Simon Clarke is the Conservative MP for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland.
My constituents do not want a timid, pale, apologetic Brexit. Leaving the European Union would be a lost opportunity if we quietly recreate a domestic version of the status quo. As we update our statute book, we need to be mature enough to recognise the things the EU does well, but bold enough to take transformative action where we can do better. There is no clearer example than environmental policy.
Think of the Common Agricultural Policy: is there a more frustrating example of environmental stagnation? We’ve been locked for too long in a policy where payments are so perverse and the bureaucratic requirements so byzantine that wildlife, water and soils have suffered while farmers are paid a pittance for the environmental benefits they deliver. The potential for a new system that rewards real investment in sustainable farming is revolutionary. But we mustn’t limit our ambition to the obvious areas. These months of change have electrifying potential for renewal and reform and that’s a precious commodity. We must be bold and seize the chance for improvement across the board.
That’s why I am calling for a new Environment Act to restore nature, reinvigorate our green economy, and inspire the world with our environmental conviction. Michael Gove recently appeared before the Environmental Audit Committee and set out his plans for a new watchdog and a green principles policy. The heart of his proposal is to replace important functions that the EU has done quite well: standing up for environmental justice and weaving ideas like the “polluter pays principle” through every policy area.
Of course, we could simply replicate those functions when we leave the EU. Listen closely, though, and you may have heard encouraging hints about a greener future. This autumn, the Government will publish a draft Environmental Governance and Principles Bill that could match the EU on strong, green justice, but improve on the speed of proceedings and achieve greater clarity on how the principles of environmental law should be applied.
This kind of clarity would give businesses confidence to invest in new technologies and greener plans, secure in the knowledge that green principles would be applied routinely and robustly. As a member of the Treasury Select Committee, I’m hugely excited by the idea of taxes that take account of environmental externalities much more systematically than the EU has achieved, so the market really rewards sustainable choices.
But if we’re truly ambitious, we will go further still. We need an Environment Bill with powerful provisions that can stimulate environmental investment, accountability and ambition across Government, economy and society – the kind of focused reform that we have not imagined as a member of the EU.
Most importantly, we need to set the government’s landmark ambition to improve our environment in law. We already have a strong 25-year environment plan, but its power to drive change would be multiplied many times by the certainty provided by statute.
You need only look to those sectors of the economy where green investment is thriving to spot the economic results of legal clarity. UK low carbon industries are worth billions of pounds a year, defying every economic hiccup with strong growth, thanks to the direction we’ve given in our carbon budgets. Meanwhile, our water companies are our biggest private investors in catchment management, thanks to the clarity of our objectives for good water quality.
We can inspire investment in wildlife, water quality, air and environmental land management in the same way. By legislating to ensure a better environment and reporting openly on progress, we can create an appetite for investment in environmental land management, in natural flood mitigation, and in carbon sequestration. We can allocate responsibility and rewards more fairly, so that business practices that promote waste and pollution are penalised, but those who dare to lead and innovate in ecotech and efficiency are rewarded. In combination with new, simpler and more locally targeted systems for choosing the most beneficial projects, we can improve value for money so that every pound delivers the biggest benefits for our environment.
I don’t need to list the economic, social and individual benefits that a better environment would bring with awareness of water shortages, air quality issues, plastics pollution and pressures on land use so high in the public imagination.
But perhaps it is worth finishing with a thought about Green Global Britain. In 2020, world leaders will meet in China to agree a new global deal on environmental protection. When the UK delegation arrives in Beijing, I hope we take to the table a copy of a world-leading Environment Act that will demonstrate our domestic commitment and act as a blueprint for an ambitious multilateral deal.
I don’t want a timid, pale, apologetic Brexit. I want a change that’s bold, inspiring and green.