Defra ‘lacks clout’ to get cross-Whitehall buy-in for environment plan

MPs say neither the department nor the Treasury has good grip on the cost of delivering 25-year goals
Clean air and plentiful water are among the goals of the 25-year environment plan. Photo: John Short/Zuma Press/PA Images

By Jim Dunton

03 Feb 2021

Members of parliament’s Public Accounts Committee have questioned the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs' ability to coordinate the government’s 25-year strategy for improving the quality of the nation’s air, water,  plants and wildlife.

In a new report, MPs said Defra has responsibility for coordinating environment policy, “but not the clout to hold other departments to account or manage trade-offs between policy areas”.

The committee said progress on the environment has been “painfully slow” since the coalition government set out an ambition to make improvements within a generation, back in 2011. They noted that it took ministers a further seven years to publish the 25-year environment plan.

The plan features 10 overarching goals covering issues such as clean air, clean and plentiful water, and thriving plants and wildlife. Defra has lead responsibility for all environmental policy areas apart from mitigating climate change mitigation, which is the responsibility of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

MPs said other parts of government have important roles to play in achieving government’s environmental goals. But they noted that no other department specifically mentioned the environment plan in their single departmental plans for 2019.

In December, ministers established a new cross-government board for the environment after the National Audit Office warned that departmental joint working on environmental issues was “patchy”.

MPs said that while Defra expects the board to help manage trade-offs between policy areas, it is not clear how the board will decide between competing priorities. They said it it crucial that the board be given the authority and influence to hold all parts of government to account and robust processes for evaluating the effectiveness of policies across all departments.

Elsewhere in the report, PAC members noted that while chancellor Rishi Sunak had allocated an extra £1bn to Defra in November’s Spending Review, it was not clear how much of the funding was new money for environmental work.

Committee chair Meg Hillier said that ahead of the last Spending Review, departments had struggled to provide the Treasury with requested information about how their proposals would contribute towards the UK's statutory carbon targets or the 25-year plan.

She said ministers needed to move on from talking about long-term visions to taking action to deliver the generational change first floated a decade ago.

“These ‘generations’ will soon be coming of age with no sign of the critical improvements to air and water quality government has promised them, much less a serious plan to halt environmental destruction,” she said.

“Our national environmental response is left to one department, and months from hosting an international conference on climate change, the government struggles to determine the environmental impact of its own latest spending round. 

“Government must move on from aspirational words and start taking the hard decisions across a wide range of policy areas required to deliver real results – time is running out.”

Among their recommendations, PAC members called on the Cabinet Office to carry out a review of the cross-government environment board’s work once it has been up and running for six months. MPs said the review should address whether the board has “achieved a step change in accountability and ownership for the environment across government” and whether it has effectively managed inter-departmental policy trade-offs.

Committee members also called on the Treasury to use its next Comprehensive Spending Review to publish an analysis of how the full value of environmental impacts have been taken into account in decisions. They said the impact of spending decisions on meeting government’s long-term environmental goals should also be detailed.

A Defra spokesperson said the department is “ambitious” in its determination to build back greener from the coronavirus pandemic through a range of actions – including progressing the 25-year environment plan and securing royal assent for the environment bill. The latest of several delays to the bill was announced last week.

“We are also investing £640m in the Nature for Climate Fund and establishing an independent Office for Environmental Protection,” it added.

Defra said the environment bill set a new and ambitious domestic framework for environmental governance and would establish the OEP to champion and uphold environmental protections, advise government and hold public authorities to account.

The OEP cannot exist as a statutory body until the environment bill receives royal assent, which ministers expect to happen this autumn.

However, last week Gambling Commission consul general Natalie Prosser was appointed as its interim chief executive designate. Dame Glenys Stacey is the organisation’s chair designate.

Defra said the watchdog would be based in Worcester.

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