Is the government able to achieve its environmental goals?

This post is by Katy Losse, manager of environment studies at the National Audit Office (NAO).

It is now nine years since the government set an ambition to be the first generation to improve the natural environment in England. The NAO’s experience of auditing large scale, longer term or cross government projects and programmes makes us ideally placed to examine how well set up the government is to achieve this particular aim. In our review this year, we concluded that, although its arrangements are developing, there is still a long way to go before the government can be confident that it has the right framework to deliver on its environmental aspirations.

Clarity and objectives
First and foremost, better clarity of objectives and delivery plans is needed. Without these, it may be difficult to persuade people within and outside government to take the goals seriously, particularly at a time when the government has limited bandwidth, given the challenges of Brexit and Covid-19. In 2018, the 25 year environment plan brought all the government’s environmental commitments and aspirations together in one place, but it did not set out a clear and coherent set of objectives.

The Environment Bill will certainly help to fill in the gaps, through its requirements to set at least one new long term target in each of the four priority areas: air quality, water, biodiversity and resource efficiency, and waste reduction.  But will not be enough on its own. The NAO would like to see the government set a course for a full set of clear environmental objectives, so that, for each environmental goal, it has outlined specific and measurable ambitions for both the medium term (to 2030) and the long term (2040 onwards).

At the same time, we want the government to develop long term delivery plans, with Defra and HM Treasury coming to an agreement on the associated costs. We know this is not straightforward, given the timescales involved: plans will need to be flexible enough to accommodate different scenarios and estimates of costs will need to be broad ranges rather than precise figures. However, without this level of planning for implementation, there’s a risk that decisions about funding allocations will be made in a piecemeal way, rather than on the basis of a strategic view of long term priorities

Accountability and ownership
Our report found that arrangements for joint working between departments on environmental issues are patchy. No other departments, apart from Defra, are represented on the main oversight committees for the 25 year plan. And the government has not developed other ways to ensure senior cross government ownership of the plan as a whole, nor has it set clear accountabilities for their contribution to its performance. We were particularly concerned that the cross government board for climate adaptation has only met twice in the past three years, and that there are no regular formal arrangements for Defra to engage with other relevant departments on protecting and restoring wildlife in England. 

Public reporting of progress towards the plan’s goals is not yet well developed, and Defra expects it will be at least 2024 before it has a full set of environmental outcome metrics. The NAO is keen that the Office for Environmental (OEP) Protection has real ‘teeth’ to be able to scrutinise performance effectively and reiterate our previous recommendation for strengthening safeguards over the OEP’s independence, including by setting out parliament’s ongoing role in reviewing its funding and leadership. 

We recognise that the demands of responding to the pandemic over the past six months have slowed the momentum that had started to develop but, in spite of this, progress was already slower than intended. Environmental issues are broad, inter-related and complex, so these are not straightforward challenges to address. The government needs to pick up the pace if it is to have a chance of achieving its stated ambitions.

Find out more about the Public Accounts Committee’s forthcoming inquiry drawing on our report (an oral evidence session with government officials is scheduled for the 3 December, which will be open for public viewing online). The NAO is currently finalising two other reports linked to the government’s environmental goals: on government’s set up for net zero, and on managing flood and coastal erosion risks

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