Ministers ‘falling short’ on improving England’s natural environment, says watchdog

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Progress towards the government’s 25-year plan to improve England’s natural environment has “fallen far short”, with a “chronic decline” in certain species continuing unchecked, the post-Brexit environmental watchdog has warned.

In a report on Thursday, the Office for Environmental Protection said none of the government’s 23 environmental targets for England was on track to be met.

Many of the targets, which include halving the length of rivers polluted by harmful metals from abandoned mines by 2038, and achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, are legally binding.

Of 32 trends that it assessed, such as the number of invasive non-native species becoming established, and serious water pollution incidents, the oversight body found that only nine were improving. Some 11 trends were static and eight were deteriorating.

“We do not think the current pace and scale of action will deliver the changes necessary to improve the environment in England significantly,” the OEP said in its first annual review of progress towards the goals outlined in the government’s “25-year plan” from 2018 and last year’s Environment Act.

Chair Glenys Stacey said the body had “very little by way of good news to report”, adding: “Recent progress has fallen far short of what is needed to meet government’s own ambitions.”

Green groups have voiced concerns that the parts of government responsible for environmental policymaking, monitoring and protection have been hollowed out by funding cuts over many years.

The OEP was set up in 2021 to replace the European Commission as the domestic enforcer of environmental regulation after Brexit. But environmental campaigners have warned that it may lack the clout to hold ministers to account.

OEP chief executive Natalie Prosser said that “if enforcement is the right thing to do to deal with an issue of non-compliance . . . we absolutely will use our enforcement powers”.

But she cautioned that the body’s enforcement powers were “a point of last resort”, saying that it intended to focus on tracking and highlighting shortcomings and encouraging better practice from the public authorities it monitored.

The government’s plan to “review or revoke” thousands of pieces of legislation of EU origin has also prompted fears among green groups because the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has large volumes of “retained” EU law.

Prosser said that changing laws, “particularly well-established ones”, had to be done carefully, citing key concerns as the “short timescales for alteration” and the risk that the process became “rushed”.

Crafting appropriate and robust post-Brexit environmental legislation also risked “detracting from other urgent work”, such as progressing towards green goals, she added.

In its review, the OEP said it was particularly worried about the continued decline in the abundance of so-called “priority species”, such as the common toad and erratic ant. Numbers fell by 82 per cent between 1970 and 2018, the latest year for which data exist, the watchdog said.

It urged the government to publish its so-called environmental principles policy statement, which will require Whitehall departments to factor in protecting the environment when deciding policy.

“That’s such an obvious first step . . . But it’s still not in place, regrettably,” said Stacey.

Ministers are due to publish a review of the 25-year plan, set interim targets and produce an updated “environmental improvement plan” for the next five years by the end of January.

Defra said the forthcoming EIP would “soon set out the comprehensive action this government will take to reverse the decline in nature, achieve our net zero goals and deliver cleaner air and water”.

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