Brexit means Brexit: But what does it mean for environmental industries?

James Murray
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Brexit means Brexit: But what does it mean for environmental industries?

From legal compliance to skills concerns, Brexit delivers challenges and opportunities for green businesses

Speaking later in the day, Emma Howard Boyd, chair of the Environment Agency, defended the watchdog's record and insisted efficiency savings meant it has been able to cope with budget cuts in recent years. However, industry sources remain sceptical about Defra and the Environment Agency's current funding settlements, let alone their ability to deal with a whole host of new European regulations that could potentially fall under their jurisdiction.

Meanwhile, businesses can expect to face similar challenges post-Brexit, according to Bird + Bird's Ketteley. "Whatever Brexit outcome the cost of [environmental] compliance will increase," she predicts. Complex non-tariff barriers are expected, along with fresh complexity in managing technical and product standards. "We are telling businesses you need to start thinking about your environmental compliance," Ketteley reveals, adding that compliance will cover EU and domestic law as well as contracts that companies will have in place.

Hardening of attitudes

Experts also fear legal complexity will be augmented by an escalating green business skills crunch. Sustainability recruitment expert Paul Gosling of Porter Gosling noted that currently the UK is said to have a 55,000-strong shortfall of engineers, while sustainability body IEMA recently reported 53 per cent of its members have recently faced problems recruiting. "It is a significant issue and it is getting more significant by the day," said Gosling. "If there is an end to freedom of movement of people it will damage the ability to meet skills requirements."

Skills shortages could be particularly acute in a sector such as sustainability that has always had a pretty international outlook. Gosling admitted it was a very "rough and ready" survey, but after over 20 years in recruitment working predominantly in the environmental sector, he checked his extensive LinkedIn network and found around 14 per cent of contacts were educated outside the UK.

Steve Canadine, development director for environment at engineering consultancy Mott MacDonald, offered perhaps the starkest insight into the post-referendum challenges some firms are now experiencing, revealing that some contacts had reported not feeling as "welcome and tolerated" since the Brexit vote. "We need people to be able to come here and study and feel welcome," he said, adding that in this new climate UK firms with a presence across Europe also have to be aware of the risk of a "hardening of attitudes" towards British companies.

The most concerning aspect for many green businesses, alongside the risk of serious economic turbulence, is that these complex and inter-related concerns barely appear to be on the government's radar. And yet Farrow and others are convinced there is an opportunity for the green economy to turn "defence into attack", and harness the opportunities presented by Brexit to push for a more ambitious and effective environmental policy landscape.

He argues green businesses should not limit themselves to defending EU rules, but should also "make the case for the environment being at the heart of the government's industrial strategy".

There is also a case for progressive businesses to actively help a civil service that has never been more stretched than it is currently. Environmental campaigners have long railed against private sector secondments to Whitehall, branding such arrangements as a corporate takeover of public sector departments. But what if private sector support for the Brexit process helped ensure representations in support of effective environmental policies received a fair hearing?

Sandys acknowledged that there is an opportunity for businesses to help with the Whitehall capacity problem, but her main call for the environmental industries sector is for it to go beyond fighting its corner. "There is a need to shout louder and integrate the environment into wider corporate lobbying effort," she said. "'Environment', 'low carbon', 'modern', and 'aspirational' should be the words that are embedded in industrial strategy… You will inevitably find political and departmental boredom over Brexit; they are looking for an exciting alternative vision. Green businesses can provide it. This should be about the 21st century, not the 19th century. The call has to go out, own the future, don't be part of the past."

James Murray was chair of the Environmental Industries Commission annual conference

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