As the United Kingdom hurtles towards its self-set March deadline for leaving the EU, there are growing concerns about what Brexit will mean for its greenbelts and protected conservation areas.
Under current arrangements, the UK’s conservation sites are protected under EU Regulations and Directives. Many of those opposing Brexit fear that once Britain leaves the EU, it will no longer have to abide by these, or similar, rules.
Greenbelts are patches of land, often surrounding suburban areas, put aside for wild meadows and conservation. These areas have a restriction on building and provide vital spaces for biodiversity to flourish. Nor are protected sites just needed for biodiversity. They also provide valuable ecosystem services such as nutrient cycling, food production, carbon capture and recreation.
Former secretary of state for energy and climate change Sir Ed Davey said he feared Britain’s loss of a seat at the EU table would mean it had less of an impact on global decisions.
“We can actually get real action on climate change globally by being part of the European Union,” Davey, now Liberal Democrat MP for Kingston-upon-Thames, said.
“I believe that governments should be held to account. As a liberal, I believe corporations and businesses should be held to account. I believe big institutions like trade unions and all governments, people who are powerful, they should be held to account. The European Union helps us do that and it’s never given the credit it should be.”
Davey cited the example of the Green Growth Group, which he created in 2012 while secretary of state. The group enabled EU member states to come together, working cooperatively to achieve real results, such as getting agreement on a 40 per cent reduction in greenhouse gases by 2030.
“We got other countries to raise their game, which we could because we were at the European table,” he said.
Before joining the EU, the UK had its own regulations for protected areas known as SSSI’s (Sites of Special Scientific Interest). However the status of the union’s green spaces has improved under EU regulations and directives, “substantially contributing to the conservation of nature and to meeting the EU’s biodiversity”, according to the University of Bristol. The university’s report on Brexit’s potential effects on the environment noted that the environment had done better because of the more rigorous management methods outlined in EU directives.
Dr Paul Cross, a senior lecturer for the environment at Bangor University, North Wales, said he feared the environment would not be a priority in post-Brexit Britain.
“There will be so much pressure on the government to shift funding from the environment to other sectors to shore up the impact of Brexit. I’m somewhat pessimistic about this,” he said. “It is not clear that there is sufficient initiative or drive to direct money in the direction of the environment.”
Currently, the UK’s sites are managed by the Birds and Habitat directive which was implemented in 2010 under the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations Act and keeps threatened species safe. Being part of the EU also means being a member of the Natura 2000 Network, the world’s largest coordination of networks that works to protect the survival of species and habitats over all 28 EU countries.
An uncertain future
Secretary of state for the environment Michael Gove said in a speech in March that “Brexit, with the right decisions, can enhance our natural our natural environment”. However, his speech spoke of fisheries, air pollution, and single use plastic but failed to mention the future of green spaces and protected areas.
The exact impact of Brexit will depend in large part on what Brexit ultimately looks like – something which is far from clear. Nonetheless, for now at least, the consensus among environmentalists seems to be that the UK is stronger working with the EU.