Dame Glenys Stacey: Westminster Forum Projects Speech
Assessing progress in the 25 Year Environmental Plan: next steps for policy guidance, recommendations, monitoring and enforcement.
Hello, and thank you for inviting me to speak today.
I have been asked to talk to you about a number of things and I will start with assessing progress against the Government’s Environmental Improvement Plan (EIP). This is a key role for us at the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP). We are required by our enabling legislation to produce an annual report on progress and we did that for the first time earlier this year, just ahead of the Government’s refresh of the EIP.
Our report made for difficult reading. You can find it on our website if you haven’t already done so. In our view, Government is not short on ambition. Its stated commitment is to leave the natural environment in a better state than it inherited. And although we would have liked more ambition in one or two areas now covered by statutory environmental targets – on air quality for example - the statutory targets are suitably ambitious overall in our view.
We found some improvements in air quality in recent years. People’s engagement with nature is also up markedly. But using the available data and information, we found many of the other extremely worrying environmental trends still prevailing. We expressed particular concern, for example, about the condition of many areas of land so central to threatened species, given the immediacy of Government’s species targets.
As far as we could see from the available data, recent progress in protecting, restoring and improving our environment has fallen far short of what is needed. Of 32 trends we assessed across the breadth of the natural environment; nine trends were improving, eleven were static, and eight were deteriorating. Of the 23 environmental targets we assessed, we found that none were demonstrably on track.
I say ‘demonstrably’. Not demonstrably on track. And we use that expression purposefully, because in some areas Government is not able to demonstrate progress or otherwise because of a lack of pertinent measures. Although information about the natural environment is now plentiful, data has not generally been collected or collated with Government’s environmental goals in mind. Years can pass before valuable data are collated and reported. This makes effective policy making and the early evaluation of policy difficult and uncertain when time is so pressing now.
For some years, Government has been developing a system to report environmental outcomes. We welcome that and the significant investment behind it, but completion cannot come soon enough. The Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has not yet finalised a good number of the indicators to be used to measure progress against the EIP. With pressing targets for biodiversity and species abundance, simple but sufficiently reliable measures, promptly reported and closely aligned now to the new statutory environmental targets and the goals of the newly refreshed EIP are needed urgently, and we are working alongside Defra to improve measurement.
Being sufficiently certain about the present state and environmental trends can be tricky. We do need to get better at it, and it is increasingly necessary as well for Government to look more to the future. We know this is difficult to do, but robust assessments of future states of the environment are ever more necessary, to enable risks to be better managed and to develop timely interventions to correct course where required.
So, much more to be achieved in the field of monitoring and evaluation, and some pressing immediate needs, for Government and for us at the OEP. At the OEP we have identified four areas we need to strengthen over the next five years: improved understanding of drivers and pressures; greater use of forward-looking information and analyses; improved understanding of interlinkages, synergies and trade-offs; and more focus on responses and solutions.
Developing our approach to monitoring Government’s progress is a key focus for us. We have ambitions to build our capacity and capability, develop our knowledge and evidence base, continue our engagement with stakeholders, and make sure our work on the EIP is informed by, and informs, work across our other functions. The EIP is centre stage, for us.
We are considering how to develop our annual reporting and how we build on the reports each year, to get to a sensible sequence in tune with the five yearly review of the EIP itself. We will assess progress against individual EIP goals, yes, but we also intend to conduct an in-depth assessment of a selected topic each year.
The selected topic for a deep dive in our next report will be Improving Nature, reflecting the EIP23 apex target of Thriving Plants and Wildlife. Our work here will include analysis of species abundance and nature recovery targets and the plans in place to deliver them. We will be looking for the barriers to progress, and opportunities to do better. This will involve a call for evidence by the way – so watch this space.
As well as the individual goal areas, the EIP 2023 identifies cross-cutting themes such as green finance, making green choices, natural capital, new farming schemes and biodiversity net gain. In analysing the overall picture, we will look at progress from these cross-cutting perspectives and consider goal achievement in the wider societal context, so far as we can.
And we will continue to develop the assessment of trends and targets, and of environmental stewardship to assess whether policies are likely to bring about Government’s ambitions. We will also look at important interlinkages across policy domains that affect environmental outcomes and progress towards targets.
In short, we have ambition. We will always focus on our annual progress report – it seems to us so important a contribution – and our ambition is to materially develop our reporting so that we can make the best possible difference to the environment and to Government’s prospects of success, in meeting its ambitions for it.
The refreshed EIP
A word now about the refreshed EIP. At the OEP we welcome the focus on delivery, and the prominence of improving nature as its headline goal.
It is good to see some strengthening of the cross-government governance arrangements, but we do hope to see those arrangements strengthened still further, as leadership, commitment and accountability across government and around the cabinet table could be the bedrock for the changes needed to the stewardship of the environment.
The EIP sets out a range of actions for the environment, but it is not always clear what the priorities are, those actions that will have the most impact and will move us further to achieving the targets. Given that, we especially welcome EIP references to delivery plans for each goal area, much as we recommended. We have called for more detail on these, and we are starting to see that come through.
Next steps for policy guidance and recommendations
Let us move now to the present, and four areas in particular – freshwater, marine, air and land.
Just the other week, Defra announced its new Plan for Water, essentially the delivery plan for the water quality elements of EIP23.
On first assessment, we find it a coherent summary of what Government is doing and plans to do. Helpfully, it identifies those bodies that need to act to deliver its objectives. But the key water objective in the EIP is improving at least 75% of our waters to be close to their natural state as soon as is practicable.
As soon as practicable? The relevant regulations of 2017 set a target date of 2021, whereas the River Basin Management Plans which underpin work here are geared towards 2027. But with no major new policy levers in the plan, our position has not changed from the conclusion in our monitoring report that this target is significantly offtrack. We think there is still detail missing on the delivery plan to meet this target, and we will continue to push for it.
To be clear, we are not suggesting there is a quick fix here. While much of the public conversation on water quality has, understandably, focused on sewage in rivers, the Plan for Water recognises the issues are much wider than that. This is an important point: the problems are significant and deep-seated. They will take years and substantial investment to address, and will require change across society and agriculture, not just Government efforts. And water quality is not just about leisure activity and engagement with nature, as important as those are. It is hugely important for nature recovery and species abundance.
And so we want the delivery detail, and more clarity whilst recognising the scale of the problems here. And this is an area where foresight is so important, with water supply an ever more significant issue.
We have also seen the next steps for the implementation of Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs) announced. We see these as essential for responsible ocean stewardship. If implemented effectively they should support the recovery of habitats and species to a more natural state, as well as provide a better understanding of the scope for recovery in the wider marine environment, and a more solid basis from which to assess sustainability and climate change mitigation.
While we welcome the news that the next step in implementing HPMAs is being taken with the designation of three sites, we are disappointed that that number is not higher. Five sites were included in the consultation, and was the number recommended by the Benyon Review. We note that Defra has said it will be exploring further sites and we would urge them to do so as quickly as possible.
Most recently, we have seen Defra consult on a draft Air Quality Strategy. If successful, this strategy will improve the health and well-being of the nation and enhance the natural environment. It is so regrettable then, that consultees were given just eight working days in which to respond.
We are assured that this is not indicative of a new norm for consultation, thankfully, but such a tight timeline here significantly impedes consultees’ ability to meaningfully engage. I appreciate there is a statutory deadline looming, on 1 May. Such deadlines are important. They underpin delivery and should be met, but this should not be at the expense of the quality of the final strategy.
The draft strategy has a helpful focus on local authorities’ important roles and responsibilities in tackling air pollution using existing powers, commitments and obligations. It sets out a reasonably clear and coherent set of actions for local authorities and the Government, without being overly prescriptive. There is a sensible balance struck between national direction and flexibility for local authorities.
It provides welcome coherence between the wide range of relevant Government actions and plans, including EIP23. We are pleased to see the consideration of both outdoor pollution concentrations and pollution emissions, and indoor air quality. However, we cannot be clear that the strategy as drafted will result in Government meeting its targets for air quality. That detail on delivery against targets is still missing.
In our response we have made a number of recommendations that we believe will give Government a greater chance of meeting targets, including monitoring and evaluation to begin immediately, detailed delivery plans to be put in place for the PM2.5 targets, and provision of further guidance on reducing ammonia emissions. We don’t believe local authorities can or should play a central role in providing advisory services to landowners on the uptake of ammonia reduction measures as many are not equipped to do that.
Over the summer we expect to see the further development of ELMs and the launch of Government’s Land Use Framework. Louise spoke of this earlier. There is much to grapple with here. For example; issues of governance, conflicting pressures, making relevant data available to planning authorities, and guidance to assist those making difficult decisions to keep nature, the environment and pressing societal needs in proper balance.. We have great hopes for this, given the careful thought going into it at Defra and elsewhere. It is such an opportunity for the environment.
Let me mention now the issue of delivery plans. Defra and other departments are working on their annual delivery plans which will be published, and also working on the detail behind them. I am encouraged that Defra is looking to produce delivery plans at individual EIP goal level, for what I think is the first time, and of course we have a keen interest in them at the OEP. Good delivery plans can provide the assurance, the certainty, the clear direction we all need at this time. They make the EIP real.
I won’t speak of REUL – David has already covered it. Let me turn instead now to enforcement and indeed to Lord Teverson’s view that enforcement matters. It does. You will appreciate that I can say little about the specifics of any particular OEP case. I will say that our enforcement work is progressing. Many of you will know of our investigation into the oversight of Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs) by the Secretary of State, the Environment Agency and Ofwat, and there will be more cases to follow that first investigation soon.
We remain committed to the approach we set out in our strategy and enforcement policy – our priority will always be to seek the most effective and timely resolution to any issue, and we are finding that approach effective so far. In many cases, talking, resolves matters. Most public bodies want things resolved as much as we do, and us raising a problem with them and discussing options can be the trigger for action.
But we also know that this approach won’t always work. We are equally as prepared to take formal action where that is necessary to achieve the right outcome for the environment. We have our enforcement powers that can ultimately see a public authority being ordered to act by the High Court. That is powerful. And we will take those steps where we need to.
We are at the stage now where we can show how our approach is working in practice, and we are developing our website to provide more information for you to see that
Stepping back now and taking stock, one has the sense that after a turbulent 2022, Defra is making a concerted effort to get on track. Statutory targets are in place, the EIP was reviewed and refreshed to meet the deadline, we expect the air quality strategy to be published by the statutory deadline - and following our recent report on outstanding post implementation reviews of legislation, we welcome the Secretary of State’s recent commitment to getting those reviews done in a priority order, with all to be done by the end of next year.
We have big milestones ahead: a finalised Air Quality Strategy, a Land Use Framework, and the implementation of guidance to all government departments on how to put into effect the newly enacted Environmental Principles. We at the OEP will be particularly interested in Government’s application of those principles. If applied well, they can make such a difference across the whole of government policy.
Let me finish now by mentioning a few other programmes of work we at the OEP have in hand:
- We are reviewing the implementation of laws for the designation and management of sites protected for nature on land and freshwater in England and Northern Ireland, and we are also looking closely at Environmental Impact Assessment regimes.
- We have our own water programme looking at the principles and systems applied under current legislation to protect the freshwater and coastal water environment, focusing on the 2017 regulations.
- And we are nearing completion of our investigation in the regulation of CSOs by the Secretary of State, the Environment Agency and Ofwat.
To conclude then, we at the OEP are clear of the importance of our annual EIP monitoring. It has centre stage at the OEP. We are doing all we can to improve the data and information so much needed to form a reliable current view of the state of the environment and also to look forward, and seek to be helpful. Aside from our monitoring report we have plenty of other matters to focus on, and I have touched on some of them here. And it an important year for the environment, as Defra strives to bring the EIP to life.
Together, Government, other public authorities, business and wide society have a window of opportunity to turn things around. If we are successful, then future OEP monitoring reports will make for not such disappointing reading. Government’s efforts must now be focused on actual delivery. We see some encouraging early signs, but there is so much more to do.
Thank you for listening.