Guest blog – Greener UK by Shaun Spiers

Shaun Spiers joined Green Alliance as director in June 2017, after 13 years as chief executive of CPRE. From 1994-99 he was a Member of the European Parliament, serving on the Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee. Shaun is the author of How to build houses and save the countryside (reviewed here) and a trustee of Sustain, the alliance for better food and farming.

As well as being an environmental think-tank, Green Alliance co-ordinates Greener UK, a coalition of 14 environmental NGOs working on Brexit. Shaun chairs the Greener UK board.

Imagine that the environment movement was able to force the government to concede substantive change to a controversial piece of legislation central to its agenda and of great national significance. Imagine that it was the only sector to win such a change to the legislation.

Imagine that the movement won the promise of an ambitious environment bill (the first for almost 30 years) intended not merely to slow nature’s decline, but to reverse it. Imagine that environmental concerns were not parked away in their own space, but drove a major change to farming policy: the replacement of basic payments with a system based on the principle of public money for environmental goods. 

Imagine, in addition, that the government was seriously considering strengthening its climate targets and keen to host UN climate talks. And imagine that the Leader of Opposition devoted a major part of his party conference speech to the environment, helping create the state of virtuous competition between the main parties to which all campaigners aspire.

As you will have guessed, there is no need to imagine these things. They are the reality of the last couple of years during which green NGOs have been more sharply focused and better organised than at any time I can remember. Greener UK, a coalition of 14 environmental groups, was formed quickly after the European referendum and our movement’s work on Brexit has been the envy of other sectors. Our work has had an impact on both sides of the Brexit negotiations: not only did we win a significant change to the EU Withdrawal Act; the draft EU-UK Withdrawal Agreement requires the UK to improve its environmental governance (including on climate change) and establishes “non-regression” from existing EU environmental laws as the basis for our future relationship with the EU.

This is real influence. In a period of political chaos (a “Götterdämmerung of ineptocracy”) we are not merely clinging to the wreckage but winning things the movement has wanted for decades. So I was surprised to read in a recent blog that Mark thinks green NGOs have “played a tiny role” in Brexit debates and “are effectively totally marginalised and out of the game on the most momentous decisions of our generation”. He thinks that the environment has become “a political footnote – after all, how has it figured in the years of argument over Brexit?” – and that the environmental consequences of Brexit “have hardly had a mention in the last three years when we have been ‘debating’ our future in or out of the EU. Shame on the media, politicians and the wildlife NGOs.”

There is a tradition of grand but grumpy environmentalists critiquing their successors once they themselves have left the NGO sector and the tedious business of managing coalitions, retaining members and building relationships with politicians. Such criticism keeps us on our toes and I look forward to my own retirement, when I can point out how craven and ineffective everyone now is and how much better it was in my day when the giants were in charge. However, on this occasion, I think Mark is wrong.  

Like Mark, I was a remainer. The two-and-a-half years since the referendum have been deeply depressing. They have depressed and angered leavers as well as remainers. Everyone is bad-tempered or bored or both. And it is true that green NGOs are “missing from the scene of the most important environmental choice of our time” if by that is meant the question of whether we should have another referendum. But we have been busy with other stuff, environmental issues that are central to our aims, where we can be sure of making a difference, and on which our members are (for the most part) united.

This “stuff” includes the EU Withdrawal Bill; the draft withdrawal agreement and political declaration; the draft environment bill; the agriculture, fisheries and trade bills; and the crucial (and neglected) process of agreeing Statutory Instruments to replace EU laws. The newsworthiness of our work, drawing on the efforts and expertise of over 200 people from across the sector, often seems to be in inverse proportion to its importance.

We have enjoyed a good deal of success because we have been united, 14 NGOs working closely with the four Links, Sustain and other organisations and networks. We would not have been able to retain that unity or our influence if we had got stuck on the question of whether the UK should leave the EU. But we have engaged with the question of how we leave. We have said that a no deal Brexit should be ruled out and I have stated that the version of Canada-plus endorsed by Boris Johnson and others would be a disaster. We have set out benchmarks for the final agreement with the EU, produced briefings for the meaningful vote and, more recently, an analysis of the Norway-plus option. 

It is irritating that in the last fortnight the government has courted trade unionists and not environmentalists. The lack of overtures from No.10 is irritating, but the government has discovered the trade union movement rather late in the day and the unions have noticed. Its motives are transparent: to win the votes of wavering Labour MPs. We are now making the case to MPs of all parties that the environment should have at least the same level of protection when the UK is outside the EU as it has now, and that our laws should at least keep pace with the EU’s. If the government is as it claims, working to improve the environmental terms of Brexit, it should tell us how it intends to do this. At present, it all seems to be greenwash.

So of course, not everything is as we would want it to be. It never is. Even in normal times, environmental NGOs struggle to give their issues political bite, in spite of their millions of members and the millions more who care about wildlife and the countryside. And these are not normal times. It is hard to get political attention for our issues, harder still to get that of journalists (and prominent bloggers).

We have had some significant wins but an awful lot is still to be decided. With seven weeks to go until the UK is due to leave the EU, huge risks remain.  Government moves slowly, so inevitably we have more promises – more bills and strategies – than firmed up legislation and regulation. And some of the promises, for instance on the environment bill, are inadequate.

I know many think, have thought since 24 June 2016, that nothing good can be salvaged from Brexit and that we must reverse it. The Europhiles are my tribe and I admire the People’s Vote campaigners, though it is worth noting that remaining in the EU should not mean returning to the comfort of fighting our battles in Brussels and neglecting to make the case in Britain.

But Greener UK would, I believe, have less, not more impact if we took sides on Brexit. Much of our work is detailed and technical. It is unlikely to make headlines. It does not bring the emotional satisfaction of taking a clear stance for or against Brexit. However, it is making a big, practical difference for wildlife and the countryside and it has the potential to deliver much more. I hope Mark will get behind it, or at least engage with what we are doing.    

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10 Comments

  1. Alex Milne says:

    I do not accept that the Environment bill put forward by the government, now as the Draft Environment (Principles and Governance) Bill 2018 is ambitious at all. It could end up that the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) can be controlled as effectively by a government determined to get rid of the green crap as they have controlled NE, which has a statutory duty to do almost the exact opposite of what it has been doing. This bill is none of the things you have suggested, it is a disaster in waiting for the environmental movement. We need an environment bill which sets in law the basis upon which it is to be enforced, not left in the hands of government appointees. I am looking to the likes of Greener UK to let me know how I, as an individual, can help make this happen, not congratulate yourself on what I see as a failure to get a proper Environment Act in place.

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    • Shaun Spiers says:

      To be clear, I said we had "the promise of an ambitious environment bill" and we do. The draft bill, which the government had to publish within six months of the passing into law of the EU Withdrawal Act, was always going to focus on governance and principles and it is true that it is not ambitious enough. Its proposals are much better than we could have expected 18 months ago, but they need to be improved significantly if the environment is to enjoy the same level of legal protection after we leave the EU as it has now.

      As for the promised part 2 of the bill, which will include provisions on nature's recovery and (probably) a host of other policy areas including waste and resources and air quality, Greener UK is making the case for ambition. But we need to mobilise support from far and wide. One planned activity is a mass lobby of Parliament (save the date: 26 June). We also want people to tell MPs what they want to see in the bill: https://environmentbill.typeform.com/to/Jbeijh

      Sorry if my blog came across as self-congratulatory. There is always more to do, but I was responding to Mark's criticisms of green NGOs on Brexit, and I happen not to think that we've been hopeless...

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      • Patrick says:

        Hi Alex,

        To leave your mark on the scrutiny process please fill in this survey (coordinated by Greener UK) and we'll use it as part of our evidence to enhance the bill:

        https://environmentbill.typeform.com/to/Jbeijh

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  2. A says:

    Interesting blog and it highlights the difference between "green" and nature conservation. To me, the green and environment movement are the same thing and whilst they are related to nature conservation they are separate. Everyone (I hope) understands the importance of clean air and water, and increasingly the importance of green space for well being; not everyone understands the importance of grassland adjacent to ponds, for example. An illustration of the divide can be seen in terms of public figures who are associated with green, the likes of Zac Goldsmith and Prince Charles are big on environment but disappointing in terms of nature conservation.

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  3. Norman McCanch says:

    Forgive my innate cynicism, but I really do not trust this government ( or any of the current alternatives) not to bend, twist or abandon any of these protocols, guidelines, agreements or aspirations if and when the circumstances suit them. They cannot be trusted, I made that comment regarding Michael Gove on the basis of being under his squishy, slimy thumb in my last few years as a state school teacher. They are a bunch of self-serving, ignorant self-opinionated tow rags! Do not trust any of them!!!

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  4. Alex Milne says:

    I would thank you for the reply Shaun. I don't blame NGOs for the lack of ambition in the bill. It is the fault of the government. I, and probably many others, would wish to help rectify some of the failures and help ensure that the final bill us as ambitious as government will allow. To my mind a properly ambitious bill is already beyond reach. I hope that Scotland where I live can show what an environment act should look like, if the UK government recognises the devolved powers, and NGOs step up to the mark.

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  5. Shaun Spiers says:

    Thanks, Alex. I'd like to see the Scottish Government get behind the best possible environment act, one which people elsewhere in the UK could campaign to emulate. Scottish Environment Link has a good campaign for an ambitious environment bill: https://www.fightforscotlandsnature.scot/

    But it has to be said that the Scotland and Welsh governments are leaving it pretty late to plug the governance gaps that will emerge when the UK leaves the EU - particularly if that is on 29 March this year, without a deal or transition period.

    Devolution should work to raise environmental ambition across the UK. But I also hope the four governments (when NI has a government again) will become a bit better at working together on the environment. Devolution shouldn't preclude co-operation and even (when appropriate) co-design of policies.

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  6. Roderick Leslie says:

    I do hope it all works but I'm far from sure. But of course, I don't really have an opinion being a critical has been like Mark.

    I've been concerned for a long time that the conservation sector has never really recognised that we don't have a reasonably friendly Labour Government any more - despite being described as 'green crap' we've gone on believing in good intentions and promises - rather than actions, which have been largely negative. As we look towards a super-duper environmental watchdog do we remember the Sustainable Development Commission axed on day 1 of the Tory Government ? The trashing of Natural England ? SSSIs slipping back from the place labour took them with real, practical commitment ?

    And who has faith in anything with 'Of' in front of its name ? there is no doubt whatsoever that the 'Ofs' have worked solely for shareholders as of course was the intention when near-monopoly public services were privatised.

    What I do have more faith in - largely ignored by the conservation sector - are the compelling, hard economic arguments put forward by the natural Capital Committee. There there is real prospect for environmental gain running with the grain of national interest economics.

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  7. Dick Newell says:

    It's amazing how often reference is made to Cameron's s green crap in these comments. Well he was right, there is a hell of a lot of green crap. Today's headline on insect decline: all insects will be extinct in 100 years! Really! And it is all because of climate change! There is so much green crap that is not surprising that Cameron. (and Trump) lose patience and throw the baby out with the bath water. Exaggerated nonsense undermines all the good stuff.

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    • Francis Morgan says:

      Are you for real Dick? As anyone knows headlines are written by copy-editors to grab attention. The 'extinct in 100 years' line is merely an extrapolation of the current measured rate of decline of insect biomass - 2.5% a year. And the scientists do not say 'it is all because of climate change'. They actually say (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0006320718313636) that habitat loss and intensive agriculture (pesticide use) are the major causes and global warming is an ancillary factor - a mere 4th in order of importance. This finding follows 'a comprehensive review of 73 historical reports of insect declines from across the globe'. What is your comment based on?

      The suggestion that Cameron and, wait for it, TRUMP, 'lost patience' with environmentalism because of alarmist headlines is (sadly, increasingly unlike the insects) for the birds. Cameron lightly embraced environmentalism as a way to detoxify the Conservative brand and then dumped it following electoral success and Trump is a dangerous racist, misogynistic narcissist who pretends to believe that climate change is a hoax.

      Sorry for ranting.

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