This week the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) published its second annual progress report which looks at whether the UK Government is on track to meet its environmental commitments and targets.
Put simply, the report found that the government is not on track to meet those targets, with the OEP chair describing the lack of progress as “deeply concerning”. Of the ten major environmental targets set in the Environmental Improvement Plan 2023 (EIP23), seven are largely off track, two are partially on track and one was not assessed. In addition, the report looked at 51 trends in environmental quality (such as air and water quality and climate change adaptation) in England, and found that only half of them are improving, with eight trends actually showing a deterioration.
Background to the EIP23
The Environment Act 2021 was the flagship post-Brexit environmental policy. As well as establishing the OEP, which exists to scrutinise environmental law and policy, it requires the government to publish environmental improvement plans every five years. It has set an ambition to leave England’s environment in a better state than it found it, and the targets set in the EIP23 (and its predecessor, the 25 Year Environmental Plan) is the main way it will achieve that goal.
The OEP report makes five key recommendations, based around developing better and more transparent plans to achieve the targets set in the EIP23. The CLA supports these recommendations, and the need for clarity over what needs to be done (as well as how it will be funded).
The report criticised the lack of monitoring and evidence and the lack of transparency about how these targets will be achieved, issues that the CLA has highlighted in the past. It is positive to see the report praise the Environmental Land Management (ELM) schemes and their benefits for pollinators, soil, hedgerows and other wildlife. It also criticises the slow roll out of ELMs and the uncertainty around the schemes, stating that this is reducing land manager and farmer confidence and in turn, uptake in the schemes. The way ELMs has been rolled out is a problem that the CLA has raised with Defra repeatedly on behalf of members and landowners.
The report highlights the effectiveness of bespoke, higher-tier agri-environment schemes compared to mid-tier agreements which are less targeted. This is a welcome statement, as the CLA has been lobbying for Higher Tier Countryside Stewardship to be more widely available.
Last year, the UK Government did not respond to the OEP’s report, and no major changes were made. It remains to be seen whether they will respond this year, although Environment Minister Rebecca Pow has said that they will.
With increasing pressure from eNGOs, and in the run up to a general election, there might be more pressure on the government to show they are making progress on environmental outcomes.
The OEP report stresses that it is not too late for the government to start delivering on the targets, to deliver the vital nature recovery which underpins food production and natural beauty in the UK.