“The dirty man of Europe” – so Britain was known when joining the EEC in 1973. Sewage blighted our beaches, our rivers were dying from the chemical waste freely discharged into them, and our air was filthy from uncontrolled industrial pollution. It’s quite possible that we would still be living like this without European obligations forcing us to raise our standards, After all, the political will to tackle national or global environmental problems has not been a notable feature of any recent administrations.
If you’re sick of fact-free scaremongering, hyperbole and supposition about Britain’s future, I don’t blame you. Economic forecasts, national sovereignty, cultural identity, impacts on business and industry – you’ve heard it all already. However there is something that transcends all these relatively ephemeral issues for me, and that is the future of our environment The environmental impact of Brexit surpasses all short-term considerations of impacts on trade, jobs, and political power battles at home. Environmental turmoil knows no national boundaries, and global warming is reaching the point of no return. These are the issues that need to be front and centre of any discussion about Britain’s long term future.
Turning the clock back
Membership of the EU has vastly improved the quality of Britain’s beaches, rivers, and air as well as protecting much of our biodiversity, rare birds, plants and animals and their habitats. We accept that we need to limit greenhouse gas emissions, control industrial pollution, recycle, and mitigate the environmental impact of major new developments. Does anyone really want to turn the clock back and sacrifice the quality of life that we now take for granted?
EU funds contribute massively to regeneration and infrastructure projects around the UK, from local and regional environmental improvements, upgrading transport networks and supporting renewable energy research and development, to supporting leisure, cultural, and heritage projects, town centres, employment programmes and apprenticeships. The funding mechanisms consider real need and measurable long term benefit, rather than pandering to local powers and populist instant wins, and specifically target areas of greatest deprivation. We know that any post-Brexit scenario will involve yet more local government funding cuts, as investment dries up, trade shrinks and the economy dips. Losing EU finding for regeneration will be a double blow for Britain’s poorest areas and communities – who are also those most vulnerable to the effects of environmental crisis. The environmental impact of Brexit is about harm to people as much as ‘the countryside’ or ‘nature’.
This septic isle
Leaving the EU gives Britain the freedom to regress to the polluted, blighted, isolated little island it was before 1973. We are yet to see a government in this country willing to enact the radical measures needed to address climate change, the single biggest issue facing us at the moment, eclipsing all other national economic and political considerations. We are even less likely to do so without the EU driving us. The UK already falls short of European targets for clean air and water – how much worse will our air and water be without those targets? Do we really want to bury our heads in the sand and become the “dirty man of Europe” again?
A version of this article appeared in the June 2016 edition of Pro Landscaper magazine.