BB eye – The environment and the Scottish referendum

Published on 01 September 2014 in Editorials

Adult White-tailed Eagle, Mull, Argyll, Scotland, August 2012. Pic by Robert Snell.

Adult White-tailed Eagle, Mull, Argyll, Scotland, August 2012. Pic by Robert Snell.

What would be the impact of a ‘yes’ vote, in this month’s Referendum on Scottish Independence, on the conservation of the Scottish natural environment? What follows is just my personal opinion, albeit informed by discussion with others in the voluntary sector, the universities and the Scottish Government.

Surely the direct impact would be minimal, since care of the environment is already a devolved matter – it is already the Scottish Government that pays Scottish Natural Heritage and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, dictates to the Forestry Commission what woodland policy to pursue, interprets European environmental law, determines implementation details in the Common Agricultural Policy and the Common Fisheries Policy (but only after the negotiations have been conducted at a UK level), and ultimately decides about the number and placing of windfarms and wave-energy installations. What happens in environmental policy is determined at government level by the quality and mindset of Scottish ministers and their civil service, not whether Scotland is a devolved or an independent state. In Scotland, as in the rest of the UK, the authorities in recent years have cut funding to the conservation agencies and shown little interest in those Pillar II aspects of the CAP which could be favourable to biodiversity. This is not likely to change in the short run, irrespective of the outcome of the referendum.

The indirect effects of independence, however, could potentially be serious. If Scotland suffers economically (as most independent forecasters, such as the Economist and the Office for Budget Responsibility, think), less money (in whatever currency) would become available for public services, including conservation. On the plus side, the Scottish Government has promised ‘to enshrine environmental protection in a written constitution’. But the natural environment might nevertheless offer a soft target for cuts in bad times, especially since the Government seems to equate environmental gain more with pursuing renewable energy and abolishing nuclear installations than with maintaining biodiversity. Indeed, the word ‘biodiversity’ does not occur in the Scottish Government’s white paper on independence. If Scotland flourishes, more money might be available in theory – but there is no indication from its record as a devolved administration that any future Scottish Government would be likely to spend more on environmental conservation compared with, for example, windmills or trying to meet the pressing social problems posed by an ageing population.

There is a good deal of worry that a ‘Yes’ vote might mean less money for science, since UK research councils and JNCC would not operate in Scotland – so less money would be available for biodiversity research, unless this is fully offset by increased funding from the Scottish state. Presumably, a Scottish Research Council would be established, to adjudicate grants as the Natural Environment Research Council and others do at present. Certainly, the Scottish Government has publicly undertaken to ensure that there would be no adverse funding impact on the universities from Scotland’s transition to independence, though there is some scepticism about whether that could be achieved.

Uncertainties, at least in the short term, could affect several research units, though some, like the NERC Sea Mammal Research Unit at St Andrews, are already partly funded by the Scottish Government. The seabird work in Glasgow and ornithological and marine work at several other universities, such as Aberdeen and Stirling, might find things more difficult. The CEH station at Penicuik, along with its seabird monitoring work, might be in an awkward situation as it is also part of NERC. So might the Aberdeen office of JNCC, which operates under the auspices of Defra and also works on seabirds and cetaceans. These are clear instances of the Scottish Government needing to pick up the entire bill. The BTO in Scotland would also need to find new funding to replace their grants from the JNCC, and this might threaten (at least in the short run) to disrupt their survey work. A question would arise over the National Biodiversity Network, at present organised entirely by JNCC, which is part of the more general and perhaps more important problem of how to co-ordinate biodiversity research across the border.

The Scottish Government ought to be willing to finance all this work, much of it of high international reputation and directly relevant to the sustainability of the Scottish environment. But it is at least possible, even if they maintained the level of university funding overall, that they would take the opportunity of a blank sheet to redistribute funding in some other way. The Scottish Government has shown itself thus far to be at least as dirigiste as the UK Government but then, devolved or independent, governments are always changing their minds. Scientists and voluntary bodies dependent on external funding learn to live with uncertainty.

The wider position of the main environmental charities would not be affected, as there is no constraint on the RSPB, the BTO or the Woodland Trust to confine their operations to the UK. On the other hand, there would be substantial administrative costs incurred by adjusting to operating in two different countries. The RSPB has taken a lead in declaring its neutrality in the debate.

The whole issue is vastly complicated by the uncertain future of Scotland and the UK in Europe. If the residents of Scotland vote ‘yes’, we would have to apply for membership of the EU. Some countries (Spain, for example) might try to veto our entry (perhaps unlikely but not impossible), or (more likely) insist that we accept the euro, which if we refuse, means that, theoretically, we would be out of Europe for the foreseeable future. Certainly, the incoming president of the European Commission agrees with his predecessor, and with the president of the European Council, that an independent Scotland would find it ‘difficult if not impossible’ to get into the EU. But it is worth remembering that Sweden also promised to accept the euro ‘when conditions allow’, but in the judgement of Swedes they never do allow and yet Sweden is not punished. Scotland might negotiate a similar fudge.

If we fail in the EU negotiations, however, and find ourselves outside, bang goes the CAP, the CFP, the Birds Directive, the Habitats Directive, the Water Directive and more besides. We might not like all European policies, but all of our good environmental laws since the 1970s have also originated in Brussels, and Brussels has the power to enforce them even against the will of national governments.

If we vote ‘no’, we remain tied to a UK which, led by the Eurosceptic Conservatives and prodded by UKIP, is set on having a referendum on membership of the EU in 2017. Given the perceived weakness of the party leadership, Labour could either lose the next election or decide not to oppose such a referendum. Given David Cameron’s evident inability to negotiate with Brussels or make any allies in Europe, it is quite likely that he will be forced into a corner where the Conservatives would officially recommend leaving the EU, egged on by the right-wing press. So it is quite possible that the UK would indeed vote to leave, when it would face the same predicament as Scotland if it could not join: outside the CAP and CFP, but having no safeguards about the environment that Europe might insist upon. We might then have a UK Government dedicated to dismantling much environmental planning as a hindrance to economic growth. Although the environment is indeed a devolved matter for Scotland, the Scots might follow suit in order not to leave Scotland at a disadvantage, and to prove that, in Alex Salmond’s words before the Donald Trump affair, ‘Scotland is open for business’.

In summary, while the direct effects of the Scottish referendum are unlikely to be great, there are substantial indirect and hypothetical risks whichever way the vote goes. Whatever happens, the outlook for an enlightened biodiversity policy is bleak unless voluntary bodies and individuals can force the issue of conservation significantly up the political agenda, not only in Scotland, but in the rest of the UK too. And there is a task for the readers of British Birds.

Chris Smout