Government first set its ambition to improve the natural environment within a generation in 2011, but, nine years on, it still does not have the right framework for success. The 25 Year Environment Plan (the Plan), published in 2018, does not have a coherent set of long-term objectives and interim milestones, nor the full range of indicators needed to track performance. Moreover, progress in tackling critical environmental issues like air quality, water quality and wildlife loss has been painfully slow. While we recognise that environmental issues are complex, this is not a good enough excuse for such serious delays.
Improving the natural environment is a huge task and there are structural issues within government that still need to be resolved to improve the chances of success. The Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (the Department) has policy responsibility for most of the Plan and relies on other departments to play their part; yet the Department has not shown that it has the clout to lead the rest of government. The Department has acted in response to the NAO’s finding on the ‘patchy’ nature of government arrangements for joint working on environmental issues by setting up, in December 2020 , a new cross-government Board for the environment: this Board must now demonstrate that it has the power and influence to hold all parts of government to account.
Government has taken a piecemeal approach to funding measures to improve the natural environment. The Department and HM Treasury do not yet understand the total costs required to meet long-term environmental goals. More broadly, government has more to do to ensure the natural environment is factored into all spending decisions and that skills gaps are assessed and filled to ensure the right resources are in place to deliver on goals. The Department needs to monitor the work of other departments and organisations in order to ensure they are effectively meeting their environmental targets. We also remain to be convinced either that the new watchdog, the Office for Environmental Protection, will be able to hit the ground running after the delay to its creation or be sufficiently independent from government.