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The Environmental Audit Committee warns about the potential implications of Brexit for the environment

In a Report dated 21 December 2016 and titled “The Future of the Natural Environment after the EU Referendum”, the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee warns the Government that environmental protection must not be weakened during the process of leaving the EU or afterwards.

Purpose of the Report

The Report is the first in a series that the Committee intends to undertake in relation to leaving the EU.

The Committee is calling on the Government to introduce a new Environmental Protection Act during the Article 50 negotiations to maintain the UK's strong environmental standards. This, the Report says, is necessary to ensure that the UK has an equivalent or better level of environmental protection as in the EU. Before Article 50 is triggered the Government must, the Report recommends, identify legislation, which may be difficult to transpose to ensure full public and parliamentary debate and scrutiny.

Legislative Issues

Section 3 of the Report provides a useful and interesting summary of the legislative issues. For example, it is stated:

26. Our previous inquiry found that the sharing of legal authority to legislate on environmental matters between the EU and member states has provided significant benefits to solving some environmental problems multilaterally. National Parks England emphasised the volume and range of EU environmental legislation affecting the UK:

The EU has over 800 pieces of environmental legislation. Many of these are deeply woven in to UK statute, sometimes being almost directly transposed in to UK law and in others supplementing pre-existing UK regimes. Issues such as the protection of birds, pollution of water and land, Environmental Impact Assessment, Permitting Regimes, protection of air, bathing water quality and waste are all covered.

27. Our previous report into EU and UK environmental policy examined the existing legislative relationship with the EU. The report noted the importance of EU membership to UK environmental protection, and evidence received by the Committee pointed out that 80% of UK environmental legislation is shaped by the EU.

The Report thus gives timely exposure to the range and complexity of existing environmental legislation originating from the EEC and its enforcement. It highlights the dangers of simply considering that re-enactment by the proposed Great Repeal Act will be a quick fix and ensure continued protection of the environment. It points to the risk that 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. This is because they are excluded from the EEA agreement, so are unlikely to be requirements in order to remain a part of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) and European Economic Area (EEA). Even if incorporated through the Great Repeal Act, they could be subject to, the Report suggests, changes at a later date regardless of the final negotiated position with the EU. 

Agriculture and the CAP

The Report also considers the implications of the end of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which is timely with the Oxford Farming Conference on Agriculture having taken place this week. The use and treatment of agricultural land and the “products” arising from it has, of course, important environmental implications. The Committee refers to some eye-watering statistics as to the importance of agriculture in the UK and the financial role of the EC in supporting this. Leaving the EU, the Report warns, will bring significant changes in the relationship between UK farmers and the international market, including risks such as the introduction of tariffs and non-tariff barriers when selling to the EU and a reduction in barriers to entry for other countries selling to the UK. 

What next?

No doubt there is much that could be debated on this but this Report merits careful consideration. It provides an informed insight into the potential implications of Brexit to the laws governing the environment and thus the environment itself.

This is of course of particular significance in the context of the Government’s manifesto commitment to "be the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than it found it". It seems fair to conclude therefore that very careful attention to the potential environmental implications of leaving the EU, and the necessary actions to address these, will be required by the Government. Quite whether, when and how this will be done is unclear at this stage.