Sam Hall is Director of the Conservative Environment Network.
With inflation rising steeply, the Government is urgently seeking ways to ease the soaring cost of living. Increasing direct financial support for households struggling with rising energy bills will be essential. Another component of the Government’s response will be regulatory reform, which could cut costs for businesses, lowering consumer prices without adding to the deficit.
Regulatory reform needn’t come at the expense of the government’s environmental goals. In fact, outside the EU, there are numerous opportunities to improve regulation while delivering better outcomes for the environment. In particular, there is potential to simplify complex and prescriptive EU environmental regulations, moving from a rules-based approach towards a more outcome-based approach.
Supporters of EU membership wrongly assumed that Brexit would be harmful to the environment. On the contrary, we must not be afraid of reforming EU laws, nor insist on preserving them in aspic.
The phaseout of the bloc’s Common Agricultural Policy – now underway – will reduce wasteful, regressive, and environmentally harmful public spending that was forced upon us by the EU. The new farm payments system in England will instead spend taxpayers’ money on buying things the public values, but which the market doesn’t currently deliver, namely environmental benefits like cleaner rivers, while investing in the natural assets that guarantee our food security, such as healthy soils.
The Genetic Technology Bill, also announced in the Queen’s Speech, is another example of environmentally beneficial post-Brexit regulatory reform. Enabling gene-edited crops will help farmers produce more food with fewer biodiversity-harming, climate-warming, and expensive inputs. It’s a win-win for food security and the environment.
A similar approach should be taken with regards to protections for our most significant habitats. Having developed incrementally over decades, the current national and EU-derived habitat designations are confusing and incoherent. This partly explains why a mere 38 per cent of protected habitat is in good condition, alongside poor enforcement.
In a Green Paper published a few months ago, Defra proposed to modernise this system of designations to deliver their target to halt species decline by 2030. Streamlining could have a number of benefits, such as greater understanding among the public and clarity about land management objectives for landowners. But it’s vital the net effect of these reforms is positive for the natural environment.
And to continue confounding the Brexit pessimists, ministers must make sure regulatory reform promised in the Brexit Opportunities Bill enhances rather than damages the environment. Concerningly, a Government source quoted in the Times suggested that this Bill could include a weakening of environmental rules for infrastructure projects.
Without a clear green direction of travel across all these policies, there could be negative political consequences. The local election results were particularly bad for the Conservatives in so-called ‘blue wall’ seats in the South of England. Some recent polling for Unchecked UK shows that there is no majority support for weakening environmental protections in these Conservative heartland areas. Just 18 per cent of voters in the blue wall feel that reducing environmental and animal welfare standards is acceptable in order to secure post-Brexit trade deals, for example.
The polling suggests that environmental policies generally could be a good way to appeal to these voters. Environment is a top three concern in the blue wall and the third most important issue for voters when selecting which party to support, ahead of housing, immigration, and tax. Similarly, half of these voters say they are more likely to vote for the party with the most ambitious environmental plans.
These findings are reinforced by the prominence of green issues during the local election campaign and the impressive performance of the Green Party, which won 35 council seats off the Conservatives.
This dynamic is likely to be repeated in the Tiverton and Honiton by-election on 23rd June. The Liberal Democrats have been campaigning hard on sewage pollution in rivers and exploiting fears among rural communities about high UK environmental standards for food production being undermined by trade deals. They will make the environment central to their attempt to win back parliamentary seats in the South West in 2024.
Retaining blue wall seats in the South of England while consolidating progress in the red wall will be critical to keeping the Conservatives in power beyond 2024. The environment can help in both cases. By marrying strong environmental protections with a big focus on job creation and investment in new clean industries, the party can set itself up for electoral success in 2024.