Dame Glenys Stacey: BDB Pitmans Webinar Speech

Good morning everyone. It is my pleasure to be here to talk to you as chair of the OEP at what is such an important time for the organisation, and indeed a time of great challenge but also opportunity for the environment.

The natural environment is under very serious threat. Here in England, we have good reason to be extremely concerned. Across the environment, the urgency implied by the limited evidence we have is not always matched by the urgency of the actions we collectively take.

Whilst it is difficult to make comparisons across countries, studies suggest that the UK is now one of the most biodiversity depleted countries in the world. Progress on biodiversity is constrained by the state of the UK’s air, freshwater, marine, and terrestrial environments, and how we manage resources. And of course, these can also affect us directly, in terms of our health, our wealth and our wellbeing.

Declining biodiversity is not our only concern. Air pollution is a severe environmental threat. It is estimated to tens of thousands of premature deaths every year in the UK. The freshwater environment, meanwhile, is under pressure from a range of sources such as diffuse agricultural pollution, urban and road runoff and sewage discharges. A recent report by the Environmental Audit Committee echoes increasing public concern, declaring “that rivers in England are in a mess” and that a “‘chemical cocktail’ is polluting the waters of many of the country’s rivers”.

We are experiencing unsustainable growth in consumption and a failure to manage our natural assets sustainably.  While reuse and recycling rates have generally improved over the last few decades, this has faltered in recent years and we continue to dispose of huge amounts of material by burning it or burying it. Waste treatment can have immediate and direct local impacts. More widely, the demand for new resources and the growth in consumption leads to yet more problems, and this is all interconnected of course: the extraction and processing of resources is a major contributor to biodiversity loss. It is a dreadful merry-go-round. 

In short, we know that as a country, we face an urgent and important issue. We are experiencing real and significant adverse impacts on people and the natural environment. As a society we need to highlight these concerns, work to better understand them and drive strategic action to address them.

Challenges

With that context then, let me turn now to some of the challenges ahead for the OEP. As you will know, our role is to protect and improve the environment by holding government and other public bodies to account against environmental laws and targets.

Identifying the right issues for the OEP to focus on

With so many areas that can legitimately claim a need for urgent action, the OEP must first make the right choices about where to focus. We start as an organisation of around 50 members of staff. We cannot address every issue, nor will we always be the right people to act. We intend to act strategically and with purpose – choosing the right issues and taking the right actions. In the words of key stakeholders, we must be strategic litigators rather than serial nit-pickers.

Our draft strategy sets out our proposed approach. Our aim is to identify the issues where we at the OEP will make the most difference. Where we are uniquely placed to make a difference. Where our actions can be the catalyst for broadest change. And where we will not duplicate the efforts of others better placed to make changes.

Making the most of what we have

We must make the most of every resource we have, and the opportunities to make that difference. Being engaged with others is key to this. We know we cannot act effectively in a vacuum, or make the most difference without the evidence and perspectives of others. Those of you who have had dealings with us already will hopefully testify to our commitment to engage, and to listen, and learn, drawing on and respecting the technical expertise of others.

We have a mix of functions. We intent to adopt a carefully considered approach to how we use them. Our enforcement powers, in particular, attract a lot of interest. Of course they are important, but they are not the only answer, and will not always be the right answer.

To be clear, we will not be shy of using our enforcement powers where we judge that most appropriate. We can and will have the opportunity to act forcefully on breaches of the law where necessary – for example where the failure is deliberate, blatant or systemic. Where possible, however, we will aim for potential enforcement issues to be resolved through influence and dialogue, rather than through lengthy court proceedings.

Our draft enforcement policy is based on three key principles – the first of which is that public authorities must comply with the law. The other principles are that enforcement must focus on where it is most needed, and must take into account all the relevant circumstances.

There are a number of stages to our enforcement activity, allowing us to take an escalating approach to challenging and correcting non-compliance. In urgent cases, where necessary to prevent or mitigate serious damage, we can apply for judicial review or statutory review straight away. But enough of enforcement, for now.

More generally, we have broader powers. We can scrutinise, critically assess and report on the implementation of environmental law. We can advise government on changes to environmental law. We can scrutinise and report on progress against government’s plans for environmental improvement. Each provides a route to influence for better environmental outcomes. Our challenge is to make sure we use the right tool or combination of tools that will most likely bring about the changes needed.

When to be opportunistic

There is also another element of challenge here for us – when to be opportunistic. We are not averse to that, to making the most of opportunities that we can use to bring about improvement.

As an organisation, we must be alert. We must develop that confidence and judgement to know what to act on, and when to act quickly and decisively. I know this will come, given time and the right circumstances.

Authoritative and influential reporting

Let me mention just one more challenge, before turning to opportunities. The OEP has a remit to report independently, objectively and authoritatively on key issues in the natural environment. We will critically assess and scrutinise government’s progress against its environmental commitments as set out in its five-yearly environmental improvement plans. We will also report on areas of environmental law.

We want these reports to earn their place in the calendar as authoritative evaluations of issues of material concern. This spring we will publish our first report on government’s progress in delivering its current improvement plan. In due course, we will also similarly report on government’s progress in achieving statutory environmental targets, and on the findings from our own monitoring and enforcement of environmental law.

But we know this will be testing for us, as a new organisation. Authoritative reporting does not happen by accident, or without a good amount of hard thinking, analysis and careful evaluation. We must build our muscles.

Let me turn now to opportunities for the OEP.

Opportunities

The OEP is created by the Environment Act. And the Environment Act is itself an opportunity. It is enabling legislation. Government has stated that it wants to be the first government to leave the environment in a better state for future generations. The Environment Act lays the ground for that ambition. It can facilitate the most ambitious environmental programme of any country on earth.  

Alongside that, the constitutional changes that arise following the UK’s exit from the European Union give government more control of the levers of policy making, and resourcing, to change our environment for the better.

To give just one example, government has set out in the Agriculture Act its intention for a new framework for public money for public goods, including of course the public good of the environment. Here is an opportunity for generational change in the way our agricultural sector is incentivised by government to nurture and steward the environment.

And there is an opportunity now for government to integrate strategy and in doing so to make a very significant difference. The National Food Strategy and proposed Environmental Land Management Schemes provide a rare chance to consider food, agriculture and our environment systems together, to deliver a material difference for the environment and the nation.

This is not straightforward. Joined up approaches can be immensely testing to develop and then to deliver. But as we begin to believe that the worst of the pandemic has now passed, there is an opportunity for government to seize the chance now to set out a determined new and joined up course for our environment, enabled by the ambitious legislation it has passed.

Recognising this context, and these opportunities, our first monitoring report on governments’ progress on delivering its environmental improvement plan will set out the building blocks we identify as essential to national level environmental stewardship. We have clearly in mind here, the chance for a yet better environmental improvement plan, as government is due to present a refreshed plan next year, in 2023. 

With that refreshed plan due in 2023 and with our exit from the European Union, government has the chance to take an important step from ambition to delivery; an opportunity to provide a more coherent and comprehensive long-term plan which can help government join up policy making, coalesce around a compelling vision for the future environment and ultimately deliver. 

That is what we are focussed on in our first review report. One might say this is an early example of us being opportunistic. Our intent is to help the government achieve its ambitions for the environment with a great Environmental Improvement Plan, in 2023.

Using influence to drive delivery

As I have said, we have opportunities to influence the national government to do the right things at the right time. But government is not the only actor, and our interaction with others will be equally important.

In particular, our role also includes holding other public bodies to account against environmental laws. We will use our influence and powers here to pursue greater compliance with laws and better implementation more broadly. It is important that all public authorities with regulatory and delivery functions fulfil their roles in accordance with environmental law.

Our remit here includes some organisations, such as water companies, which might not obviously be public authorities at first sight, but do implement some functions of a public nature. Of course, we cannot investigate the private actions of businesses or individuals. These are subject to regulation by front line authorities such as the Environment Agency, Natural England and local authorities. It is their job to administer and enforce the application of environmental law in relation to business or individuals. Our powers would allow us to become involved if these authorities were not implementing the law properly.

And we can play our part in raising the profile of important topics, to help create momentum for change. We have seen in recent years the profiles of certain environmental issues, like climate change and net zero, grow significantly. And we have seen these really resonating with the public, as well as government, as a result. This must be welcomed. This increase in public awareness helps drive change. We want our reports and interventions to have a galvanising effect, and encourage progress in other areas such as biodiversity, for example, to give them the right prominence.

Conclusion

To conclude then, we appreciate the confidence that the government, Parliament and the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly* have shown in setting up the OEP as a purposeful, independent oversight body. We have done the groundwork to prepare our approach and are eager now to get started.

Our consultation on our proposed strategy and enforcement policy runs until March 22. You can find it on our website. Please do take the time to take part. Your contributions are so valuable.

Thank you for time and attention today. I hope I leave you with a more informed view of the OEP, and that I have given you some food for thought around the issues facing the environment and how we at the OEP intend to play our part to make things better.

Thank you. Thank you for listening.

Dame Glenys Stacy

February 22, 2022

*Correction: At the time the speech was given, the Northern Ireland Assembly had not approved the Northern Ireland remit for the OEP. We apologise for the inaccuracy and any inconvenience caused.  

Picture of Dame Glenys Stacey
Credit: ENDS report

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