The government is working on a deregulation agenda. The government is working on a deregulation agenda.

Will slashing red tape damage green protections?

The government has signalled a broad strategy to cut regulation, much as David Cameron’s administration did with its ‘bonfire of the quangos’ and ‘red tape challenge’. Last month, for instance, prime minister Boris Johnson established a panel of business leaders to advise on the removal of EU-derived rules and regulations from the statute book. The so-called ‘Build Back Better Council’ comprises around 30 company bosses, including representatives from BT, BP, Tesco, Unilever and Jaguar Land Rover.

In addition, chancellor Rishi Sunak is to chair a new Cabinet committee, the ‘Build Back Better Committee’, which oversees departmental efforts to shed regulations. “Now that we have left the European Union, we have an opportunity to do things differently and this government is committed to making the most of the freedoms that Brexit affords us,” Sunak said. “This isn’t about lowering standards, but about raising our eyes to look to the future — making the most of new sectors, new thinking and new ways of working.” 

And then just this week it was announced that Johnson had invited three Tory MPs to form the Taskforce on Innovation, Growth and Regulatory Reform to “propose options for how the UK can take advantage of our newfound regulatory freedoms” and challenge the government’s own proposals for regulatory reform. The taskforce includes former environment secretary Theresa Villiers and is due to report to the prime minister in April.  

“As the government seeks to reignite the economy to help it recover from the impacts of covid, we should consider all the options available to us to stimulate business dynamism and innovation, ensure that our markets are open and competitive and that businesses can scale up unencumbered by any unnecessary administrative burdens,” the government statement said. 

So far it's all pretty vague, but previous statements from the prime minister and other members of the Cabinet provide some clues as to the direction of travel when it comes to environmental protection. First up, there was Johnson’s much hyped build back better speech, in which he appeared to blame great crested newts for the government’s failure to hit its own housebuilding targets. Environment secretary George Eustice also has form when it comes to proposing changes to protections, most tangibly perhaps when it comes to the environmental impact assessment regime.  

However, there is little evidence of a clamour from key industries for environmental protections to be ripped up. Housebuilders will always lobby for planning rules to be changed to make it easier and quicker to gain permissions, but they are also largely listed companies and know that it is no longer a good look to propose anything harmful to the environment. Other industries are actively campaigning for regulations to be maintained.  

In a statement, a spokesman for the Chemical Industries Association (CIA) said: “Having left the EU we have not argued to lower regulatory standards, many of which give confidence to our workforce, local communities and consumers of our products. Instead, our work focuses on ensuring policies and regulations are sensitive to both current and future technologies and related investment opportunities, many holding solutions for green growth and jobs in the UK.” 

Moreover, commentators argue that undermining environmental protections runs contrary to the government’s stated aim of supporting a “green revolution” in the economy. “The UK has committed to undertake a green economic recovery, achieve net zero emissions by 2050 and reverse the decline in the natural environment within a generation,” says Signe Norberg, head of public affairs and communications at the Aldersgate Group. 

“It is therefore vital that the government’s review of regulations is based on the recognition that climate change and environmental issues have a fundamental role to play in the UK’s economic policy. Ambitious regulations are going to have a critical role to play in creating market signals that will allow businesses to innovate, invest in new low carbon goods and services, grow supply chains and create jobs.  

She adds: “There is clear evidence from past regulations in sectors such as construction, waste and car manufacturing that ambitious, well designed and properly enforced environmental regulations can deliver economic as well as environmental benefits.”

Richard Benwell, chief executive at Wildlife and Countryside Link, agrees. “It’s always right to ask whether the costs of regulation can be reduced, but a straw poll of big businesses isn’t the best way to go about it,” he says.  

“Stripping away effective environmental rules doesn’t reduce costs, it transfers them from the private sector to the public. In fact, taking a proper look at costs often suggests more regulation, not less. Businesses still don’t shoulder the full costs of pollution, over-abstraction, waste and habitat destruction. Well-enforced regulation is the best way to fix those injustices and encourage a green economy to grow.” 


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