It is my absolute pleasure to be here to talk to you once again in my role as Chair of the OEP.
We are here at this event today to discuss the next steps for environmental standards and regulation in the UK and priorities for the OEP, and it is a timely discussion for us to have, as we are at a very exciting time in the development of our organisation.
Many of you here today are eminent in your fields and play a vital role in protecting our environment. You are passionate about making a positive difference, and I know with that in mind you have taken an interest in the OEP, arguing for the need for it in the first place, building support, championing it in debate and then working with Defra to help move the concept into a reality.
Thank you for that support. I am so pleased to now be able to bring you up to date on the progress we are making, and to set out our next steps.
I am a little disappointed that this is still an on-line only event, as I am looking forward to meeting more of you in person and discussing our important work and shared goals. But needs must, and we will make the best of things.
Progress so far
Much has happened since I last spoke at one of these events, back in April last year, and I would like to start by taking stock of where the OEP is now. The OEP is coming to life and preparing to carry out its role with confidence and commitment.
We have our board in place, first of all. Many of you will know one or more of them, and together they provide a good mix, a wealth of knowledge – about environmental issues and law, yes, but also about how things work, or not, on the ground.
This is so important for us: our board is more hands-on than in many public sector bodies – for example, enforcement decisions generally rest with the board, by statutory provision. I am delighted with the way the board is working.
One of the most important steps for us took place on November 17 last year, when the OEP was legally formed. Since then we have been working at pace towards becoming operational and fully independent early this year.
And crucially, we anticipate Parliament taking the steps needed for the establishment of our full powers and functions from 24th January.
As you can imagine, a great deal of work is taking place ‘behind the scenes’ to prepare for this most significant step. Our staff transferred from their interim status under Defra to being employed directly by the OEP on January 1st, and much work is being done to bring about our independent arrangements for IT, HR, communications and so on.
Recruitment of our permanent staff continues. Our newly recruited executive team will join us later this month, incidentally – another significant step in bringing the OEP to life.
We are bringing together a wider staff group with what we judge is the right range of knowledge, skills, expertise and experience, and it has been heartening to see the dedication to the cause and passion for the mission from those new to the team as well as the ‘old hands’. It is an exciting and very busy time, a period of transition, and I would like to thank all those involved in getting us to this stage for their hard work and commitment.
Next steps for the OEP
Looking ahead now to next steps, there are some extremely important milestones for the OEP in the coming weeks.
We have been speaking with a good number of people about how we might go about our role – how we might deliver as intended. These discussions have been so helpful, in both refining and confirming our thinking.
With our full functions and powers in place on 24 January means we can now follow -up those discussions with a formal consultation on our draft strategy. Next Tuesday, 25 January, we will be publishing that document and launching an eight-week consultation to ensure we capture yet more views and feedback. It is so important to us to be an organisation that listens, and that genuinely values and uses the information and comment we get from those who share our aim of protecting the environment. I urge all of you to take part in our consultation, and spread the word to others, please.
I will talk briefly through the proposed strategy here, but I do urge you all to seek out the document when it is published.
As a reminder, we have four main functions:
- Scrutinising Environmental Improvement Plans and environmental targets
- Scrutinising Environmental Law
- Advising Government on proposed changes to environmental law and other environmental matters
- Investigation and enforcement activity where Government and public bodies fail to comply with environmental law.
Our draft strategy sets out how we intend to carry out these functions in order to most effectively deliver on our principal objective – to contribute to environmental protection and the improvement of the natural environment. We set out four objectives:
- Sustained environmental improvement – through sustained delivery of the government’s plans for the environment, and the achievement of environment targets
- Better environmental law, better implemented
- Improved compliance with the law
- And then for the OEP to excel and have influence.
Our draft strategy covers our proposed enforcement policy, in some detail – I will talk more of that later – and how we will work with other organisations to avoid overlaps and duplication.
And in particular, it sets out how the OEP will act objectively and impartially, and have regard to the need to act proportionately and transparently. And how we propose to prioritise – how we will differentiate between one issue and another.
As a small organisation with a large remit, our aim will be to ensure our actions make a meaningful difference. We will not be able to address every issue. That is not realistic and we need to be upfront about that.
Climate change, biodiversity decline, urban air quality, and marine pollution, the state of our freshwater environments, they can each claim the need for urgent action alongside other pressing matters. I am most interested to hear the comments and discussions around our priorities that will come from this event. We do not underestimate the value that others can bring to informing our thinking on this most important aspect of our work.
There are important things that, by law, we must do each year or must always do when needed. Beyond this, we will prioritise to act selectively and strategically and to target our capability where we – the OEP – can make the post difference and get the best possible value from the public money that funds us.
You will be able to respond via our website or email. Please do respond. It is important that we harvest the knowledge, expertise and passion that you have.
25YEP Monitoring Report
Another important milestone approaching, and one that I know many people here will be interested in, will be the publication of our first 25 YEP Monitoring Report.
As you will be aware, the government published its first Environmental Improvement plan, the 25 YEP in 2018. This provides the government’s overarching strategy for protecting and improving the environment across ten different goals. Our role includes monitoring government's progress against the EIPs, and any targets set under the Bill. We must report within six months of the government publishing its annual progress report.
We are working towards a date in March for publication of our first 25 YEP monitoring report. We have been working on this while in interim form.
This will be an overview of how things stand rather than a detailed assessment of each goal, this year. As a fledgling organisation, not yet staffed as we will be, we think it most helpful this year to provide a strategic stocktake, and to set out the key building blocks that need be in place in order to effectively drive meaningful change in how government protects and improves the environment.
We have in mind the opportunity to set challenging statutory targets, and know that in 2023, government will be looking to produce a second 25 year plan, we want those targets and that plan to be the best they can be, and hope that our report will be helpful to government – and timely - as it considers those targets and plans.
While it would not be appropriate to pre-empt publication of the report, I would like to provide assurance that where we find something that is preventing government from making sufficient progress with the 25YEP we will of course say so. But we also want to be constructive and maximise the opportunity to achieve positive outcomes for the environment.
This will obviously be our first 25 YEP Monitoring Report, and this will become a key publication each year. As we develop and gain more experience as an organisation, our monitoring function will also develop so that we can be most useful and effective in monitoring if the government is on track to reach the environment goal and targets it has set out for itself. I am keen that we consult with a wide range of expert stakeholders in developing our longer-term approach. That is key for us, and set out in our strategy.
So, an important landmark on the horizon, with more work and progress to follow as the OEP matures and develops.
Reflections on aspirations for OEP from Westminster Forum in April
In preparing for this event, I was interested to look back at what I had said the last time I appeared at a Westminster Forum conference, back in April 2021. I spoke then about my aspirations for the organisation, and I think it is a useful exercise to reflect on those aims against our progress.
As I said earlier when talking about the importance of prioritising our work, the OEP is a small organisation with a broad remit. We cannot be all things to all people. But as I said last time - we must be resourced sufficiently to carry out our role effectively.
I am content that our current arrangement is enough for our immediate, our set-up needs, but we will need to review our resourcing needs once the OEP has found its feet and the board has had sufficient time to set priorities and assess demands. These early years of budget setting will be crucial, and I will make the case for any additional resource we believe we require, so that over time we are able to deliver well.
It is well understood that our independence is fundamental to our success. And for the OEP to be successful in fulfilling our statutory role as parliament intends, we must be independent in our thinking, in our decisions, and we must hold government and public bodies to account with no fear or favour. I said previously that independence is all in the doing, not just in statute and I hold to that. And I continue to aim for responsible but absolutely steadfast independence. I will not be moved on that.
It seems to be that to be credible the OEP must be principled, expert, and – yes - highly politically-astute. I hope you see those attributes played out in our consultation on our proposed strategy. And we must develop our views and hold positions that are balanced, reasonable and evidence-based. That means being thoughtful and strategic, focusing on material matters, selecting complaints and issues for progression with that in mind - and then deciding the best way to follow them through.
I am confident that the approach we set out in our proposed strategy is the proper foundation to allow the OEP to meet those aspirations and operate in the right way. But I don’t underestimate the degree of challenge in this for a new organisation. It is a key role for me and the board to, oversee and steer the development of this organisation and to build and safeguard credibility.
I would add as well that throughout my time in this role my interactions with the Secretary of State and minister have remained purposeful and respectful of the proper independence of the OEP. And our interim staff worked effectively with Defra with both sides attentive to the need for that independence – and that has been so important in getting the organisation to the exciting position it is in today.
Engagement and joint working
When last talking here of my aspirations for the OEP, I highlighted a need for the organisation to be independent but not remote, and the importance of engaging, listening and developing strong relationships with others.
We have done a great deal to engage with others, aided greatly by the support of those many agencies and organisations that have an interest in our work and have been so receptive to embarking on those relationships, hearing from us and providing insight to help inform our thinking.
We have also started to build relationships with our UK counterparts to ensure productive working arrangements on those issues that don’t recognise borders and have been mindful of building relationships with other agencies that share our territory but with different but related remits, such as the Climate Change Committee.
But there is more we can and must do to engage with others and to develop those working arrangements as the OEP matures and develops. Again, I believe the proposed strategy that soon goes out for consultation sets out an approach that provides a solid foundation for us to continue to build on. Let me know what you think.
I have spoken of the need for the OEP to be willing and able to enforce. And to be credible enforcers.
With our draft strategy comes our proposed enforcement policy – and once again I urge you all to view this and take part in our consultation.
Our enforcement functions encompass a wide range of investigatory and enforcement powers and duties. Together they allow us to take action in relation to suspected failures by public authorities to comply with certain laws intended to protect people and the environment.
We can, amongst other things, receive complaints from members of the public, conduct investigations and take court proceedings regarding serious failures.
I would encourage you to view our enforcement functions as we do, as part of our wider toolkit. While we will not be shy of using these powers where we need to, we aim to use them wisely alongside our other functions and activities to achieve the overall aim of bringing about solutions that protect and improve the environment.
Indeed, as many of you will know, some of our other powers and functions will deliver what enforcement alone cannot. For example, our ability to monitor environmental law. Here, we propose to maintain an overview of the law and its implementation, yes, but also to target our in-depth monitoring on a small number of environmental laws each year. Do let us know what you think, when you read the full proposal in our draft strategy.
Relationships with public bodies
The final area of aspiration I spoke of last time, was for our relationships with public bodies. I identified a need for sophisticated relationships with the Environment Agency, Natural England and other public bodies playing an important role in the environment.
I see that Sir James, CEO of the Environment Agency is speaking after me, and as ever I look forward to hearing his comments with great anticipation and interest.
He and indeed the leaders of other significant organisations we oversee should be able to confirm that we are developing our understanding of these organisations, their strengths and weaknesses and the pressures they are under, while keeping at the forefront of our minds our role and the importance of holding them to account against their commitments and environmental law.
I think we are making good progress in building these relationships, but they will continue to grow and develop as the OEP becomes operational and starts working with its full functions and powers. These relationships are likely to be tested, of course – that comes with the territory – but when we get to that, we will each know what we are dealing with, and have very much in mind the end goal – our environment and its protection, and enhancement.
I hope that I have been able to get a sense of the progress that has been made in bringing the OEP into being, a look at some of the key milestones ahead, and what they mean for the future of the organisation.
This truly is an exciting time, with many of the plans and ambitions talked of for some time now coming to fruition. It will of course also be a challenging time, with the OEP quite rightly under the spotlight, as we start to deliver in earnest this year.
That is to be welcomed. It means that the importance of the role is understood and there are expectations that we can become a significant player in the sector and make a positive impact.
It is certainly our ambition, and we are now a long way into building the organisation, relationships and ways of working to achieve it.
I will leave you with a request – please do respond to the consultation on our strategy. Your contributions will be valued most highly.
Dame Glenys Stacey
18th January 2022