Good afternoon, and I am delighted to be invited to speak on today’s theme.
As we begin to hope that the worst of the pandemic is over, our government is facing some extremely pressing issues, in health and social care, in relation to the rising cost of living, and with the very real prospect of war in Europe. Nevertheless, I argue that now is the time for delivery to protect and nurture our environment.
With our exit from the European Union, and the Environment Act now on the statute book, the government is empowered to give the environment the priority it deserves. Indeed, the Act is enabling, and a statement of ambition itself. As our invitation today reminds us, government has set out that the Act should deliver the most ambitious environmental programme of any country on earth. We at the OEP welcome such high ambition and wish to see it realised.
The need for delivery
I will turn to the OEP shortly. It is one of four environmental cornerstones in the Act, but first I want to touch on the other cornerstones: new statutory targets, environmental principles, and future Environmental Improvement Plans. Cornerstones must carry weight and be well-matched, to together provide the strength of an edifice.
We at the OEP argue that each needs to be weighty, able to support and shape what is to be done, and that given the state of the environment and the urgency now in so many areas, there is no time to lose.
First to targets
In my view, the role for ambitious and stretching targets is clear. Targets make goals and objectives real. Well-crafted targets make clear and quantify expectations, and they can increase certainty for business about the direction and pace of travel.
The framework for legally binding targets in the Act provides a great opportunity for government to give weight and meaning to its ambitions for the environment, and to drive sustained environmental change if joined with an enduring commitment to delivery.
Government aims to publish targets in October, as the law requires, and we at the OEP look forward to the preceding consultation. We will press for ambition in these long-term targets, appropriate to the challenges we face. They must act as a catalyst for action, across government and more widely.
We press for ambition not just in relation to each target, but in relation to the body of targets.
If targets are one of the cornerstones, then to stretch the analogy a bit, the government’s environmental goals to be set out in the next iteration of the 25 year plan can be thought of as the central pillars of our edifice. They each need something to aim for. They need targets in order to develop in the right direction and at the right pace.
So yes, we argue for ambitious targets in relation to each and every goal in the next iteration of the EIP. But not for an unnecessary proliferation of targets, not at all. Indeed there is opportunity now to bring order, so that we are all clear of priorities, and how commitments fit with each other. Delivery becomes easier when you know what you are aiming for, and you can see the whole building if you like, in your mind’s eye.
Next to principles
The environment underpins so much of what our society, economy and of course business needs and values. The challenges it faces are urgent and real. For us as a nation to succeed in meeting these challenges, we must all play our part – across business, enterprise, civil society, the voluntary sector, the public and government.
And what is true for society at large, is true for government too. Government in all its breadth and influence must be mobilised to deliver.
Here again, the Act enables. The environment principles policy statement required by the Act aims to put the natural environment truly and properly at the heart of all relevant policy-making. It is our second cornerstone.
The government consulted on its draft policy statement last Spring. We really do need that second cornerstone in place now, and respected in all relevant policy-making, across government.
That requires the policy statement and guidance yes, but also good structures of governance and assurance too, to properly embed the statement in policy making practice within and across government departments so that these environmental principles have their full effect across all of government’s reach.
Third to improvement plans
Turning now to the third cornerstone, government’s first environmental improvement plan was such a significant step forward back in 2018, and it remains an important statement of ambition.
The Act now puts environmental improvement plans on a statutory footing, in England and now Northern Ireland. It requires them to be updated at least every 5 years and gives the OEP an important role in scrutinising progress.
We aim to publish in the spring our first monitoring report on the Westminster government’s progress. In it, we will set out the building blocks we think essential to national environmental stewardship. Our focus is on the next iteration of the 25 year plan and the real opportunity in 2023 to promote a compelling vision for the whole environment and for a yet better plan to deliver it.
Our findings and recommendations continue to be tested and refined. But we see clearly the need for urgent improvements in delivery in its broadest sense, to secure the change needed.
In reviewing of the plan ahead of 2023, government can take an important step from ambition to delivery. That review is an opportunity to build on government’s first experience of such a plan, and take into account what is ever more apparent: difficult though it is, government must better join up strategy, policy and delivery across government in order to meet its laudable ambitions for the environment and so protect the nation’s health, wealth and wellbeing.
And so to the fourth cornerstone, the OEP
The Environment Act created the Office for Environmental Protection. I am thrilled that it did, and that issues of our constitution and functions are now settled. Parliament passed the orders to grant us our powers in Westminster a month ago today and just this week, the Northern Ireland Assembly has confirmed that we are to assume our remit there at the end of this month.
Many of you will know that we published our strategy and approach for consultation as soon as our powers were enabled. We are grateful for the Aldersgate Group and its members’ contributions as we developed our thinking, and indeed our team is meeting with some of you again tomorrow to discuss our consultation questions and seek your further insight. Our consultation, on our website, is open until 22 March. We welcome all contributions and I encourage you to seek it out.
Our strategic approach explains how we intend to work. We must prioritise of course, and as we consult we are already considering and evaluating our first priorities, so we ourselves can move decisively to delivery at the first opportunity. We set out in our strategy our clear aim: to make the most difference we can, as the OEP and with our particular powers and reach, to help protect and improve the environment.
We will be responsible and strategic in our approach to enforcement. Focused of course on what is serious, but determined in the face of breaches of the law and influencing for compliance in all public authorities, so that environmental law can deliver environmental outcomes as intended. We are already receiving complaints from the public, and stand ready to apply ourselves and our legal tools where there are serious issues to be addressed, once our strategy and enforcement policy are confirmed.
We will also use our full range of powers to enable better environmental law, and better implementation of it. Government has indicated its intent to review important areas of environmental law this year, not least those relating to habitats protection. We aim to advise on these, and to undertake further thematic work on important areas where environmental law, or its implementation, could be clarified or improved.
We start as an organisation of around 50 people, with recruitment now almost complete. Where we act, we will act strategically, draw on all our functions – whether enforcement, advice, scrutiny of law, or scrutiny of environmental improvement plans and targets – so we can act with purpose, and make the most difference. We will adopt our strategy, and publish our corporate plan in May after our consultation closes and the pre-election period passes.
So, from ambition to delivery
To conclude then, I have argued for the strongest of cornerstones: for ambitious statutory targets, and a comprehensive and coherent structure for targets which clearly link to long-term environmental goals; for environmental principles which are embedded into all relevant policy making across government, so that consideration of the natural environment has its rightful place at the heart of all such policy decisions; for taking the opportunity now to learn from experience and develop a yet stronger environmental improvement plan next time around; and, of course, for an effective OEP playing its full part in national environmental stewardship. In this way, moving from ambition to delivery is more likely, and it is more likely that the result will be the environment we all wish for.
The environment has never more needed both ambition and delivery. Government has a particular opportunity now to play its part, alongside many others, leading, supporting and influencing in the way only government can. The Environment Act joins the Agriculture Act as new, seminal and enabling law. Beyond this key legislation, many of the fundamental policy levers are also in government’s hands, in some cases newly so. Together this provides a clear opportunity to set a new and determined course. And yes, the OEP intends to play its full part. Thank you. Thank you for listening.
Dame Glenys Stacey.
23 February 2022