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Nature protection

June 2016 - June 2017

Summary

The key EU policy instruments relevant to nature conservation are the Birds Directive and Habitats Directive, and the EU Biodiversity Strategy to 2020. Although there is a commitment to retaining existing standards of protection in the short term via the proposed Repeal Bill, their long term future remains uncertain and the key governance gaps that are expected to open up post-Brexit have yet to be acknowledged by the UK government.

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Principles & strategies

The Great Repeal Bill White Paper fails to give a clear commitment to carrying across the general principles in the EU treaties that underpin nature policy, such as the goals of sustainable development and a high level of environmental protection, the precautionary principle and the polluter pays principle.

The UK government is working on a 25 year plan for the environment that may set out the direction for future nature conservation policy after the UK leaves the EU. However, this plan has been beset with delays for over a year and there is still no confirmed date for its publication. It remains unclear whether the plan would apply to England only, or across the whole of the UK.

Legislation

The government’s stated goal in the Great Repeal Bill White Paper is to “ensure that the whole body of existing EU environmental law continues to have effect in domestic law”. This broad commitment is reassuring, yet it is stated elsewhere that the bill will only convert EU law into domestic law “wherever practical and sensible”, and it is not yet clear whether this could create gaps in nature protections.

In September and October new marine protected areas were announced by the UK government, alongside the designation of the West Pennine Moors as a SSSI under UK nature laws; both are steps that the UK is required to do by the EU Nature Directives. They were already overdue. The implementation of EU environmental laws remained incomplete at UK level, which raises concerns about the government’s likely approach to nature conservation after the UK leaves the EU. 

Capacity & funding

Defra is due to see a 15% reduction in its resource spending between 2015 and 2020. It is unclear whether it (and Natural England, which receives funding from Defra) will be able to cope with any additional workload associated with the transposition of all EU rules to the UK, and then the monitoring of existing policy and creation of new policy. Most of this effort has happened at EU level thus far.

There are signs that Defra may progress action on better implementation of EU nature policy begun under previous Environment Minister Rory Stewart, but so far there is nothing concrete to announce, and funding remains severely limited. The government announced in October 2016 that access to EU funding sources will be replaced by UK funding in the short term, but has provided no guarantees about the longer term, meaning this funding could be lost entirely.

Governance

The Great Repeal Bill White Paper does not make clear what, if any, domestic governance arrangements will be put in place to replace the European Court of Justice and the role it jointly plays with other EU institutions in providing the monitoring, oversight, accountability, and enforcement functions required to ensure the effective implementation of nature conservation legislation.

The EU continues to advance infraction proceedings against the UK concerning breaches of EU nature laws, but so far this has not resulted in any concrete improvements during this reporting period. Infraction proceedings were a key driver behind the designation of new marine protected areas in 2016; their likely disappearance after the UK leaves the EU could slow the progress of these sorts of protections.

Co-operation
The UK continues to participate in and provide input to EU nature cooperation and co-ordination processes. During this update period the UK submitted comments on the proposed Action Plan to follow up the fitness check of the Nature Directives, confirming, “The UK is willing to work with the Commission and others to take this work forward as quickly as possible.” However, there is no news as to whether, and if so, how, the UK will co-operate with the EU in this policy area after Brexit.