The Government’s 25 Year Plan for the Environment Contents

Conclusions and recommendations

Ambition and Delivery

1.The 25 Year Plan for the Environment sets out a necessary and welcome cross-government ambition to move from environmental protection to environmental recovery. However, the ambition to “leave the natural environment in a better state than we found it” has been stated Government policy since the 2015 General Election. We are therefore concerned that delivery is, for the most part, still being expressed in terms of further consultations and long-term aspirational targets without supporting delivery plans. For the Government’s ambition to achieve credibility it needs to move rapidly from promises and consultations to specific actions and legislation. (Paragraph 16)

2.We believe the Government should put the Plan on a statutory basis. This would set a long-term direction across the whole of Government. This report sets out some of the key elements that, in our view, should be included in that legislation. (Paragraph 17)

3.The Plan must not be an excuse for delaying Government action. Many environmental issues pose immediate threats which require urgent action. For example, the Government has been taken to court three times for breaching air quality limits. More short-term, targeted action is required to tackle air pollution now, and not just within 25 years. (Paragraph 18)


4.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. (Paragraph 24)

5.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. (Paragraph 33)

6.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. (Paragraph 34)

7.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. (Paragraph 42)

8.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. (Paragraph 43)

9.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. (Paragraph 47)


10.The Secretary of State has acknowledged the importance of European Union institutions’ role in enforcing environmental protections. The Government must not allow leaving the EU to weaken environmental protection in the UK. As a minimum, the proposed watchdog must replicate or build on the role the EU institutions play in protecting our environment. The Government’s proposals as yet do not do that. The draft bill required by the European Union (Withdrawal) Act must do so. (Paragraph 69)

11.The Government should create in UK law an independent oversight body—The Environmental Enforcement and Audit Office (EEAO)—reporting to Parliament to ensure, not only that the governance, enforcement, oversight and policy functions currently carried out by the European Commission and European Environment Agency are not lost on leaving the EU, but that these functions are strengthened in order to enable delivery of the Government’s stated objective of restoring as well as maintaining the state of the UK’s nature and biodiversity. (Paragraph 70)

12.A statutory body of parliamentarians, modelled on the Public Accounts Commission, should set the EEAO’s budget, scrutinise its performance and oversee the governance of the EEAO. The Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee should be a member of this body and their endorsement should be required for the appointment or dismissal of the EEAO’s Chair following the procedure for that of the Comptroller and Auditor General. If the oversight body is established on a UK-wide basis then the devolved legislatures may also wish to establish their own governance arrangements. (Paragraph 71)

13.The EEAO’s remit should include advising on and monitoring how public authorities are complying with their duties, providing strategic oversight and reporting bi-annually to Parliament on progress against the Government’s environmental targets, including scrutiny of the 25 Year Plan progress reports. It should have the power to initiate its own investigations and report directly to Parliament. (Paragraph 72)

14.The Government should ensure that the draft Environmental Principles and Governance Bill includes effective and proactive enforcement powers, with the power to fine government departments and agencies that fail to comply. The EEAO should be a body with an enforcement function within, or alongside its scrutiny function. The enforcement function should investigate compliance with environmental law, including complaints brought by the public, which the courts can then adjudicate. Any resulting fines from sanctions should be ring-fenced and used for an environmental fund for remediation works overseen by the EEAO. (Paragraph 73)

15.The governance consultation explicitly removes climate change from the oversight body’s remit, creating an artificial divide. We recommend that the Committee on Climate Change and its Adaptation Sub-Committee maintains the lead role for climate change. The EEAO should be able to conduct its own investigations on climate change and should have a role for enforcement where legal duties are breached. We anticipate that the two bodies would work closely together and their work would be mutually reinforcing. (Paragraph 74)

16.We have heard compelling arguments that a UK-wide oversight body would be more resilient, more independent and provide the best level of environmental protection. This could be achieved by the oversight body being co-designed and co-owned to create a ‘four nation’ remit. However, the process of agreeing such an institution needs to be a conversation between Governments and legislatures, not an imposition from Westminster. The draft Bill must be published by December this year, so the conversation should already be under way. We are concerned that there is little evidence of progress so far. (Paragraph 81)

17.Common frameworks must be established as soon as possible to ensure that the environment is not simply reliant on the good will of this or any future Government. We recommend that the Government engages with the devolved administrations to set out goals for common frameworks which incorporate the environmental principles and transboundary environmental standards. (Paragraph 87)

18.The Government has said it will not legislate until after the end of the Article 50 process. If there is no deal and no transitional period with the European Union then the United Kingdom will leave with no mechanism for enforcing environmental rights, targets and protections. This is an unthinkable prospect, and the Government must do everything to avoid it. We expect the Government to set out, in its response to this report, measures to meet its commitments on environment governance in the event of leaving the European Union without a deal. (Paragraph 91)

19.For the 25 Year Plan to be a truly-cross Government document it needs robust mechanisms to embed its ambitions across Whitehall. Legislative targets and oversight are crucial to this. Government publications since the Plan suggest departmental buy-in outside DEFRA is patchy at best. Yet we have heard in many of our inquiries how greater consideration of sustainability and the environment can help departments achieve their goals. For example, we have heard frequently from businesses that well-designed, credible, long-term regulation to protect the environment and mitigate climate change promotes investment and innovation. By embracing this agenda, the UK can be a world leader. By rejecting it we will fall behind. This is a reality that many in Whitehall appear not to have understood. (Paragraph 98)

20.The Government’s proposals for oversight and accountability of the Plan need to ensure all Government departments - not just DEFRA - are held to account. The Government should set out in its response to this report how the commitments in the Plan will be factored into the strategic decision-making of non-DEFRA departments - particularly the Treasury, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Ministry of Communities, Housing and Local Government, Department for Transport and Cabinet Office. Duties to meet targets and apply principles should apply to the departments and public bodies which deliver change. The Government should launch a series of high-profile cross-Whitehall initiatives to raise awareness of environmental protection. For example, a ‘Green Growth challenge’ could be introduced where every policy in each Department is tested for its net nature benefits. (Paragraph 99)

21.Our predecessor’s report on Sustainability in the Treasury made recommendations on how it could help Whitehall take decisions more sustainably. The Government’s response failed to engage with its recommendations and the Treasury ignored the Committee’s subsequent report asking them to look again. The Treasury should revisit its response to the report in the light of the commitments it has collectively signed up to in the 25 Year Plan. (Paragraph 100)


22.The Government is now obliged to include key environmental principles in draft legislation. However, the wording in the governance consultation and the EU Withdrawal Act, that Government should ‘have regard to’ the principles and that their application is limited to central Government, rather than including all public bodies is too weak. It is likely that the principles will be contested once the accompanying policy statement is produced and scrutiny of this will be key to successfully establishing the principles in law and policy making. (Paragraph 109)

23.The Government should put into law the environmental principles that the UK has signed up to in international law and those which are embodied in the EU Treaties. The Government should include a principle in UK law that policy and all public bodies will seek to ensure a high level of environmental protection and a presumption that environmental protection will not be reduced. The Environmental Principles and Governance Bill must include provisions for “all public bodies to act in accordance with the principles” and should consider micro-duties aimed at specific public bodies that reflect their individual remits. (Paragraph 110)

24.What the principles will mean will largely be determined by the Government’s statutory statement of policy. In some areas their interpretation may be fiercely contested. We are not convinced that principles need regular updating, but the interpretative statement needs robust scrutiny and - if the Government’s pledge that protections will not be lost as result of leaving the EU is to be kept - a clear baseline set in primary legislation. The Government must consult widely on the interpretive policy statement. The original policy statement should be included as a schedule to the Bill itself - allowing it to be scrutinised fully by Parliament. Substantive amendments to the statement should only be made following a debate on the floor of the House. (Paragraph 111)


25.In principle the redirection of Common Agricultural Policy money towards environmental protection is welcome. However, the details of the scheme are still to be decided. It is unclear how the scheme will be administered and it may not be introduced until 2024. Nor will this step alone be enough to deliver the Government’s ambitions. The near-term priority must to be ensure that funding for public goods and environmental protection - already inadequate - is not reduced further as result of leaving the European Union. (Paragraph 122)

26.The Government should, in its response to this report, guarantee to at least match existing EU funding for the environment in real terms for five years after the transition period ends, or in the event of no deal. (Paragraph 123)

27.The debate over environmental funding has been dominated by CAP and rural payments. Urban environments are equally important and do not receive the same attention in the Plan. As we have heard during inquiries ranging from soil health to heatwaves, “green infrastructure” and environmental protection in urban areas has significant public health and social benefits, as well as their own intrinsic value. The Government should set out in its response to this Report how it intends to take forward more effective funding of urban environmental enhancement and what steps Whitehall departments are taking to consider how green infrastructure can achieve their departmental goals. (Paragraph 126)

28.A robust and legally enforceable principle of environmental net gain carries with it potential benefits and could unlock significant private sector investment in green infrastructure. However, there are also potential risks for the environment, particularly biodiversity. Much will depend on the detail of the proposals. We are concerned by the Government’s decision to move from “net biodiversity gain” to the broader concept of “net environmental gain”. It should set out why this has happened and its timescales for developing and introducing the concept. (Paragraph 139)

29.When implementing net gain, the Government needs to put legally enforceable protections in place to ensure that different aspects of the environment are not traded off against each other and that it doesn’t become a “pay to pollute” scheme. There should be a clear transfer of existing commitments between the 25 Year Plan and future policy documents such as the National Planning Policy Framework to ensure that the aspirations of the Plan are carried over. (Paragraph 140)

30.Natural capital thinking could offer a means to promote awareness of the importance of nature to other Government departments, businesses and developers. It could help secure funding for environmental protection and help quantify some of the benefits that we derive from nature. As the Government itself states, returns on these investments are higher than conventional infrastructure. However, the concept also brings with it the danger that the environment becomes a commodity for sale. As with net gain, much will depend on the detail. The Plan’s implementation must recognise that natural capital is not, and cannot be, the sole measure of value or guide to protecting the environment. Legal protections cannot be replaced by an economic valuation. Irreplaceable natural capital, such as ancient woodland, plants and wildlife, which cannot easily be assigned an economic value, must be protected. The Government should set out detailed plans for implementing its natural capital approach in its response to this report. It should set out its position on introducing a statutory basis for natural capital accounting. (Paragraph 143)

Published: 24 July 2018