Navigating some choppy waters

2nd November 2016


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  • Pollution & Waste Management ,
  • Water ,
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  • EU

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Alexandra von Hoyningen-Huene

Researchers at the University of Portsmouth ask experts on coastal management what Brexit may bring

The decision to leave the EU will undoubtedly bring significant change for many areas of environmental management in the UK. Surveys before and after the referendum suggested concerns among environment professionals about the downgrading of standards in a post-EU Britain.

No one is yet sure what Brexit will consist of and uncertainty was a recurring theme among respondents to a poll by the Coastal Research Group (CRG) in the Department of Geography at the University of Portsmouth (see panel, below). Coastal policy and management is one area of environmental planning that has benefited greatly from EU influence. In particular, initiatives from Brussels have helped to develop more integrated policy and management across the many areas, including nature conservation, risk management and sea defence, water quality and fisheries.

In reality, Brexit only means withdrawal from the EU, and international collaboration will continue regardless in many areas. Arguably, under the ‘Norwegian’ model, where the UK would remain part of the European Economic Area, there would be relatively little change, whereas other outcomes could result in significant upheaval.

So the question is whether the UK leaving the EU presents a new dawn for enlightened coastal management or a turning back of the clock on the progress made over the past 20 years or so. Alternatively, is the reality that little will change, at least in the short term?

Funding gap

Both sides in the referendum debate made significant promises on funding. Although some of these have since been retracted faster than an ebb tide, the issue of funding for coastal projects was a recurring theme among survey respondents. Some 40% did not believe the UK government would fill the funding gap left by the EU. In particular, some respondents were worried that money now delivered through the EU would not be replaced. They believed this was because the ‘natural reaction of policymakers would now be to reject EU policy to save money’ or because ‘EU-mandated environmental policy would now be at risk of being watered down in order to redirect previously allocated funds to other priority areas’.

Conservation policy

A key area of coastal management is the conservation of the many threatened habitats, such as salt marsh and sand dunes. Open questions in the survey let participants outline the aspects of the leave decision that worried them most in terms of coastal policy and management. Many of the detailed comments focused on the potential weakening of regulation. In particular, there were concerns about the habitats and birds directives and the loss of environmental designations. Others viewed the potential threat to habitats from relaxed protection and, in particular, the wholesale dismantling of the directives to ease development planning.

However, respondents saw opportunity, agreeing that, although habitats regulations provided a much-needed umbrella to protect species and habitats, the application of habitat regulations appraisal and assessment appraisal could sometimes be something of a blunt instrument. This was illustrated by the support of many respondents for the statement: ‘Applying the process can sometimes be a hindrance rather than generate positive outcomes for wildlife. So there may be an opportunity to improve the process.’ A number of respondents, including some who voted remain, pointed out that, although potentially negative in the short term, in the longer term Brexit raised the possibility of taking national decisions on coastal habitats if the political will was there.

Local control

A key theme in the referendum debate was the return to more national and local control over many issues. Almost half of survey respondents thought that leaving the EU would lead to greater control over the UK’s coastal resources. For many, this reduction in EU control was regarded as a negative outcome, with many agreeing with the statement that ‘without the drive of the European directives, UK environmental legislation and policy will be weaker’.

Others reflected familiar themes from the referendum debates, such as ‘Issues will be handled by a democratically elected government rather than autocrats in Brussels who are responsible to no one but themselves’. Others still suggested that Brexit would provide greater freedom over policy and management, enabling the UK to disregard European requirements that are deemed contrary to its interests.

A common approach

Overall, those polled were of the opinion that most current environmental measures would, at least in the short term, be directly adopted and that change to the structures would occur only over time. The statement receiving most backing was ‘The past European influence on UK coastal policy will not disappear overnight as the content of EU directives has already been transposed into UK laws. Unless these are repealed, the legacy of European law and policy influence will remain.’

Even among leavers, most thought that any changes to legislation would take between two and five years.

The vote on 23 June has left great uncertainty in coastal policy and management. The survey results suggest that many coastal experts expect the overall impact will be negative, particularly in relation to habitat management and international collaboration. Most respondents have little faith that politicians will prioritise coastal policy and management and many fear that standards may be weakened.

However, the findings reflect a degree of uncertainty and division among coastal experts. Many in the remain camp see potential opportunities from Brexit, although they said any positive outcomes would depend on a strong political lead and will. Those who voted leave are generally less pessimistic and see the potential for more control over coastal resources.

Over the next few years it will become apparent what Brexit means for environmental management in general and coastal policy and management in particular. Undoubtedly there is serious concern over what comes next but also a plethora of ideas and potential to improve management of coastal areas.

Expert analysis

The Coastal Research Group (CRG) in the Department of Geography at the University of Portsmouth consulted 46 coastal specialists in September. They came from the private sector, independent consultancies, academia, and local and national government. Some 70% had voted to remain, while 15% had voted to leave – 9% preferred not to say and the remainder did not vote. Not surprisingly given the voting pattern, most respondents were largely negative about the prospects for coastal policy and management after Brexit.

Almost three-quarters thought the UK’s departure from the EU would have negative implications overall for coastal policy and management. However, many ‘remainers’ said Brexit could provide an opportunity to improve existing environmental management at the coast. Around half agreed with the statement, ‘Little will change as a result of Brexit, as we will still have to comply with most European legislation’. This seems to reflect the view across many areas of environmental management.

Key negative concerns were:

  • weakening of current environmental standards;
  • loss of international collaboration and funding;
  • less progressive policy without EU drivers; and
  • lack of prioritisation for coastal issues.

The main positive points raised were:

  • more local control and initiatives possible;
  • potential to improve environmental standards and policies;
  • opportunities for more focused research effort, unhindered by EU bureaucracy and a lowest common denominator consensus approach to issues;
  • potential reforms to common agricultural and fisheries policies; and
  • leaner, faster decision-making and management.

All respondents expressed concern that joint (UK and EU) funding programmes and international collaboration would be weakened after Brexit. Among the remainers this finding was allied with concerns for wildlife protection and conservation as well as pollution. In general, the ‘leavers’ thought the effect of Brexit on joint funding and co-operation would be negative, but the overall impact would be neutral. In some areas, such as fisheries and commercial opportunities, they could even improve.

In recent years, the importance of integration has been at the forefront of UK coastal policy and management. This entails consultation and collaboration between different stakeholders and management agencies as well as inter-disciplinary co-operation. Given the transboundary nature of many coastal resources, national and regional collaboration has been seen as essential for successful management outcomes. Several survey respondents pointed to the international nature of many coastal issues and expressed a concern about the future, with many agreeing with the statement, ‘Our links to Europe have served us well for many years, and in a time of austerity the UK’s access to EU-funded projects will dwindle and be discontinued’.

There was a general fear that this money and, more importantly, the outputs from this shared work would not work as effectively if the UK left the EU. Others, including some remain voters, believed collaboration would continue due to interconnectedness of the current systems, with several respondents agreeing with the statement, ‘Things will continue to evolve and I don’t see Brexit as the factor driving the changes’. Some of those polled expressed the view that losses of co-operation would likely be offset by innovate domestic research on UK-specific challenges.


Dr Brian Baily, Dr Robert Inkpen and Dr Jonathan Potts are members of the Coastal Research Group in the Department of Geography at the University of Portsmouth. If you would like to participate, the survey remains open at bit.ly/2dcZHgr.

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