Michael Gove has made a sensible suggestion …

I found myself buying the Sunday Telegraph for the first time in my life a few days ago, as Michael Gove chose this newspaper to announce his plans for a new environmental regulator.   His proposal links back to points I have made previously about a need for a new type of regulator to take over the role of the European Commission and European Court of Justice in holding the UK governments to account once we have left the EU (see “(In)competent authority” and “Who will watch the watchmen now?”).

Gove is in a difficult position in his role of Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.  His instincts, as a leading architect of the “leave” campaign, are against the European Union yet, for the environment at least, he cannot deny that there are many benefits that the EU has brought.   He acknowledges this: “Some of the mechanisms which have developed during our time in the EU which helpfully scrutinise the achievement of environmental targets and standards by Government will no longer exist in the same way, and principles which guide policy will have less scope and coverage than they do now”.   Too right.

His proposal is for a “world-leading body to give the environment a voice and hold the powerful to account, independent of government and able to speak its mind freely”.  That sounds promising, in the same way that Gordon Brown’s decision to make the Bank of England free of political control back in the late 1990s.   Of course, such bodies are never completely independent (witness the way that John Redwood, Jacob Rees-Mogg and others turn on the Bank of England whenever it dares contradict the most optimistic post-Brexit forecasts) but it is a step in the right direction.

So I will await, with interest, the consultation that Michael Gove promises in his Sunday Telegraph article.  I am hoping that this means that the Environment Agency will still be the tool of official government policy whilst this new body will be independent and able to point out shortfalls in performance.  I’m hoping, too, that this will bring some new thinking into environmental regulation, preserving the best of the EU systems whilst, at the same time, shaking up some of the aspects – such as the integration of environmental and agricultural policy – where the EU was notoriously weak.

The elephant in the corner of the room is finance.  The Environment Agency is currently working on a shoestring and, unless more money from Government is forthcoming, they and this new Agency will simply be unable to afford to be “world-leading”.   Somehow the Environment Agency muddles along, thanks to well-motivated staff, but corners are being cut and monitoring the state of the environment – one of the cornerstones of any effort to giving the environment “a voice” – has been a major casualty.

All this is going on whilst Parliament debates the EU (Withdrawal) Bill and we should, perhaps, see Gove’s announcement as a tactical move to head off rebellion in the Tory ranks.   Issues such as whether existing legislation will be amended by primary or secondary legislation under particular scrutiny.   I and others saw the prospect of the fine print in European environmental legislation being quietly written out of the statute books as a particular risk of Brexit so, even if this is a cynical manoeuvre, I am encouraged by Michael Gove’s words.   If nothing else, it demonstrates that even arch-Brexiteers know that they have to make some concessions.   However, we need to watch this story closely as it unfolds over the next few months …

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This other Eden …

As I have written a lot over the past year about the positive effects of the EU on UK’s environment, I cannot let last week’s triggering of Article 50 – the formal start of the “Brexit” process – go without a mention.    This time last year I was on the Great Wall of China, reflecting on borders and migration (see “Reflections from the Great Wall”).   As Theresa May’s letter was delivered to Donald Tusk I was, by coincidence, reading another book about boundaries, Rory Stewart’s The Marches.  In this book he describes his travels around the borderlands between Scotland and England, but which also draws upon his own travels and experiences in Iraq, Afghanistan and other parts of central Asia.

A point that he makes more than once in his book is that borders are, in many cases, artificial boundaries which, over time, create the differences that distinguish two cultures.   Scotland and England are, in his view, good examples: neither Hadrian’s Wall nor the present national border were placed with any regard for the identities of the people on either side.  The only natural cultural boundary, in his view, was that between the highland and lowland Scots, roughly coincident with the Highland Boundary Fault.   In the far past, lowland Scottish culture merged seamlessly into northern English culture as you travelled south until, in Medieval times, a more formal border was established.  From that point on, individuals on either side of the border looked north or south respectively and, gradually, over time, distinct “Scottish” and “English” identities emerged.   Those who inhabit the borderlands become, in turn, pawns that distant political powers used to strengthen their hold on the land and, in turn, destabilise those on the other side.

Being an island, of course, accentuates differences between Britain and the rest of Europe but we only have to look at the differences within this island to recognise the artificiality of this British nationalism.   And those stirring speeches that Shakespeare put into the mouth of Henry V?   The real events behind those plays was part of a military campaign by the English monarchy to assert their rights over French territory.   The Plantagenet kings would have been bemused by the idea of the English Channel representing anything more than a natural obstacle that separated two parts of a single polity.   The national identities to which Farage, Johnson and Nicola Sturgeon all appeal are, in other words, relatively recent inventions.

The point of this little essay is to remind ourselves that national identities are far more fluid than the diatribes of our populist politicians are prepared to admit.   And this national identity will continue to evolve in the future.   Nationalism led Europe to some very dark places in the twentieth century and the impetus for the original European experiment was a desire to learn from lessons of the past in order that they should never be repeated.   I do believe that, whatever we think about the bureaucratic Juggernaut that the European Commission has become, the result is a Europe which is slowly transcending historic boundaries.

So what is this post doing in a blog that is supposed to be about natural history and ecology of freshwaters?   If ecology is all about how organisms interact with their environment then we need to pull back the focus from the stream or lake to encompass the actions of humans under that broad heading of “environment”.  And we cannot consider the direct actions of humans – their immediate impacts on our freshwaters – without also considering the cultural and political spheres which regulate those activities.   The UK’s withdrawal from the EU might not seem to be of great relevance to the world of algae which preoccupies most of my posts.  Yet again, by reshaping the laws and regulations that determine how we interact with our environment, our withdrawal is of enormous relevance to every body of fresh water in the land.

Normal business will be resumed next time.

*This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,–
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.
William Shakespeare, King Richard II, Act 2, Scene 1

The photograph shows Crag Lough from Hadrian’s Wall, near Housesteads, photographed in April 2014.

(In)Competent Authority?

cracken_edge_nov16

Back in June last year, when everyone was still reeling from the outcome of the vote to leave the EU, I wrote a post entitled “Who will watch the watchmen now?”   In it I suggested that not only did the UK get strong environmental legislation from the EU, it also benefited from collective oversight that ensured that Member States actually enforce this legislation.  This is exercised, ultimately, by the Court of Justice of the European Union, a body whose jurisdiction will cease once we leave the EU.   That was what prompted the title of my post: good environmental legislation needs independent scrutiny.  Where will that come from once we leave the EU?

I was pleased to see this point being made forcefully in reports from the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee and the House of Lords European Union Committee recently, as well as in a very useful report by Green Party MP Caroline Lucas.   One recommendation of the Environmental Audit Committee is that the Government should introduce a new Environmental Protection Act to maintain and enforce environmental standards after we leave.  One of the witnesses to the Committee made it clear that the terms of reference of the UK’s Supreme Court meant that we could not assume that it would fill the legal void left once the European Court of Justice no longer had authority.   Even assuming that the Supreme Court could play a role, however, there would still need to be an organisation that scrutinised the activities of government agencies responsible for the environment and initiated the legal actions.  I suggested in my earlier post that this body must be wholly independent of government.

The Government’s aim, as stated in their white paper on Brexit, is that all EU legislation will be transposed into UK law in the first instance via the Great Repeal Bill, after which Parliament (and, where appropriate, the devolved assemblies) will be able to decide which elements of that law to keep, amend or repeal (clauses 1.1 – 1.3 in the Brexit white paper).  However, Caroline Lucas points out that much of the new legislation is likely to be in the form of Statutory Instruments rather than Acts of Parliament, which will mean that there will be less scope for intense scrutiny by Parliament.  If she is correct then this is an important – and worrying – loophole that those of could be exploited to water down future legislation.

One point that Caroline Lucas makes (and which I touched upon in my earlier post) is that the European Commission grants a degree of flexibility in the implementation of legislation in the form of “derogations”.   Does this mean that the UK governments will transpose into UK law the right to give themselves lower targets or extended deadlines?   Again, who will hold the governments to account?  DEFRA and their counterparts in the devolved administrations will continue to talk the talk, but the devil will lie in the detail and only the eagle-eyed are likely to notice when the sharp edges of current legislation are quietly eroded away.

Another possible fate of transposed legislation, highlighted in the Environmental Audit Committee report, is that it will simply be ignored, again without the oversight of the European Commission and the European Court of Justice.  The result will be “zombie legislation”, either not enforced or not updated to the latest scientific understanding.   An unspoken question hovering behind much of this report is “is DEFRA up to the task?”   The overall tone of the report suggests that the Committee is not yet convinced that it is.   The question remains: who will watch the watchmen?

I have worked with the UK’s environment agencies for 25 years now, and my travels around Europe convinced me that they were amongst the most effective at translating the fine words of EU environmental legislation into positive outcomes.  Results in many cases are impressive (see “The state of things, part 1”).  However, I have felt for a number of years that their effectiveness has been slipping.  This started roughly when the coalition government introduced austerity measures after the 2010 general election, leading to substantially less money being available for the public sector.  As the Environment Agency tightened its belt, it was noticeable that activities that were driven by EU legislation were less affected than most.  The fear of the European Commission bringing infraction proceedings trumped almost all other factors when determining budgets (with the exception, perhaps, of flood protection).   Chris Smith, Chairman of the Environment Agency adds in a recent blog that is well worth reading that this period also saw the Agency’s ability to speak publicly in defence of the environment being limited by the coalition government.

The answer to this worrying situation is a body that can engage the government at the highest level in informed debate.   This will almost certainly not be performed by yet another DEFRA-funded agency.  But if not this, then what?   I believe that the charity sector, professional bodies and environmental and wildlife charities may have to step in to fulfil this brief.  Anglers already do this via the organisation Fish Legal (formerly the Anglers Co-operative Association); the time may have come for the rest of the environment and conservation sectors to learn from this well-organised lobby group.  Perversely, if the “people” now have control of their own destiny (as the Brexiteers claim), then the government must be ready for those same people to ask the hard questions about their performance that we had previously delegated to Brussels.

(The photograph at the top of this page shows Cracken Edge in the Peak District, in November 2016)

 

Farewell to 2016

wordle_2016

Has there been a year in my lifetime quite like 2016?   The possibility that the UK might leave the EU was alive at the start of the year, but few seemed to think that it was likely to actually happen. And Donald Trump was a cartoon character at the fringes of the race for the US Presidency.  Yet here we are, as the sun sets on the last day of the year, living in a UK that has voted – narrowly – to leave the EU and 20 days away from President Donald Trump’s first day in office.   The phrase “post truth” seems to have established itself in the English language, encapsulating the sad truth that the veracity of figures quoted by politicians, or emblazoned on the sides of their buses, is less important than their impact on target audiences.

Michael Gove’s comment just before the referendum that “people in this country have had enough of experts” puts the year into perspective.  He was referring, particularly, to the dire economic forecasts in the event of a vote to leave the EU but the comments hit much wider.   Most environmental scientists are engaged, to some extent in predicting outcomes depending upon particular interventions and we are trained to understand and articulate the uncertainties associated with these predictions.   It is the foundation of responsible decision-making. Yet it also means that we are easy meat for ideologically-driven politicians who can latch onto either the uncertainties themselves, or on differences between predictions, in order to push their own agendas.

I have a mote of sympathy for Gove’s comment.  Environmental scientists, in particular, can revel in the complexity of systems and deploy powerful statistical techniques that render outcomes inexplicable to non-specialists.  Being able to communicate the state of the environment to wide audiences is, in my opinion, in danger of becoming a lost art.   This is a point that I have tried to make in this blog in both 2015 and 2016 (see “The democratisation of stream ecology?”) and will continue to push in 2017.   This is not to pretend that the environment is not complex; or that there are not nuances which may be missed by a superficial or rapid analysis.  It is, rather, recognition that we need to pay particular attention to aspects of the environment to which non-specialists can relate if we are to produce evidence that is resistant to the guile of the political classes.

My word cloud for 2016 is similar to my 2015 word cloud, with “see” and “algae” both prominent, reflecting what is, I hope, the core business of this blog.   It was algae that put oxygen into the atmosphere in the first place, and which play a major role, still, in regulating affairs on this planet.  We may marvel at nature as presented by David Attenborough on Living World 2, but it is important that we do not forget the important role that nature’s “back room staff” play in the web of life.  The danger of TV natural history documentaries is that people end up thinking that the interesting stuff only happens elsewhere.   It doesn’t.  There is just as much interesting natural history in your own back garden and in the stream that flows through your local park, as there is on the African savannah.   We just need to look for it ourselves rather than expect the BBC Natural History Unit to do all the hard work for us.  That’s why I started this blog in 2013, and I hope to continue doing this throughout 2017 too.

Happy New Year.

Remembrance in Berlin

checkpoint_charlie_nov16

This week’s trip to Berlin straddled the results of the US election and the anniversaries of Kristallnacht and the end of the Great War.  And my hotel was less than five minutes from Checkpoint Charlie.  The first reaction to news of the victory of a man who wanted to build a wall between the US and Mexico was to walk to a site where a divisive wall had been taken down within my own lifetime.   Were it not for the ghoulish tourist industry that has sprung up around Checkpoint Charlie, cashing-in on the wall’s notoriety, you would never know that Berlin had ever been a divided city.

If there is one grain of comfort to be gleaned from Donald Trump’s victory it was that it pushed Brexit down the agenda in dinner-time discussions with European colleagues, though the consensus was that both were manifestations of similar social phenomena.   And, many told me, nationalist and anti-EU parties are on the rise in other countries too.  Marianne Le Pen is using Brexit as a springboard to make her own overtures in France, and she is not the only one.   It would be highly ironic if one consequence of Brexit was that the ambition of those who have been arguing for “ever closer union” has to be tempered as a result of anti-EU sentiments encouraged by Brexit.   The other side of this argument is that the UK is generally seen as a voice of moderation within the EU and some fear the loss of our voice against the federalists.

A short walk on from Checkpoint Charlie brought me to the Jüdisches Museum, housed in a wonderful building by Daniel Libeskind (who also designed the 9/11 Memorial in New York: see “Reflecting absence”).   I visited this museum on my first visit to Berlin not long after it opened in 2001 and was impressed by the way that the building itself drew you in and subtly adjusted your mood to fit the ambience of the museum and its message.   The only comparable experience is a visit to one of Europe’s great Romanesque or Gothic cathedrals.   The message of the Jüdisches Museum is not pretty in a time when Trump and Farage are stoking up fears of the “other”: Jewish communities have lived their distinctive lives for well over a thousand years in Europe, often in peace alongside their Christian neighbours, but sometimes not.   The coincidence of the rise of nationalist movements with increased suspicion of Jewish communities is stark.   We need “them” in order to define “us” and the Jews have been the convenient foils for nationalists for time immemorial.   Perhaps Islam now takes that role in Europe?

jewish_museum_berlin_nov16

I wonder, too, if the Jüdisches Museum is somehow symbolic of Germany’s determination to make a Europe that transcends old nationalistic prejudices and limits?  The Second World War feeds the UK’s national myth of a small proud independent nation, the “Few” battling against, and ultimately overcoming, forces of Evil.   Germans walking through the Jüdisches Museum and contemplating the history of the 20th century can only leave with the question “what must I do to ensure that this never happens again?”

Libeskind’s building is more than just a container for the museum’s exhibits: it also speaks directly to visitors.   He created “voids” into his design: empty spaces that extend vertically through the whole museum as a counterpoint to the exhibits themselves.    His intention was that these voids illustrated the absence of Jews from modern German society.   One of these contains an installation, Fallen Leaves, by Menashe Kadishman, an Israeli artist, who has filled the floor of the void with 10,000 faces punched out of steel to represent all the innocent victims of war and violence.   The eleventh hour of the eleventh month passed while I was in the museum but the atmosphere inside was such that there seemed no need to mark that moment.  The building, itself, more than compensates for two minutes of silence that, in UK, we mark at this time.

memory_void_nov16

Menashe Kadishman, Fallen Leaves  / Shalekhet, Jüdisches Museum, Berlin.  

Notes from Den Helder …

vanleeuwenhoekstraat

I passed this street sign whilst walking from my hotel to the station following a meeting at Den Helder in The Netherlands last week and could not resist taking a photograph.  Anton van Leeuwenhoek was the Dutchman credited with the invention of the microscope (see “The Invention of microscopy”).   When I visited Delft, his home town, I was surprised at how little there was to commemorate him (in contrast to the celebration of the life of his friend Johannes Vermeer), so it was nice to see him remembered in another part of The Netherlands.

I was in Den Helder to attend a meeting of European ecologists responsible for implementation of the Water Framework Directive, the first such meeting since UK’s referendum vote to leave the EU back in June and, not surprisingly, a lot of the discussion over mealtimes and during coffee breaks centred on the implications of this.   At dinner time, I sat with a group including Poles, an Estonian, a Lithuanian and a Hungarian, all of whom saw the European Union in very different terms to those expressed by UK’s “Brexiteers”.   All of those countries have been invaded twice in the last century and they see the EU as a source of security and prosperity, rather than in the negative terms that were expressed during the UK referendum debate.   The Estonian and Lithuanian had been part of the “Baltic Chain”, a peaceful protest that was part of the movement for independence in the Baltic States.   I had the sense that these people knew rather more about oppressive stifling bureaucracies than any of the politicians and journalists who had led the “leave” campaign in the UK.

That these conversations were held over dinner in a converted fortress, Fort Kijkduin, only added to my sense that the UK public had been duped by a group of politicians with a selective – and distorted – view of history.   The fort had been built on Napoleon’s orders, using local labour and Spanish prisoners of war.  At the entrance there is a diorama depicting 18th century Dutch soldiers repelling a British landing party.  Downstairs in the museum there is part of the wing of a Messerschmitt 109 shot down in the vicinity.   States and empires ebb and flow through small countries such as The Netherlands, in a way that an island nation such as the UK can barely understand and this, in turn, shapes a sense of purpose for the European Union that the narrow-minded politicians of the British Right will never comprehend.   There is no lack of national pride among my European colleagues, but what they have that many in the UK lack is a sense of the EU as a bulwark not just against outside threats, but also against a worst-case-scenario that emanates from within.   Almost every EU State has been occupied or controlled by another State within the lifetime of its oldest inhabitants; many of those occupiers came from other EU States.   That the UK has not feeds, I fear, a theory of British Exceptionalism within politicians of the Right, but also means that many in the UK simply don’t “get” the EU in the same way as most of my European colleagues.

The same group of people also expressed anxiety about the future of the EU without the UK’s participation.  Much of my own engagement with the EU over the past decade has involved finding consensus among Member States on the implementation of the Water Framework Directive.  Countries come with different positions on the correct interpretation of the wording of Directives, and argue their case vigorously at meetings such as these.  Some of those to whom I spoke were concerned that the exit of a large and vocal country that generally adopted moderate standpoints on environment policy would put smaller countries such as theirs at a disadvantage.   Several, too, suggested, optimistically, that Brexit might never happen …

Traveling back towards Schiphol Airport on the train, I reflected ruefully that Brexit is not just the cause of great economic uncertainty (which hit me with every purchase made during my short time in The Netherlands) but also reputational damage to the UK.  It was hard not to leave The Netherlands without feeling that many in Europe now think that ours is a small island with some Very Silly Politicians.

fort_kijkduin_oct16

Fort Kijkduin, near Den Helder in The Netherlands.

An open letter to Andrea Leadsom

You said something in your speech to the Conservative Party conference earlier this week that intrigued me, and I wondered if you would mind explaining exactly what you meant?  Of course, I may be reading too much into your words, which I only heard your talk because I was up stupidly early, and listened to Farming Today over breakfast.

My ears pricked up when I heard you say: “I’m truly excited that our departure from the EU means we can develop policies that are tailored to our most precious habitats and wildlife not a one-size-fits-approach for 28 Member States.”   Those are fine words but, I’m afraid I need to push you for some details.   I’ve done a lot of work on the implementation of EU environment policies over the past quarter of a century and I’m not absolutely sure where your idea that EU environment policy adopts a “one-size-fits-all approach” comes from.   The Water Framework Directive, for example, sets out general principles to ensure sustainable water supplies for Europe in the main text, but the extensive annexes give considerable scope for each Member State to tailor these principles to their own circumstances.   Even to drop the phrase “one-size-fits-all” into your talk suggests to me that you have not mastered your brief and that fills me – and other environmental professionals – with a sense of foreboding about the future of the UK environment.

However, you have not been doing the job for very long so we should give you the benefit of the doubt.   Your talk was strong on fine-sounding words but rather short on specifics.  So an easy solution to the problem may be for you to give us just one example from each of the Habitats and Water Framework Directives explaining the type of changes that your department will be looking to enact to strengthen environmental protection over and above the provisions of existing legislation.   Of course, I note that you said “… we can develop policies…” rather than “… we are developing policies …” but I am sure that you would not have said this if there were not civil servants within DEFRA currently considering just this type of option.   It is hardly an issue that is going to affect Brexit negotiations so you don’t need to resort to Theresa May’s argument of the need for discretion, and it will surely enhance your credibility among those voters who are genuinely concerned about wildlife and the environment.

One problem that I have is that you, and fellow Brexiteers, put a lot of emphasis on the red tape that Brussels generates.    Environmental and wildlife legislation often needs a “carrot” and a “stick” and that “stick” can very easily be interpreted by those on the receiving end as “red tape”.   A legitimate reading of your suggestion is that farmers and water companies may be subject to more, not less, regulation as a result of our exit from the EU.   That is counter-intuitive, given all that you, Farage, Gove and others claimed during the referendum campaign and is going to take some explaining, if it really is the case.  Once again, a couple of examples of what these new policies will look like will reassure us all.

And this brings me onto my final point: enactment of both EU policy and of your vision will only work if there are properly resourced regulators and, in my experience, the Environment Agency and Natural England have been struggling over the last few years.  Better environmental management will, of course, need more high calibre and well-resourced staff in both agencies.    Please don’t roll out that tired old mantra of greater efficiency: there is only a finite number of times this can be used before it loses credibility and, I am afraid, your predecessors have squeezed this particular argument dry.

Credibility is, unfortunately, the key word here.   Environmental professionals were very strongly in favour of “remain”, recognising the high quality of the legislation that comes out of Brussels in this field.   You came into this job without any strong track record in environment or agriculture and, I suggest, maybe you need to temper your enthusiasm for changing the status quo at least until you have mastered your brief.   An assurance that current EU legislation will not be revoked or watered down would be a good first step.   Despite claims by some of your colleagues that there was a decisive vote in favour of leaving, 48 per cent of voters want to remain.   That’s a lot of people who will be looking hard at your government’s performance come the next General Election.   Remember, too, that wildlife and conservation charities can run very effective campaigns when they think politicians are making a hash of things and that you only have a slim majority at the moment.   In other words, get this wrong and things can only end badly for you …