Delayed environmental targets could have ‘cascading effects’, warns OEP

The delayed environmental targets could have a “cascading effect beyond the targets themselves”, warns the OEP, adding that it is monitoring “closely and formally” and if it sees “any stumbling [they] will reconsider [their] position”.

Source - GettyImages, Richard Newstead

Speaking at a House of Lords Environment and Climate Change Committee oral evidence session this morning, Dame Glenys Stacey, chair of the Office for Environment Protection (OEP) said that following the missed legal deadline for the environmental targets, the watchdog has spent “careful time” considering action across the board.

The OEP previously published its correspondence with DEFRA over the course of October, in which the watchdog issued a significant warning to the department, stating it is keeping decisions about using its enforcement powers against the government “under active review”.

Speaking at the evidence session, Stacey reiterated these plans and said: “We are monitoring closely and formally and if we see any stumbling we will consider again our position of what we should do.” She added that while the watchdog accepts it has been an unusual year, “there is no excuse now”. 

Stacey added that the OEP is “keeping [its] options under review and want to see evidence that this is proceeding at pace… if we don't see that evidence, we will be reviewing our position certainly by the end of the year.” 

Natalie Prosser, chief executive of the OEP added that they are concerned about a “domino effect of delays”.

“We can see the potential for knock-on effects of delay that can have a cascading effect beyond the targets themselves. That’s one of the reasons why we have pressed so firmly for those targets to be set by the end of year at the very latest”, she said.  

With regards to another cornerstone of the Environment Act, the environmental principles policy statement, Stacey said that there is no reason why departments can’t act in accordance with the draft statement. She also added that while the statement is applicable to certain departments, she would like local authorities to consider them as well.

“Frankly now we just want this statement in, it’s a pivotal time, we have the Retained EU Law (REUL) bill coming upon us, we need that statement in. Departments are making policy at a rate and we need to make sure that the environment is suitably considered and protected,” she said. 

Prosser added that although it’s DEFRA’s responsibility to implement the environmental principles, if departments are not in compliance with the law, then the OEP will “have an interest”. 

She added that the watchdog is currently planning for a programme of monitoring to test whether departments are in compliance with this new legal duty.

Stacey added that the OEP is specifically interested in what will happen with environmental land management schemes, investment zones and the levelling up bill, but said that a critical area is the REUL Bill. 

“We have set up a support team within our organisation to look at this and other reform matters, we have made plain our concerns and we won’t be taking our eye off this one,” said Stacey. 

She also said that the OEP is currently liaising with DEFRA to find out what their approach is but explained that the watchdog’s main concern is the short time-scale. 

“We know that law making that is rushed can result in bad law and that mistakes are made when you’re working with this sort of pressure. The scale and speed proposed here presents very considerable risks to the environment which could end up with more significant costs put on others,” she said.

On the ongoing investigation into the role of Ofwat, the Environment Agency and the environment secretary in regulating, monitoring and enforcing water companies’ own duties to manage sewage, Prosser said that the investigation is looking at a specific part of the functioning of the regulatory system. 

“We know that something isn’t working well, and perhaps a more robust regulatory approach to water companies is part of that solution, but we would speculate that it goes beyond that - solving the problem requires a more comprehensive approach looking at all of the pressures,” said Prosser. 

The chief executive added that this is why the OEP has just initiated a new programme to evaluate the UK’s government and DAERA’s plan on measures to reduce nutrient pollution, sediment and ammonia pollution in aquatic environments. 

Stacey added that they expect to produce an interim report on the investigation by the end of this financial year. 

“I give the organisation personal reassurance that we are taking water very seriously indeed, it’s a priority area. We started this investigation the first day we could, the day after we got our powers, I don’t think there can be a clearer signal than that. I think the investigation will prove fruitful, I think we will get somewhere that is terribly helpful,” said Stacey.