EXCLUSIVE: Deregulation target is inconsistent with government policy to tackle climate change and protect the environment, critics say
Campaigners have warned that environmental regulation is at risk from being cut back thanks to a government programme to axe red-tape.
Earlier this summer the government quietly confirmed further plans to cut regulation that it says will generate savings worth £9bn for businesses by 2022 - a move that marks the first indication Prime Minister Theresa May's intends to continue the controversial deregulation agenda pursued by her predecessor David Cameron.
Known as the Business Impact Target, the policy was initially introduced by the Cameron government through the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Act 2015, which places a statutory obligation on government to publish a target indicating the added value businesses will save from its deregulation efforts.
The new £9bn target was announced by former Under Secretary of State for Small Business, Consumers and Corporate Responsibility Andrew Griffiths in a written statement published in June, which was hardly promoted by the government and went largely unnoticed.
David Powell, head of environment and green transition at the New Economics Foundation, said that since the Grenfell Tower tragedy, the government has been less keen to promote its deregulatory agenda, but that behind the scenes "it is still pushing ahead with its anti-democratic and farcically cherry-picked 'burden reduction' programme".
The policy statement lists a series of sectors and areas which are protected from the deregulation programme. Environmental regulations are not specifically included in the list of exempted areas. Although existing EU regulatory provisions which are due to be incorporated into domestic law, as well as other international obligations, are among the areas excluded from the policy, which means some key environmental rules will be protected.
But Donal McCarthy, senior policy officer at the RSBP, told BusinessGreen that any environmental legislation that is not encapsulated in a future EU-UK agreement could come under review, adding that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has traditionally seen the largest number of regulation cuts as a result of the government's deregulatory drive.
"The more exclusion you have the more pressure there is on those sectors which are not excluded," he added.
The revelations come just days after the GreenerUK coalition of environmental groups published its latest update on the Brexit process, warning the government is still yet to put in place sufficient safeguards to ensure it delivers on its "Green brexit" promises.
Although the government has not disclosed department-specific targets for cutting red tape, environmental groups have raised concerns the deregulation agenda could run counter to the government's plans to protect the natural environment and meet its climate goals.
Nick Molho, executive director of the Aldersgate Group, warned that the government's latest deregulation target is inconsistent with its broader climate and environment goals. "The government will need a range of regulations to deliver on its Clean Growth Strategy, its 25 Year Environment Plan, and its climate goals," he said. "These objectives cannot be delivered without smart environmental regulations that drive businesses to invest in new technologies and the green economy.
"But if the government has all these objectives around tackling climate change and protecting the environment while at the same time running a programme that cut the very regulations that could help deliver these goals - that shows quite serious inconsistency."
A spokeswoman from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) insisted the Business Impact Target "in no way lessens our ambitious climate change goals and strong environmental protections".
But RSPB's McCarthy said the target-based approach may result in Ministers unintentionally damaging environmental protections as they work to meet "arbitrary" deregulation goals. "What is clear is that further deregulatory targets would bias future governmental decision-making towards less regulation but not necessarily better regulation, putting hard-won environmental safeguards at risk," he said.
Molho argued environmental regulation should be exempt from cuts under the plan. Instead, he said the government should look at its long-term goals and ask how regulation can be designed and implemented in a transparent and cost-effective way.
In a report compiled by engineering consultancy BuroHappold and published last year, the Aldersgate Group found that well-designed environmental regulations can boost business investment in innovation and skills, improve products and infrastructure, and increase competitiveness.
Molho said it was time the government moved beyond "the old-fashioned idea that regulation is red-tape and that it is bad for business".
Powell argued that regulations to protect people, health, and habitats or guard against unscrupulous or polluting business actvities "will continue to be painted as guilty of holding back the economy unless they prove themselves to be necessary".
As the world has entered a period of climate and ecological crisis, Powell warned that the UK will face "unparalleled economic and environmental pressures over the coming years" and that robust regulation could guide markets to deliver innovation and investment that was in the public interest.
"It was always ludicrous to claim that there was some kind of maximum total 'amount' of regulation that could exist - as if regulation were calories," he said. "Brexit, climate change, data and antibiotic resistance may all require more regulation, not less."
The New Economics Foundation has previously called on the government to scrap its Business Impact Target.
Last year, the EU considered whether to introduce burden reduction targets for businesses as part of efforts to improve the "efficiency" of EU law.
Yet, the European Commission decided to reject the implementation of targets citing concerns that such an approach "would create deregulatory pressures and impair its political responsibility". It added that the current "evidence-based" approach "ensures that there is no risk of undue deregulation or having a negative impact on key policy objectives".
How the UK government will decide to meet its regulation reduction targets is yet to be seen. However, at a time when the government has pledged to fight escalating climate risks and step up environmental protection, many observers fear significant cuts to existing environmental regulation could quickly undermine its wider roadmap to achieve a low-carbon, green economy.
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