The Government’s 25 Year Plan for the Environment Contents


19.The need for robust, measurable and enforceable targets was a key theme of the evidence we received. The Plan contains 44 targets–summarised in an “at-a-glance” document which sits alongside it.30 These targets are mapped across the Plan’s ten aims.31 However, the targets are of variable quality. Some, such as on plastics or biodiversity, are new and specific. Some were welcomed, others provoked a lively debate in the evidence about their merits.32 But, overall, the dominant theme in the evidence was a lack of clarity. Dr Stephanie Wray, Chief Executive of the Chartered Institute of Ecologists and Environmental Management, was moved to ask “Targets? What targets?” She went on, “The plan seems to me to be long on ambition and very short on legally binding targets and actions”.33

20.The evidence we received identified three major concerns. It highlighted:

Case Study: Biodiversity 2020

The Plan’s approach to biodiversity illustrates many of its strengths and weaknesses in the eyes of our witnesses. Many witnesses highlighted the need for urgency in addressing the “reckless downwards slide” of biodiversity.34

Biodiversity 2020 was a 2011 strategy to implement EU and international commitments by building on and improving previous work to develop wildlife habitats and reverse declining biodiversity.

However, witnesses noted that several targets have been missed.35 For example, Biodiversity 2020 intended for 50 per cent of the 4,119 SSSIs in England to be in favourable condition. By February 2017 only 36.5 per cent of SSSIs were in favourable condition, and the Wildlife Trusts do not expect this to reach 50 per cent by 2020.36

There are targets in the Plan which build on and go beyond those in Biodiversity 2020, a fact welcomed in many submissions. The Plan contains a commitment to “publish a new strategy for nature, building on our current strategy, Biodiversity 2020.”37 The Plan commits to “Restoring 75 per cent of our one million hectares of terrestrial and freshwater protected sites to favourable condition, securing their wildlife value for the long term.”38

UKELA described the Government’s pledge to develop 500,000 hectares of new wildlife habitat (an increase on the Biodiversity 2020 target of 200,000 hectares) as “a splendid target”.39 However, the Government is expected to miss the current target as only around 100,000 hectares have been developed in the last eight years.40 Furthermore, UKELA also noted that the target was deferred to an unknown date.41 It was obscured by vague promises to investigate achieving this and to “look for opportunities”.42 As the Secretary of State himself admitted, the Government has responded to missing a target by setting a new, more ambitious target but over a longer timeframe.43 So whilst witnesses welcomed the new and higher level of ambition, they felt the plan failed to address a lack of actions to deliver it, given that the existing targets are being missed.

SMART Targets

21.The headline ambitions for the Plan have been broadly welcomed, but there were concerns that the Plan was not underpinned by clearly expressed targets which would enable it to be measured and evaluated. The Adaptation Sub-Committee (ASC) of the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) told us that, of the 44 targets in the Plan, only 11 are SMART.44 Some, such as on achieving zero avoidable plastic waste by 2042, are long-term targets, set to be achieved by the end of the period covered by the Plan.45 Witnesses such as Coca Cola suggested there is scope to go “further and faster”, and ClientEarth suggested the Plan is not ambitious enough and “measurable medium-term goals” will be needed to achieve the 2042 target.46 The Royal Society of Biology argued that “there is a lack of concrete targets and milestones to allow the effective monitoring of the progress towards [the Plan’s] aims”.47

22.There was widespread concern that many targets were expressed in imprecise language.48 Professor Jordan was concerned that this wording was reminiscent of language that had historically been used to water down environmental commitments:

… having read lots of EU legislation in my life and also national legislation, I am struck by some of the loose phrases that are found within the plan. Commitments to “look into, to aim for, to do things where the balance of costs and benefits allows”. This is exactly the sort of language that was reminiscent of the 1970s and 1980s. I think it is that sort of language that will make it difficult for parliamentary bodies, for NGOs, to hold the Government to account if the targets and if the aims are not clearly specified.49

23.The Secretary of State, during the hearing on the 18th of April, did assure the Committee that further specific targets would emerge:

Colin Clark: Witnesses have expressed concern about the use of vague phrases like, “As soon as practical”. Do the Government intend to come forward with more detailed targets and milestones?

Michael Gove: Yes, and lots of, but not in every year … For example—this is the area the Chair mentioned earlier—we will bring forward a greater degree of granular detail about how we are going to meet our responsibilities when it comes to plastic and waste. We are going to come forward with a greater degree of practical detail about how we will hope to measure soil quality.

24.If the Plan is to have any chance of delivering its overarching ambitions, it requires targets against which the Government’s progress can be judged by Parliament and the public. We want to see the Government’s ambitions for environmental recovery set out clearly and explicitly. Before the draft Environmental Principles and Governance Bill is published, the Government should bring forward specific, measurable and achievable targets across the 25 Year Plan’s aims.

Legally Binding Targets

25.The desire for legally binding targets to be part of the Plan was another key theme of the evidence. Wildlife and Countryside Link noted that past targets have been missed “with impunity”.50 Dr Benwell observed:

On targets, we have had targets before. There is a 2020 target for 50% of SSSIs in good condition. We are probably going to miss it. There was a 2015 target for halting the global loss of biodiversity. We are going to miss it. There was a 2015 target for water quality. We are going to miss it. What is going to turn things round this time? It is having legally binding targets. That is why this plan needs to be the first step on the road to an Environment Act that sets legally binding targets.51

26.NGOs wanted to see targets which the Government would be obliged to meet. They stressed the need for legislation to ensure that targets would have a lifetime beyond a single Parliament.52 Several referred to the need for an oversight body (see below) to ensure that there would be consequences if the Government missed targets. The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) provided specific recommendations:

The Plan’s targets should be (1) publicly accessible (2) legally-binding (3) ambitious enough to meet the overall goal and (4) able to be allocated to those with responsibility for meeting them.53

27.Biodiversity 2020 (see box) is one example where a welcome increase in ambition by the Government stands in contrast to its failure to meet existing targets. Another is air quality, where the Plan sets out clean air as an ambition, whilst the Government continues to lose court cases and face EU action over its response to NO2 pollution. As recognised by our joint inquiry with the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Health and Transport Committees, NO2 illustrates the importance of legally binding targets as a mechanism for ensuring that the Government lives up to the commitments it has made.54 Our predecessor Committee’s inquiry into EU/UK Environmental Policy and the experience of the Climate Change Act 2008, demonstrated the importance of robust targets, enshrined in legislation, for businesses - creating a robust and predictable direction of travel which they can use to drive investment.55 Matthew Farrow from the Environmental Industries Commission agreed that enshrining targets in legislation, supported by a role for the new body in enforcing these targets, would create “long-term stable markets for businesses”.56

28.Jill Rutter from the Institute of Government, cautioned that the introduction of a body to hold the Government to account on targets could have the unintended consequence of the Government weakening its ambition: “The more you stack up the penalty side for non-compliance the more you incentivise governments in a risk-averse environment to be relatively unambitious”.57

29.The Secretary of State told us he agreed with Dr Benwell’s statement that: “For us, the elements are clear and binding targets, proper funding and a system of monitoring and accountability that can hold the Government to account”. The Secretary of State told us it comprised an accurate summary of work still to do.58 However, he was vague on further detail - referring only to existing legally binding targets on air quality and noted:

We would deliberately want to set ambitious targets, but I suspect that by definition there will be some that in the future this Government or other Governments may not meet in the way that we would want to, but that is the whole point about having ambitious targets.59

30.One aspect of target setting that was identified as particularly important was the need for governance around the short and medium-term targets needed to achieve the longer-term aspirations. Otherwise there might be a temptation for Governments to “back-load” delivery - leading to the targets being missed and undermining confidence in the direction of travel. Martin Nesbit, from the Institute for European Environmental Policy (IEEP), highlighted that European legislation often has a number of interim elements towards the delivery of those targets, “like making a national implementation plan, interim targets and so forth”. He said it was important to ensure that legislation is designed in a way that is enforceable.60

31.The Climate Change Act’s systems of five-yearly carbon budgets is one example of a governance mechanism designed to overcome this. Ruth Davis argued that it was an appropriate model which would provide greater certainty for businesses:

I think it is right for us to have the aspiration that long-term targets, 25-year targets for some critical elements for, let’s say for the sake of argument, water, air, soils, nature and potentially access to nature do have some statutory footing. […] I would make the case that one of the things that is powerful about the Climate Change Act is that it does have an immovable long-term goal that tends to drive action over cycles in that direction. [...] I simply do not see an alternative to that to enable us to get to the place where we are making investment decisions that are pro nature and not anti nature.61

32.Birmingham and Black Country Local Nature Partnership and Birmingham City Council both referred to the “ratchet principle” embodied in the Paris Agreement - the need to ensure action and ambition increase over time.62 The Brexit and Environment group noted that the Plan’s existing commitment to five-year reviews had some similarities to the seven-year cycle of planning and reporting around European Action Programmes. However, aspects such as the extent of independent evaluation and the role of the legislature and other layers of Government were less clear in the Plan.63

33.Long-term aspirational targets are important for setting a direction of travel and driving ambition. The key areas where measurable targets can be set should be made legally binding as part of the Government’s upcoming environmental legislation. These include:

As the experience of the Climate Change Act and EU law shows, this creates confidence in the direction of travel for the private sector to invest and plan and helps citizens, NGOs and Parliament hold the Government to account.

34.Long-term targets are necessary but not sufficient in themselves. Without robust short and medium-term planning and governance there will be the temptation for Governments to endlessly “back-load” action onto their successors - even when this results in greater costs in the future. Taking the Climate Change Act as a model, the new oversight body should have a statutory duty to advise on the setting of five-yearly plans to meet the longer-term targets. The Government should be required to legislate for interim targets across the areas of the Plan, in a similar way to the operation of carbon budgets and incorporate this process into its planned five-yearly reviews of the Plan. The departments and public bodies who hold the policy levers to deliver these targets must also be accountable for meeting them.

Line of Sight

35.The Government is currently committed to international targets and agreements, including the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), European Union legislation (which often implements other international agreements) and international treaties such as the Aarhus Convention, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and the Paris Climate Change Agreement. Presently there is no clear ‘line of sight’ between the Government’s new targets and the existing ambitions. UKELA has noted that the Plan does not clearly distinguish between which targets are innovative and which derive from EU targets.64 The Oxford Bioregion Forum said, “There can be no rational assumption that the SDGs can be achieved without radical changes to the way the country is run and developed.”65

36.Witnesses wanted the Government to establish a clear line of sight between existing and future objectives. The Environmental Association for Universities and Colleges argued that, “There is limited discussion of the SDGs and no clear plan, which is a shame as this should be governing the whole Environmental Plan”.66

37.Establishing a clear line of sight to existing commitments is of fundamental importance to ensure that nothing is lost from the targets and ambitions already in place. Following the publication of the Consultation, we asked Ruth Davis if the Plan and Consultation met her standard that “the starting point has to be absolutely not going backwards” from protections that currently exist. She said:

No, categorically no, … if you want to have a world-leading body it should be aimed at having a world-leading environment. That can’t be simply about managing the status quo or, in the context of nature and the natural environment, it can’t simply be aimed at managing decline. The proposition inside the 25-year plan is that we would set long-term goals, not just for maintaining the status quo but for the recovery of the natural environment.67

38.Currently, in those cases where the targets in the Plan are comparable to current agreements, several targets do not appear to be as ambitious. Professor Jordan commented that:

It is striking that DEFRA thinks that it has responsibility for about 1,200 separate pieces of legislation and that 80% of its work is framed by EU legislation, yet you read this plan and it is very difficult to identify where the EU has acted and how precisely the UK will build upon that. You really have to dig into the detail to find that, and what you find is that sometimes EU commitments are literally carried over. Sometimes they are carried over and not attributed to the EU. On other occasions they seem to be somewhat watered down.68

39.The Brexit and Environment group noted areas where the wording in the Plan appeared to be vaguer or less ambitious than existing European commitments. For example, the Plan commits to “Improving at least three quarters of our waters to be close to their natural state as soon as is practicable”.69 They pointed out:

For freshwaters, the Water Framework Directive aims to achieve good status for all natural water bodies by 2015 and good potential for heavily modified water bodies (with potential extensions up to 2027). The 25YP appears to lower this ambition to “at least 75 percent” (p.25)–a drop rationalised on the grounds that the “benefits outweigh the costs”. No such qualification is found in the Directive. Moreover, this target should be achieved “as soon as is practicable” (implying that further delays beyond 2027 are foreseen). References in the Directive to “good status” are replaced by “close to their natural state as soon as is practicable” (p.25) with no discussion of precisely how the two targets differ.70

40.When we put this concern to the Secretary of State, he said:

I do not want to have any dilution. If it is the case that the wording that we have used is not as strong, that is simply a slip of the pen rather than a deliberate desire to dilute. Doing that audit exercise, making sure that every existing commitment we keep to—if you think that there is a commitment that we need to express in a different way for whatever reason, then we must make clear why we think we should take a different approach so that we flag up that fact, rather than trying to smuggle through a change.71

41.We asked the Secretary of State for further clarification that his intention is still to meet existing Water Framework Directive targets. In his response he confirmed that the target for water bodies to be “close to their natural condition” will use the same criteria as “Good Status” under the Water Framework Directive.72 Yet he noted that the reduction in the target from 100 per cent to 75 per cent uses the mechanism “built into the WFD to take a proportionate and flexible approach” for heavily modified water bodies. Most striking is the change to achieving it “as soon as is practicable”. He states that, “it is likely that Member States and the EU Commission will need to consider extending the WFD deadline in some way … looking beyond 2027”; anticipating a change in the Directive before it has happened and thereby weakening the target. The 2027 deadline is already an extension as the original deadline for all rivers, lakes, estuaries, coastal waters and groundwater to achieve good ecological status was 2015.

42.Parliament and the public should be able to see at a glance where the Government’s ambitions exceed, meet or fall short of its current commitments. Whilst we welcome the Secretary of State’s commitment to publish an audit of the Plan’s targets against existing commitments, this should have been a feature of the document from the start. It is concerning that some targets appear to have been weakened and had evasive wording inserted. The Plan’s failure to incorporate the Sustainable Development Goals shows there is still a “doughnut-shaped hole”, which our predecessor Committee identified in the Government’s thinking about domestic implementation of the Goals.

43.The Government should publish its “audit” of existing national, European Union and international environmental targets before or alongside its response to this report. This should be accompanied by a ministerial statement. All subsequent Government consultations and strategies arising from the Plan, or linked to it, should be explicit about whether their targets derive from international, EU or domestic commitments, or are new. As part of the audit all targets should also be mapped against the Sustainable Development Goals. Any “slips of the pen”, where targets are weaker than those they replace, or where evasive or loose wording has been introduced, should be corrected and intentional changes explained.

Progress Reporting

44.The Plan expresses the intention to ensure that Parliament will be consulted and receive reports on the Plan’s progress. The Plan states that:

We will put in place regular and transparent reporting of progress against our new metrics, including to Parliament. We propose to report annually on the plan itself.73

45.This proposed annual reporting mechanism is welcomed by the Committee, provided it is an occasion of genuine, rigorous and independent evaluation. We heard from Dr Benwell that the Plan needed visibility outside of the “Whitehall bubble”.74 It was the opinion of Dr Benwell that the annual reporting mechanism would prove a key opportunity to deliver visibility for the environment:

We get regular reporting on a consistent set of indicators for things like economic development, for education. We need that same public and parliamentary visibility year in, year out for how the Government is doing on its plan and it needs to set those indicators in a way that people understand.75

46.The Secretary of State expanded upon the process as part of the mechanism to review and evaluate the Plan:

I would like to be in a position where we have at the very least an annual report to Parliament on progress or lack of progress towards some of these goals. I would not be so pretentious as to suggest this was a green budget, but I do think by whatever means, whether it is a formal written report to Parliament and a one-day debate on that or whatever means—I am completely open-minded—there should be an opportunity for the House of Commons, after any appropriate report from a governance body, to debate and to scrutinise the progress that we have made against the 25-year plan.76

47.Accountability for the delivery of the Plan is key. The Government must not mark its own homework. We agree with the Secretary of State that there should be regular progress reports to Parliament. We recommend that this is delivered bi-annually as an oral statement by the Secretary of State at set points in the parliamentary year, shortly after the Budget and Spring Statement. This would allow the Secretary of State to set out how the fiscal event is contributing to the achievement of the Plan. This report must be underpinned by a robust and independent assessment of performance produced by the new oversight body and laid before Parliament at the same time as the statement.

30 25 Year Plan

31 25 Year Plan

32 E.g. Qq25–26; SUEZ recycling & recovery UK Ltd (ENP0020); Brexit & Environment (ENP0063)

34 Q2

35 WWT (The Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust) (ENP0067); Friends of the Earth England Wales and Northern Ireland (ENP0068)

36 National Trust (ENP0059)

39 United Kingdom Law Association (ENP0029)

40 The Wildlife Trusts (ENP0077)

41 United Kingdom Law Association (ENP0029)

42 United Kingdom Law Association (ENP0029)

44 Committee on Climate Change, Adaptation Sub-Committee (ENP0058); see also Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) (ENP0090); British Ecological Society (ENP0102)

45 This is less ambitious that the EU target of recycling more than half of plastic waste generated in Europe by 2030. European Commission, European Strategy for Plastics in a circular economy, January 2018

46 Coca-Cola European Partners & Coca-Cola Great Britain (ENP0054); ClientEarth (ENP0085)

47 Royal Society of Biology (ENP0011), see also, Friends of the Earth England Wales and Northern Ireland (ENP0068); The Wildlife Trusts (ENP0077)

48 E.g. Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) (ENP0090); Birmingham and the Black Country Local Nature Partnership (ENP0050); Brexit & Environment (ENP0063); Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management supplementary written evidence (ENP0108); Environment and Threats Strategic Research Group, Bournemouth University (ENP0082); Environmental Services Association (ENP0076); WWT (The Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust) (ENP0067)

50 Wildlife and Countryside Link (ENP0087)

51 Q2

52 Aldersgate Group (ENP0072); Anaerobic Digestion and Bioresources Association (ENP0037); Campaign to Protect Rural England (ENP0048); Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management (ENP0060); Institution of Environmental Sciences (ENP0100); Wildlife and Countryside Link (ENP0087); WWF (ENP0053)

53 WWT (The Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust) (ENP0067)

54 Fourth Report of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Fourth Report of the Environmental Audit Committee, Third Report of the Health and Social Care Committee, and Second Report of the Transport Committee, March 2018, Improving Air Quality, HC 433

55 Environmental Audit Committee. EU and UK Environmental Policy Third Report of Session 2015–16, HC 537; Q18 [Dr Benwell]; Aldersgate Group (ENP0072)

56 Q3 EGI

57 Q29 EGI

60 Q3 EGI; see also Professor Colin Reid (EGI0007)

62 Birmingham City Council (ENP0098); Birmingham and the Black Country Local Nature Partnership (ENP0050)

63 Brexit & Environment (ENP0063)

64 United Kingdom Law Association (ENP0029)

65 Oxford Bioregion Forum (ENP0018)

66 Environmental Association for Universities and Colleges (ENP0052), see also: Oxford Bioregion Forum (ENP0018); Sussex Sustainability Research Programme, University of Sussex (ENP0026); Birmingham and the Black Country Local Nature Partnership (ENP0050)

67 Q1 EGI

69 25 Year Plan, p 25

70 Brexit & Environment (ENP0063)

73 25 Year Plan, p 138

74 Q7

75 Q7

Published: 24 July 2018