Government must ‘pick up pace’ to improve environment in a generation – NAO

The watchdog said a 25 Year Environment Plan, published in 2018, ‘does not provide a clear and coherent set of objectives’.

A flood warning sign
A flood warning sign

Ministers must “pick up the pace” if they want to fulfil an ambition to improve the natural environment within a generation, the public spending watchdog has warned.

The National Audit Office (NAO) said there is a “long way to go” before the Government can be confident it can meet the goal it set nine years ago.

In 2011, the coalition government outlined a vision for the environment with the goal of being the first generation to leave the natural world in a better condition than it was found.

But the NAO said ministers still did not have the right framework to achieve the ambition, even though some progress has been made.

In a critical report, the watchdog said progress was already slower than the Government had intended before the coronavirus pandemic struck.

Sunrise
The sunrises over woodland in Ashford, Kent (Gareth Fuller/PA)

It said a 25 Year Environment Plan, published in 2018, “does not provide a clear and coherent set of objectives” and that there is now a “complex mix of aspirations and policy commitments for action, with varying and often unclear timescales”.

The NAO said the Environment Bill, which is progressing through the Commons, would help to clarify the Government’s long-term ambitions.

But the watchdog said ministers had “not yet decided whether or how it will integrate and align the complex mix of legislative and non-legislative environmental commitments that already exist with the new targets required under the Environment Bill”.

It recommended that the Government clarifies its environmental ambitions so that new legislative targets are part of a “coherent suite of objectives that set specific and measurable ambitions” for the medium and long term.

The report concluded: “Defra has a range of schemes and projects under way to support its ambitions for improving the natural environment, and it is developing its arrangements to oversee, coordinate and monitor its work effectively.

Coastline
It is nine years since the coalition government made several pledges over the environment (Ben Birchall/PA)

“It is now nine years since government first set an ambition for this to be the first generation to improve the natural environment in England, and there is still a long way to go before government can be confident that it has the right framework to deliver on its aspirations and ensure value for money from the funding it has committed to environmental projects.

“We recognise that the demands of responding to the Covid-19 pandemic over the past six months have slowed the momentum it had started to develop, but progress was already slower than government had intended.

“Environmental issues are broad, inter-related and complex, so these are not straightforward challenges to address, but government needs to pick up the pace if it is to improve the natural environment within a generation.”

Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO, said: “The Government wants this to be the first generation to leave the natural environment in England in a better state than it inherited.

“However, it is now nine years since the Government set this ambition and it still does not have the right framework to achieve it.

“Some progress has been made on elements of the Environment Plan but significant action is needed across national and local government, working with business and the public, if the environmental goals are to be met.”

Labour MP Meg Hillier, who chairs the Commons Public Accounts Committee, added: “The Government set a broad and ambitious objective in 2011 but didn’t follow through.

“It took Defra seven years to explain what improving the environment within a generation involves – and it’s still not clear that it’s doing enough to make this happen.

“This is far too big a task for one department to manage by itself. The Government needs to work out what other departments need to do – then make sure they are pulling their weight.”

A Government spokeswoman said: “We are leading the world in protecting the natural environment and combatting climate change, and have made significant progress implementing our 25 Year Environment Plan for a greener future.

“Our landmark Environment Bill will go further by enshrining environmental targets for our air quality and biodiversity into law.

“As we build back greener from the coronavirus pandemic, we are committed to shaping a cleaner and more resilient society to protect and restore our natural environment and diverse ecosystems.”

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