Foundations and Brexit: A view from… environmental funding

In this series, we are taking a closer look at what Brexit means for foundations. We will include perspectives from across the UK and from funders with a number of specialisms and approaches. Although the situation changes daily and the implications are still uncertain, this series will explore some of the thoughts and reactions from within the sector. The seventh article in our series comes from Florence Miller, Director of the Environmental Funders Network (EFN).


A view from… environmental funding

The environmental sector has been very organised and prepared for Brexit. They might not have anticipated a Leave vote, but were very conscious of the level of discontent, and of the need to increase public support for strong environmental protection. One positive thing about Brexit it is that it has spurred new levels of collaboration in the environmental sector, with lots of initiatives spinning out of this crisis or opportunity, depending on how you look at it.

EFN is running a series of Brexit webinars for a core group of funders who are keen to ensure that, post-Brexit, the environmental protections we have are strong. Each time we bring in an expert to share the latest thinking on what needs to be done and what the threats and opportunities are. After they have spoken we have a funder-only session where participants share what applications they have received focusing on Brexit-related work, and see what initiatives are or can be joined up, or are potentially duplicative.

A key proposal is from the Green Alliance, who had already convened a group of leaders from across the environmental space in the months running up to the referendum. It has created a unit with three or four staff, and a Brexit board made up of leaders from a broad variety of organisations, such as the Institute for European Environmental Policy, the Wildlife Trusts, E3G, and the RSPB. Each has taken a different strand of work, such as replacing the Common Agricultural Policy, or more cross-cutting issues to do with governance post-Brexit.

Other organisations involved in Brexit-related work include Wildlife and Countryside Link; the food and farming group Sustain, which is convening around 80 organisations to focus on the replacement of the Common Agricultural Policy; and the Trade Justice Movement, which is concentrating on trade. All of the new trade negotiations that will come into play will be hugely important when it comes to protecting environmental quality and human and workers’ rights, and the UK is terribly short on specialists in trade negotiations – we are out of practice. Meanwhile, there are a couple of different collaborations between groups focused on marine and fisheries issues, and nef (the new economics foundation) is doing work that may be of interest to funders of all stripes as it is focused on the prospect for Brexit to increase pressure for deregulation across sectors.

On many levels Brexit is the most serious threat to environmental protection in the UK in decades, but it is also an opportunity. The Common Agriculture Policy was fairly terrible from an environmental standpoint – many people see this as a chance to improve on it. The question that remains unanswered is whether it would be better to bring the same system over to the UK but increase the share of agricultural subsidies that go to environmental and nature protection, or to rethink the policy altogether and have a bigger vision incorporating cross-cutting issues that relate to food and agriculture – not just the environment but health, obesity, flood protection, connecting people with nature, and so on. That’s a more exciting prospect but also a riskier one.

The different areas of environmental concern – marine, agriculture, air pollution, climate change – each have their own policy challenges as a result of Brexit, but overlaying all of those are issues like governance and enforcement. How are we going to enforce environmental regulations without recourse to the European Courts? The domestic mechanisms we currently have for challenging government have weakened recently, for example, judicial review is not always appropriate. As we transpose EU laws into UK law, what’s to stop them from becoming secondary legislation, and therefore liable to be changed by a secretary of state without parliamentary scrutiny?

A longer-term challenge is how we rebuild the political proposition for the environment in the UK. Foundations can play a key role in helping the environmental movement to demonstrate how relevant the environment is to all our lives, at the community level as well as national policy level.

Then there is funding. We are conducting a survey of the chief executives of environmental organisations. Of the 54 respondents so far, representing total current funding of £175 million, 60% say they are likely to lose funding as a result of Brexit – ranging from 2% to 80% of their current income. Trusts and foundations cannot fill the hole, but they can help to make sure the UK government replaces the funding.

Regarding the impact of Brexit on our role in combating climate change, it is reassuring that Theresa May ratified the Paris agreement and signed off on the UK decarbonisation targets. But up to now the UK has played a leadership role in the EU on climate change negotiations, and the EU has led the world. There are forces within the EU, notably Poland and Italy, that are trying to step backwards, and without the UK to counter those attempts the EU’s role in international negotiations might diminish.

Foundations need to be listening to the sector, and I think they are. As well as grant-making they can play a powerful convening role – the more collaborative the work is, the more effective it will be. It’s such a fast-moving environment, changing every day, that connecting people in the movement is vital, and making sure they are on the same page. Funders can be pivotal in bringing NGOs together and making sure we are not suffering from duplication or undue competition. They can also ask questions of applicants to find out how much they are tapping into existing collaborations and connecting with other groups.


Florence Miller
Environmental Funders Network


Other articles in this series:

A view from… Scotland 
A view from... arts & culture funding 
A view from... science funding 
A view from... Northern Ireland 
A view from... Wales  
A view from... medical research 
A view from... Europe 

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