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UK beaches & natural environment best protected by remaining in EU

6 min read

Former environment correspondent Rebecca Pow MP writes that the South West's beaches and £9.4 billion tourist economy are best protected by EU directives, with the UK working to pursue environmental objectives internationally.

As a former environment correspondent, aside from being in Europe being better for security, peace, the economy and our world presence, I am convinced that on environmental grounds it is by far the best place for the UK to be.   

We share our air and water with our European neighbours and birds don’t recognise borders, all of these areas must be tackled Europe wide. And the framework of European legislation developed to deal with everything from beach standards to clean drinking water, air pollution, pesticides and waste water is working well. Indeed the UK was instrumental in forming much of it.

And whilst we are perfectly capable or developing or adopting our own environmental legislation the fact that there is a higher tier working to hold all participating countries to account is a great benefit. It’s a sad reflection but the UK was once ‘the dirty man of Europe’ and it was EU legislation that made us clean up or act.  I remember all too well reporting on the state of our disgusting West Country beaches as an HTV reporter back in the 80’s and early 90’s. We dumped raw sewage in our coastal waters and only 16 beaches were considered clean but thanks to the demands of the EU Bathing and Water Directive we now boast 632 clean beaches. And these bring a direct economic benefit. In my part of the world, the South West where coastal holidaying is a major plank of our £9.4 billion tourist economy it is essential to have unpolluted beaches.

It has been EU directives too that have made us up our recycling rates from a paltry 7% in 1995 to almost 40% by 2011. And EU air pollution standards have rigorously improved the air that we breathe, solving acid rain (by forced reduction of sulphur emissions), and reducing nitrogen oxides and small particulate matter. However the UK has failed to reach its clean air targets even now, with a shocking 50,000 people dying from air pollution related illnesses each year (as reported during the Environmental Audit Select committee inquiry on which I sat) and it is the EU legislation that is forcing us to address this. Given the nature of the way air currents move across continents this is clearly an area that is best dealt with on a European basis.  

So too climate change on which we led at the Paris Climate Change talks in 2015 and on which we are continuing to pay a key role. 200 countries took part in these talks, signing the first ever global deal and the UK was a much louder voice being part of the club of 28. Leaving Europe would lessen our influence on how this vital scenario continues to develop.

And the European Habitats and Birds Directive with its Natura 2000, European Union-wide network of nature conservation sites is playing a crucial role in ensuring the biodiversity and protection of huge tracks of land in the UK. The mudflats and unique reefs of the Severn Estuary, for example, get beneficial protection as a Special Conservation Area under this legislation as well as the rare and migrating birds coming here every winter being helped by its designation as a Special Protection Area. Without the strength of these European checks these sites would be even more vulnerable than they are already to the many demands facing the estuary from diverse requirements for energy production, port development and shipping.

And it is through pulling together europe wide that the fishing industry has brought back cod and haddock stocks from the brink, helped tackle the trade in illegal timber and protected the migratory routes of some of our rarest birds. For such reasons leading environmental bodies including WWF and RSPB are backing remain.  

There are so many other environmental areas where it is clearly sensible to tackle issues together. Let’s not, for example, jeopardise the progress being made to introduce a potential ban on micro-plastics. These are tiny particles used in a wide range of products but most notably in many cosmetics (shower gels, facial scrubs, shampoos) as well as cleaning products and man- made fabrics. After use they are simply washed down the drain, water filters fail to trap them and they find their way into our oceans where research is revealing they are altering habitats and having a deleterious affect on the fish and shell fish ingesting them. This may pose a subsequent risk to the heath of the fish eating public. During its recent inquiry into the subject, the Environmental Audit Committee, of which I am a member, heard Farm Minister, George Eustice acknowledge that this problem would be best tackled with our European partners. And he is right about this, for whilst a UK ban would be welcome it is almost futile if our European neighbours are still washing microbeads into the ocean. Much better to tackle a problem like this together and to show leadership on this at the EU table.
The £20 billion greening programme we take advantage of through the CAP is another area where pushing for sustainable goals in food production and conservation are best handled across the EU.

Business too has benefited from sharing common standards that protect them from unfair competition and ensure environmental responsibility is maintained. And the consistent approach to environmental protection makes it easier for businesses to invest in clean technology (a growing UK industry within the EU.) High animal welfare standards for farm production are also incorporated into EU law which benefits not just the animals but enables producers to command higher prices.

One might argue that our government can implement all this environmental  legislation itself, however there are no guarantees that this would be a priority and without the over-arching frame work of EU legislation holding us to account it is a probably that our air, water, birds and bees may suffer. Similarly, despite the best efforts of many dedicated individuals and organisations it is sadly unlikely that the environment would take centre stage in the inevitable drive for maximum profits,  which is all the more reason to stick with the European framework.  

Our EU membership has been crucial in shaping our UK environmental policy and that membership has also given the UK a platform to pursue environmental objectives internationally. It has also ensured faster environmental action here with the environment being better protected as a result.  
Why throw this all this up in the air by leaving?

Rebecca Pow is a member of both the Environmental Audit Committee and the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee. She is the Conservative MP for Taunton Deane.

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