Government failing on progress towards legally-binding environmental targets

Government failing on progress towards legally-binding environmental targets

A report published today by the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) shows that Government is off track on progress to meet environmental targets set out in the Environmental Improvement Plan (EIP).

The EIP was launched last year by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak as a revision of the 25 Year Environment Plan, and sets out legally binding targets for achieving the UK’s “plan for the environment, building a greener, more prosperous country”.

The OEP’s report is released ahead of the Government’s deadline for updating the EIP, as mandated in the Environment Act 2021. This gives Government the chance to prove how it is amending interim targets, assessing and modelling trends resulting from policy impact, and developing monitoring and governance frameworks.


Assessing Progress

According to the report, the 25 Year Environment Plan has so far failed to bring about the changes needed.

Of 40 environmental targets set for England within the plan, progress is as follows:

  • 4 are on track
  • 11 are partly on track
  • 10 are largely off track
  • 15 could not be assessed due to lack of evidence

The OEP was forced to base its progress trend assessment on pre-existing data because there was not sufficient nor adequate new data recorded since targets were initially set. The “available evidence suggests that, among other adverse trends, abundance of priority species declined by 17% between 2013 and 2018, coming at the end of a chronic decline between 1970 and 2018” – a story we’re already very familiar with.


Why are Government so off track?

According to the OEP, there are a number of causes of slow progress (a pandemic, a war and a cost of living crisis not withstanding):

  • No baseline recorded at the time
  • Interim targets lacked clarity
  • Overly complex Governance plans
  • No unifying plan to show how targets related to each other
  • Data lag and no defined indicators for monitoring progress on interim targets
  • Targets policy driven not impact driven making monitoring challenging
  • Lack of urgency to address negative or adverse trends
  • Retrospective reporting rather than future modelling of the impact of policy change


Recommendations for Government

The OEP suggest that an effective new EIP would

  • Clearly translate vision into policies, commitments and actions for the whole of government.
  • Have a unifying overall delivery plan and one for each goal area.
  • With new long-term targets set, an effective new EIP would set and pursue clear and achievable interim targets that are as ambitious as possible in the areas needing most attention.
  • Make clear use of robust and current data and analyses that are well aligned with all targets.
  • Establish an evaluation framework and use it to generate feedback on actions and progress, to learn and to improve delivery
  • Diagnose the cause of adverse trends, identify the most urgent, harmful or widespread concerns, and develop effective and timely responses.
  • Develop assessment regimes that look more to the future, anticipate trends and project outcomes.

The final clarion call from the OEP is that “[Government] must act with energy and urgency” whilst the OEP comes with a larger stick when it says that legal action against Government is an active consideration. Organisations such as ClientEarth have launched legal cases against Government in the past, with success, so this should not be considered an empty threat and is perhaps the only remaining option if we are to see progress made.


Written by Isabel Milligan, Head of Nature Development


OEP Report:

Government Response to OEP Report:

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