From pragmatism to principle in environmental policy

by Susan Owens FBA and Albert Weale FBA

14 Aug 2018

There was a time when UK environmental policy was proudly pragmatist. Pollution control was thought of as a vague balancing of costs and benefits, carried out in practice by public officials exercising discretion as to how to interpret broad legislation. Principles, like aiming at the highest standard of pollution control or taking anticipatory action, were nowhere to be seen, and environmental protection was yet to be conceptualised as an inter-generational trust. Over a 40-year period from the mid-1970s onwards, this pragmatism was abandoned, sometimes abruptly and sometimes in fits and starts. 

If anything symbolises this transition, it is the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, which explicitly identifies nine principles to underpin environmental policy, including the precautionary principle, sustainable development and public participation in environmental decision-making. The Act mandates that these principles must be incorporated in a draft Bill setting the framework for a post-Brexit environmental policy. What accounts for this change and how significant is it?

As noted in the British Academy’s response to Defra’s consultation on environmental principles and governance after Brexit, an important actor in the transition was the former Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (RCEP). Established in 1970, the RCEP was a regrettable victim of the Coalition Government’s bonfire of the Quangos in 2011.  During its lifetime it wrestled with many environmental issues, including the question of how to fashion publicly justifiable responses to technologies like nuclear power, genetically modified organisms or nanotechnologies, and it came to insist that environmental policy was not simply a matter of responding to existing problems but also that it needed to be anticipatory. At the same time, in cases where pollution pathways were unclear or the effects of pollution on human health or the environment hard to determine, the RCEP came to urge precautionary action, as with its recommendation (in 1983) to phase out leaded petrol or its report on spray drift from agricultural chemicals in 2005.

It might seem as though the list of principles on which the UK government has consulted is ad hoc. There is also a danger that important principles are left out, as the Academy argued was the case with the principle of avoiding serious and/or irreversible environmental harm. However, these problems can in part be avoided by seeing the principle of sustainable development as a framework within which other principles find a place. Sustainable development is conventionally defined as development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the needs of the future. It belongs to a way of thinking in which human beings are seen as stewards of the earth’s natural resources, holding them in trust to be passed on to future generations.

There is no little irony in the fact that the UK government has made the development of principles so central to its environmental policy as part of its Brexit strategy. In the battle of pragmatism and principle in UK environmental policy, an important role was played by the development of EU environmental law. On many issues, including acid rain, the co-disposal of waste, or the setting of water quality standards, UK policy makers during the 1980s sought to defend their pragmatic and flexible approach against what were seen as the rigid standards derived from the more principled-based ‘continental’ philosophy. 

Of course, it is one thing to have principles to live by; it is another to live by your principles. One yawning gap that opens up with the UK’s withdrawal from the EU is that of enforcement. Under EU law, the Commission played a crucially important role in enforcing compliance with agreed environmental standards and regulations – when necessary through infringement procedures, but often through awareness on the part of governments that such actions might be brought. As the Academy’s submission noted, there is a gap to be filled here, in ways that are not always easy to envisage. How, for example, will the proposed new statutory ‘environmental watchdog’, which despite being characterised as independent, must presumably be set up and financed by government, bring legal actions against that very government for breach of its own standards?

However these questions are resolved, a focus on principles in environmental policy enables us to see how some forms of political accountability can be secured through the practical public reasoning that follows from those principles – something that we could never have had from pragmatism, no matter how well-intentioned.

Professor Susan Owens FBA was a member of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution and is the author of the definitive study of its work, Knowledge, Policy, and Expertise (OUP, 2015).

Professor Albert Weale FBA is the co-author of Environmental Governance in Europe (OUP, 2001) and editor of Risk, Democratic Citizenship and Public Policy (OUP, 2002), the proceeds of a British Academy conference.

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