Brexit: an environmental opportunity?

Brexit: an environmental opportunity?

As post-Brexit debates gather momentum, the National Trust has called for the reform of agricultural subsidies with a vision of a policy which puts the environment first. The concept of linking farming to environmental responsibilities has also been promoted by a group of 84 NGOs. A group of 36 MPs, including former environment ministers, recently lobbied the Prime Minister to maintain Britain’s strong environmental protection currently provided by EU Directives, and to change future farm subsidies to pay for environmental services. Conversely, the National Farmers Union (NFU) criticised these concepts, arguing that UK food production is vital; and Defra recently announced its intention to publish a Food and Farming Strategy separately from a 25-year Environment Plan.

When (if?) Brexit does eventually take place, Westminster, rather than the EU, will set the national strategy for farming. The Environment Secretary, Andrea Leadsom, is responsible for developing the new farming subsidy scheme to replace CAP subsidies.

The principle of the proposed reform is that agricultural subsidies go to those that create the most public benefit, with the focus on biodiversity, wildlife and environment. If carried through, this would have far-reaching effects on land management and farming practices; with serious potential to improve the effectiveness of current environmental stewardship schemes. The National Trust suggested that a reformed subsidy system should only reward farmers who make environmental and wildlife improvements.

September’s ‘State of the Nation’ report highlights that of 8,000 species in Britain, “15% are extinct or threatened with extinction”. The Biodiversity Intactness Ratio ranks the UK at 189, out of 218 countries across the world. 56% of UK species are in decline, including hedgehogs and turtle doves, and 165 species are considered ‘Critically Endangered’ – the most likely to become extinct. Some legally protected species, such as the otter and red kite are doing well, according to the study.

The report identifies the two most important factors affecting nature in the UK: intensive agriculture and climate change. With an estimated 75% of the UK’s landmass being managed for food production, it is no surprise that the management of farmland is critical to addressing the UK’s environmental decline. Subsidies which put the environment first, and rethink our approach to national food production, have potential to reverse that decline.

This raises two interesting points for me as a landscape architect.

Firstly, a shift to subsidies for environmental improvements is highly likely to change the character and appearance of our countryside. What is considered by much of the public to be the “natural green” British countryside is in fact farmed, managed or otherwise previously used and reinstated. There is very little truly virgin land on our island. With less intensive farming and adjusted management programmes to increase wildlife habitats and biodiversity, I imagine a less ‘tidy’ landscape with outgrown hedges; more trees, copses and woodlands; increased field margins and grassland/meadow areas. I wonder how public perception of the British countryside might change. Would there be less or more public interest in protecting the general countryside (i.e. unprotected landscapes) from new development because the character of the countryside has changed? Would there be pressure to maintain public access and the existing visual amenity provided by current intensive farming practices? As a consequence, how might these changes reshape our planning policies?

Secondly, would a switch to environment-based subsidies lead, ultimately, to an increase in farmland becoming available to developers; with increasing pressure for development in unprotected countryside? Could national subsidies really be at high enough levels to successfully persuade farmers to switch to environmental stewardship being their primary role? Would it generate enough, or better, income for the farming community than current intensive food production based subsidies?

No doubt all of these questions, and more, will be played out over the next 2 years, and beyond, as the form of a post-Brexit UK takes shape.

So what does this mean for the environmental consultancy market?

With Brexit on the horizon, I see future opportunities for the landscape and environment professions. As new national strategies and policies form, we need to be agile, flexible and innovative in influencing environmental and planning policy. A redefinition of farming, which puts the environment first, could help to reverse the UK’s environmental decline, increase wildlife and biodiversity, create less intensive and more sustainable food production for the nation, and potentially unlock more sites for development. This is where our environmental professions can make a positive difference.

In the meantime, PBA’s environment teams assist landowners with landscape and ecology management plans; assist clients with integrated green-blue infrastructure design, which delivers environmental benefits and improvements as a result of new development; and provide pre-planning advice on sites with key environmental issues, to facilitate appropriate development in the right place.