Government efforts to improve environment 'have fallen short', watchdog says

Office for Environmental Protection says government has been "slow to act" and must now "act with energy and urgency”
Photo: Jason Newell/Alamy

By Tevye Markson

24 Jan 2023

The government’s action to improve the environment has “fallen far short” of its ambitions, a watchdog has found.

The Office for Environmental Protection, established in November 2021 to scrutinise government's action to improve the environment in England, said the current pace and scale of action will not deliver the changes necessary to achieve its aims.

The Tory-Lib Dem government set an ambition in 2011 to be the first administration to leave the environment in a better state for future generations. The Conservative Party further commited to this in its 2017 manifesto and the government published the 25-year environment plan in 2018. 

But the OEP said the government has been "slow to act", and was on track to meet zero of its environmental targets. Government must now "act with energy and urgency” to improve the delivery of its long-term environmental improvement plan, which is set to be refreshed this month, the watchdog said.

What the OEP Found

Progress on delivering the the 25-year environment plan has "fallen far short of what is needed to meet government’s ambition to leave the environment in a better state for future generations", OEP chair Dame Glenys Stacey said.

“There have been recent improvements in air quality and people’s engagement with nature, as Covid lockdowns changed the way we live our lives. But many extremely worrying environmental trends remain unchecked, including a chronic decline in species abundance. Our assessment shows that the current pace and scale of action will not deliver the changes necessary to significantly improve the environment in England," she added.

The report says the natural environment in England “remains under serious threat” and is “characterised by adverse trends in many areas, frequent failure to make progress towards targets, and a lack of progress in addressing existential risks, including from climate change”.

The OEP assessed 23 government environmental targets and found none of them were demonstrably on track, with 14 clearly off track, and the others lacking enough evidence to conclude.

Only nine out of 32 "headline indicators" in the natural environment – including the abundance of priority species; raw material consumed; and residual waste – showed a positive trend, with eleven static and eight deteriorating. The body couldn’t measure four of the indicators due to a lack of evidence.

While the OEP said the national trends for clean air and climate change mitigation were “encouraging”, it said there was conversely a “deeply concerning” decline in biodiversity.

The watchdog also raised concern about the government’s progress in adapting to climate change.

“Progress towards climate change adaptation is poor and many of the steps necessary to adapt and to improve resilience have not yet been taken,” the OEP said.

“With around two-thirds of land in England in agricultural use, it is particularly concerning that climate change adaptation within this sector is consistently given the worst rating by the Climate Change Committee.”

The watchdog said the government’s refreshed plan should set and pursue clear and achievable interim targets that are as ambitious as possible in the areas needing most attention.

Why has the plan not worked?

The OEP said the 25-year environment plan was not grounded in a comprehensive baseline of what the state of the environment was at the time. It also failed to state clear and ambitious targets for all aspects of the environment it wanted to improve, leaving some areas “adrift”.

The other issue was a “known problem” that was exacerbated by global events.

The government had to deal with strategy and policy responsibilities being repatriated to the UK from the EU as a result of Brexit, as well as the “exceptional challenges” since 2018: the Covid pandemic, war in Ukraine, and cost of living crisis.

“Together, these developments have exacerbated a known problem – a lack of coherence in environmental strategy and policy within Defra and across government – that in all probability has held back progress,” the report said.

But Stacey said there is “clear opportunity” for the government to “change course” and turn the negative trends into positive progress towards targets.

The government's updated long-term plan, due to be published by the end of this month, will be a “key opportunity to make meaningful cross-government plans to protect, restore and improve the environment,” the report said.

To achieve this, the plan will need to have “a true focus on delivery,” Stacey said. This will require better alignment and co-ordination at all levels of government, both local and national, and establishing clear and simple governance arrangements “that drive delivery on the ground”, according to the report.

The plan should also “set and vigorously pursue” clear and achievable interim targets that are as ambitious as possible in the areas needing most attention, the report added. It also recommended improvements to how government collects and collates data and how it assesses progress.

“We hope that the advice given in our previous monitoring report, published in May last year, will have been influential,” Stacey added.

Funding to blame, union says

Taking a different view on why progress had stalled, Prospect union chief Mike Clancy said it stemmed from insufficient funding for environmental regulators.

“Prospect has been warning for years now that a lack of adequate funding for environmental regulators would lead to negative consequences for the UK environment,” he said.

“This report highlights those consequences and the failure of the government to meet even its own targets.

“Agencies like Natural England and the Environment Agency as well as areas like marine science have been underfunded for more than a decade. It has led to a huge loss of skills and capacity with worker morale at an all-time low and agencies at breaking point.

“If the government doesn’t sort out pay and resourcing now there is no way it is going to be able to reverse the conclusions of this devastating report.”

Prospect and Unite union members at the Environment Agency voted to go on strike late last year amid a "derisory" pay offer and after more than a decade of real-terms cuts.

A Defra spokesperson said: “Since the publication of the 25-year environment plan in 2018, we have funded new nature recovery projects spanning over 120,000 hectares, increased our tree planting rates and started work on the restoration of our peatlands at a landscape scale. Our international efforts through our presidency of Cop26 and leadership at Cop15 also placed nature at the heart of tackling the twin challenges of climate change and biodiversity loss.

“Building on our landmark Environment Act and its ambitious long-term targets, our Environmental Improvement Plan will soon set out the comprehensive action this government will take to reverse the decline in nature, achieve our net zero goals and deliver cleaner air and water.”

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