Book review: the personal is environmental at the intersection of law, academia and campaigning

Richard Macrory’s new book is more than a treatise on environmental law, says Baroness Young – it’s an engaging account of a seminal career

Macrory was a lawyer for Friends of the Earth In the 1970s as the it campaigned for reusable bottles. Photo: PA/PA Archive/PA Images

By Baroness Young

15 May 2020

Richard Macrory is absolutely the right person to give this account of how the environmental law that we now take for granted developed over the last 50 years: he played a substantial role in shaping it. The book is not just an account of the development of the law but a story of the institutions, government and NGO, that grew up with the legal framework – as well as a tale of Richard’s unusual and seminal career as he stood with one foot in campaigning, notably setting up Friends of the Earth in the UK, and the other in the more austere traditions of academic law, government committees and parliamentary and political processes. Oh, and we mustn’t forget his ongoing walk-on parts in Merchant Ivory movies.

Throughout the book, organisations concerned with the environment and the law that I had thought existed forever pop up, mostly with a Richard finger in the pie at their inception. A good after-dinner game was once focused on Max Nicholson, the grand old man of British and global biodiversity conservation, which entailed naming (the few) organisations that Max hadn’t helped found. The new version will be of Richard and organisations involved in environmental law.


The book appears at a pivotal point, amid a tussle over the next stages of UK environmental law for the post-Brexit period and as we desperately focus on how green renewal can arise from the lessons we learn from Covid-19. It analyses the development of key processes which illustrate how different policies, principles and practices emerged across most aspects of environmental law, including citizen campaigning, the public inquiry process, and the development of environmental law as a practice and an academic discipline. It shows how the parliamentary select committee has become a power for good and maps the antecedents and birth of the Environment Agency, in itself a child of the EU. Richard’s observations on the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution are particularly germane now, when the role of science in policy and politics is again to the fore. In the past few years, Richard’s focus has been on certain specific legal processes, drawing on his legal and activist experience. He shows the depth of his commitment to access to justice as well as the law as he analyses the development of environmental courts and tribunals. His role in the review of regulatory sanctions has resulted in some regulators across the UK adding effective tools to their toolboxes. The relationship between EU and UK law comes to a crescendo with Brexit and again Richard, working with the UK Environmental Law Association with which he has been involved for many years, helped illuminate many of the detailed legal principles and issues involved in transferring EU law to UK law.

“The book appears at a pivotal point as we desperately focus on how green renewal can arise from the Covid-19 lessons”

Gems of insight pepper this account, such as the verdict of the director of the Institute of European Environmental Policy in 1983 that the EC was frequently seen as a foreign institution that countries of Europe have somehow become involved with. Nothing has changed there, then. He also describes the real reduction in participatory democracy that has happened quietly in the planning system over the last 30 years, and explains that he decided not to continue his career as a barrister as that would have been just too limiting!

Who is this book for?  It is academic enough for lawyers, with only a few eyelid-drooping moments of intense legal analysis for non-lawyer readers. It is informative for those who care to see how environmental law has developed, and delightful for those who treasure autobiography. Throughout, the Macrory humour sneaks in, often disguised heavily in weighty points of law. There is no one else who could boast so proudly about the reviews of his first ever book – in Materials Reclamation Weekly. 


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