The environment has been conspicuous by its absence from the frenzy of debate and speculation in the run up to the Scottish independence referendum on Thursday. That’s easy to explain: responsibility for the environment has already been devolved so there should be no additional implications from a “Yes” vote in the referendum. I’m not, however, fully convinced that there will be no implications north or south of the border in the event of Scottish independence. Here’s my reasoning:
Although responsibility for the environment has already been devolved to Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish administrations, the UK still presents a united front in Brussels, and a lot of co-ordination takes place behind the scenes to ensure consistency of policy. There is a measure of pragmatism here: the politicians might think that the environment is a nice, neat package that can be managed equally well from London or Edinburgh but we traditionally use rivers as borders. If you want to manage a river such as the Tweed, you really need the regulators on both the English and Scottish sides to agree on basic principles. The UK and, indeed, many other federally-organised countries (Germany, for example) manage this. The notable exception is Belgium where Flanders and Wallonia send separate delegates to meetings.
If Scotland votes “Yes”, then the newly independent state will have to apply for membership of the EU; the politics of this are complicated but let us assume that, at worst, Scotland becomes an Accession State within a few years and continues to apply EU Environmental legislation. The situation between England and Scotland will then be akin to that between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, where there is a long tradition of healthy collaboration between environmental bodies on both sides of the border. The details of implementation, however, differ between UK and Ireland and it is possible that a river deemed to be of an acceptable standard in Northern Ireland may feed into a river in the Republic, subject to more stringent standards (I know, for example, that standards for acceptable nutrient concentrations are tighter in the Republic than in the UK). However, as there are relatively few catchments straddling boundaries between UK and neighbouring states (including Scotland, for the sake of this post), few diplomatic feathers will be ruffled as a result.
My nagging fear concerns the rump UK, rather than Scotland. Staff working for environmental agencies tend to be either pragmatists, schooled in the “art of the possible”, or idealists. Most of the ecologists I deal with in the UK’s agencies probably fall into the latter category, though I know that there are many non-ecologists involved in regulation who question the high standards that these ecologists call for. And, indeed, the pragmatists have a great track record of reducing pollution levels in our rivers from previously high values. The problem is that the lower levels of pollutants that are now common in our rivers are still often too high to permit healthy rivers to thrive. The problems are widespread but are most acute in lowland England where, in my experience, much of the water industry is sceptical about whether more investment (and associated price rises) will yield tangible benefits. Because Scotland has so much relatively high quality habitat to manage, and tourist economies that thrive upon this, there is less of a mismatch between the pragmatist and idealist viewpoints. It is still there, believe me, but it is not quite so pronounced. So now we extract the Scottish influence from the UK co-ordination meetings and, I fear, the balance of power will shift just a little way further away from a vision of babbling brooks supporting healthy ecosystems and towards grudging compliance but no more.