Gov must ‘shift momentum’ to improve England’s natural environment – NAO

Government will need to ‘shift momentum’ to achieve its ambition of improving the natural environment in England within a generation, according to a report from the National Audit Office (NAO).​

In 2011, government set an ambition for this to be the first generation to leave the natural environment in a better state that it inherited. In 2018, the government published a 25 Year Environmental Plan (the Environment Plan), to achieve this ambition, and position the UK as a global environmental leader.

The Environment Plan set 10 overarching goals covering issues such as clean air, clean and plentiful water and thriving plants and wildlife.

A new report from the NAO examines how government has set itself up to deliver its long-term environmental goals, highlighting the most significant potential strengths and areas for improvement, as well as key risks that it will need to manage.

Clear objectives

Clear objectives and plans are important for persuading people within and outside government to take environmental goals seriously, NAO says.

The Environment Plan marked a ‘step forward’ in setting direction for environmental policy, but its headline ambitions are a ‘mixture of aspirations, legally binding targets and policy commitments’, with ‘varying and unclear timescales’, it says.

Some progress has been made on elements of the Environment Plan but significant action is needed across national and local government, working with business and the public, if the environmental goals are to be met

In January 2020, the government presented a wide-ranging Environment Bill (the Bill) to Parliament, which would help clarify ambitions for five of government’s environmental goals.

The Bill includes requirements for the government to set at least one new long-term target for air quality, water, biodiversity and resource efficiency and waste reduction.

However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic the Bill’s progress through Parliament paused between March and November 2020, causing some concern.

Delivery plans

Government has not yet set a course for developing a comprehensive set of objectives and delivery plans to achieve its environmental goals, NAO says. 

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has developed its plans to improve air quality and reduce waste, but has not set a timetable for working out whether it is doing enough to meet government’s environmental goals as a whole, or how much it might cost to meet these ambitions.

This, it says, creates a risk that funding decisions are made in a piecemeal way. The government should ensure that when it introduces its new environmental targets, they are part of a coherent set of objectives, with measurable outcomes for the medium- (2030) and long-term (2040). It should also create a clear plan, which outlines the estimated cost to meet these objectives and how this could be paid for.

Behaviour change

Defra knows it will need to help people and businesses to change their behaviour if it is to meet its aims but is only just beginning work to look at how it will do this in a co-ordinated and evidence-based way.

The report found it should ‘prioritise’ its behaviour change work to capitalise on positive changes brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic (such as walking and cycling) and ensure this aligns with related behaviour change work being carried out in other parts of government.

Funding and skills shortages

Skills and resource gaps could set back government’s progress towards its environmental goals. Local authorities play a critical role in improving air quality and the natural environment, but the COVID-19 pandemic is putting pressure on resources and access to the right expertise.

Arms-length bodies have also raised concerns around funding and skills shortages. During the pandemic, Defra had to divert people from across the department to help with the emergency response.

Defra should work with the Cabinet Office and HM Treasury to develop a strategy to ensure the right skills and resources are available, NAO says.

It says this should include an analysis of how to ensure delivery partners have the funds to meet their responsibilities and the factors leading to a high turnover of senior departmental staff.

Monitoring and reporting

Defra’s approach to monitoring and reporting progress against its environmental goals is developing but has some ‘serious gaps’, NAO says.

While it has increased the scope of its environmental reporting, it does not expect to have complete data to measure overall performance against its environmental goals until 2024 at the earliest.

The report suggests Defra should start to report against a ‘comprehensive set of milestones’ for the Environment Plan, and track how it has responded to recommendations from the new Office for Environmental Protection, which will take over scrutiny of the Environment Plan in 2021.

Defra, working with the Cabinet Office and HM Treasury should also monitor annual cross-government spending on key environmental initiatives, alongside the benefits they achieve, it says.

Gareth Davies, head of the NAO, commented on the report findings, saying: “The government wants this to be the first generation to leave the natural environment in England in a better state than it inherited. However, it is now nine years since the government set this ambition and it still does not have the right framework to achieve it.

“Some progress has been made on elements of the Environment Plan but significant action is needed across national and local government, working with business and the public, if the environmental goals are to be met.”

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