It is my pleasure to speak with you today (Friday, July 15), as the inaugural Chair of the Office for Environmental Protection. I am delighted to be here, and to speak with you about WHY NOW, and WHY YOU.
WHY NOW, first of all.
We continue to see extremely worrying and persistent trends of environmental decline. The environment is under serious threat. Adverse trends are becoming increasingly difficult to arrest. Their impacts are more significant and risk becoming irreversible.
People across the globe face the combined threats of a biodiversity crisis and the climate emergency, with wide-ranging impacts on health and economies. Here in England, many natural assets are continuing to deteriorate and long identified problems with the environment persist, despite policy initiatives and efforts on the ground. In response, public concern is widespread and growing. There is increasing recognition that a sustainable environment is not just nice to have, but essential for human wellbeing, progress and prosperity.
Turning the tide to achieve this is exceptionally difficult, yet it is needed urgently for our wealth, health and wellbeing, and absolutely essential for the generations to come.
And it is a prescient time, constitutionally. The constitutional changes that arise following the UK’s exit from the European Union mean that government now has more control over the levers of policy, law making and regulation for the wider environment. Government has introduced a suite of bold, enabling legislation: the Agriculture and Fisheries Acts and, most recently, the Environment Act. We are to hear more about the Environment Act from our next speaker, James.
And we are meeting together in interesting times. The difficulties associated with our legacy water infrastructure, our aging housing stock and the need to build more homes are well recognised, but government is now facing real and exceptional new pressures and uncertainty – both nationally and internationally. A war, a cost of living crisis, fuel uncertainties, and a leadership election. As a consequence, there is a great risk of political prevarication about the environment, and slippage. Now is not the time to lose sight of our environment, but to be absolutely clear sighted about it both nationally, and locally.
Because everyone has a role to play, in protecting restoring and enhancing the environment. It is not just a matter for Defra or indeed for central government. Local communities have a really valuable role, with so many endeavours that individually and collectively contribute – and I am delighted that we have local beekeepers here today, I understand. Thank you for looking after our pollinators.
And I commend the Community Environmental toolkit published recently by Wiltshire Council. It shows how local community groups can contribute. How they can better understand what they already have in terms of biodiverse habitats as well as how to plan for developing greater biodiversity and nature-based solutions. It is a really helpful, practical guide. It has been prepared with help from Natural England I understand, and I am delighted to see Natural England participating in this event: our national agencies and those working for them have a key role, across the nation.
And local authorities, their partners and local and national business have a very significant role in protecting, restoring and enhancing the environment, as you so ably demonstrate here in Wiltshire. The decisions you make – on homes and the built environment, transport, energy, food production and the sensitive and sustainable use of land are so influential, now and for future generations here in Wiltshire - and indeed beyond in the example you set for others, in leading the way. With a new Environment Directorate, and an eight-year Green and Blue Infrastructure Strategy, you are leading from the front and taking responsibility for the environment. Thank you.
In short, we all have a role to play in protecting restoring and enhancing the environment. That includes central government and also the Office for Environmental Protection, vested late last year. We received our full statutory powers earlier this year, and our remit was extended to Northern Ireland just a short while ago.
We have four main functions. We must report annually on government’s progress in delivering against its 25 year Environmental Improvement Plan; we receive complaints about potential breaches of environmental law and can investigate those we judge to be serious, taking proceedings if necessary; we can monitor and report on environmental law and whether it is working – whether it is implemented well enough for example; and we can advise government on environmental matters when asked, and in any event when any change to the law is anticipated.
I appreciate that the OEP might seem a distant body to you, not engaged with the day to day business of protecting restoring and enhancing the environment here in Wiltshire. In the time I have, let me respectfully challenge that view.
You will be hearing later this morning about Biodiversity Net Gain, and how it might work, and the opportunities and risks. We’ve been considering Biodiversity Net gain at the OEP. There are two points I want to mention first of all here, as they speak to the kind of organisation we are aiming to be.
Our views and our formal advice to the secretary of state on Biodiversity Net Gain were developed by a detailed and thorough examination of the evidence, and by engaging with well-informed and expert voices across the sector. We are committed to being led by the evidence and to being an organisation that actively listens, that is open, accessible and engages with a broad range of stakeholders to understand the issues from different perspectives and makes best use of expertise that is out there. Our formal advice to government on Biodiversity Net Gain is published on our website, as is all our written advice to government.
We argue that Biodiversity Net Gain is an ambitious step which, if properly designed, implemented and enforced, can support the Government’s goal to halt the decline of species by 2030 and promote nature’s recovery. But the proposals as they are in our view really challenging for local authorities to implement well. We have made eleven recommendations to government to improve implementation and the prospects of success, on the ground.
We advised the Secretary of State that local authorities will need to be sure-footed, across this and other programmes. For example, detailed guidance on how payments from a variety of funding streams can be treated for the purposes of implementation, auditing, and reporting in respect of biodiversity net gain will be important. Benefits must not be double-counted, and true additionality must be achieved. You will want a level playing field. And you will also want the resources, to deliver.
International experience shows unequivocally that poor Biodiversity Net Gain resourcing leads to poor delivery. The lack of the essential ecology skills and resources in local planning authorities is already a well-known issue. We advised government of recent survey-based research showing that 38% of English local planning authorities consider it not currently practical for them to deliver a no net loss or net gain policy, with 21% referencing a lack of an in-house ecologist and 41% noting insufficient resourcing. We advised that it will be important to recognise not just specialist requirements – ecologists for example – but also the wider resources required for success: the implementation of biodiversity net gain will be a complex, long-term regulatory endeavour. It will require monitoring, reporting, compliance and enforcement activity to be undertaken by local authorities, Defra and Natural England.
We also advised that aiming for ten per cent net gain is not enough. Apart from the clear risk of double counting, the government’s own evidence suggests that ten per cent is thought enough to halt decline but not to enhance nature. Here in Wiltshire you recognise that all new developments need to provide for biodiversity net again. I am not sure what percentage you are aiming for, but we cannot expect all local authorities to follow Lichfield’s lead (25% net gain) voluntarily.
If we are to meet government and your ambitions for the environment, the evidence suggests that the minimum needs to be a percentage greater than ten per cent. What is more, the schemes presented need to be of real and enduring value. They need to withstand scrutiny. I have met with ministers to press all of these points home.
Let me give just two more examples of our early work that may be of interest to you, if I may. I know that here in Wiltshire you are acutely aware on the impact of housing and the quality of housing on the environment. You may know that government has ambitions to change the Habitats Regulations assessment. OEP’s remit covers various aspects of environmental law which operate within the planning system and again, we have given formal advice to government.
In short, although we appreciate the frustrations of many in the way the current arrangements operate, we do not want to see the baby thrown out with the bathwater! Any changes must retain and or improve current levels of protection. We have given specific and detailed advice to government on how the existing regime could be improved quickly and meaningfully, as well as advice on how to best protect the environment should the government choose to legislate for change.
It is not yet clear how government will progress here. For our part, we are aiming to report publicly on the implementation of existing environmental law which protects nature in England and Northern Ireland, including the Habitats Regulations Assessment, Environmental Impact Assessment and Strategic Environmental Assessment regimes. We intend to do this to help will decision makers at a local level and at the same time enable national leaders to be informed and clear sighted, as they consider and potentially develop alternatives.
It is not always easy to be clear sighted. I am thinking here of my last OEP example, and our interest in how freshwater environments are controlled, and the relatively obscure arrangements in place. It is not always helpful at a local or national level when roles and responsibilities are intertwined in complex ways. We have recently announced our first investigation, looking at the roles of Ofwat, the Environment Agency and the Secretary of State in the regulation of combined sewer overflows (CSOs) in England.
Our aims are to determine whether these authorities have failed to comply with their respective duties in relation to the regulation monitoring and enforcement of water companies’ own duties to manage sewage. And in doing so, clarify what those duties actually are. Let us see where we get to.
There are other examples of our work that I could point to, but I am conscious of time. But I hope I have given you a sense of how the OEP is already going about its work, how we set out to work, and how we aim to be relevant.
Two final thoughts:
I spoke briefly earlier about the competing demands on government and the risk that environmental protection and improvement is pushed down the agenda. My challenge to you, indeed to us all, is to make sure that does not happen. Local leaders must resist such pressures and instead recognise the opportunities. There are potential wins here, and synergies, as we build new homes and retrofit existing ones, for example. Now is not the time for government or localities to throw away their commitment to the environment. Please keep your eye on the ball and keep pushing for the environment to be given the priority it deserves.
And lastly, thank you. Seeing the obvious commitment to the environment in this room and knowing just a little of the approach being adopted here in Wiltshire gives me so much pleasure and hope for the future. Thank you for listening. Thank you.