Comment

Strange times, but we’re keeping up the pressure on politicians

Recent changes to government departments and the arrival of new ministers are making it more difficult to discuss key issues with officials, but the environmental sector has much to offer, says Matthew Farrow.

Early September always sees politics starting up again after the summer break. But though the timing may be familiar, the atmosphere is anything but. 

Here at the Environmental Industries Commission we tend to be in regular contact with officials across government to develop policy and regulations, but day-to-day policy making remains in limbo, with some important consultations which we have been expecting for months, for example on the much-needed Clean Air Zones or the future of energy efficiency policy delayed.  

At the same time the implementation of the structural changes across government is slowing things down with the Energy and Climate Change department gone, BIS refashioned into BEIS (pronounced ‘baize’ apparently!), and new departments for Brexit and for international trade created.  

So while EIC (and ACE), is an accredited trade partner for the government export agency UKTI it is virtually impossible right now to get anything discussed with the staff there as UKTI has technically been abolished, its functions absorbed in the new trade department and people there are currently focused on moving buildings and changing email addresses rather than working with business.  

Against this stasis, the big questions of exactly how Brexit will be delivered dominates discussion in the green business sector but with few answers.

So what is EIC’s role in these strange times? First, we need to keep the pressure on politicians to ensure that important policy issues are not put on the backburner by Brexit. So when I spoke for the first time with new environment minister Therese Coffey, I urged her to reaffirm the government’s commitment to hitting air quality targets. And if ministers don’t step up to the plate, our new all-party parliamentary group on air pollution will ensure back bench MPs are well-briefed and can apply pressure to them.

Second, we must help our members separate fact from speculation as they seek to understand how Brexit might impact environmental policy and hence their markets. So I have agreed with the deputy head of the Norwegian Environment Agency that she will come over to the UK in November for an EIC seminar so that we can gain insights into Norway’s experience of working with EU environmental law as a non-EU member (the so called ‘Norway option’ – being part of the EEA but not the EU). This is one of a series of Brexit seminars we will run this autumn.

Third, we are working with our members to clarify which are the core elements of EU environmental law which are fundamental to UK environmental standards and markets so that we are well-positioned to influence government when the hard graft of detailed Brexit activity gets underway.

And lastly we need to be upbeat and offer solutions to our new government.  Despite the deep concern many in the environmental world inevitably have about the impact Brexit could have on environmental progress the UK’s green economy remains a hotbed of innovation and export potential. As ministers search for ways to put flesh on the bones of soundbites such as ‘rebalancing the economy’ and ‘becoming an open, trading nation’, we have a lot to offer.

Matthew Farrow is director of the Environmental Industries Commission, the leading trade body for environmental firms.