Brexit, the environment and devolution

2nd June 2017

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Stephen Plumley

Manifestos in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Brexit raises a number of critical questions for the UK’s environment. A coalition of environmental campaign groups, GreenerUK, has summarised these around three main asks: maintaining standards, ensuring dynamic policy-making and developing new governance arrangements.

In a previous blog post we have discussed how the main London-based parties addressed these issues in their manifestos for the general election. But in this ‘Brexit’ election, there is more than one union on the agenda.

While implementing the UK’s decision to leave the EU is central to every party’s manifesto, in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland the contours of the present political settlement within the UK are also questioned. In this second blog post we look at how political parties in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are engaging with the environmental challenges posed by Brexit.

Devolution occurred while the UK was within the EU. Hence, EU membership is firmly embedded in the devolution settlements. In fully devolved areas such as the environment and agriculture, policy after Brexit will not only be decided in London but also in Edinburgh, Cardiff, and Belfast. As the UK prepares to ‘take back control’ the question of ‘where to’ (to London or to the devolved administrations) arises: if a common approach is to be pursued, how should it be decided?

Should it be, as the May government argued, up to Westminster to ascertain that ‘the right powers are returned to Westminster and the right powers are passed to the devolved administrations’ (and deciding which are the ‘right powers’ in a top down manner). Or should they emerge ‘based on agreements freely entered into by the UK government and the three devolved administrations and subject to independent arbitration’ as suggested by the Welsh Government and Plaid Cymru?

While the London-based parties paid lip service to these questions in their manifestos, challenges to the devolved settlements and competences are centre stage in the manifestos of the parties in the devolved administrations. But is this concern with constitutional arrangements also a boost for the environment?

Scotland and Wales: devolved powers for a greener future?

Plaid Cymru co-signed January’s Securing Wales’ Future white paper with the Welsh Government while the SNP government published as early as December 2016 its white paper on Scotland’s Place in Europe. Unsurprisingly both parties reiterate key points from these respective white papers in their election manifestos.

The SNP stresses that ‘Brexit threatens the fundamental rights that people in the UK currently enjoy, including workers’ rights, as well as vital social and environmental protections’ and vows its MPs will fight to ensure current protections ‘are not diminished after the UK leaves.’ This will be done in large part through protecting Scotland’s right to set its own standards. The SNP has two major asks in that respect: first, a ‘cast iron guarantee’ that the UK government would abide by the Sewel Convention and seek the consent of the Scottish Parliament on the terms of the ‘Brexit bill’. Second, a ‘fundamental’ revision of the devolution settlement and additional powers for the Scottish Parliament in the field of environment and agriculture (among many others).

Plaid Cymru reiterates the need for consent from all four nations, and states it ‘will require the UK Government to seek the endorsement of each UK country before any trade deal can be signed’ in order to protect Welsh farmers, pledges new Welsh environmental legislation and states it will ‘secure the money promised to Wales by the Leave campaign. We will not accept a penny less’.

Northern Ireland: environment takes a back seat

In the run-up to the EU referendum and in its immediate aftermath, divisions between the two governing parties Sinn Féin (who favoured Remain) and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP, who favoured Leave) meant that the only official NI position on Brexit was a short letter to Theresa May in August 2016. Since then, the executive has broken down, and negotiations to form a new NI Executive have been pushed back until after the general election. This means, according to the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) manifesto, that ‘[d]espite having potentially the most to lose from a bungled Brexit deal, Northern Ireland remains by far the least prepared of any UK region.’

In light of the Scottish and Welsh governments achievement on the environment, one may be tempted to assume that devolution is necessarily better for the environment. The NI manifestos clearly show this is not the case: the DUP, Sinn Féin and the UUP neither mention the environment nor climate change. In fact, they do not merit a single reference. This makes them the only parties in the UK to stay silent on this issue. Even UKIP has offered plans for environmental policies after Brexit.

Conversely the Green Party NI, Alliance and the Social Democratic Labour Party (SDLP) all develop plans for the environment after Brexit. The Greens NI aim to 'ensure that all existing protections that we have from the EU are protected in domestic law', Alliance argues for the same and adds its support for ‘UK-wide legislation to improve decision making around nature issues and to establish long-term targets and powers to meet them’. Alliance is also worried about plans in the Great Repeal Bill to ‘allow the UK government to amend primary legislation by decree’ and argues these ‘revising powers’ should be limited to ‘very discreet issues’. These concerns are echoed by the SDLP which ‘is not prepared for devolved competencies to be dealt with at Westminster’ and calls for the NI Assembly to take a ‘pro-active approach’ and to vote on a ‘non-retrogression clause’ for environmental standards.

Regarding devolved powers, NI manifestos concentrate first and foremost on the need to get Stormont back up and running and avoid direct rule. Interestingly, Alliance echoes Welsh and Scottish demands that ‘agricultural support should be devolved’, stating ‘we have received no guarantees that current EU powers over agriculture will be devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly, nor that we will receive the current proportional share of UK agricultural funding that is spent in Northern Ireland.’ Conversely, the DUP asks for ‘local input into new UK agriculture policies’ and the SDLP demands that the British government ‘urgently details its plan’ for agricultural policies.

In conclusion, the general election manifestos confirm that on Greener UK priorities (especially guaranteeing standards and developing governance arrangements) the Scottish and Welsh governments are broadly aligned – and, on governance, are set on a collision course with the current UK government. They further confirm NI parties are profoundly divided by Brexit, around the notion of a ‘special status’ for Northern Ireland, but also, specifically on the environment: while some parties (like Alliance or SDLP) address all Greener UK concerns, the two main parties (DUP, Sinn Féin) do not even mention the environment.

This article was written by Dr Viviane Gravey, Queen's University Belfast and professor Andy Jordan, University of East Anglia.


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