OEP Chair says government needs to speed up, scale up and make sure its plans stack up

OEP Chair Dame Glenys Stacey gave an opening address at the launch of our report on progress in improving the natural environment in England 2022/2023.

The report can be found here

Good morning and thank you so much for coming on such a cold day. Welcome.

Today we launch our second statutory report on government’s progress in improving the natural environment. In it, we look at the year to end March 2023, as required by our enabling legislation.

I hope you are already beginning to think of these reports as a valuable and reliable stocktake. That is our aim. Parliamentarians, government and the wider public should be able to use last year’s report, this and all future reports to track change over time and – importantly – to see how and where things are heading.

Professor Robbie McDonald, Chief Scientist at the OEP leads the team responsible for this report, and he, our head of assessments Dr Cathy Maquire and other members of our team of analysts are here today. I’d like to thank the team for its work. It is a well-established team now, admirably competent, and I hope you will see that reflected in the quality of this year’s report and the strength of the underpinning analysis.

It is not a small task, evaluating the current state of, and prospects for, the natural environment, by reference to government’s stated ambitions, goals and targets. There is a lot to get to grips with, and we are still somewhat hampered by an ongoing and concerning lack of monitoring in key areas (such as marine and soils) and by a lack of transparency that I will come back to.

But we start with government’s long-stated ambition to be the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than it was found. In his introduction to the revised Environmental Improvement Plan of January 2023, the Prime Minister recognises that protecting the environment is fundamental to people’s health and prosperity. The scale of the challenge, in his words, means “changing the trajectory that the country has been on ever since the industrial revolution”. Those words signal the nature and scale of what is to be done, and its criticality. It is not a choice, but a necessity, to protect the nation’s health and prosperity.

Deeply, deeply concerning adverse environmental trends continue. With the depleted state of our natural environment and the unprecedented pace of climate change, it does seem to many that we are at a crossroads. It is not easy for us as a nation to choose the right path, the right trajectory and to travel together at the pace needed, but we simply must.

This time last year, our report’s headline was that progress had fallen far short of what was needed to meet government’s ambitions. Less than a third of the environmental trends we then monitored were moving in the right direction. This year we report that almost half of the 51 trends we now track are moving in the right direction, with positive trends within each of the ten goal areas of EIP23. For example, water leakage in England is reducing. The number of illegal waste sites has reduced, albeit new ones are being found all the time. The percentage of fish stocks that are sustainably harvested has increased since the early 2000s. There are fewer tree pests and diseases becoming established than has been the case historically. But we find that in the clear majority of the ten goal areas of the EIP23, progress has been mixed.

So, with a half of trends moving in the wrong direction, or not moving, or not readily or not yet assessable, the question we have been grappling with is this: overall, are trends and progress across the board and in each EIP goal area moving in the right direction fast enough and far enough, to meet statutory and other environmental targets and commitments and government’s wider ambitions?

As you will see in our report, we conclude (on the data and wider information available to us) that the chances of the recently established statutory targets for the environment being met are largely off-track, and government’s wider ambitions for our environment are not likely to be met unless things change.

But these prospects are not set in stone. Things can change. Stakeholders told us that the apex goal (Thriving plants and wildlife) and target were still achievable, and for every goal area we highlight many opportunities to improve prospects of achieving the targets. Standing back from the detail, the messages are clear.

First of all, government must speed up its efforts. As we detail in our report, too many policies are still in the early stages of development – Marine Net Gain and Fisheries Management Plans for example - or else are just long awaited, like the Land Use Framework. In one or two goal areas – Managing exposure to chemicals and pesticides, for example - thinking and action are far behind the curve, the situation is not resolvable quickly, and significant programmes of work are needed.

In some goal areas, however, enough of the right policies are already on the books. They now need to be implemented, quickly and fulsomely. We think that is the case for the legally binding targets of first halting and then reversing the decline in species abundance, for example.

Our view is that completion and delivery on the ground of established policies must go faster, to meet the pressing needs of the environment. So, government must speed up its efforts.

Secondly, government must scale up its efforts. Change has to happen at the right scale, if we are to change the trajectory. We give many examples in our report where scaling up is required. It is a prevalent theme: government must speed up AND scale up its efforts.

We particularly highlight here the importance of nature-friendly farming if government is to meet its goals for thriving plants and wildlife, and clean air and water. Farmers are being asked not just to produce much of our food but to modify how they farm, for the sake of our future health and prosperity. It is critical now that enough farmers and landowners step up to the plate. Earlier this month government announced increases in the payments to be offered for good land management, three-year deals for tenant farmers and a streamlined application process. We will watch progress keenly here, because so much is at stake.

Lastly, government’s plans must stack up. Government must be clear itself and set out transparently how it will change the nation’s trajectory to the extent now needed, in good time.

Farmers, landowners, industry, environmental groups, local authorities, other delivery bodies and many of the wider public will rise to the challenge if they can see what must be done, and what they each must do. If they can see it can be done, and that if we speed up and scale up, we can change the trajectory. If they can see that taken together, government’s plans stack up, and it is clear all that must be done in each goal area, and against each statutory target, when, and by whom.

We do not have that clarity, that transparency as yet. Almost a year on from EIP23, we at the OEP find that hard to accept, when matters are so pressing. We believe it saps faith in the EIP itself and leaves key players hesitant and uncertain.

In our view, government must do better. It must set out transparently and fully for Parliament, the public, all those who must deliver and play their role, and yes also to us, the independent statutory oversight body, how it intends to deliver its ambition.

To conclude, changing the trajectory enough requires determination, detailed planning, forecasting, clarity and transparency, constant evaluation and a willingness to take some difficult decisions when necessary. It means doing more and doing enough quickly enough to get on track and keep on track. And in reality it is not a matter of choice. We must protect and improve the environment for us all to thrive. The environment is, after all, fundamental to our health and prosperity.

Thank you. Thank you for listening. I will now hand over to my colleagues to talk you through the findings of our report in more detail.

Dame Glenys Stacey