OEP Chair Dame Glenys Stacey's keynote speech at the EPUK Conference
The OEP, how it works and its immediate priorities
Hello, and thank you for the chance to speak with you today. I and our CEO, Natalie Prosser are here for at least the morning, and hope to be able to speak to as many of you as possible about the OEP and about your own environmental work as well.
I am asked to speak about the OEP, how it works and its immediate priorities. I hope to show you how we work by example, by talking about the work we have done and are doing, but let me start by speaking of our priorities.
We live in interesting times. A time of significant change across government, change that we can see is causing concern over the future of environmental protection. But OEP’s mission remains constant: to protect, restore and improve the environment by holding government and other public authorities to account. Our priority in the coming months is to do just that. To play our part in keeping government on track to meet its established objectives for the environment. And in these eventful times, the role of the OEP to provide independent, expert and evidence-led advice on environmental law is particularly important, I suggest.
As the government pursues its plans for economic growth and moving away from EU-derived law, the new Secretary of State for the Environment, Ranil Jayawardena, has provided direct assurances about the ongoing commitment to government’s stated ambitions for the environment.
In his media statement on September 27, he described the Environment Act 2021 as world-leading legislation. He said that this government would not undermine its obligations to the environment, in pursuit of growth. And in his speech to the Conservative Party conference, he talked of going for growth, where a strong healthy environment is part of a strong healthy economy.
Clearly, there will be some tension between these aims. A great deal of uncertainty remains. We need to see more detail from government about how these aims will be reconciled, but this is no time to water down the focus on the environment.
The need for urgent action to protect, restore and enhance our environment is clear. The government’s own information tells us that over the period of the current 25 Year Environmental Improvement Plan, half of the environmental indicators monitoring progress show the situation has not improved or else it is deteriorating. The abundance of our species, a guiding compass for the environment, has declined by 17% over five years. If there is to be a new approach, and changes to environmental legislation, these must in our view take the chance to improve overall performance and do better.
The Environment Act remains key to the government achieving its ambitions. It has four cornerstones: the Environmental Principles Policy Statement, Environmental Targets, the Environment Improvement Plan and, of course, the OEP.
Looking at each in turn I hope to show you how the OEP is working.
The Environmental Principles Policy Statement should embed proper consideration of the environment in policy making in all government departments. We have advised government on the detailed drafting, aiming to see it as effective as possible across government.
We know that our advice has proved helpful. We expect a stronger statement because of it. The draft put forward recently for Parliamentary scrutiny reflected many of our recommendations. We now await with interest the final version and like others, we are most concerned about the delay in publication. The statement is very much needed now, as departments develop new policies for growth, and face increasing fiscal pressures that may in turn increase risks to the environment.
Of course, our interest will not end once the statement is published. We will expect Defra to implement the EPPS fully, with rigour, and not as a tick-box exercise. It will require support for other government departments through strong guidance, training, governance, and accountability.
Moving now to Statutory Environmental Targets, they are due to be published at the end of this month. That deadline is set out in law. We have provided detailed advice to government on how best to develop the draft targets proposed in March this year, so that they are each suitably ambitious and together tackle the right issues. There is a valuable opportunity here for the government to show its continuing commitment to the environment – by putting in place ambitious and comprehensive environmental targets.
With recent events, and another fiscal event due by 31 October we can see that the statutory deadline is at risk. That is deeply regrettable. Our concern is not simply around a date set in statute being missed (given the exceptional circumstances) but the need to maintain momentum and act with urgency now to protect, restore and enhance the environment where needed. If there is unavoidable delay, we ask government to be clear about actions now and in the coming weeks to ensure quality targets are in place as soon as possible. We have made our views on this clear to Defra, and we will maintain our interest.
Turning now to the third cornerstone, the requirement for an Environmental Improvement Plan renewed every five years, it is our job to monitor government’s progress in delivering the policies and making the difference set out in its plan. But with the current plan due to be reviewed early next year, we took the chance earlier this year, in our Taking Stock report, to set out the building blocks we see as being vital to environmental stewardship.
We called for government to promote a clear and ambitious vision for the environment, and to prioritise the most pressing environmental matters.
In our view the next iteration of the plan must set clear goals, ambitious targets and a coherent set of strategies, policies and delivery arrangements to achieve each goal, supported by strong cross-government governance and accountabilities, with robust evaluation and remedies where measures fail to deliver.
Those messages all hold true now, and we hope that they are influential as government prepares its second Environmental Improvement Plan. It is such an opportunity for government to set a firm path to achieving its aims – hopefully signposted by those statutory targets.
We will report in January on government’s delivery of its aspirations for the environment, as set out in the current Environmental Improvement Plan – as we will do, each year. In July this year, government published its own Annual Progress Report and as we report we will evaluate that, in detail, and provide an independent view.
A further observation here. There has been speculation over the future of the Environmental Land Management schemes, which we view as a key mechanism for government to deliver against its commitments to stop biodiversity loss by 2030. It is quite understandable for new ministers to review such an extensive scheme. I recognise and welcome the Secretary of State’s public assurances about the ongoing commitment to the 2030 targets. We await with interest the outcome of the review, keeping at the front of our minds the difference a well-developed scheme can make to the environment.
But now on to the fourth cornerstone of the Act, the OEP. We are up and running, and we have a growing body of work behind us.
I have mentioned already our Taking Stock report, and our advice on the Environmental Principles Policy Statement and Environmental Targets. We have also given advice to government on the Green Paper on Nature Recovery, Biodiversity Net Gain, Principles for Marine Net Gain and Highly Protected Marine Areas. We have also provided written evidence to the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill Committee. All of this is available for you to see, on our website.
There is a regular message emerging, a common thread linking our advice to government across the spectrum: the need for effective implementation. To turn ambition, and words, into actual improvement on the ground, as it were, through robust planning with clear implementation timelines and built-in evaluation and review, and allocation of the resources needed to deliver.
Looking forward, we must seek to apply that focus on effective implementation to the challenges presented by the Retained EU Law Bill. One of our statutory roles is to provide advice to government on any potential changes to environmental law. We understand that the Bill will require more than 500 environmental laws to be reviewed and replacement legislation developed and implemented where necessary.
We must question whether this can be done – or done in a way that sufficiently maintains or enhances environmental protections – by December 2023, given the scale of the task. We will carry out our statutory role here and be vigilant for risk, and for opportunity, and we will advise government accordingly, and do so a promptly as possible.
We are also interested in the proposed Investment Zones, as I am sure many of you here today are, as local authorities decide how to best proceed. We welcome the stated commitment to maintaining high environmental outcomes and look forward to seeing more detail on the process for delivering them, and how this will ensure compliance with UK environmental law. This is relevant both for how the overall policy is developed and on the work with local authorities to determine specific locations.
We noted that the guidance issued for Expressions of Interest for the zones did not include specific references to environmental considerations. We have asked the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities how the environmental effects of Investment Zone designation will be assessed and legal duties met. It is important. Government must provide clarity here, and we will follow this through.
We have other programmes of work relating to planning, which can help ensure government achieves its ambitions for the environment alongside its growth plan. This includes a programme looking at Environmental Assessments. As part of this work, we have submitted written evidence to the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill committee, focused on proposed changes to the Environmental Impact Assessments and Strategic Environment Assessments.
In this evidence, we called for reforms to be approached carefully, and supported by adequate delivery mechanisms and governance, taking account of considerations such as resourcing, monitoring, reporting and enforcement. We also called for greater transparency on several issues, including how the effectiveness of the existing regimes had been assessed and the level of ambition for any new approaches.
Again, there are opportunities here for government to deliver on its ambitions, with the right actions.
A word now on another important aspect of our work – enforcement. We have published our enforcement policy alongside our first strategy, and I encourage you to seek that out. It sets out the powers available to us and how we intend to use them.
We have one investigation live at present, into the roles of Ofwat, the Environment Agency and the Defra Secretary of State in the regulation of combined sewer overflows (CSOs) in England. Our aim in carrying out this investigation is to determine whether these authorities have failed to comply with their respective duties in relation to the regulation, including the monitoring and enforcement, of water companies’ own duties to manage sewage. In doing so, we will seek to clarify the respective duties.
As I am sure you understand, I am limited in what I can say about an ongoing investigation, but I can use it illustrate some key features of our approach.
Our intent will always be to get to the root cause of an issue, the main source of concerns, and seek a resolution that protects, restores, or enhances the environment, as needs be. Launching an investigation does not necessarily mean we will punish or prosecute. Our investigation into CSOs may indicate there has been non-compliance with the law and we could be looking at the potential for enforcement action. Or we may find the issue is with the law itself. One of our roles is to monitor the effectiveness of environmental law, and if the law is not delivering as intended, we can suggest improvements.
We do not know yet. The work is on-going. But the point is we will use the full range of our powers and influence in order to reach a resolution. We have enforcement powers and are comfortable using them – but we may find that on many occasions it is enough for us to highlight an issue, signal our interest and hold a mirror up to an agency or government, to reflect what is really happening, point to accountability and see changes made.
And to give a brief update on the investigation itself, we have received information from each of the agencies in response to our initial enquiries, and work to analyse and consider that is at an advanced stage. We will give more substantial updates at appropriate points as things progress.
The issue of water quality remains high on the public agenda. Rightly and understandably so. It is a complex and challenging picture, but change is clearly needed. If we achieve the aims for our investigation, we believe it will help greatly in this.
To conclude, we can each see from the on-going trends of environmental decline that urgent action is needed. Environmental protections must be enhanced and delivered. They certainly must not be watered down or neglected.
As government shifts its priorities, as it must in response to the current economic pressures, we welcome the stated on-going commitment to its environmental ambitions. And we recognise that change brings risk, but also opportunity. But welcome reassurance must be followed by actions that deliver on that commitment.
The OEP’s role is vital here. In our work, we have welcomed government’s stated ambitions for the environment. We have provided independent advice and commentary to help government meet these ambitions and take opportunities to achieve real progress in protecting, restoring and improving the environment. And we have said where the risks are, and where improvement is needed, in the development and implementation of environmental law. We know that we have had influence. So far, so good.
We will continue to steer a straight course to achieve our mission.
Thank you. I do hope you enjoy the rest of the day. Natalie and I are looking forward to hearing and participating in the discussions. Thank you for listening.