What's in store for our aquatic environment post-Brexit?


Now we are coming to terms with the decision to leave the EU, we are beginning to look at the different scenarios around the UK’s future relationship with Europe, and what that might mean for environmental protection, particularly for our rivers, lakes and fish.

First, though, let’s look at the current situation. The EU Directives that cover the environment are all enshrined in UK law, so in theory they would all continue to protect the environment whatever happens post Brexit. Or, at least, until the relevant UK legislation is repealed. However, reality is somewhat different.

S&TC UK has complained to the European Commission three times in the past 5 years, and supported one other complaint.  Three of those were under the Habitats Directive, and the most recent, against salmon farming, has been under the Marine Strategy Development Directive. It remains to be seen how effective this may be post Brexit.

Our complaint under the Habitats Directive against the Scottish Government’s lack of wild salmon management, submitted in 2014, was spectacularly successful, being processed at lightening speed by EC standards and resulting in the closure of all Scottish coastal mixed stock netting stations for the next three years.  This brought Scotland into line with agreed international objectives for wild salmon management and was a major coup for wild salmon protection.

In England, we complained about the failure of the Hampshire Avon to achieve its salmon conservation targets under the Habitats Directive, but that was merely an excuse to highlight issues such as the impact of excessive water abstraction and diffuse pollution on river ecosystems generally.

The overriding issue on the Avon was 25 years’ worth of Government Agency reviews, plans and strategies which were never delivered, and this has led to our complaint being held up by the EC as a case study showing how the UK too often spends resources on making excuses for why it has not met its international responsibilities. This is highly relevant for NGO activity in a post-Brexit UK, because it highlights the challenge ahead for us in trying to influence greater environmental protection without the help of the EC.

So, let’s look at the worst-case scenario for the UK post-Brexit environment; the UK Government having no pressure from Europe to deliver the objectives of EU Directives. Yes, those objectives are still enshrined in UK law, but it is too easy for the Government to cite overriding public interest as an excuse for allowing, for instance, a housing or industrial development to impact a local river with excess phosphate, or denude it of water through excessive abstraction. If there is no fear of European fines for failure to protect our fragile water ecosystems, then our Government can do what it likes, and environmental protection will be pretty low down on its priority list for many years to come.

So, what positives might there be for a complete Brexit? The major opportunity will be to influence the conditions that accompany the successor to the Common Agricultural Policy and the UK’s new subsidy programme. I think we can all agree that cross compliance – the idea that land managers should protect the environment in exchange for agricultural subsidies – has not worked, and any future subsidy programme must have much tighter environmental conditions placed on the beneficiaries. And, of course, those conditions must be properly policed and enforced, and there must be sufficient resources provided for that to be effective. The fact that agriculture is devolved to separate UK Governments makes the issue even more complex, as the chances are that they will have differing agricultural agendas.

One thing is for certain, though; for NGOs to have any influence, it is no longer enough to jump up and down in righteous indignation that our rivers, invertebrates and fish stocks are being damaged by sedimentation, phosphate, excessive water abstraction, inadequately treated sewage and the like. We have to collect evidence to prove our point. Without evidence, decision makers will not take us seriously, especially when their overriding objective is ever increasing development, often positively described as ‘sustainable’ by Governments, but which rarely is in terms of environmental protection.

That is why the Riverfly Census is so important, together with the phosphate and sediment research we are undertaking as extensions of the Census work. The 2015 Report has already received excellent media coverage and shaken a few official trees within Government Agencies, and we fully intend to build on that and establish an irrefutable database of river ecological status across the UK. That is the one way we feel that we can have genuine influence over water environmental protection in a post Brexit UK – action, not just talk!