Government must ‘change momentum’ to improve England’s natural environment – NAO

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According to a National Audit Office (NAO) report, the government will need to “change momentum” to achieve its ambition to improve England’s natural environment within a generation.

In 2011, the government set itself the ambition for this generation to be the first to leave the natural environment in a better state which it has inherited. In 2018, the government released a 25-year environmental plan (the environmental plan) to achieve this ambition and position the UK as a global environmental leader.

The environmental plan set 10 overarching goals covering issues such as clean air, clean and abundant water, and thriving plants and wildlife.

A new report from the NAO examines how the government has set up to meet its long-term environmental goals, highlighting the most important potential strengths and areas for improvement, as well as the main risks it will need to manage.

Clear objectives

Clear goals and plans are important in persuading people inside and outside of government to take environmental goals seriously, says NAO.

The environmental plan marked a “step forward” in the orientation of environmental policy, but its main ambitions are a “mixture of aspirations, legally binding objectives and political commitments”, with ” variable and unclear timelines, ”he says.

Some progress has been made on elements of the environmental plan, but significant action is needed at national and local government level, in collaboration with business and the public, if environmental goals are to be met.

In January 2020, the government introduced a far-reaching environmental bill (the Bill) to Parliament, which would help clarify the ambitions of five of the government’s environmental goals.

The bill includes requirements for the government to set at least one new long-term goal for air quality, water, biodiversity and resource efficiency and waste reduction.

However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the progress of the bill in Parliament was halted between March and November 2020, which raised some concerns.

Delivery plans

The government has yet to set a course for developing a comprehensive set of goals and execution plans to achieve its environmental goals, NAO said.

The Ministry of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has drawn up its plans to improve air quality and reduce waste, but has not set a timeline to determine if it does. enough to meet the environmental goals of the government as a whole, or how much it could cost to meet those ambitions.

This, he says, creates a risk that funding decisions will be made on an ad hoc basis. The government should ensure that when it introduces its new environmental goals, they are part of a coherent set of goals, with measurable results in the medium (2030) and long term (2040). He should also create a clear plan, which outlines the estimated cost to achieve these goals and how this could be paid for.

Behaviour change

Defra knows it will need to help people and businesses change their behavior if it is to achieve its goals, but is only beginning to work to see how it will do so in a coordinated, evidence-based way.

The report found that it should ‘prioritize’ its behavior change work to capitalize on the positive changes brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic (such as walking and cycling) and ensure that it does. aligns with behavior change work being done in other parts of government.

Lack of funding and skills

Skills and resource gaps could delay the government’s progress towards its environmental goals. Local authorities play a vital role in improving air quality and the natural environment, but the COVID-19 pandemic is putting pressure on resources and access to the right expertise.

Independent organizations have also raised concerns about funding and skills shortages. During the pandemic, Defra had to turn people away from across the department to help with the emergency response.

Defra should work with the Cabinet Office and the HM Treasury to develop a strategy to ensure the right skills and resources are available, NAO said.

He indicated that this should include an analysis of how to ensure that implementing partners have the necessary funds to fulfill their responsibilities and the factors leading to high turnover of senior ministry officials.

Monitoring and reporting

Defra’s approach to monitoring and reporting on progress against its environmental goals is growing, but has “serious shortcomings,” according to NAO.

Although it has broadened the scope of its environmental reporting, it does not expect to have complete data to measure overall performance against its environmental targets until 2024 at the earliest.

The report suggests that Defra should start reporting against a “full set of milestones” for the environmental plan and monitor how it has responded to recommendations from the new environmental protection office, which will take into account. instructs the review of the environmental plan in 2021.

Defra, working with Her Majesty’s Cabinet Office and Treasury, is also expected to monitor annual intergovernmental spending on major environmental initiatives, and the benefits they generate, he said.

Gareth Davies, head of the NAO, commented on the report’s findings, saying: “The government wants this to be the first generation to leave England’s natural environment in better shape than it has inherited. However, it has been nine years since the government set itself this ambition and it still does not have the right framework to achieve it.

“Some progress has been made on elements of the environmental plan, but significant action is needed within national and local governments, in collaboration with businesses and the public, if environmental goals are to be met.”


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