Environmental Improvement Plan: UK Government making scant progress one year on, watchdog warns

Pictured: The River Dart, Totnes, Devon

Published today (18 January), the Office for Environmental Protection’s (OEP) annual report on the Government’s progress towards environmental goals paints a disappointing picture.

The watchdog has concluded that progress has not been strong in relation to any of the ten issues covered by the Environmental Improvement Plan, which was set out by Ministers in January 2023 following a string of warnings around the Government’s historic failures to combat nature destruction and degradation.

Progress over the past year in three of the ten areas has been “limited”, by the OEP’s assessment. The body has raised particular concerns about challenges including water quality, water scarcity, sustainable resource use and climate adaptation.

And progress in the other seven areas covered by the plan has been dubbed “mixed” by the OEP.

The body has noted some spots of progress, including significant reductions in some air pollutants and chemical pollutants. But these are far overshadowed by weak or even backward progress in some areas. “Targets where government is largely off track span most EIP goal areas and include residual waste, sustainable fisheries, chemicals and improving nature,” the OEP stated.

Assessing 40 individual environmental targets from Westminster, including several that are legally binding, the OEP concluded that the Government is only on track to achieve four.

OEP chair Dame Glenys Stacey said: “Deeply, deeply concerning adverse environmental trends continue. With the depleted state of our natural environment and the unprecedented pace of climate change, it does seem to many that we are at a crossroads.

“While some progress has been made, substantial challenges remain. Our assessment is that the Government is largely off track to meet its ambitions and its legal obligations.

“It is not easy for us as a nation to choose the right path, the right trajectory and to travel together at the pace needed, but we simply must.”

Data and delays

Besides slow and disjointed delivery, the OEP’s report also raises concerns about transparency from the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). The OEP stated that it was unable to assess progress against 15 of the 40 targets due to “a lack of sufficient evidence”.

The OEP’s report bemoans a culture of failure to build upon headline policies with further development. Many visions lack time-bound, numerical targets and, even where these do exist, there is confusion around which organisations are responsible for delivery and reporting.

Dame Glenys Stacey said: “Delivery bodies, local government, businesses and the environment sector need to know in full, what part they must play. In our view, the Government must do more to set out for Parliament, the public and all those who must play a role in this how it intends to deliver its ambition.”

Another issue raised is the “culture of delay” in publishing top-level packages in the first instance. One example cited in the OEP’s report is that Defra is yet to publish a Land-Use Framework outlining how land in England will need to be used as demand increases from sectors including housebuilding and energy, while maintaining food security and delivering on environmental goals. This was promised time and again in 2023.

Then-Environment Secretary Therese Coffey appeared before MPs to address Defra’s delays last February. She attributed delays to the pandemic and to two consecutive changes in Prime Minister, stating that she was “determined to get a grip”.

The remainder of this task now falls to Coffey’s successor Steve Barclay who took up the post in November.

Calls to action

The OEP has stated that the prospect of delivering most Environmental Improvement Plan targets is not fixed – there is still time for the Government to intervene to drive more rapid, positive progress.

Speed and scale are of the essence to close the gap between pledges and progress. The Office raises concerns that the urgency of the challenge is not always understood, and is imploring swift delivery of the policies which are already in place, including reformed farmer payment schemes to incentivise environmental improvements and forthcoming requirements for developers to deliver biodiversity net-gain.

Delivery will depend on the provision of proper resource, the OEP emphasises. Its report sets out the case for greater funding and more concerted efforts to grow the base of skilled workers tackling issues such as invasive species and water pollution. Clarity is also needed on how this responsibility will be shared between Westminster, local authorities and other organisations including businesses and NGOs.

Looking at funding specifically, the Environment Agency was allocated just £76m in 2019-20, down from £170m in 2009-10. Defra is under pressure to restore its funding and that of other arms-length bodies to at least pre-pandemic levels.

Once delivery accelerates, targets will need to be strengthened in some cases, the OEP notes, as some existing targets are arguably too weak to meet the scale of the issue.

Defra set a string of legally binding targets in late 2022 covering things like water quality improvements, restoring and creating woodland and halving waste on a per-person basis. It was swiftly called out by environmental NGOs and asked to set more ambitious goals.

edie reached out to Defra for a comment on the OEP’s findings and recommendations.

Environment minister Rebecca Pow said: “We were always clear that our targets are ambitious, and would require significant work to achieve, but we are fully committed to creating a greener country for future generations and going further and faster to deliver for nature.

“We will carefully review the OEP’s findings and respond in due course.”

Pow also talked up some of the environmental policy changes the Tory Government has overseen in the past six months, including the launch of plans for a new national park and 34 new landscape recovery projects in November 2023.

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