The UK had safe water. Then Brexit allowed the Tories to flush away our environmental standards | Stella Creasy

Michael Gove, who pledged to boost protections, now plans to scrap them. No wonder natural habitats are threatened

  • Stella Creasy is the chair of the Labour Movement for Europe and the Labour and Cooperative MP for Walthamstow

This week politicians have again been talking crap – the kind that ends up clogging our waterways and streams and making them toxic. Nutrient neutrality sounds like something a health food drink promises. In layperson’s terms, these policies ensure that the materials leaching into our natural water sources help to maintain a healthy oxygen balance so that all – fish, fowl or human – can imbibe it safely. This can be put at risk by sewage discharges into our rivers. In political terms, however, these debates are proof that this government is happy to sell our precious environmental standards down the river.

As a result of farming and development, phosphates and nitrates get discharged into the soil and then to rivers, leading to eutrophication – waterways choking with algae.

The “conservation of habitats and species regulations” is one of thousands of pieces of retained EU law (REUL) copied on to the statute book after Brexit. It set out rules on how to prevent this contamination, by requiring local authorities to refuse development of sites that could lead to such dirty water; or by making polluters either pay for their behaviour or offer mitigating measures, such as creating new wetlands.

When, earlier this year, the government sought to abolish all retained EU law, ministers assured parliament seven different times that any subsequent rules they introduced around ecological standards would not only protect standards but enhance them. But, as surely as night follows day, this government shows it cannot be trusted with our natural world.

The same secretary of state who pledged in 2017 that Brexit would “strengthen environmental protections” has now put forward plans to scrap these nutrient neutrality rules altogether. Michael Gove claims jettisoning these measures would unlock the development of about 100,000 new homes. His team loudly proclaims it is on the side of the builders – and so presumably not that of the birds whose habitat could become lethal as a result.

When reminded of the government’s promise, ministers argue it still stands – yet their own advisers differ. The Office for Environmental Protection, which this government set up, has warned that the proposed changes are a “regression”. Ministers refuse to confirm if Natural England – their own agency that oversees the implementations of these regulations – thinks this is a good idea.

Algal bloom on the surface of the Thames in Goring on Thames, Oxfordshire, in June 2023.
Algal bloom on the surface of the Thames in Goring on Thames, Oxfordshire, in June 2023. Photograph: Geoffrey Swaine/Shutterstock

Respected environmental groups are aghast, with the normally discreet RSPB outright calling ministers liars. The Wildlife Trust describes these plans as disgusting, highlighting that the UK is already one of the worst countries for water quality in Europe. Only housing developers are delighted – not least by the increase in their share prices that accompanied the governments proposals.

No law is beyond review, to see if and how it is affecting housing development. That could have been done without seeking to ram through these proposals with minimal consultation and at the last minute in parliamentary terms. Others sense a more sinister pattern. During the RUEL bill Labour MPs raised the alarm about the lack of scrutiny built into how replacement laws would be written. Ministers dismissed this out of hand, because of their hatred of being held to account by collective EU lawmaking processes.

These escapades show that not only were such concerns about their lack of respect for democracy reasonable – they were well founded. Despite these rules around neutrality being law for four years, and multiple public interventions into housebuilding, the sudden decision that it’s nutrients that are blocking development – and not the cost of materials, council administrative processes or labour shortages – smacks of short-term panic about being seen to do something, not long-term sense on land management.

Although there is opposition in the House of Lords, where this will be debated next week, unless all those Conservative MPs who pledged to protect the environment honour their commitments, the government’s Commons majority means this legislation will become law. Attention should therefore turn to what other promises made to get the retained EU law bill passed by parliament may similarly now be abandoned. With so much of it concerned with natural habitat, there are fears that many more conservation protections will be sacrificed. Indeed, the REUL legislation allows the government to do this directly, through statutory instruments, doing away with even a pretence of robust parliamentary scrutiny.

As Labour Movement for Europe, we know a closer relationship with Europe after Brexit strengthens both our ability to protect the environment and provide predictability for businesses as regulation. REUL represents thousands of laws that formed the basis of our level playing field with Europe and the post-Brexit trade agreement; having left the EU, being seen to uphold our international obligations is critical to being considered trustworthy. We also know that sorting out the myriad problems Brexit has created must be an urgent priority for a future Labour government – not least because this debacle shows the Conservatives are perfectly capable of making a bad situation worse.

  • Stella Creasy is the chair of the Labour Movement for Europe and the Labour and Cooperative MP for Walthamstow


Stella Creasy

The GuardianTramp

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