How might Brexit change the British countryside?

Olaf Schroth

On Thursday, 23rd of June 2016, the UK voted to leave the EU by 52% to 48%. Since then, a lot of possible economic consequences have been discussed but the potential long-term impact on the British countryside has rarely been debated. A change of the countryside as we know it is quite likely though because the European Union has a strong impact in shaping today’s landscapes in the UK through environmental legislation and subsidies. In the following, I will discuss four areas of potential impacts, i.e. environmental law, common agricultural policies, climate change and others. Then, I’ll present four possible scenarios depending on the outcome of the exit negotiations with the EU and how European environmental legislation will be replaced at national level: 1) Re-wilding Britain, 2) Sustainable growth, 3) “Hands off” approach and 4) Competitive agro-industry in a global market.


  1. Environmental Law 


A lot of the current environmental law in the UK is based on EU Directives. The Bird and Habitats Directives for example protecting 500 wild bird species and around 1200 endangered other species, are based on the corresponding EU Directive. Depending on the outcome of the negotiation processes, these Directives might not apply to the UK anymore and the key question will be whether and how they will be replaced, e.g. under an amended Wildlife and Countryside Act (Environment Analyst, 2016). (Environment Analyst, 2016)

In contrast, the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Directive (Directive 2011/92/EU) was already incorporated into British law. However, the EU member countries are currently implementing major revisions of the original EIA Directive. At the moment, the British government is continuing to implement these changes and preparing a public consultation process. Having said that, will the government complete these changes if the UK is leaving the EU in two years? For more information about the impact of the referendum on the EIA process, please have a look at the webinars provided by IEMA.


  1. Common Agricultural Policy CAP


75% of the UK’s total land area is agricultural land and arguably, the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) has an even bigger impact on European landscapes than European environmental legislation. The current CAP acknowledges the “stewardship” concept and rewards biodiversity enhancement, water quality, flood risk management and general landscape stewardship through incentives although these add up to only £600m out of £3bn in CAP incentives in total. Environmental groups even argue that the CAP has contributed to the significant loss of biodiversity due to setting the wrong priorities and favouring the intensification of agriculture.

The Environmental Audit Committee has launched an inquiry  into the Future of the Natural Environment after the EU Referendum and according to Fiona Harvey from the BBC (Harvey, 2016), the various stakeholder groups and the farming industry have already started lobbying for their ideas of how the CAP should be replaced in the post-Brexit future. As Fiona says: “We shouldn’t be surprised if the countryside looks rather different in coming decades.” On August 12th, chancellor Hammond announced that the Treasury will guarantee to continue agricultural funding now provided by the EU until 2020. That is a good first signal but in the long term, the decision about British farming and its countryside is only being delayed until after 2020.


  1. Climate Change 


Early during the Brexit discussion, environmental groups expressed their concern that climate change targets might not be implemented so effectively if the UK left the EU. One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was then to abolish the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) and move responsibilities to a new Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy. In terms of climate change, this was definitely not a positive signal and causes doubts about future climate change mitigation, e.g. commitment to renewable energy sources, and adaptation measures preparing the UK for floods, droughts, heat waves and food shortages caused by climate change. A reduction in mitigation and adaptation measures will have impacts on the landscape, e.g. less resources for the re-naturalisation of rivers, or a shift of investment from renewable energies such as wind into more immediate commercial opportunities such as fracking. In combination with the expected changes in agricultural funding, funding for adaptation/mitigation projects in the landscape might be under threat from two directions and get caught in a downward spiral.


  1. Other potential impacts 


There will also be more subtle changes with secondary impacts on the landscape. For example, many construction materials might become more expensive because the construction industry relies mainly on imports from the EU. Landscape and countryside related disciplines might experience either job losses or a shortage in trained specialists depending on the policies adopted by post Brexit governments, and it will be the task of universities in collaboration with the Landscape Institute to consider these possible changes in demand in our teaching. For the beginning of the discussion please see the Landscape Institute Advice on Brexit.


  1. Four scenarios for the future of the British countryside post-Brexit


At the moment, the specific impacts of the EU referendum are uncertain and will depend on mainly two factors: a) the nature of the future (economic) relationship with the EU, which the UK government will negotiate over the coming two years and beyond, and b) how the UK government will replace current European environmental legislation. A good way to vision the possible pathways of an uncertain future is the use of the scenario method. I have translated the two drivers of a) economy and b) environmental legislation into two scenario-axes (van ’t Klooster et al. 2006).

These two drivers correspond with different degrees of stewardship, naturalness, coherence and disturbance (Ode et al. 2009). Other insights can come from countries abroad, e.g. New Zealand, which has already had to manage its way through dramatic changes in agricultural policy regimes related to the EU. The first took place in the 1970s when the UK entered the EU, and New Zealand’s agriculture faced major challenges as the UK market turned to Europe. At the time, New Zealand attempted to adjust by subsidising its agriculture to stimulate production, but with dire economic and environmental consequences. A second change took place in the 1980s when subsidies and tariffs were removed and farmers had to adjust rapidly to an open global market by specializing and increasing efficiency. A third change is happening now as fluctuations in global markets have stimulated rapid intensification for dairy production. Each of these epidodes have had cumulative effects on landscape character and quality, which vary by region.

Based on four possible scenario pathways or storylines (Shearer, 2005), four artist’s impressions were created illustrating four alternative futures for the British countryside in 2050. Please note that this is not a forecast but rather a visioning exercise, a selection of What-if scenarios.

Scenario 1: Rewilding Britain

Natural landscape with strong conservation policies

– high levels of naturalness, low levels of coherence, stewardship and disturbance
– mix of deciduous forest and traditional agriculture but no abandoned land, well maintained field boundaries, sheep
– only little industry and residential areas are confined to well defined urban areas

Opportunities: ensuring biodiversity, high resilience to climate change, sustainable tourism

Threats: low amounts of food production, little energy production



Scenario 2: Sustainable growth

Natural landscape with sustainable development “sustainable eco-development character” 

– high levels of naturalness, coherence and stewardship; medium levels of disturbance
– mix of forest and traditional agriculture, no abandoned land, well maintained, sheep
– wind turbines
– biogas facility and energy crops
– solar farm

Opportunities: ensuring biodiversity, mitigation of climate change, sustainable tourism, sustainable levels of food and energy production

Threats: rather expensive in the short term, visual intrusion through wind farms and energy crops



Scenario 3: “Hands off” approach

Naturalisation of abandoned marginal agricultural landscape with opportunist development

  • market led
  • high levels of naturalness and disturbance; low levels of stewardship or coherence

– increased amount of forest and abandoned land (shrublands)

– industry and housing both in town and individual buildings scattered in the landscape

– visually rather untidy, derelict field boundaries etc.

Opportunities: individual land owners are rather free in their decisions, additional housing

Threats: loss of landscape quality, loss of ecosystem services, low resilience to climate change



Scenario 4: Competitive agro-industry in a global market 

Maximum economic development with a more agro-industrial character

– high levels of stewardship, coherence and disturbance; low levels of naturalness
– few field boundaries and little forest but larger fields instead
– large “industrial” barns and farms
– fracking wells
– few wind turbines, biogas facilities and solar farms
– significantly more housing and industry, larger towns, and rural infrastructure

Opportunities: additional housing, high amounts of food and energy production

Threats: significant loss of landscape quality, loss of ecosystem services, low resilience to climate change


As with so many aspects of Brexit, it is unlikely that leave proponents and voters considered these possible futures for the UK countryside. However the potential changes may be significant, and present major challenges for post Brexit countryside policy and management. New planning instruments at the landscape scale might be needed, possibly based on the existing Landscape Character Assessments. If such new instruments are introduced, they must promote public participation because our landscape can only be maintained with local support.

Olaf Schroth

Update 17 September 2016: Landscape Institute Response to Environmental Audit Committee on Brexit

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