Achieving government’s long-term environmental goals Contents

Conclusions and recommendations

1.Given it is nine years since government first set the ambition to improve the natural environment within a generation, progress is disappointing. Government set the ambition to improve the natural environment within a generation in 2011, but it took it until 2018 to translate this into a 25 Year Environment Plan (the Plan), setting 10 goals to achieve the ambition. It has still not developed a full set of clear objectives to spell out what achieving these goals would mean, and only 38 out of 66 indicators are in place to measure progress. Government has also missed target dates for key strategies informing the Plan, including a peat strategy, promised in 2018 and now expected in 2021. The Environment Bill, expected to receive Royal Assent in early 2021, will provide a statutory underpinning for five of the goals in the Plan, but government has not set out whether or how it will clarify long-term ambitions for the other five goals. Government has already failed to meet air quality targets and its last update on Biodiversity 2020 targets showed it was on track to meet only a quarter of them.

Recommendation: Within a month of the Environmental Bill being passed, the Department should write to the Committee setting out its timetable for:

2.The Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs has the policy responsibility for the environment, but not the clout to hold other departments to account or manage trade-offs between policy areas. In July 2018, the Environmental Audit Committee recommended that government needed to do more to ensure that all departments, not just Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, were held to account for oversight of the Plan. But the Comptroller and Auditor General found no evidence of shared ownership of the Plan, with the Implementation Board having no representation from delivery bodies outside of the Department’s own group. Moreover, no other department specifically mentioned the Plan in their single departmental plans for 2019. Government established a new cross-government board for the environment on 2 December 2020, in response to the Comptroller and Auditor General’s finding that joint working between departments on environmental issues was patchy. The Department expects this board will help manage trade-offs between policy areas, but it is not clear how it will decide between competing priorities. All environmental goals are closely linked and require joint working across government. It is therefore crucial that this board has the authority and influence to hold all parts of government to account and has robust processes for evaluating the effectiveness of policies across all departments.

Recommendation: After the new cross-government environment board has been in operation for six months, the Department and Cabinet Office should carry out a review and report back to the Committee on the board’s effectiveness to assess whether it has achieved a step-change in accountability and ownership for the environment across government. The review should include whether it has been effective in managing trade-offs between policy areas and in assessing the effectiveness of environmental policies across departments.

3.Government still does not have a good grip of the total costs required to deliver its environmental goals and funding so far has been piecemeal. The Department received an additional £1 billion in funding for 2020–21 in the Spending Review 2020, though it is not clear how much of this is genuinely new money for environmental work, as this includes a previously announced increase in flood defence spending over the next five years. The Environment Agency and Natural England have a key role to play in delivering the goals, but budget cuts over the last decade hinder their ability to do so alongside day-to-day responsibilities. Neither HM Treasury nor the Department has a good understanding of the total costs required to deliver government’s environmental goals. We recognise that costs cannot be pinned down precisely for such long-term issues, but we do expect the two departments to come to a shared view of the broad scale of costs involved. Without this, government’s approach to funding will continue to be piecemeal, with risks for value-for-money and for whether the goals can be achieved at all.

Recommendation: In parallel with developing clear objectives to meet environmental goals, the Department should work together with the Treasury to review and outline the total costs required to meet these goals, and how these will be paid for, akin to the Treasury’s Net Zero review.

4.Skills gaps in departments and arm’s length bodies jeopardise government’s capacity to deliver on its environmental ambitions. Progress towards environmental goals requires skills across government, and particularly in arm’s length bodies who have key responsibility for delivery of the goals. The Environment Agency has a particular risk of skills loss in nuclear and hazardous waste management, partly due to its inability to pay the market rate offered in the private sector. Moreover, there is more to do to make sure workforces are diverse and reflect the communities that these bodies work with. Progress has been made on gender, with the Environment Agency having a scheme in place to help recruit female engineers, and more than half of the Natural England workforce are women, but both bodies acknowledge that there is more work to do in recruiting Black, Asian and minority ethnic candidates. Government must identify and fill skills gaps through diverse recruitment strategies to ensure it has the capacity to deliver on environmental goals. Targeted interventions such as the Green Recovery Challenge Fund, initially £40 million and extended in the Spending Review 2020 to £80 million, to create and retain ‘green’ jobs across the economy will also be key to success.

Recommendation: The Department and the Treasury should work together to:

5.Environmental impacts are still not being taken into account in spending decisions. For the last Spending Review, the Treasury asked departments to set out how their proposals would contribute towards the UK’s statutory carbon targets, and to explain their impact on, and coherence with, the 25 Year Plan. However, departments struggled to do this. As part of updating its Green Book guidance on evaluating projects, the Treasury has made changes to better prioritise the environment, and it has commissioned further work to understand the economic implications of environmental issues. But it recognises it has more to do to make sure it has the right structures and guidance to ensure environmental impacts are properly factored into the next spending review.

Recommendation: Alongside the next Comprehensive Spending Review, the Treasury should publish analysis showing: how the full value of environmental impacts has been taken into account, and the impact of spending decisions on meeting government’s long-term environmental goals.

6.We are concerned that the new Office for Environmental Protection will inherit a backlog of cases, and remain to be convinced that it will be sufficiently independent. It will take some months for the Office for Environmental Protection and its responsibilities for enforcing environmental law to be established fully under the provisions of the Environment Bill. The Department says that, in the interim, a secretariat and chair designate will make initial assessments on reported breaches of environmental law by public authorities. The Office for Environmental Protection will have to play catch up in looking at these reports once established. Unlike the Climate Change Committee, the Office for Environmental Protection will report to Ministers and not to Parliament directly. We are concerned that this will affect its ability to act independently.

Recommendation: The Department should write to the Committee to set out what steps it is taking to minimise the delay between the passing of the Environment Bill and the establishment of the Office for Environmental Protection. As is the case with the Climate Change Committee, the Office for Environmental Protection should have a mandate to report directly to Parliament.

Published: 3 February 2021 Site information    Accessibility statement