To lead the world this year on the environment, the UK must put its own house in order first

A welcome new report from the cross cutting Public Accounts Committee has set down a clear challenge for the government on why action to meet its long term environmental goals must be accelerated.

Coming only days after the announcement that the flagship Environment Bill was being carried over into the next parliamentary session, bringing a delay of some six months, the report offers a timely reminder that environmental progress cannot be assumed and requires sustained leadership and commitment.

The committee’s report builds on the finding of the National Audit Office in the autumn, that the government “needs to pick up the pace if it is to improve the natural environment within a generation”. So how must the government respond?

It’s time to build plans to meet the ambition
This year has been deemed a ‘super year’ for the environment as the UK hosts the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow and governments will gather in Kunming, China to discuss biodiversity action.

As the CBI recently highlighted, the combined shocks of Brexit, Covid and the climate crisis add to the case for 2021 to mark a change of direction for the planet and its economies.

The Leaders’ Pledge for Nature sets a road map for definitive action by 2030 but has so far been overshadowed by a climate heavy domestic agenda and, understandably, the response to the pandemic.

The one silver lining in the pause of our domestic agenda is that it gives us time to reflect and build the plans to ensure that our lofty ambitions are bedded in domestic reality and, most importantly, that these are delivered in 2021, as Environment Minister Rebecca Pow has assured parliament they will be.

Decisive action is needed
There are many aspects of the delayed Environment Bill where expedited action is needed, ahead of it receiving Royal Assent in the autumn. There is a significant to do list. It includes the Deposit Return Scheme to prevent waste and preserve resources, first mooted in 2017, and the policy statement on environmental principles, first promised in 2018. That MPs were asked to debate the legal framework on the polluter pays and precautionary principles without any knowledge of the government’s underpinning policy statement is a travesty of scrutiny. That long overdue consultation must now be published immediately. The Public Accounts Committee also called for coherent plans for important policy areas that may fall outside the immediate reach of the bill, such as soil conservation.

The establishment of the new Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) is where the need for decisive action is felt most acutely as the delay to the bill impacts most heavily on the timetable to get it going. The Public Accounts Committee is concerned that the OEP will inherit a backlog of cases and will not be sufficiently independent from government. It has called on the government to explain what steps it is taking to minimise the delay. The government says the watchdog will be “world leading” and “…is a key part of the government’s vision to lead the world in protecting our environment and building back greener from the COVID pandemic”. This statement of ambition is of course welcome but unless the government follows through decisively with action to address the concerns raised by the committee and many parliamentarians and stakeholders, the gap between rhetoric and reality will remain.

A shadow Office for Environmental Protection should be set up now
Some progress has been made through the appointments of Dame Glenys Stacey as the OEP’s chair designate and Natalie Prosser as interim CEO. But a gulf remains between the limited scope of Interim Environmental Governance Secretariat, established by Defra and the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs in Northern Ireland, to watch over environmental complaints in this interregnum, and the fully fledged OEP, which will hold public authorities to account and breathe new life into our domestic scrutiny and governance systems.

This gap could be bridged by setting up the OEP in shadow form while the Environment Bill is still passing through parliament. This would follow in the footsteps of esteemed regulators such as the Committee on Climate Change and the Office for Budget Responsibility, which were both set up in shadow form to enable them to perform urgent oversight ahead of passing their founding legislation.

Later this year the OEP is meant to publish its first progress report on the 25 year environment plan. Without these recommendations on how the government can make better progress, to which government must respond, the particular opportunities we have in 2021 risk being overlooked. Ahead of its legal vesting, the only way the OEP could perform this role convincingly is if it existed in shadow form.

A shadow body would also help the OEP to build its presence and personality, and smooth some of the trickier set up processes, such as staff recruitment, strategy development and communications. Stakeholders have worked with the government for many months on these issues and have great confidence in those entrusted to do this important work, but there has always been a tension between how far government should break ground for the OEP and how much it should do for itself. In shadow form, such dilemmas would be eased.

Leadership must come from the top
The Public Accounts Committee queried whether Defra has “the clout to lead the rest of government … hold other departments to account or manage trade-offs between policy areas”. This is an understandable conclusion as recent events indicate the environment department is more downtrodden in Whitehall corridors than it should be considering its hugely important remit. Evidence of this is the lapse in the Environment Bill (which cannot solely be attributed to scheduling delays in the Lords); ministerial decisions which ignore climate goals; a lack of collective environmental responsibility (although it is hoped the new cross-government board for the environment will start to address this); and a disparity in spending processes where accounting for the environment lags behind that for carbon emissions. The list goes on.

This year the prime minister has a chance to inject his welcome enthusiasm for nature into the heart of all government processes and schedules. We are standing by, ready to work with him to realise the potential of this super year.

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