Experts at Natural England fear that without the moderating influence of the EU the countryside and environmental interests will lose out to short-term financial pressures.
Some of the departments facing the biggest challenges around Brexit have experienced deep staff and budget cuts, the Institute of Government’s Whitehall Monitor has warned.
Its January 2017 Monitor particularly highlighted the importance of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to the Brexit process and the cuts in staff and resource it has suffered.
According to DEFRA’s own estimates, a quarter of EU laws (around 1,200) relate to its work, with 80% of the department’s work “framed” by EU legislation, says the IOG. Yet staffing levels have fallen by more than a third since 2010, and its day-to-day spending budget reduced by more than a fifth since 2011-12.
Natural England is a non-departmental public body that comes under the DEFRA umbrella. It is the government’s adviser on safeguarding English landscapes, habitats and wildlife. One of its key responsibilities is the administration of billions of pounds of EU funding for Countryside Stewardship.
The diverse 2,000-strong workforce reflects the complexity of the task. The team includes experts in residential, industrial and maritime planning, UK and European law, as well as a wide range of scientific disciplines.
Prospect member Julia Coneybeer joined Natural England with a background in ecology, before specialising in planning applications.
“I advise on terrestrial planning applications, and the effects that the proposed developments might have on the environment, particularly any designated sites,” she says.
The planning group provides guidance on European sites in the Natura 2000 network, and Sites of Special Scientific Interest. They also help to preserve the country’s national parks, heritage coast and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty: the jewels of the English countryside.
Conservation is good for the UK economy. Healthy ecosystems and landscapes are essential to agriculture, fisheries and, of course tourism.
“We in the UK have benefited heavily from international collaboration, and the shared European vision of conservation. EU law has been central to our environmental protection,” says Julia.
She thinks EU regulations have been unfairly portrayed. “People think of them as ‘red tape’, but actually the rulings on environmental issues from the European Court of Justice have been responsive and progressive.
“Unfortunately, environmental interests and economic ones sometimes come into conflict, especially on short timescales. I worry that, outside the moderating influence of the EU, the countryside we love will lose out to short-term financial pressures.”
Another Prospect member, part of the science team, imported her knowledge and expertise from continental Europe. “I got my PhD in my home country, then moved around Europe as a post-doctoral researcher, before settling in England,” she says.
As a habitat expert, she now provides guidance for the protection of designated sites, including giving evidence at public hearings.
She reflects on the impact of the EU on attitudes to the environment: “We’re working on the assumption that EU environmental protections will be incorporated into UK law, at least to start with.
“But we need to acknowledge that the EU has had a massive impact on our culture of care for the environment. It’s brought policy makers and conservationists over to the same side. I worry that our shared commitment will be much weakened without the underpinning legislation.”
As an EU migrant, how does she feel personally about Brexit? “I’m suddenly more aware of my accent. I’m 50 years old, I’ve lived in England for 20 years and I always felt I belonged. I never thought of myself as ‘different’ until now.”