Priorities for the OEP – delivering the first strategy and setting out the enforcement policy

Dame Glenys Stacey's speech to the Westminster Forum - Wednesday, September 7, 2022

Good morning. It is my absolute pleasure to once again be speaking at the Westminster Forum. I believe today’s focus on the future of environmental standards and for the OEP is timely, and the discussions will be extremely valuable. 

To say that a lot has happened since I last spoke on this platform in January would be somewhat of an understatement. 

We are together here two days after our new Prime Minister was confirmed. Congratulations to Liz Truss. She and the wider government now face exceptional challenges: an energy crisis, a cost of living crisis, and the prospect of a winter of discontent, all set against the backdrop of the ongoing war in Ukraine and the geopolitical instability that comes with it. 
But I urge our political leaders, and indeed everyone here and in the wider community of environmental protection and improvement, not to lose sight of the environmental crisis that we are also facing. The need for urgent action to protect, restore and enhance our environment does not dissipate when pressures arise elsewhere. 

Indeed, 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 its’ 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.
I am not suggesting it is easy to take the necessary steps. But to give one example, government analysis shows current policies and measures designed to reduce the emissions of key air pollutants across the UK by 2030 will lead to four out of five targets being missed. Even with a suite of proposed additional policies and measures put in place, two out of the five targets are still at risk of not being achieved. 

But with our exit from the European Union and as the Environment Act now on the statute books, there is an unprecedented opportunity for government to set a firmer path to meeting its ambitions for the environment. We must keep our foot on the pedal, our eyes on the prize and our minds on the job. We all have a role to play in moving from ambition to effective implementation. 

That is in the forefront of our minds at the OEP. Let me talk now about the OEP, and how we are doing. 

Ensuring effective implementation is key focus for OEP

We are up and running, and hard at work shaping and delivering tangible programmes of work to deliver our priorities for nature, water, marine, air quality and soil health. You will, I hope, have seen that we have some important work already under our belt. We have published our first monitoring report on the 25 Year Environmental Improvement Plan and given advice to government on the Environmental Principles Policy Statement, Environmental Targets, the Green Paper on Nature Recovery and Biodiversity Net Gain proposals. Yesterday we published our response to the consultation on Principles for Marine Net Gain and very shortly we expect to be publishing our evidence to the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill Committee. Our advice 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. In our monitoring report ‘Taking Stock’, we set out the building blocks required for effective environmental stewardship. We called for ambition, backed by strong governance, with accountability and transparency about priorities and resources, and the need to ensure that delivery bodies, including agencies and local authorities, have the skills and capacity required. 

We carried that through with clear messages on ambition and implementation in our specific advice to government, most particularly in relation to the proposed environmental Targets, the draft Environmental Principles policy statement and the suggested approach to Biodiversity Net Gain. 

But our interest does not end there – we now have a role to play in seeing how these things become real. The focus must be on implementation. The job is not done when things look good on paper. 

A key point here is the need to maintain the momentum generated by the Act. Urgency and pace are needed to address the chronic and ongoing declines in the environment. We have seen deadlines missed and there are yet more important deadlines – statutory deadlines - approaching. It must not be routine or unremarkable for deadlines to pass by. I know this work is difficult, and there are other pressures, but it is so important. 

It is not simply about the deadlines themselves as an objective, as important as they are. Rather, it is about what any slippage means in terms of the effective implementation of the changes that are so needed. Where delay cannot be avoided, there must be transparency and robust planning to get back on track. There are real risks here – risks that public trust is eroded, and that a significant mechanism for oversight is absent, when that is not what Parliament intended. 

One of the next key milestones on the road to the government achieving its ambitions is the publication of the next version of the Environmental Improvement Plan. We are already working on our next monitoring report on the existing EIP and expect to publish that in January. In July this year, government published its own Annual Progress Report. We are considering this in detail as we prepare our report, but to give an early observation, we see that government continues to present policy actions and outcomes separately, and therefore little evidence is presented about the effectiveness of government’s current actions or the adequacy of future ones for improving environmental trends and meeting established targets. 

As we said in our Taking Stock report, effective monitoring, assessing and reporting is vital for environmental stewardship, and for effective implementation. We must be able to track and assess progress so we can see what works, and change course in good time, where necessary. 

As the government works on the next iteration of its EIP, we will continue to press these points and make the case for transparency, evidence and accountability, with an eye on supporting government to achieve its ultimate aim of protecting, restoring and enhancing our environment. 

Some themes from our strategy

I should at this point though make a confession and give an apology. I am afraid I do have to leave straight after my piece here is done. I am fortunate enough to be chair of the OEP, we have a board meeting starting very shortly here in Worcester, and I really must be there. I am genuinely sorry to miss the other speakers and the quality discussions that will no doubt be taking place, but we do have members of the OEP team in attendance. It is so important that we hear your views and ideas. 

But in the time I have left here, I would like to turn to our wider strategy at the OEP, and speak a little about our enforcement policy as well – as I think could feed into some of your discussions later. 

The first theme I want to cover is independence. This was, quite rightly, a significant focus as the Environment Bill progressed and the OEP started to take shape. Many were asking whether the OEP would be sufficiently independent from Defra and whether it would stand up to government and say what needs to be said. I hope that over time, fears about our independence are dissipating.  

We now have a small body of work behind us, which I think gives an indication of our approach and stance. I have long argued that independence is in the doing. I stand by our work so far as examples of an independent and expert body giving impartial, considered and well-evidenced advice. Do tell us if you think we are deluding ourselves here, but as it is, I and others at the OEP value beyond measure our independence. It is never far from our minds.  

But it is early days. We are not complacent. We are alert to risks here, especially in times of political change, with new relationships to build. We know that independence can be gradually eroded, chipped away, one decision or one remark at a time. I am reminded of the apocryphal frog that stays in the pot as the water slowly heats up and boils. Please be reassured: the OEP is no frog. 

Our enforcement powers were another significant area of focus during the early development of the OEP, and again, quite rightly so. People were asking whether we would have enough powers to hold public authorities to account, and how we might use the powers finally decided for us. 

We have one investigation live at present, so less of a track record for me to point to at this stage. While I am limited to what I can say about our on-going investigation into CSOs, I feel I can use it to 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, an outcome 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 don’t know yet. The work is on-going. But the point is we will use the full range of our powers and influence in order reach a resolution that protects, restores or enhances the environment. 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 requested initial information from each of the agencies. We have received responses from each, and work to analyse and consider them is at an advanced stage, with next steps now being considered. We will give more substantial updates at appropriate points as things progress. 

The final theme from our strategy I will pick up here is transparency. I have spoken of the need for transparency elsewhere – of course, this also applies to us at the OEP. We know transparency leads to increased accountability and, as a new organisation, this is one of the areas by which we will be judged. Indeed, respondents to our strategy consultation were clear that our credibility relies on us being transparent. When asked to choose their top priorities for how the OEP should behave as an organisation, half of English and Northern Irish adults (51%) prioritised transparency. 

Our strategy commits us to being ‘as transparent as can reasonably be’. As we have become more operational and progressed with more work, much of it for the first time, we have found ourselves asking ‘What does transparency actually mean in practice?’ At our meeting today, our Board will be considering proposals for a consistent approach to what we publish and how, to be open about our decisions and show that we act with purpose and are evidence led. But also to give appropriate time and space to conduct business. We are determined to get this right, and will welcome feedback from our stakeholders. We do not take this lightly, or simply pay lip-service to it. It matters to us, as it does to you. 

To conclude then, I hope I have given you some insights into our priorities and thinking as we turn from building the OEP to delivery, turning our Corporate Plan into a programme of work and our strategy into actions. We ourselves must rise to the challenge of effective implementation as we are asking of others. 

Enjoy the rest of the day, I am looking forward to hearing about the discussions to follow. Once again, I’m sorry I can’t stay. 

Thank you. Thank you for listening. 

Dame Glenys Stacey. Photo credit: ENDS Report