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.