UK environmental protections 'being flouted'

By Roger Harrabin
BBC environment analyst

Road constructionImage source, Getty Images
Image caption,
The UK government is pressing on with a £27bn road-building programme

Campaigners have accused the government of hypocrisy for setting out environmental protection principles while simultaneously flouting them.

UK ministers have just published long-awaited principles that will inform government decision-making.

They say they intend to put the environment at the heart of their policy.

But the document exempts the Treasury and the Ministry of Defence from being bound by the principles.

And environmentalists complain that the principles are meaningless anyway, because the government presses on with activities that will harm the planet – such as the planned Cumbria coal mine and a £27bn road building programme.

The principles have been laid out in a consultation document linked to the Environment Bill. Following Brexit, these principles will replace those agreed by the EU.

Environment Secretary George Eustice said: “We want to embed the environment in the design, development and delivery of the government’s work.

“Our environmental principles are essential, and will ensure that ministers across Whitehall are guided to not just protect the environment, but tackle problems at their origin.”

He said the legally-binding statement would introduce key environmental propositions. These include:

  • The integration principle - policy-makers should look for opportunities to embed environmental protection in other fields of policy that have impacts on the environment - say transport or business, for instance
  • The prevention principle - policy should aim to prevent or, reduce harm
  • The polluter pays principle - those who cause damage should be responsible for mitigation or compensation
  • The precautionary principle - caution is exercised where there is potential for serious or irreversible environmental damage, but also a lack of scientific certainty over the matter

Crispin Truman from CPRE, the countryside charity, said: “We welcome this, but it’s what happens on the ground that really matters. We need hard targets and legally binding commitments to address the nature and climate emergencies.

"The UK government’s current planning and transport policies will also need a major overhaul.

Image source, West Cumbria Mining Company
Image caption,
The Cumbrian coal project is planned for a site near Whitehaven

“It’s also astonishing to see the government champion these principles while giving the green light to a new coal mine in Cumbria."

The CPRE said that what they called the mismatch between green principles and actual policies was an example of "glaring hypocrisy".

Ben Halfpenny, from the Greener UK coalition of green groups, targeted his criticism at the wording of the 20-page statement.

He spelled out detailed textual differences between how the proposed UK government principles, compared with their EU precursors.

He noted that the document contains 19 references to the word “proportionately“ and also raises the idea that measures should be "cost effective", which allows plenty of wriggle-room.

"Whereas the old approach would ensure big decisions considered issues related to the principles and applied them proportionately to protect the environment, the new approach seeks to make environmental issues proportionate to other factors, such as economic considerations, in the making of the decision," he said.

"This is likely to relegate the importance of the environment in big decisions and ongoing work."

'Weakened protection'

Mr Halfpenny continued: "The old approach made sure principles directly applied to government ministers and public authorities. The new approach only requires certain ministers to consider the principles, with key carve-outs for the Treasury and Defence.

"These departments are not excluded from the Climate Change Act commitments so we query why they should escape environmental responsibilities."

Kierra Box, from Friends of the Earth, said: "It's totally inconsistent for the government to be building roads or airports - or digging mines - if it was really taking these environmental principles seriously."

Campaigners generally think the new document offers less protection to the environment than what was there previously.

Ms Box told BBC News: "We can understand why the MoD should be exempted from the principles at a time of war. But if they are storing depleted uranium shells on British land, then surely the principles should apply."

She's also worried - and puzzled - about the exemption for the Treasury.

"The Treasury often takes decisions with a complex interplay between differing impacts. But the idea of excluding the Treasury from these principles seems bizarre – especially against a background of 'green growth' promises."

The BBC has approached the government for comment.

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