Defra set for '5 years of scrutiny' as MPs raise concerns over environment policy
The Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) looks set to enter a "five-year period of scrutiny" after MPs this week raised concerns over the Department's ability to deliver on key flood protection, air pollution and animal welfare strategies.
The Government’s Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Efra) Committee issued a special report on Tuesday (8 March) questioning whether the Government’s planned 15% cut to Defra’s budget would impact operational efficiency.
In response to Defra’s new five-year plan - which aims to “unleash the economic potential of food and farming, nature and the countryside, champion the environment and provide security against floods, animal and plant diseases and other hazards” - Efra will be monitoring any achievements and shortcomings over the five-year period.
The Efra report states: “Defra faces the challenge of delivering vital services with a reducing budget for its day-to-day activities in the coming four years. This challenge is not new: our predecessor Committee expressed its concerns about a hollowed-out Defra’s ability to ensure its wide-ranging set of delivery bodies could deliver effective services.
“We share these concerns which indeed are amplified by Defra’s need to further reduce budgets. To be re-assured, we need evidence that Defra can provide firm leadership, a clear and well communicated strategy, and robust relationships with its disparate set of delivery bodies.”
Defra – which operates on a £2bn budget – will now be scrutinised on its ability to deliver initiatives that cover air quality, rural proofing, flooding and animal welfare.
Liz Truss’ Department has failed to implement air pollutant reductions across the UK. Current EU directive limits for nitrogen dioxide have been breached in 38 of the UK’s 43 air quality zones. This comes after Defra was forced to halve local authority funding to tackle air pollution.
Environmental law firm ClientEarth has sent a final legal warning to the department over its ‘woeful’ air pollution policy, while Efra suggests that London – which breached its annual air pollution limits in the first week of 2016 – will be unable to reduce pollutants to safe limits until 2025.
As a result, Efra will launch an enquiry into the UK’s air quality to see not only it Defra can comply with current EU rules for environmental standards, but also future proof the UK against looming environmental challenges.
Defra will invest £2.3bn by 2021 – an increase from the £1.7bn spent over the past five years – to better protect more than 300,000 homes. However this relies on the Government securing £600m from external private sources.
Efra claims that only £61m has been raised from these external sources, and there has been no indication from Defra or members of the private sector that this investment target will be reached. The report adds: “We are concerned that Defra’s requirement to find reductions of 15% in resource budgets over the next four years may affect vital flood protection work.
“We recommend that Defra set out within the next three months the implications of the spending review settlement on resource budgets for maintaining flood capital assets and for undertaking routine maintenance work such as the dredging of rivers.”
With the recently developed 25-year Natural Capital Committee plan and reform due to launch later this year, Efra is calling on Defra to ‘champion rural communities more vigorously’ by embedding rural considerations into policy making-processes.
The Committee suggests that the absence of effective internet and mobile phone connectivity – which research suggests could cut emissions by 15% - is hampering economic growth across rural areas. To remedy this, Efra has urged Defra to support a timely and efficient roll-out of hi-speed broadband across the countryside.
With Defra committed to spending £3bn under the Common Agricultural Policy to enhance England’s countryside – with an extra £100m set aside to combat contaminated land and restore peatland habitats - Efra also calls for a more "holistic approach" to ensure that both land and animal welfare remain at the forefront of political decisions.
Truss has already vowed to make to Britain a global leader in sustainable farming as part of a department re-shape to allow for increased agricultural investment and greater risk-response capabilities.