Watchdog gives cautious welcome to Coffey’s target pledge

Green watchdog the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) has welcomed assurances from the environment secretary Thérèse Coffey that delayed environmental targets will be published before the end of the year, but says it will continue to monitor progress closely and keep enforcement options under review.

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DEFRA missed its legal deadline to publish long-term environmental targets by 31 October 2022, sparking a huge backlash. Labour’s shadow environment secretary told ENDS that the missed deadline amounted to a “monumental dereliction of duty”, and green groups have since lodged a formal complaint with the OEP.

At the end of last month, Coffey told the Lords Environment and Climate Change Committee that it is her intention to see the delayed targets published before Christmas, and that she would be “very disappointed” if this were not the case.

In a letter to OEP chair Dame Glenys Stacey, environment minister Trudy Harrison confirmed that the secretary of state is aiming to publish the final targets by the end of the calendar year, “subject to concluding the normal processes of collective agreement across government”.

Responding, Stacey welcomed the secretary of state’s commitment, but added: “We have concerns around the negative effects that could result from delays, in particular should the date when targets are set slip further.

“We are concerned about risks to the ambition set out in the targets themselves, and the potential for knock on effects for the review and revision of the Environmental Improvement Plan (EIP) and for the review of the targets, both due by 31 January 2023.”

Stacey said that the OEP’s understanding is that the latest date by which the targets regulations can be laid within this calendar year would be ahead of the parliamentary Christmas recess dates (21 December 2022 to 8 January 2023). “We will look to review our position if they have not been laid before this date, and welcome transparency around progress in the run up to 21 December.”

READ MORE: ‘Culture of delay’: 17 stalled DEFRA policies

In a statement, Helen Venn, the OEP’s chief regulatory officer, said: “There are still some challenges and risks if the targets are to be in place by the end of the calendar year as stated, so we will continue to closely monitor progress and keep our enforcement options under active review.”

She added: “Of course, it is not only the publication date of the targets that is important, but also the quality of the targets themselves. We provided advice to DEFRA on how to ensure the targets were sufficiently ambitious and comprehensive, and we are now interested to see the final versions.”

Last week, the Guardian reported that the government is set to weaken a proposed target to reduce water pollution from agriculture. It was also originally proposed that the agriculture sector would have to reduce pollution into waterways by 40% by 2037. But this goal, according to the Guardian, has been pushed back to 2040, alarming rivers campaigners.

Harrison’s letter to the OEP chair also contained an update on a number of stalled DEFRA policies.

A situation report on the disposal of urban waste water and sludge was due to be published by 31 December 2020, as required by regulation 12A Urban Waste Water Treatment (England and Wales) Regulation 1994, but the minister’s letter rejected the suggestion that the deadline had been missed.

“The next report is due to be published by 31st December this year, and I intend to publish it ahead of this deadline,” the letter said.

Elsewhere, the letter says that DEFRA expects to have final updated river basin management plans approved by ministers by 22 December 2022, and is “planning to publish a single report on all four EIA regulations that we have a duty to review, which will provide an evidence base for Defra’s input to the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill, and subsequent reforms to EIA regimes”.