Believing in the British people: why environmental stewardship will benefit from decentralised power

On Monday 11 July, the day Theresa May found herself to be the last candidate standing for the leadership of the Conservative Party, she made a speech setting out her vision for the country. While she did not mention the environment, she did articulate a fundamentally green principle when she described Conservatives as “custodians with a responsibility to pass on something better to the next generation”. This allies with Edmund Burke’s notion of society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead and those who are to be born”. This is the most powerful conservative argument for environmental stewardship.

Also in May’s speech were two other extremely salient points. The first was her call “to break up power when it is concentrated among the few”. The second was her declaration that Conservatives “believe in Britain – and in the British people”. These principles are less obviously environmental, but they will in fact be crucial to shaping the UK’s natural environment post-Brexit, because a more decentralised state has the potential to deliver improved stewardship. 

Who governs?

May has made clear that the UK must leave the European Union. We will take back control, as the Vote Leave campaign consistently demanded. But what will we do with this new power? And who will take control? Will the British public feel content if we wrest powers from Brussels, only to concentrate it further in Westminster and Whitehall?

Thinking about power in this context is best provoked by the question, ‘who governs?’ This was articulated in the 1960s by political theorist Robert Dahl in his study of democracy in an American city. He attempted to map out the geography of power: who had it, who didn’t and what that meant for pluralistic politics. Pluralism is essential for a healthy democracy, not only because silencing any group within society could lead to unfair outcomes, but because what the liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill called the “collision of adverse opinions” enables us to get closer to the truth. Pluralism requires multiple groups to check and balance each other; it fails when power is overly concentrated.

Today, asking ‘who governs?’ is a pressing task for those of us seeking to restore the health of our environment. The EU has enabled the UK to co-ordinate policies with our neighbours, to raise ambition together, tackling everything from acid rain to sewage-strewn beaches. EU environmental law has also allowed campaigners to challenge the national government to clean up London’s air. That source of external pressure was why environmental groups like the Wildlife Trusts made the case for keeping our EU membership. After we leave the EU, who will decide on the future of our green and pleasant land? How will we hold government to account on environmental issues like air pollution, which until now Brussels has, at least in part, enforced?

Rethinking where power lies

We shouldn’t need to rely on Brussels to ensure healthy surroundings, clean air and water, and the diversity of our wildlife. The argument that we needed a higher power to keep us in check was never Remain’s strongest point. At least, it wouldn’t have been, if we’d had strong accountability mechanisms within our own borders. But we don’t. 

Leaving the EU is an opportunity to rethink where power should lie. Right now, political power is concentrated among “the few”: a handful of top ministers and senior civil servants are responsible for major decisions about the future of our country.

It’s nothing new to say that we have an unusually powerful executive branch of government, and weak devolution. When Americans – the first Brexiteers - took control from Britain in the late 1700s, they understood that their new government must seek to balance executive power, which they tried to do with two strong elected houses, a robust judiciary and a federal structure which maintains the power of states.

Perhaps we should ask not only who governs, but how they govern, and who they listen to. Accountability is a product of transparency, as well as of checks and balances. The new prime minister has proposed having employees represented on company boards, arguing they will provide better scrutiny, coming as they do from outside the social and professional circles of the other directors. She has not yet indicated whether she would be open to exploring a similar opening up and decentralising political power.

Giving people a say

Taking back control should not stop at Westminster. The centre needs to get better at listening, and people need platforms and processes to enable them to have a voice in decisions about the future of their local communities and the country. Neighbourhood plans are a good start, but they operate on such a micro scale that many issues are beyond their scope. We have written about this before in relation to infrastructure planning, but the argument can be applied to most areas of public life.

The process of decentralising political power has gathered momentum in recent years. City or county wide, the new regional government deals operate at a scale at which strategic decisions can be made, at which sustainable solutions to twenty first century problems can be found, whether in providing integrated transport systems or wildlife corridors. What’s more, cities and counties are where we live, places we truly know and are familiar with. So they make a great context in which to engage the public in discussions about where new energy or transport infrastructure should go, or which protected landscapes should be made more accessible to visitors and volunteers.

Some representatives see their role as requiring sustained engagement with those they represent, but this should be standard practice. And it needs to go beyond simply educating or informing, and involve meaningful deliberation. Engagement experts have developed a plethora of tools that can assist with this, such as citizens’ assemblies: two recent pilots in Sheffield and Southampton found that these can build political engagement, legitimise decision making and go some way towards defusing apathy, as well as producing evidence based recommendations that reflect local needs. There will still need to be national frameworks of minimum environmental and social standards, but devolved administrations or local governments, whose citizens wish to see them go further, should be enabled to race to the top.

New environmental governance

If accountability is not to come from Brussels, it must come from the citizens themselves: as participants in local dialogues; as members of diverse civic and campaigning organisations from the National Trust to Greenpeace; and as local and national electorates. 

In this new era, good environmental governance will rest on a commitment to public engagement and a politics in which all interests are better represented. Voters have demonstrated that they are fed up with politicians not listening. Politicians of all parties and places need to accept the underlying referendum challenge and, as Theresa May says, believe in the British people, giving citizens a say in the decisions that affect them. That goes for environmental champions too: we need to remember that we seek to protect the environment for people, and that people are the environment’s only defence, as was well demonstrated by the response to the attempt to sell off the nation’s forests. We need to trust that, when given the chance to deliberate, our fellow citizens recognise the case for protecting and restoring the natural world on whose integrity we, and those who are to be born, all rely.

Matthew Spencer is director, and Amy Mount is senior policy adviser at Green Alliance

The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue.