An environmental scorecard: Government Response to the Committee's Fifth Report of Session 2014-15 - Environmental Audit Committee Contents

Appendix—Government response


·  The Environmental Audit Committee published its Environmental Scorecard Inquiry Report on 16 September 2014. This examined progress across a number of environmental issues and the use of policy levers which could help secure improvements.

·  The Government has noted the Environmental Audit Committee's report and is grateful for its views. We are committed to protecting and improving the environment. This is driven by a recognition that—in addition to its intrinsic value—the environment underpins the country's economy and society's well-being by providing goods and services such as food, clean air and water and space for recreation.

·  This Government has a strong record on environmental protection and we believe that the Committee's assessment of progress is overly negative. Our environmental goals are challenging and long term, and cannot be achieved overnight. However, we have put an ambitious programme of environmental policies in place to protect the environment for future generations, including those set out in our landmark White Paper on the natural environment, published in 2011. This has a strong focus on changing how we view the natural environment and taking better account in decision-making of the many benefits nature provides to people. Defra published the first set of England Natural Environment Indicators in 2013 to track progress against the broad ambitions of the Natural Environment White Paper. The indicators were updated in May this year.

·  The Committee was particularly critical in relation to air quality, flood management and biodiversity. These are considered in turn below.

Air quality

·  Air quality has improved significantly over time as emissions from transport, industry and other sources have decreased. For example UK PM10 (Particulate Matter) and NOx (Oxides of Nitrogen) emissions have more than halved in the two decades up to 2012.

·  We are investing heavily in measures to continue to improve air quality. Over £2 billion worth of measures have been announced since 2011 that will help reduce emissions of both particulate matter and NOx (Oxides of Nitrogen) from vehicles. This includes supporting the market for ultra-low emission vehicles, helping to buy cleaner buses and retrofit existing vehicles, and promoting cycling and walking. Good air quality is vital for people's health and the environment which is why we continue to take action to improve it. The Government takes its obligations to achieve EU air quality standards very seriously. The UK is compliant with EU legislation for nearly all air pollutants however we still face a significant challenge on meeting NO2 limit values in areas where we are exceeding. We are committed to ensuring compliance with the Air Quality Directive in the shortest possible time.

Flood and coastal erosion risk management

·  We will be spending £3.2 billion in this Parliament on flood management and protection from coastal erosion compared to £2.7 billion in the last. Going forward we will be making record levels of capital investment spending £2.3 billion in improving defences right up to 2021. We committed an additional £270 million following the winter floods including an extra £70 million revenue funding for floods maintenance which the Environment Agency will spend where it will achieve the most flood risk benefit. We already acknowledge the benefits that various methods of natural flood management can provide and it is already policy that all potential options should be assessed when considering approaches for managing flood risk.

·  We have introduced the Partnership Funding approach which is enabling more schemes to go ahead and allowing greater local choice. It is on track to bring in up to £140 million in external funding over the four years to 2015, compared with £13 million during the previous four years. Early indications suggest that up to a quarter (25%) more schemes will go ahead in the coming years than if project costs were met by central Government alone. Through partnership funding, 165,000 households will have a reduced risk of flooding by the end of the current Spending period, and the 6 year investment programme will reduce the risk of flooding to a further 300,000 households by March 2021.


·  Priority habitats and species have been in decline since the 1970s, but the rate of decline is slowing and our Biodiversity 2020 strategy aims to halt overall biodiversity loss by 2020 and thereafter to move to net gain.

·  We are committed to continuing implementation of our strategy for conservation of England's biodiversity, working to protect wildlife habitats both on land and at sea. Between Jan 2011 and March 2015, we will have set in hand the creation of 67,000 hectares of priority habitats such as arable field margins, wetlands and woodlands. We have also maintained over 95% of our Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI)—our most important sites covering 1 million hectares / 7% of England—in favourable or recovering status. 62% of all priority wildlife habitats (i.e. including habitat outside SSSIs) are now in favourable or recovering status.

·  We have created 12 Nature Improvement Areas (NIAs) that work at the landscape scale to create and restore priority habitats. For example, within the NIAs 270km of boundary and linear priority habitat (including hedgerows) has been restored, created or managed to maintain or improve its condition.

·  We are taking carefully targeted action through Environmental Stewardship, as well as voluntary sector initiatives, to provide the right conditions for priority species (e.g. Stone Curlew, Cirl Bunting and Marsh Fritillary butterfly). For very rare species Natural England works with partners on a species recovery programme. We are also taking action to eradicate, control and prevent the introduction of invasive species such as the grey squirrel and signal crayfish, which also have economic impacts.

·  We will be investing over £3 billion from 2014 to 2020 to deliver environmental benefits through the new Rural Development Programme. This is a larger share of the Rural Development budget for the environment than previously (87% compared to 83% within the previous programme).

Government's responses to the specific recommendations

·  The Government's responses to the Committee's recommendations (as set out on page 53 and 54 of its Report) are set out below:

Recommendation 5: Government must commit to improve the situation in all environmental areas, if not in this Parliament then over the term of the next.

—  The Government is committed to protecting and improving the environment.

—  In our Natural Environment White Paper, we set out the Government's ambition to be the first generation to leave the natural environment of England in a better state than it inherited. We are continuing to work towards this long term aim. This is a challenging, generational ambition that will not be achieved overnight or by government alone. However, we have set in motion policies which improve how we view and value nature both now and in the future. We have already implemented the vast majority of the White Paper's commitments thus putting in place foundations for the longer term.

Recommendation 6: The Government, as we have recommended previously, should put the Natural Capital Committee on a permanent footing to allow it to continue to co-ordinate a programme to improve environmental monitoring data. The Government should use the development of the UN Sustainable Development Goals as an opportunity to identify any data gaps and inconsistencies between databases, to produce a single dataset on the state of the environment. This would … provide a key component of an urgently required overarching Environment Strategy.

—  In the Government's response to the Natural Capital Committee's (NCC) second report on 21 October 2014, we announced that the NCC's term has been extended by six months to September 2015. This will ensure that the NCC's expertise will be available to advise Government on the recommendations in its third report. While the government of the day may wish to consider which structures are needed to sustain our natural capital, under this extended remit the NCC will conclude its work by the end of September 2015.

—  We are working through the UK Environmental Observation Framework (part of the Living With Environmental Change partnership), of which Defra is a member, to improve the coordination of environmental observations among the many government agencies and research bodies in the UK. Also, as set out in our response to the NCC's second report, we have undertaken to explore combining data from various sources to provide composite species and environmental indices that provide a clearer picture of the status of England's natural capital.

—  The development of Sustainable Development Goals was the key outcome from the Rio+20 Conference in 2012. It is important that these new goals are simple, inspiring and measurable. The High-Level Panel on Post-2015, which was co-chaired by the UK Prime Minister, has called for 'a data revolution' to generate new and more accessible forms of data to help underpin the delivery of the new goals framework. Measurement is a critical part of an effective monitoring and accountability framework that can identify trends and track progress. More and better data will help governments make better decisions and enable citizens to hold their governments to account. With this in mind a 'data revolution' group has been set up in the UN, and the UK is playing a crucial role on this agenda as chair of the UN Statistical Commission. This work will help to inform the development of appropriate indicators and identify data requirements.

Recommendation 7: The Government should strengthen systems currently focussed on embedding sustainable development and extend them to explicitly address environmental and natural capital risks. Specifically, it should renew its programme for auditing and improving departments' compliance with impact assessment and policy evaluation guidelines, and include in the review of departments' business plans an explicit scrutiny of potential environmental harms.

—  Following the launch of the Sustainable Development (SD) Vision in February 2011, the Government has taken significant steps to strengthen the mainstreaming of SD into the work of Departments. Each Department's business plan, for example, sets out its contribution to SD and how it is embedded in the decision making process. To improve transparency, guidance from HM Treasury now requires departments to report progress on SD. Government has also set itself ambitious targets on operations and procurement to demonstrate leadership by example, and has embedded SD in the performance criteria of all civil servants.

—  More specifically, published advice on how to embed SD in Impact Assessments has been improved, including guidance on taking account of the value of nature. To help drive improvements, Defra has carried out a comprehensive review of the uptake of environmental appraisal and sustainable development guidance in impact assessments across departments recognising that impact assessment practice is a long-term agenda and this study can help to inform further progress. Our intention is to repeat this review in future to monitor progress and Defra continues to work with other departments on SD capability building.

Recommendation 8 To help bring the required leadership to environmental protection across Government and beyond, the Government should establish an overarching Environment Strategy to:

·  set out strategic principles to guide the action needed to improve the quality of protection over the next 5, 10 and 25 years;

·  include the actions and good practices required in local government (for example in formulating new Local Plans), as well as the actions needed in central Government to help bring those changes about;

·  facilitate a more informed discussion between central and local government about environment resource funding requirements for local authorities;

·  encompass a clear assessment of the state of the environment including in each of the 10 environmental areas covered in our report;

·  identify the research and analysis work that needs to be done and coordinated to fill gaps in the data that that assessment requires;

·  map appropriate policy levers to each environmental area and set out a clear statement on the place of regulation, public engagement and fiscal incentives as complementary measures. Such a Strategy should involve, for example, a reconsideration of the scope for greater hypothecation of environmental taxes to support expenditure on environmental protection programmes;

·  identify how Government, local authorities and the wider community could cooperate to develop consensus on the actions needed; and set out how environmental and equality considerations will be addressed and reconciled in infrastructure and other policy areas across all Government departments.

—  We have already produced our Natural Environment White Paper—the first such white paper on the natural environment for twenty years—and there are various environmental strategies and overarching government policy statements already in place, for example, for biodiversity, forests, soils and marine policy. It is not clear that an additional high level overarching strategy would bring added value or bring about enhanced outcomes.

Recommendation 9: As we have previously recommended, the Government should extend the remit of the Natural Capital Committee beyond 2015 to allow it to reach its full potential and the Government should implement the NCC's proposal for a 25 year plan. But this will not on its own be sufficient to drive environmentally protective Government action. The government should set up an independent body—an 'office for environmental responsibility'—whether by adjusting the NCC's remit or creating a new organisation, to:

·  review the Environment Strategy we advocate;

·  advise Government on appropriate targets, including in each of the 10 environmental areas we have examined;

·  advise Government on policies, both those in Government programmes and new ones that could be brought forward to support the environment;

·  advise Government about the adequacy of the resources (in both central and local government) made available for delivering the Strategy, and

·  monitor performance against such targets and regularly publish the results (or publish its audit of such an assessment produced by the Government itself).

The proposals for legislation from the RSPB and the Wildlife Trusts would address much of this necessary agenda, which we therefore commend to the Government in this Parliament or, given the proximity to the Election, the next.

—  The Government has no plans at present to establish a new statutory "Office of Environmental Responsibility" along the lines proposed or to give such functions to the Natural Capital Committee.

—  Scrutiny of Government is already provided through Parliamentary mechanisms such as the Environmental Audit Committee itself. Also, we already have delivery bodies such as Natural England, the Environment Agency and the Forestry Commission to provide Government with expert advice on the environmental implications of policies and on the state of the natural environment.

—  We note that the Committee commends the RSPB/Wildlife Trust proposals for new legislation. The Government has already set out its legislative programme for the remainder of this Parliament so, as noted in the Committee's report, given the proximity of the next general election this will now be an issue for the next Parliament.

—  We are already working to improve the existing framework of environmental regulation through the Smarter Environmental Regulation Review. This process provides the opportunity to set a clearer direction for environmental legislation for the next decades. The expectation is that it could lead to rationalisation and enhancement of existing legislation with better designed measures fit for current and future challenges and opportunities.

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Prepared 25 November 2014