Natural Environment White Paper - Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee Contents


3  Turning policy into practice

Strategy for delivery

15. Whilst the NEWP's overall approach towards protecting and enhancing the environment garnered widespread support, much of our evidence expressed concerns about translating those approaches into practical policies and programmes. Witnesses from a range of sectors, including industry and environmental NGOs, referred to potential problems with ensuring delivery of the NEWP's bold aims. For example, the Countryside Alliance told us that, if fulfilled, the NEWP's aims would "ensure a healthy balance and a secure future for the natural environment", but it believed that there was "no clear plan" or sufficient resources to ensure the White Paper's objectives were delivered.[25]

ACTION PLAN

16. The NEWP contains 92 specific commitments but little information as to how they link into an overarching strategy for delivering the large-scale ambition to embed the value of nature within decision-making. The Wildlife Trusts told us that the NEWP failed to provide a single framework within which all the new initiatives would be managed and that it provided no "clear indication" of how the various actions and commitments would be coordinated. In the organisation's view this led to a "confusion of disparate concepts".[26]

17. The Minister told us that Defra produced a quarterly newsletter sent to all stakeholder groups to provide an update on progress.[27] However, this document only includes descriptive snapshots of issues where there is progress rather than a structured report on progress against each of the 92 commitments. Whilst Defra's website provides updates on specific strands of the NEWP (for example on progress on establishing Nature Improvement Areas) these do not link together to provide a means to track progress across the piece.[28] Furthermore, many of the 92 commitments have no timetable for delivery, and for those that do it is not easy to find from public sources whether these deadlines have, or have not, been met.

18. We are concerned that Defra has not published an overarching action plan for delivery of the White Paper's aims, nor has it produced a timetable for delivering each of the White Paper's 92 commitments. There is a danger that such a piecemeal approach to implementation will lead to the White Paper failing to deliver its full benefits. We therefore recommend that Defra publish a timetabled action plan for delivering each of the White Paper's commitments, to be reported on quarterly with an explanation for any slippage in meeting deadlines.

TARGETS

19. Some witnesses criticised a lack of specific targets in the NEWP. For example, the RSPB told us that there should be a target to improve the status of all priority species in England by 2020.[29] Wildlife and Countryside Link considered that the Government should set measurable outcomes for recovery of vulnerable species and habitats and mechanisms to deliver them.[30] The organisation Plantlife also wanted "firmer commitments" to protect specific threatened or rare wildlife species,[31] and the Woodland Trust argued for a target to double woodland cover in the next 50 years.[32]

20. We recognise that a plethora of targets can dilute effort and create an unhelpful focus on fulfilling targets rather than achieving broad aims. However, if Defra, other government departments, partner organisations and the wider public are to know that success has been achieved, then outcomes need to be clearly, quantifiably defined. There is a commitment in the NEWP to develop a set of key indicators by "spring 2012" to track progress on its ambitions but this has yet to be published.[33] We are disappointed that Defra has failed to meet this commitment. We recommend that Defra identify a number (perhaps ten in total) of key input and outcome measures for its main ambitions of valuing natural capital, ensuring ecological resilience and engaging the public in the natural environment. The department should report progress against these in its Business Plan. Furthermore, Defra should explicitly identify the outcomes it expects its arm's length bodies to contribute to delivery of the White Paper's aims.

Cross-government commitment

21. The NEWP agenda will only be delivered through actions across Whitehall. The key departments are Defra, the Cabinet Office and HM Treasury, but other departments including the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Departments for Health, Education and Transport also have important roles. The NEWP's goals also need to be achieved in the UK's Overseas Territories, which have a significant part to play in improving global biodiversity. Witnesses were concerned that this overseas aspect had not received sufficient attention. The RSPB considered it "astonishing" that the NEWP failed to make the "stretching commitments" necessary for the UK to meet its international obligations, given the large percentage of endemic species in the Overseas Territories.[34]

22. We took evidence from the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, Chloe Smith, and the Minister of State in the Cabinet Office, Rt Hon Oliver Letwin, on the roles of their departments in implementing the NEWP. In the White Paper the Cabinet Office Minister of State for Government Policy is given specific responsibility for embedding sustainability across government with a requirement to review government departments' business plans quarterly.[35] However, witnesses told us that this approach would not provide sufficient scrutiny,[36] and were concerned that the institutional framework for delivering the NEWP's ambitions remained "unclear and unsatisfactory".[37] The RSPB, for example, urged the Government to clarify "where ultimate responsibility now lies and how departments beyond Defra will be held to account".[38] Some witnesses' concerns went beyond simply doubting the ability of government departments to co-ordinate action, with, for example, Friends of the Earth considering that there were "contradictory policies" across Whitehall.[39]

23. Many witnesses considered that too much responsibility for delivering the White Paper rested on Defra, with organisations such as the National Trust concerned that the NEWP message had therefore not gained "traction beyond the traditional natural environment sector".[40] WWF-UK noted that the Treasury had not been part of the NEWP central project team. They argued that this led to the impression that the green economy policy was an "add-on" to core economic concerns.[41] Paul Wilkinson, representing Wildlife and Countryside Link, noted that Defra had made concerted efforts to bring together teams across Whitehall to draft the NEWP, however since publication there had been a "fragmentation of delivery".[42]

24. Mr Letwin acknowledged that no single department could muster the "necessary forces to ensure that the rest of Whitehall pays attention" and noted that No. 10 and the Cabinet Office had a central role to play in holding departments to account. [43] He told us that he was going through departmental business plans to look "in every case" at whether sustainability had been "built-in in an appropriate fashion".[44]

25. We questioned the Ministers about how application of NEWP principles would affect decision-making—for example on projects such as the High-Speed 2 rail project.[45] However, Mr Letwin did not address this point directly. His evidence focussed on how government departments' in-house environmental performance was improving but did not address how departments could embed sustainability principles within their decision-making and specific policy development.[46]

26. The White Paper is a Government publication for delivery across all departments. However, the document confines itself largely to general principles rather than identifying specific commitments to be placed on non-Defra departments. We are disappointed that the Government has failed to integrate the approaches in the White Paper into key policy areas such as planning and transport and that this has limited the actions undertaken so far by departments other than Defra. We look to the Government to remedy this at the earliest opportunity.

27. Both Mr Letwin and Ms Smith's comments on valuing natural capital focussed principally on publication of supplementary guidance to the Green Book.[47] The Green Book is the Treasury's guidance for central government, setting out a framework for the appraisal and evaluation of all policies, programmes and projects. Ms Smith told us that "every official discussion that deals with the cost/benefit analysis of [infrastructure] decisions does draw on the [Green Book] guidance".[48] Mr Letwin told us that Impact Assessments were being enforced "more aggressively than previously".[49] However, he also noted that, just because the guidance had changed, it did not mean that the Government had "somehow cracked it".[50] He recognised that it needed a cultural shift to get people not simply to "tot up [costs] on cash registers" but to recognise that building natural capital has "quantifiable, rigorously assessable effects" on economic and social prosperity.[51] Defra officials also emphasised that the NEWP's green economy approach was "very much part of the Government's overall growth agenda".[52]

28. We welcome publication of the supplementary guidance to HM Treasury's Green Book on accounting for environmental impacts and Ministers' reassurances as to its importance. However, we are not convinced that there is a clear plan to embed its application firmly across Whitehall. We have seen little evidence of the cultural change required if officials are fully to adopt wider approaches to economic valuation. We recommend that HM Treasury require each government department to undertake an inventory of the natural capital assets it controls, or that its policies have an impact on, so as to provide an evidence base for their decision-making.

29. We further recommend that Defra, with HM Treasury and the Cabinet Office, lead an inter-departmental programme of training on the use of ecosystems services approaches in Impact Assessments.

30. We further recommend that HM Treasury undertakes and publishes an assessment of the use of the supplementary guidance to the Green Book by all government departments within 12 months.

31. HM Treasury should provide this Committee with an update on all of these issues in 12 months' time.

Regulation

32. The Government has been conducting a widespread review of regulation under its Red Tape Challenge programme. The Environment Theme Proposals stemming from this review were published in March 2012.[53] Of 255 regulations, 132 are to be improved, mainly through "simplification and consolidation", 70 will be kept since they "uphold important environmental protections," and 53 "obsolete" regulations are to be removed.[54] Alongside this there is to be "smarter implementation on the ground".[55]

33. The Government announced in the November 2011 Autumn Statement a specific review of the Habitats,[56] and Wild Birds Directives.[57] The Chancellor of the Exchequer said that:

I am worried about the combined impact of the green policies adopted not just in Britain, but also by the European Union … if we burden [British businesses] with endless social and environmental goals—however worthy in their own right—then not only will we not achieve those goals, but the businesses will fail, jobs will be lost, and our country will be poorer".[58]

This review reported in March 2012 and concluded that:

In the large majority of cases the implementation of the Directives is working well, allowing both development of key infrastructure and ensuring that a high level of environmental protection is maintained. However, some cases do encounter delays, although the Habitats and Wild Birds Directives may only be one contributory factor.[59]

34. The Review identified four key areas where change would improve the implementation of the Directives for the benefit of both the economy and the environment:

  • Facilitating nationally significant infrastructure projects;
  • Improving implementation processes and streamlining guidance;
  • Improving the quality, quantity and sharing of data; and
  • Improving the customer experience.

35. The Review also committed to assessing how a move could be made towards a broader ecosystems approach, for example by "examining its role in helping to make strategic choices about mitigation and compensation where a number of projects are impacting on the same area".[60]

36. The Minister responsible for Government policy advice, Oliver Letwin, told us that "environmental regulation is there for a purpose" and that having been through "all of it, it is necessary as regulation".[61] He wanted, however, clearer guidance on the regulations since these could be made a "great deal simpler while preserving every single one of the constraints that they rightly impose".[62]

37. We were heartened to hear from Ministers at the Cabinet Office that recent reviews of environmental regulation have found that the regulatory regime is largely fit for purpose. We regret that certain Ministers have given a false impression about the impact of environmental regulation on the economy. A robust evidence base is needed to enable government departments take account of both positive and negative impacts of regulations. We recommend that reviews of regulation take an even-handed approach and that departments communicate both the economic benefits and costs of specific regulations.


25   Ev w2  Back

26   Ev 118  Back

27   Q 270 Back

28   Defra Natural Environment White Paper webpages www.defra.gov.uk/environment/ Back

29   Ev 85 Priority species are those set out in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan. A revised list was published in 2007 containing some 1150 priority species and 65 habitats Back

30   Ev 114 Back

31   Ev w12  Back

32   Ev w17 Note: Doubling woodland cover would require annual planting of some 15,000 hectares a year of new native woodland Back

33   NEWP p 66, para 6.5 Back

34   Ev 84  Back

35   NEWP p 43, para 3.40 Back

36   Ev w56  Back

37   Ev w13  Back

38   Ev 85 Back

39   Ev w20 Back

40   Ev 107 Back

41   Ev w59  Back

42   Q 93, Paul Wilkinson Back

43   Q 219 Back

44   Q 221 Back

45   Q 225 Note: GreenLINK, representing organisations active in the parks and green space sector, highlighted the High-Speed 2 rail link and the expansion of regional airports as examples of conflicting messages around economic growth and the balance with social and environmental gains. Ev w74  Back

46   Q 223, Mr Letwin Back

47   HM Treasury, Accounting for Environmental Impacts: Supplementary Guidance, February 2012 Back

48   Q 225 Back

49   As above Back

50   Q 267 Back

51   Q 238 Back

52   Ev 1, Peter Unwin, Director General, Environment and Rural Group, Defra Back

53   Defra, Red Tape Challenge-Environment Theme Proposals, March 2012 Back

54   As above, p 1 Back

55   The air quality and emissions chapter in the Environmental Theme Proposals states that the impact of existing legislation is to be reviewed over the coming year, with table 1 setting out initial proposals Back

56   Council Directive 92/43/EEC of 21 May 1992 on the conservation of natural habitats and of wild fauna and flora Back

57   Council Directive 2009/147/EC , 2009 on the conservation of wild birds Back

58   "Autumn Statement; policies at a glance", The Telegraph, 29 November 2011  Back

59   Defra environment webpages www.defra.gov.uk/habitats-review/ Back

60   Defra environment webpages www.defra.gov.uk/habitats-review/ Back

61   Q 230 Back

62   As above  Back


 
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Prepared 17 July 2012