Can Defra end its ‘culture of delay’ in 2023?
Environment Secretary Therese Coffey has said she was “mortified” to send a late response to a letter from MPs that accused her Department of a “culture of delay” in 2022. So, are her team properly preparing to deliver key green policy packages to time this year?
The UK’s approach to green policy has been in the headlines this week, with Rishi Sunak disbanding the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and creating four new Departments, including one dedicated to Energy Security and Net-Zero.
But, elsewhere in Whitehall, discontent has been slowly brewing around the way Defra has been operating of late. Environment Agency staff are enacting their second strike of 2023 this year in a row over pay and staffing levels. The UK’s post-Brexit environmental watchdog concluded recently that progress towards all 23 key environmental targets is off track. And, there were concerns that the Environmental Improvement Plan set out in a bid to spur progress in many of these areas this decade was not backed with enough new funding or detailed enough on new commitments.
There was particularly scathing media coverage of – and public response to – claims that the UK cannot achieve the levels of air pollution reduction recommended by health experts.
This all comes after a string of delays to key policy packages during the Covid-19 pandemic thus far. For example, the Resources and Waste Strategy was published in December 2018 and most of its key facets have been delayed. Delay and confusion have also plagued the process of implementing post-Brexit payment schemes for farmers that should improve outcomes for nature.
Defra Secretary Coffey has today (8 February) appeared in front of MPs on the Environment Audit Committee (EAC) to set out her Department’s funding plans and priorities for the year ahead. This appearance came after the Committee raised concerns last November about a potential ‘culture of delay’ at the Department, which missed several deadlines for target publications prior to the EAC’s letter.
The delays were, at the time, chalked up to two changes of administration within a six-month period. Coffey recently (23 January) presented a full reply to the EAC, detailing how amended timeframes have been met and outlining a string of publications and workstreams for Defra this year.
Her letter states: “I apologise for the late reply. As your letter suggests, the challenges that we face are broad and significant. I am determined that we will address these issues with urgency. I am conscious of the changes in administration in 2022 but I am determined to get a grip.”
Following on from the letter, Coffey told the Committee today said she “had to admit” she was “mortified” to send the letter so late, given the topic.
She added: “Clearly, the nature of our business as Defra [means] there is a lot of interest across Government on the implications. They are engaged with this. So, I think, sometimes, some of our responses on consultations may take a little bit longer, recognising the reach that we have.
“I would like to think that we now have a very clear direction and determination.”
This comment came after representatives for the Office of Environmental Protection (OEP) advocated “a change of pace, change of gear and a fresh determination”.
Coffey went on to agree that she was confident that her Department, and related arms-length bodies, have sufficient funding and staffing levels to adequately carry out their duties. She additionally explained how she believes future reports from the Office for Environmental Protection will show progress against key indicators, as data collection and presentation approaches improve.
Despite warm words from Coffey, the fact remains that there are several key environmental policy packages we are still waiting on from Defra – some of which were actually mentioned in her letter. Here, edie explores four of them.
1) The Land Use Strategy
The Land Use Strategy was reportedly due in January but Defra itself has merely stated that it is due “later this year”. Under the Environment Act, the Department is supposed to publish this Strategy by the end of March.
As recommended by various committees of Lords and MPs, the Strategy will set out how the UK Government aims to deliver its commitments to food security, healthier diets, nature restoration, housebuilding and commercial development.
These issues have often been posed as contradicting, with the Royal Society arguing in a paper earlier this month that the UK Government was potentially “overpromising” finite land in the UK to too many priorities.
The Society acknowledges the need for all of these issues to be addressed, rather than pitting them against each other. It argues that the Government needs to improve its data collection and analysis in relation to land use, then use this data to make choices with multiple co-benefits for climate, nature, food and communities.
The Guardian has reported that the Government is planning not to mandate a reduction in the amount of land set aside for animal agriculture. This is in spite of the Climate Change Committee (CCC) recommending a 20% reduction in per-capita dairy and red meat consumption by 2030 and Food Strategy review author Henry Dimbleby recommending a steeper 30% reduction. The UK Government did not take on Dimbleby’s recommendation in the National Food Strategy, and threw out the majority of his other recommendations also. There have been calls to strengthen the Strategy but no formal changes have been made – or even announced – yet.
Defra told the Guardian that, as of January, no decisions had been made on the content of the Land Use Framework, including the quantity of land that could be used for animal agriculture in England in the future.
2) Mandatory food waste reporting
Pre-Covid-19, Defra had been exploring mandatory food waste reporting for some large retailers. It put the measure on pause during the early stages of the pandemic but reportedly began work behind the scenes again in late 2020.
Tesco was the first UK supermarket to report its food waste data, in 2013, and has been calling for a mandate for others to follow suit. It is also working with WWF to encourage the reporting of waste in the supply chain – not just in stores.
However, many other British retailers have been calling for further delays to mandates and putting back their own voluntary workstreams. Food and Drink Federation and British Retail Consortium members have argued that, although lockdown restrictions are no longer in place in the UK, the cost-of-living crisis means that ‘all but emergency’ regulation and legislation should be paused, so that manufacturers and supermarkets can focus on keeping prices down as much as possible. In December 2022, food and drink prices were almost 17% higher than in December 2021.
Defra may not heed that warning. Industry sources have told edie to expect an update on this mandate this week.
3) Parts of the Resources and Waste Strategy
Of all the pieces of green policy plagued by Covid-19-related delays, the Resources and Waste Strategy seems to have been one of the worst-affected. The Strategy was published in 2018 as the first major, sweeping policy intervention in this field in more than a decade.
Consultations on many key inclusions, including Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) requirements for sectors such as textiles and a Deposit Return Scheme (DRS) for drinks containers, did not run to time. As such, the implementation timeframes of these measures has been pushed back.
Defra published its response to the latest round of consultations on the DRS in January. It confirmed that the scheme will be implemented in 2025 and stated that it is not looking at an ‘all in’ system that covers containers of all sizes and all materials, purchased from any kind of retailer. Instead, it will look to exclude glass in England. This has raised eyebrows given that Scotland and Wales are including glass in their DRSs.
Defra has also confirmed to MPs on the Environmental Audit Committee that it will publish measures for textile EPR “in early 2023”” and that EPR for packaging will be introduced in phases from 2024.
The Strategy had promised food waste collections for all homes in England by the end of 2023 but time is fast running out and there is very little detail publicly on the timeline. There has also been little in the way of movement on unifying dry mixed recycling collections across UK councils – a move which could help reduce confusion on recyclability among the general public while improving the quality and quantity of recycled materials available on the UK market.
4) Clarity on the Retained EU Law Bill
The Retained EU Law Bill was presented to the House for a first reading in September 2022 and has sparked much outrage from green groups. The Bill seeks to overhaul retained EU laws, ‘sunsetting’ most before the end of 2023 and the remainder through to the end of 2026.
Environmental NGOs and even the Government’s own post-Brexit environmental watchdog have warned that these timescales will likely not be long enough to ensure that the UK improves upon, or at least retains the level of ambition from, all key environmental standards from the EU.
Mapping of the departments which will be most affected by the Bill has proven that Defra is overseeing the largest proportion of retained EU laws of any Department.
The Bill was introduced under Truss but, as of yet, Sunak has not indicated that it will be significantly altered.