Delays and understaffing: NAO raps Defra for weak oversight of environmental regulation
The Department for Food, Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra) is “still at an early stage” in mapping its delivery of long-term plans, and will struggle to do so while clearing backlogs using an over-stretched cohort of staff.
That is the warning from a key new report from the National Audit Office (NAO) today, assessing whether Defra’s governance, processes, funding and staff base are appropriately set up to deliver its 25-Year Environment Plan.
The Plan, published in 2018, comes with a headline vision of improving the state of nature in England within one generation. Numerous pieces of research, including assessments from the UK’s post-Brexit environmental watchdog, have concluded that progress is not on track, and that in some respects, nature has degraded over the past five years.
Earlier this year, Defra finalised new binding statutory targets in four priority areas: air quality; water; biodiversity; and waste reduction. It has also set out a new Environmental Improvement Plan, detailing priority actions for the short and medium term.
The new NAO report reiterates often-voiced concerns that the Plan and targets, in the first instance, are not as ambitious as they could have been. It also concludes that Defra is not properly integrating new targets and plans into existing regulatory frameworks and pushing for changes in regulation which, at present, would hinder their delivery.
Particular concern is expressed about the fact that Defra has not yet published a post-Brexit update on its biodiversity strategy and is behind the original timeline for delivering the key parts of the Resources and Waste Strategy, first published in 2018. While the Air Quality Strategy and Water Strategy have been delayed amid the pandemic, this has been to a lesser extent.
“If the Government is to achieve its ambitious environmental goals, Defra will have to be much clearer on the detailed changes to regulation required as part of its overall approach,” Gareth Davies, head of the NAO, summarised.
A Defra spokesperson said the Department’s Environmental Improvement Plan is “a clear blueprint”. They added: “Regular monitoring, planning and reporting underpins our work to achieve our long-term environmental targets, as well as scrutiny from the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) and Parliament.”
Beyond having the top-line policy strategies in place, the NAO questions whether Defra and its arms-length bodies the budget and staff base to properly report on progress and to enforce regulation.
On reporting, Defra has been accused by various committees of MPs of enabling a “culture of delay” in the 2020s. It was revealed last month that the Department has failed to deliver a single post-implementation review of its environmental laws to time since 1989.
On enforcement, the NAO questions whether Defra is prepared to hold the water sector to account for new monitoring requirements and to conduct independent inspections it has committed to on improving water quality. These commitments were made earlier this month in a new ‘Plan for Water’, which also paves the way for unlimited fines on water companies dumping raw sewage.
Additionally, the report charts an existing backlog in permit applications, which it believes is holding the Department back from setting aside the resource to develop and implement the Resources and Waste Strategy.
Backlogs will not be helped, the report argues, by budget constraints and understaffing. The NAO notes that the Enivronment Agency had vacancies of around 600 full-time equivalent posts in February, equivalent to around 5% of its staffing. It will doubtless be struggling to attract new staff as current employees organise strikes over pay. While Natural England has hired almost 250 staff over the past 18 months, the NAO is nonetheless warning of a “significant risk around capability”.
Green Party MP Caroline Lucas said the report “makes blindingly clear that Defra is currently in a state of omnishambles” with Natural England and the Environment Agency “desperately understaffed”.
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This isn’t news, Defra has been unable to deliver for decades.