Post Brexit: Will there be more turds on the beach?

One Saturday morning, when I was about five years old, my father took me into work to see the jetty they were building on the banks of the River Thames at Greenwich. This was about 1958 or ’59. I can remember the crane on a platform out in the river and the tremendous banging of the piling hammer bouncing up and down, echoing against the grey London sky.  I can remember being told not to fall into the river because if I did, I would to be taken to hospital and given a stomach pump. I wasn’t sure what a stomach pump looked like, but seeing at all the debris of a marine civil engineering site, the snaking coils of compressor hose, the roaring compressor, the smell of diesel and then the oozing brown of the Old Father Thames himself, it sounded terrifying. The men were dressed in greasy donkey jackets, equally greasy flat caps and great rough boots. They smiled when they saw me, but I did not understand what they said (they were mostly Irish). They conversed in shouts because of the noise. There were no ear defenders, hard hats or hi-viz jackets in those days. It was a time when Thames sailing barges still plied the river. They never needed to haul out and clean the barnacles and weed off the bottoms of the boats, because the Thames was so polluted and toxic that it was only necessary to go up the river a few times a year in order to kill them off. The Thames was about the most polluted river in Europe.

Three years later, the family moved to Lincolnshire, where I became obsessed with birdwatching. At that time, there were rumoured to be only three pairs of Sparrowhawks breeding in the entire county. This was the time that DDT had taken its toll of most of our raptors. The only place you would see a kestrel was on the side of the newly constructed motorways. Peregrine Falcons were estimated at 50 pairs for the whole country. Hen Harriers were hanging on by a thread in Orkney. Buzzards had retreated to tiny areas of Wales, the South-West and Scotland. Red Kites were down to a handful of pairs in Wales.


One of the arguments that I have seen in favour of ‘Remain’ is that the EU is responsible for cleaning our beaches and all sorts of other beneficial environmental legislation.  It is perfectly true that nearly all of our environmental law now emanates from Brussels. And so it is also true that EU regulations have dictated standards of sewage treatment. Our beaches are much cleaner than they were when I went on my first family holiday to Cornwall. Not content with sewage treatment, EU environmental regulation intrudes into almost every aspect of our lives and businesses. It has a big impact upon agriculture.

It is implied by the ‘Remainers’ that without this beneficial  ‘safety net’; without these wise, omniscient, faceless Brussels bureaucrats; without this patient and paternal guiding hand, the unruly and undisciplined Brits will only wallow in their own incontinent filth and squalor.

I beg to differ.


About 15 years after my first exposure to the noise and bustle of driving piles into the bed of the River Thames, I found myself as a junior quantity surveyor, working on what was then the biggest and most complex civil engineering project in Europe – the Thames Barrier. The Thames was no longer the open sewer that it once was. Massive investment and construction in sewage treatment by Thames Water had happened up and down the river. And as early as the mid 70s, the first salmon were coming back to the river after 150 years of absence. Now, at the beginning of the 21st Century, there are colonies of seals in the estuary, dolphins, porpoises and whales.  Back in the mid 70s, my journey home sometimes took me across the Woolwich ferry. In the late summer and autumn, the wash from the continually rotating propellers of the ferries would throw up up crustaceans. These were hoovered up by hundreds of Black-Headed Gulls, Sandwich Terns and, on one occasion, I saw a Black Tern. In a few short years, the river had been cleaned up and nature has reclaimed it. My 1970s journey home also took me past the vast slag heaps of Stratford – a toxic open dumping ground for the ash from London’s now redundant power stations. This is now the site of the London Olympics, whose green spaces are a delight to the conservationist’s eye.

Elsewhere, the example of the Thames showed the way for water authorities  to clean up every river in the country. Otters have returned to nearly all rivers in southern England and elsewhere. Water voles, under threat from feral mink, have returned where they are helped by trapping the mink. Raptors have returned with a vengeance. Red Kite are now commonplace in the Home Counties where they haven’t been seen for 200 years. Peregrines are nesting on high rise offices in London. Buzzards are two-a-penny almost everywhere.

And so on….

And so on….

The point is that these changes have not happened “because of the EU”. They have happened because we, the undisciplined and unruly Brits, discovered that DDT, DDE and Dieldrin are extremely toxic for apex predators, and then set about banning it. We Brits were (and still are) the leaders in conservation legislation. The National Parks and Countryside Act 1949 set up the Nature Conservancy Council, the National Nature Reserves and Sites of Special Scientific Interest. The Protection of Birds Act followed in 1954. This morphed into the Wildlife and Countryside Act in 1981, where protection was given not just just to birds but to all manner of plants and animals, regardless as whether they were on a nature reserve or not. Environmental quality was dramatically improved with a succession of Clean Air Acts. Hundreds of people died in the London Smogs right up until the 1960s. Hanging washing out on a line in Sheffield in the 1960s was a bit hit and miss – regardless of the efficacy of your Persil, the washing would sometimes come in dirtier than it started, because of the smuts descending from the steel mills.

All of these improvements were put in train well before we joined the EEC in 1973. Even then, the EEC did not have any impact upon the environment until it became the EU after the Maastricht Treaty in 1992. Only since then has environmental legislation emanated from Brussels. And usually because of prodding and poking by the Brits. Because it is we, not the Europeans, who usually lead the way in conservation and environmental matters.

But there is another fallacy implied by the Remainers’ doom mongering. That is the idea that when a bureaucrat draughts, consults and then signs a declaration that this is somehow sufficient for the environmental improvement to actually happen. Often, despite the well-meaning bureaucrat, nothing happens at all. “Virtual conservation” is not turned into actual results until someone has actually got his hands dirty and gone out and done it. In the end, water treatment plants only happen because taxpayers are willing to fund them, engineers have designed them, and rough men have got dirty building them. There has to be a very clear local willingness to pay the money and get the job done. Since the end of the Second World War, the UK has demonstrated many times that we are willing to study the problem and then go and do something practical about it.

Despite all the earnest hand wringing in Brussels, environmental and conservation improvements are very patchy in their application across the EU. In southern Europe an actual willingness to change hearts and minds and then find the cash to do good stuff is often lacking – whatever the virtual conservationists in Brussels might have to say about it. One only has to consider the annual carnage of migrating birds in Malta to realise that parts of the EU have a very long way to go in terms of conservation.

So the idea that all of these improvements that the UK taxpayer has paid for and now enjoys, will crumble and fall into disrepair as soon as we leave the EU, is utterly risible.



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