, global environment (Chapter 6).

Yet in Britain today, Brexit is a vital part of the daily job of implementing existing policies and developing new strategies. Had Mrs May decided not to trigger Article 50 last March, it is more than likely that her speech wouldn’t even have been written and the 25 Year Plan would still be gathering dust on a shelf in DEFRA. DEFRA produced the 25 Year Plan. It is directly responsible for its delivery.  And it is the Whitehall department that stands to be the most heavily impacted by Brexit.

Joining up the dots

When these dots are joined up it becomes a lot easier to understand why DEFRA is such a vital piece of the policy-governance jigsaw.  A recent report by the National Audit Office report on DEFRA’s preparations for leaving the EU helps to join up the dots. Published just a few days before Christmas, it arrived at some very sobering conclusions for those who worry about the risk of pre and post-Brexit governance gaps. For example, of the 313 Brexit-related work streams that have been identified across the whole of Whitehall, no less than 43 are ‘owned’ by DEFRA.  Of these 43, almost half contain a significant IT component.  Functions currently discharged by EU agencies such as the ECHA (chemicals), the EEA (environment) and the EFSA (food safety) will have to be reallocated to existing and/or new bodies.  This will not be easy.

And yet DEFRA is one of the smallest departments in Whitehall (in terms of headcount, it is the 10th largest out of 17). It has spent the last forty years adapting itself to function as a delivery vehicle for policies developed in Brussels and Strasbourg.  The Institute for Government has usefully reminded us that it lacks hands on experience of developing significant items of new domestic legislation (only two major bills proposed since 2010).

The picture painted by the NAO is of a small department operating under significant strain.  It has lost around 18% of its headcount since 2010 (amounting to 5,000 staff). It is also required to institute further cuts through to 2019, at the same time as recruiting hundreds of new staff to deliver Brexit.  Meanwhile it is also seeking to backfill posts vacated by staff that have been moved across to DExEU (another department experiencing significant internal churn) and/or into more EU focused teams within DEFRA.  At the same time (and like all departments) it is trying prepare for at least two very different Brexit outcomes – a negotiated outcome and a no deal – and also a transition, of indeterminate length. And then on top of all that is the 25 Year Plan.

Delivering Brexit: major tasks

The risk of slow or even incomplete delivery is, in other words, very real indeed.  First of all, there is the task of transferring 40 years of accumulated EU legislation onto the UK statute book.  The Plan skirted around the very well-established fact that most of the environmental progress made by the UK since 1973, has been down to policies and laws formulated by the European Commission and enforced by the European Court of Justice.  According to the NAO, DEFRA has calculated that at least 95 SIs are required to complete the conversion process by March 2019.  In an average year, DEFRA would produce around 77 SIs.

Then there is the similarly huge task of delivering vital items of new legislation.  The NAO warned that the two major Brexit related bills – on fisheries and agriculture – are at risk of delay.  Many civil servants are very highly committed, but formulating and securing political agreement on all the new policies mentioned in the 25 Year Plan will be a huge ask until these bills are delivered.

Finally, there is the important task of ensuring that all retained law does not become zombie-like.  In her speech, Mrs May pledged to consult on a new independent regulator to fulfil some of the functions that are currently discharged by EU bodies and publish a statement of environmental principles.  Civil servants are currently putting the finishing touches to public consultations on both these.  Until these are completed and all the governance functions are adequately carried across, doubts will persist over the ability of existing legislative frameworks to deal with today’s environmental challenges, let alone those in c. 2043.

Brexit: minimising the environmental opportunity costs

Why does all this matter?  First of all, many of those who originally voted for Brexit did so in the hope that their lives outside the EU would be significantly better.  If that does not happen there will be howls of protest and public confidence in politics and politicians will fall even further.

Second, the NAO’s work confirms that delivering Brexit is consuming huge quantities of administrative time and energy that could be better spent on other things.  Time will tell whether the effort of Brexit is really worth it.  In the meantime, the fate of the 25 Year Plan provides the first serious test of the government’s ability to minimise the environmental opportunity costs of Brexit.

About the author

Andy Jordan is a co-chair of the ESRC-funded Brexit & Environment network

Image: “The elephant in the room” by Nimish Gogri

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