“apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?”

“Brought peace. “

“ Oh. Peace? Shut up!”

I am reminded of this gem from “Life of Brian” every time I have the misfortune to tune into another BREXIT debate. Now, I don’t want to get into a wider argument but to concentrate on the environmental issues. So, let’s start again with “What have the EU ever done for UK environmental protection’?

Climate Change: The EU adopted at least a 40 per cent carbon reduction commitment for 2030 (some may say a commitment in which the UK played a pivotal role). It has also provided a renewable energy directive which has led to over 50 per cent of new power capacity being renewable. At the domestic scale it has improved the efficiency of electrical equipment and banned the woefully inefficient incandescent light bulb (which my local DIY shop still keeps a diminishing stock of for the less informed customer). As a collective body, the EU is a persuasive force in getting some of the more reluctant developed countries to take action. 

Air Quality: the UK started tackling air quality in the 1950s but the EU has ensured that there have been cross border air quality standards for harmful compounds of carbon, nitrogen and sulphur. There is still a long way to go but without such multi-national standards we would be seeing more serious urban smog and a resurgence of the worst acid rain problems of the past.

Beaches: I remember seeing an interview in the 1980’s with Mrs Thatcher in which she pronounced (incorrectly) that no raw sewage was discharged to sea. The following summer I remember noting the flocks of seagulls around the discharge pipes on a Norfolk beach! In 2017 it was reported that nearly 18,000 licensed emergency sewer overflows are allowed to discharge raw sewage directly into the environment (only during extreme rainfall, mainly into rivers). However, EU regulations on water quality have put pressure on water authorities in the UK to the extent that 99 per cent of England’s bathing waters meeting the minimum European standard, and over 82 per cent meeting the tighter guideline standard.

Habitat and Species Protection: In 2015 the WWF stated that ‘EU nature laws are the most effective tool in place to preserve our natural capital and that no time needs to be wasted in changing them.’ The EU Birds and Habitat directives have been shown to be more effective than national policies for improving outcomes for threatened species. Fishing quotas have been more controversial but cod and haddock numbers have started to rise again. 

These are the headlines but much more is being undertaken below the radar and there is a general consensus that the EU has been the leading worldwide body in driving forward the environmental agenda. But what about the UK’s much heralded, post BREXT environmental laws? In December 2018 the Government published the ‘Draft Environment (Principles and Governance) Bill 2018’. The accompanying policy paper states “The Environmental Bill will put environmental ambition and accountability at the very heart of government. It will help us make good on our commitment to leave the natural world in a better condition than we found it, and create a new environment body to make sure that we succeed.” Very laudable aims but will it replace and improve upon the last 45 years of EU policy? Unfortunately, the devil is in the detail. The RSPB have stated that ‘We welcome the steps taken by government to give the proposed green watchdog more teeth; but it still falls short of the body we will need if we are to fill the gap in environmental protections left by Brexit; nor will the bill as drafted make good on Theresa May’s promise to improve the condition of the natural world“. The Government responses to consultation on the draft bill has also stated in relation to EU Climate laws being upheld after BREXIT ‘that following EU exit there could be a governance gap in relation to EU climate change law’

So, in conclusion, will ‘Romani ite domum’ lead to smelly beaches? I hope not.