Give nature the same priority as net-zero, post-Brexit environment watchdog tells UK Government

Pictured: The Quantock Hills, Somerset

Published today (12 May), the ‘Taking Stock’ report from the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) assesses progress to date towards the 25 Year Environment Plan. The Plan was launched in January 2018 under Theresa May, with the aim of supporting an overarching vision to leave nature in England in a better state for the next generation.

As many green groups and coalitions of MPs have concluded previously, the OEP’s report finds that progress towards the Plan’s goals has been slow overall, with nature in England continuing to undergo “worrying and persistent environmental decline”. The report outlines evidence documenting the decline of river water quality, persistent issues with poor air quality in urban areas, mismanagement of seafloor and several other negative trends.

“Regrettably, environmental laws and government strategy and policy have not yet proved successful in significantly slowing down, halting or reversing biodiversity decline or the unsustainable use of resources or the pollution of the environment,” the report summarises.

The foreword to the report, written by OEP chair Dame Glenys Stacey, states: “The environment is under serious threat. Adverse trends are becoming increasingly difficult to arrest. Their impacts are more significant and risk becoming irreversible.

“In response, public concern is widespread and growing. There is recognition that a sustainable environment is not just nice to have, but essential for human wellbeing, progress and prosperity.

“Turning the tide to achieve this is exceptionally difficult, yet it is needed urgently for our wealth, health and wellbeing, and absolutely essential for the generations to come.”

‘A fresh opportunity to make a difference’

To change the course of these trends and put England on track to meeting the Plan’s ambitions, the OEP is urging the Government to give nature restoration and preservation cross-department support and to treat the issue with “the same urgency, gravitas and awareness as the vision of [reaching] net-zero.”.

The report sets out a string of recommendations for delivering this ambitious, joined-up and impactful approach, arguing that several can be delivered through amendments and additions to the Environment Bill. The Bill received Royal Assent in November 2021 – more than two years after it was first introduced. Its purpose is to preserve and strengthen environmental protections post-Brexit.

The OEP is recommending that the Department for Food, the Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra) undertakes a stocktake of the condition of the environment across the nation as a priority. Without this baseline, a meaningful assessment of progress cannot be made, and it will be more challenging to design and implement targeted interventions. The Department must also firm up its criteria for assessing progress against the 25 Year Environment Plan’s key targets, the OEP states, and check that the targets are evidence-based and science-based.

Several of the OEP’s recommendations are centred around ensuring that actions taken by Defra and other departments do not ultimately undermine the Plan’s delivery. The report states that, at present, there is not accountability for the delivery of the Plan built-in beyond Defra.

It is timely, then, that Defra has this week published its updated draft Policy Statement on Environmental Principles. One of the listed principles, the integration principle, states that policymakers should seek opportunities to embed environmental protection and restoration in all fields of policy which impact nature. Another, the prevention principle, states that all Government policy should aim to prevent environmental harm at the source. Reaction to these principles has been lukewarm at best, with many major green groups expressing concern that they will result in a downgrading of ambitions and actions. 

Beyond updated principles, the OEP is recommending amendments to any existing policies and strategies that are misaligned with the 25 Year Environment Plan.

The OEP’s report also urges the Government to consider making the Environment Bill’s statutory targets for improving the environment more ambitious. Finalised in March, the targets have deadlines for the 2030s and 2040s and cover water use, waste, pollution, habitat protection and biodiversity. Many key environmental groups do not believe they are currently strong enough.

Responding to the report, Wildlife and Countryside Link’s chief executive Dr Richard Benwell said: “Dame Glenys and her team pose a simple challenge: that overarching ambition must now be rooted in ambitious targets, an urgent delivery strategy that is prioritised across the whole Government, and thorough measurement of real-world results.

“This first report is an encouraging sign of the sharp analysis we can expect from the OEP in its role as guardian of government commitments for nature. The Government must bring the same clarity to its Environmental Improvement Plan and heed the warning that it is time to turn promises into swift and coordinated practical delivery.”

Environment Minister Rebecca Pow said: “We welcome this report, which acknowledges that our Environment Act gives us new tools to make a real difference to our environment, putting it at the heart of Government and transitioning us to a sustainable future with nature on the road to recovery during this decade.”

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