This post is by Katy Losse, environment and climate change specialist at the National Audit Office (NAO).
Environmental standards and regulations are a foundation of the government’s approach to environmental protection. They are many and varied. For example, longstanding requirements around environmental permits, protected sites and product standards. And there are more to come, with new schemes mandating ‘biodiversity net gain’ in new developments and extending companies’ responsibilities to reduce and recycle packaging.
Of course, these rules and standards only make a difference if there is a strong system to make sure they are actually met. So effective enforcement and compliance is vital.
The NAO’s recent briefing gives a factual overview of the framework for environmental compliance and enforcement in England, covering the roles and responsibilities of the main bodies involved; what is known about their performance, staffing and spending; as well as recent changes and developments. It includes case examples on waste crime, sites of special scientific interest and storm overflows, as these are three areas of significant public interest.
The Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) asked us to do this analysis, to aid their scrutiny of government’s approach, but we hope it will also prove useful to others.
Many organisations are involved in environmental regulation
I found it fascinating to be reminded quite how many different organisations have a part to play. The Environment Agency and Natural England are the two main environmental regulators, but there are also bodies, like the Marine Management Organisation, who have an environmental regulation role for a particular sector, or local authority trading standards officers whose environmental work is one part of a much broader portfolio. In our briefing, we suggested the EAC could look further into how Defra oversees environmental compliance and enforcement by this diverse group, and what that means for meeting government’s overall environmental goals.
Of course, the new Office for Environmental Protection has a particular interest in this as it takes up its responsibilities, which include identifying and responding to serious failures by public bodies to comply with environmental law.
Environment Agency funding has changed
It’s also worth looking at how staffing, funding and activity for compliance and enforcement have changed over time at the Environment Agency and Natural England. The Environment Agency, for example, funds compliance activity out of fees and charges on the companies it regulates, but it relies on funding from government to support enforcement action against criminal activity or serious non-compliance. This type of funding fell by 80 per cent in the ten years between 2010-11 and 2020-21. The total amount the agency allocated to generic enforcement activity also fell, albeit by a much smaller proportion (by 40 per cent, from £11.6 million in 2010-11 to £7 million in 2020-21). This is used for enforcing the regulation of industrial facilities, storm overflows and fisheries, as well as for responses to serious pollution incidents.
Alongside this, in 2012-13 the Environment Agency ringfenced funding for enforcement of waste crime, which rose to £10 million by 2020-21. We have suggested the EAC might want to explore the Environment Agency’s rationale for this budget split, as well as whether it can be confident it has the right skills and staffing to deliver its compliance and enforcement work.
Natural England has a nationally co-ordinated approach
Finally, we drew together the facts and figures about enforcement and compliance for protected wildlife sites, waste crime and storm overflows. These are certainly areas with serious challenges for regulators, with little change in the proportion of protected SSSIs (Sites of Special Scientific Interest) categorised as ‘in favourable condition’ over the past five years, and concerns that waste crime is widespread and that sewage in water is a growing public health problem.
Our report highlights, for example, that Natural England re-established a nationally co-ordinated programme of SSSI monitoring and evaluation in 2021-22. It estimates that, in that year, staff time on monitoring and enforcement of SSSIs rose to 49 full time equivalents (from 12 FTE in 2018-19), with a further 131 FTE staff time on wider regulatory activities such as permits and licences or dealing with consents and assents. We have suggested the EAC could explore how Natural England will assess the effectiveness of this increased staffing, and how well placed the organisation now is to ensure government can achieve its ambition to restore 75 per cent of SSSIs to favourable condition, from the position in 2021 when only 38 per cent met this status.
We have highlighted some of the main issues we came across that we think are worth further exploration. We expect to include coverage of environmental compliance in our future work programmes and are currently considering more evaluative work on whether the government uses regulation effectively to achieve its environmental outcomes.