Scrutiny of the Draft Environment (Principles and Governance) Bill Contents

3Environmental Improvement Plans

37.The Bill introduces a new requirement for the Secretary of State to prepare an Environmental Improvement Plan (EIP); a “plan to improve the natural environment”.76 These are to cover a period of no less than 15 years and are applicable to England only. Clause 6(7) confirms that the Government’s 25 Year Plan for the Environment is the first EIP, while other clauses set out the process for reviewing, revising and renewing EIPs, with reviews taking place every five years.

38.The National Farmers Union was concerned about the adoption of the 25 Year Plan as the first EIP, since the 25 Year Plan was not subject to consultation with stakeholders.77 Andrew Jordan, Professor of Environmental Sciences at the University of East Anglia, considered that rather than an EIP being a plan to “improve the environment”, it should be a plan to achieve the ten headline objectives in the existing 25 Year Plan (for example, clean air).78

Government reporting

39.Clause 8 requires the Secretary of State to “prepare annual reports on the implementation of the current environmental improvement plan”, which are to be laid before Parliament. The Government has claimed that the Bill puts the 25 Year Plan on a statutory footing with a cycle of environmental planning, monitoring and reporting.79 Yet the National Trust was afraid that without legally binding objectives and targets, there was little in the Bill “to drive real-world environmental improvements”.80


40.Many witnesses considered that there was a need for legal objectives and targets to drive improvements in the environment.81 As drafted, there are no clauses to make the targets in EIPs legally binding, however Michael Gove announced on 5 February 2019 that the ten goals set out in the 25 Year Plan will be put on a statutory footing in the second half of the Bill (see also Chapter 7).82

41.We previously recommended that long-term legally-binding, measurable targets should be set and the Government should be required to legislate for interim targets across the areas of the EIP and incorporate this process into its five-yearly reviews of the plan.83 The Aldersgate Group, representing major businesses, considered that statutory targets could provide the market signal needed to increase investment in the natural environment, but that the target setting process should be subject to stakeholder consultation and parliamentary scrutiny.84

42.We asked Michael Gove how he intends for the 25 Year Plan to be put on a statutory footing in the second part of the Bill:

I think it is important that the 25 Year Environment Plan is placed on a statutory footing […] I think we all recognise that, if the various obligations placed on Government within it were placed on a statutory footing, Government would be held to account for its performance against not just the metrics within it, but the broader obligations we have.85

Environmental monitoring - Indicator framework

43.Clause 7 sets out the arrangements for monitoring of the natural environment in accordance with the EIP. The Government’s draft indicator framework identified an initial set of around 65 system indicators and 15 headline indicators.86 The Natural Capital Committee (NCC), the Government’s independent advisers on natural assets, did not consider the draft indicator framework was adequate and said there were “some serious errors in the approach and the indicators being proposed” with insufficient emphasis on natural capital assets:

In assessing progress, a baseline needs to be set, and metrics and natural capital accounts developed to record progress so that the Government can be held to account.87

44.Professor Liz Fisher, from the University of Oxford, was also critical that the baseline of the EIP is limited as it is defined by the Secretary of State.88 The NCC called for “greater alignment” between the ten goals in the 25 Year Plan and the indicator framework so that progress against the plan can be assessed transparently.89 We requested that the National Audit Office (NAO) review the Government’s environmental data and its alignment with the Government’s 25 Year Plan objectives. This was published in January 2019 (see box).

National Audit Office - Environmental metrics: Government’s approach to monitoring the state of the natural environment

The NAO found that a “significant portion” of the goals and targets in the 25 Year Plan are currently “too vague to allow Government to measure and monitor performance effectively”. Less than one-quarter of the 44 targets are SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound).90

Defra’s draft indicator framework identified an initial set of around 65 system indicators and 15 headline indicators. Each goal in the 25-Year Environment Plan has at least one headline relating to it, and these in turn have a number of system indicators feeding into them.91 The NAO said that this work was “promising” but there were significant gaps in the data.

Defra’s own analysis showed that one-quarter of its proposed metrics will not be ready until at least December 2019.92 A further nine per cent are likely to need further development after that point. Those relevant to the 25 Year Plan targets are healthy and diverse seas, sustainable seafood and soil health. The NAO also noted that it is important for environmental performance metrics to have a spatial element, but that Defra did not intend to publish indicators at the sub-national level.

The NAO concluded that Defra “has not yet done enough to engage other parts of Government with its approach, nor to set clear accountabilities for performance”.93

Data requirements

45.Environmental Protection UK (EPUK) described the data requirements for environmental monitoring in clause 7 as “weak”.94 There is a duty on the Secretary of State to obtain data about the natural environment, but no duty to monitor the data. EPUK said that there was also no reference to the importance of maintaining comparability and consistency with EU and other international data.95 The Brexit and Environment network told us the successful design and implementation of environmental policy rests upon having accurate, robust and comparable data. Yet they were concerned that there is insufficient detail in the Bill on how data will be collected, quality checked and shared and what role will be played by the OEP.96

46.The NAO concluded that the EU has driven much of the UK’s reporting of environmental data with 161 environmental reporting obligations to European bodies.97 It said there is a risk that this data will no longer be collected if it is not required to be reported and recommended that reporting should be maintained or improved to complement Defra’s new headline indicators.98

Cross-Government accountability

47.We previously recommended that the Departments and public bodies who hold the policy levers to deliver the 25 Year Plan targets must also be accountable for meeting them.99 The NAO found that Defra has not yet engaged the Department for Transport, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, in its oversight arrangements for progress against the 25-Year Environment Plan.100 It also said the Government has not established clear accountability for other Departments’ progress. Ruth Chambers, from Greener UK, suggested that Government Departments and other public bodies could be linked into the delivery of EIPs, by producing an action plan saying how they have had regard to environmental principles and helped to achieve the objectives of the EIP.101

48.We asked Michael Gove how Defra will compel other Departments to play their role to contribute to meeting EIP targets. He responded:

If the Environment Bill passes as we envisage, then it will be the case that there will be a statement of environmental principles, which will govern all Government policy. All Government policy has to be judged against that statement of principles and if any Government Department or any Government agency is in breach of those principles and existing statute, then the OEP would have a role in ensuring that arm of Government was brought to book.102

49.Michael Gove acknowledged the criticisms from the Natural Capital Committee and said he has since met with its Chair. He told us he is “reflecting on exactly how we can make sure that we have metrics that properly take account of the importance of natural capital”.103 When asked about engagement from other Departments on the implementation board that oversees progress on the 25-Year Plan, he considered that cross-Department “action focussed” groups on specific policy areas, such as marine protected areas or wildlife crime, were more effective.104

50.We welcome the Government putting the requirement to prepare annual reports on the implementation of Environmental Improvement Plans in the Bill. Yet we are concerned that the approach to monitoring and data collection could hinder this process. While Defra’s draft indicator framework is promising, we are concerned that a proportion of the indicators will not be ready until 2020 at the earliest and that the Natural Capital Committee considers that there are errors in the Government’s approach. We recommend Defra urgently completes its indicator framework and takes on board the advice from the Natural Capital Committee to establish a robust baseline from which to measure progress.

51.We heard that environmental policy rests upon having accurate, robust and comparable data. Yet much of the UK’s environmental data has been driven by European requirements and this must not be lost upon leaving the EU. We recommend that clause 7 is amended to commit the Government to ensure that UK environmental data and information is collected to at least the same standards as the European Environment Agency for the European Union. The Bill should also require that the data collected under clause 7 is published and that under clause 14, there be a requirement for the Office for Environmental Protection to monitor and publish a commentary on this data.

52.The National Audit Office has concluded that Defra has not yet done enough to engage other parts of Government with its approach on environmental targets, nor set clear accountabilities for performance. Given the weaknesses we have heard about the application of the principles and the broad exclusions to them that exist in the Bill, we do not think this will be enough to drive improved environmental performance across Government. We consider that legally binding targets and objectives are needed.

53.We recommend that in addition to the objective of a high level of protection being included on the face of the Bill, the Bill should also include a framework for targets and interim milestones to be achieved by Government Departments. These should be set following stakeholder consultation and parliamentary scrutiny. Once these targets have been established, the Cabinet Office must issue guidance directing Departments to explain how their work programmes will achieve the delivery of these targets in their Single Departmental Plans. This will then assist the Office for Environmental Protection in holding Government Departments to account.

54.Since the European Commission has a role in advising on target setting, one of the Office for Environmental Protection or the Joint Nature Conservation Committee’s principal duties should also be to advise on the establishment of targets. This should be included in clause 12(3) on the exercise of its functions.

Scrutiny of Environmental Improvement Plans by the Office for Environmental Protection

55.The new oversight body (the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) outlined in Chapter 4) will have a role in scrutiny of the annual reports on the implementation of the EIPs (clause 14). This introduces a statutory cycle of environmental planning, monitoring and reporting - akin to the Climate Change Act and the interaction between the Government and Committee on Climate Change. This is in line with our previous recommendation that there should be regular progress reports to Parliament on the plan and the Government should not mark its own homework.105

56.However, the Institute for Government (IfG) described the reporting timetable, set out in clause 8, as “absurdly elastic”.106 Raphael Hogarth from the IfG explained:

The Secretary of State has a year-long period on which to report. The OEP then has six months to get back to him. The Secretary of State then has a year to get back after that. You could be looking at two and a half years from a piece of bad implementation to the Secretary of State having to account for it, and most Secretaries of State do not even last for that long.107

57.The IfG suggested that the reporting functions of the Committee on Climate Change set out in the Climate Change Act (2008) are the closest analogue to the reporting functions of the OEP.108 Sections 36 and 37 of the Climate Change Act set out specific dates rather than time periods for reporting.109 Ruth Chambers told us that the OEP could be empowered to review not just that a plan exists, but the effectiveness of that plan.110 Professor Jordan said that the Secretary of State should also be required to explain why they have or have not taken on board the comments of the OEP on the previous improvement plan.111

58.We welcome that the Government intends to put Environmental Improvement Plans on a statutory cycle of monitoring, reviewing and reporting in line with our previous recommendations. Yet we heard how the reporting timetable between the Government and the Office for Environmental Protection on Environmental Improvement Plans was “absurdly elastic” and could allow for a number of years between a poor decision taking place and a Minister being accountable for it.

59.We recommend that the timeframe for reporting is tightened with specific dates for the reporting duties put into the legislation. Clause 8 should be redrafted to reflect the reporting timetable in the Climate Change Act 2008, which is a helpful analogue.

60.Reporting on progress on an Environmental Improvement Plan by the Office for Environmental Protection does not make an assessment on the effectiveness of the plan. Clause 14(3) should include an assessment of how well the Government has met its statutory targets and the effectiveness of its Environmental Improvement Plan. It should also include a requirement for the Government’s response to the progress report to explain how it intends to take any action recommended by the Office for Environmental Protection, or why it does not intend to take such action.

76 Clause 6

77 National Farmers’ Union (DEB0067); see also Agricultural Law Association (DEB0037)

79 Explanatory notes, p32

80 National Trust (DEB0018)

81 E.g. National Trust (DEB0018); Aldersgate Group (DEB0060); Natural England (DEB0023); The Woodland Trust (DEB0054); Nature Friendly Farming Network (DEB0056)

82 Speech at the launch of the Natural Capital Committee’s sixth annual report, 5 Feb and Q72 [Ruth Chambers]; Aldersgate Group (DEB0060)

83 House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee, The Government’s 25 Year Plan for the Environment, 24 July 2018, HC803. Targets should be set in the areas of water (stress and quality); marine; waste; air quality; soil health; habitats (biodiversity conservation); species conservation (insects, birds, mammals); trees/plants; and environmental equality (access to environmental justice)

84 Aldersgate Group (DEB0060); see also Broadway Initiative (DEB0084) and concerns from Emeritus Professor of Environmental Law Richard Macrory (DEB0003)

86 Defra. 2018. Measuring environmental change – draft indicators framework for the 25 Year Environment Plan: Draft for discussion, 19 Dec 2018. System indicators track changes in specific aspects of the environment relating to the goals and targets in the 25 Year Environment Plan (e.g. concentrations of fine particulate matter), Defra has brought some of these together to create 15 ‘headline indicators’ (e.g. air quality) with the aim of producing a more accessible, overall summary.

88 UKELA Conference. A First Response to the Environment Bill: The New Body, the Courts and the Future of UK Environmental Law. 14 Jan 2019

94 Environmental Protection UK (DEB0062)

95 Environmental Protection UK (DEB0062)

96 Brexit and Environment (DEB0008)

97 Including the European Environment Agency, European Commission and EUROSTAT. National Audit Office. 2019. Environmental metrics: government’s approach to monitoring the state of the natural environment. HC1866

99 House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee, The Government’s 25 Year Plan for the Environment, 24 July 2018, HC803

105 House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee, The Government’s 25 Year Plan for the Environment, 24 July 2018, HC803

106 Institute for Government (DEB0030)

108 Institute for Government (DEB0030)

109 Climate Change Act 2008, Section 36–37

111 Q73 [Professor Jordan]; see also Professor Maria Lee (DEB0006)

Published: 25 April 2019