Can governance in the UK Overseas Territories give environmental protection?

Concerns over environmental protection in the UK Overseas Territories (UKOTs) have been voiced for a number of years, with funding, development and pollution as some of the main issues. The 14 UKOTs are home to a diverse array of species and habitats, with almost twice as many threatened species as the UK mainland. Their environmental value was recognised in the Government’s 2012 Overseas Territories White Paper, and steps now need to be taken to fulfil the commitments made in this to ensure that the Territories “abide by the same basic standards of good government as in the UK”. A report released earlier this year by the RSPB and the Foundation for the International Environmental Law & Development (FIELD) provides an analysis of environmental protection legislation and policy across the UKOTs as a starting point for changes across the regions.

The 2012 OT White Paper was a welcome intervention by Government to the discussion surrounding UKOTs. In it, the Prime Minister wrote: “We see an important opportunity to set world standards in our stewardship of the extraordinary natural environments we have inherited” – strong words that need strong action. In the year preceding the White Paper, the UK Government spent £495.4 million on biodiversity conservation in the UK, compared with £2.97 million in 2012 in the UKOTs. Given the high environmental value of the Territories, this comparable spending is concerning, and is an area that needs to be addressed as part of a strategic approach to conservation across the UKOTs. The Environmental Audit Committee concluded that the largest single contribution the UK Government could make to halting global biodiversity loss would be to support to a greater extent the conservation of biodiversity in the UKOTs.

There are many threats to the environment in UKOTs, as highlighted earlier this year by a Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology briefing note. Threats vary with the geographical location of the territory, human population pressure and local environmental conditions, but usually involve tourism, invasive species and climate change. Overcoming these is challenging, especially as individual OTs governments are responsible for the protection and conservation of the natural environment in each area. In the UK, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) has overall responsibility for maintaining relationships with the UKOT governments, with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) responsible for supporting biodiversity conservation and supporting UKOT governments in meeting obligations under international agreements such as the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).

The RSPB/FIELD report assessed two priority policy areas – biodiversity protection and development planning – against criteria accepted in the UK to be based on good environmental governance. Other relevant areas of environmental legislation and policy, such as fisheries management, biosecurity and climate change, are to be assessed in a second phase of the process.

Overall, the report highlights the significant gaps that many UKOTs have in their environmental governance that need to be urgently addressed. Small populations, a lack of capacity, and a lack of resources all provide significant barriers to improving process in this area, but the report identifies areas where most improvement is needed, showing that prioritisation can help with this. The results were not all negative, however. Territories such as Gibraltar, the British Virgin Islands and St Helena showed near-exemplary environmental governance, and were highlighted as potential models for other UKOTs.

The four specific categories focused on within the policy areas were:

Species – presence and adequacy of biodiversity protection legislation and policies

Sites – presence and adequacy of site and habitat based protection and conservation

Development control – presence and adequacy of terrestrial and marine development controls

People – involvement of civil society in decision-making, and how decisions affecting the environment are governed

Overall, UKOTs legislative and policy frameworks are best for species protection. In the other categories, there is much room for improvement. Only three Territories have strong terrestrial protected area networks, with sites selected on the basis of science-based criteria. Four OTs still have no marine protected areas. The report also found it was common across the OTs for there to be an absence of development controls, or incomplete development frameworks that do not integrate environmental considerations. In total, five OTs have no legal requirement to undertake Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) before permitting major development proposals. Another common challenge is a lack of clear political accountability in development decision-making.

The report concludes with 7 recommendations to Governments in the UK and the UKOTs in order to achieve the ambitions set out in the 2012 White Paper. Although a ‘Strategy for the Conservation and Sustainable Use of Biodiversity in the UKOTs’ drawn up by Defra, the FCO and Department for International Development, does already exist, the implementation of this is currently limited. There is also a focus on high-level policy, and not priorities for specific and strategic action on biodiversity. The recommendations from RSPB/FIELD focus on provided dedicated support to UKOTs from UK Government Departments, through increased staffing, closer monitoring and new programmes of work.

It is not just the UK Government that needs to change, however. The report found that there are many pieces of draft environmental legislation in a number of UKOTs that would provide greater protection to their vulnerable areas. Delays, a lack of staff, and in some cases, a lack of consistency over who is able to influence legislation have all led to complications in passing vital bills.

The literature around the biodiversity value of the UKOTs is ever-increasing. Recommendations for improving the knowledge base and monitoring of the unique UKOT habitats have been provided by many. By taking a step back to assess the environmental protection frameworks in place in UKOTs, and their drivers, the RSPB/FIELD report takes a more holistic view, seeking change from within. The stage is now set for the ambitions of the White Paper to be fulfilled, and the huge biodiversity value of the UKOTs to be fully recognised and supported.