Ministers running out of excuses on environment, MPs warn

Influential Public Accounts Committee says government needs more than ‘aspirational words’

Jon Stone
Policy Correspondent
Wednesday 03 February 2021 10:45 GMT
Road closed Flood signs underwater as floods have risen over them in Shrewsbury Shropshire during floods in February 2020
Road closed Flood signs underwater as floods have risen over them in Shrewsbury Shropshire during floods in February 2020 (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Time is running out for the government to turn its "aspirational words" on repairing Britain's natural environment into action, MPs have warned.

In a scathing report released on Wednesday the influential public accounts committee said ministers were running out of excuses for delays on issues like air quality, water, and wildlife loss.

The MPs noted that the government had first promised to improve the natural environment "within a generation" in 2011 and that progress had been "painfully slow" in the ensuing decade.

They warned that a 25-year plan set out by ministers in 2018 did not contain a coherent set of long-term objectives and that the environment department Defra was simply being shrugged off by the rest of the government.

"Improving the natural environment is a huge task and there are structural issues within government that still need to be resolved to improve the chances of success," the MPs say.

"The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has policy responsibility for most of the plan and relies on other departments to play their part; yet the Department has not shown that it has the clout to lead the rest of government."

MPs also criticised the Treasury for its "piecemeal approach to funding measures to improve the natural environment" and said Rishi Sunak's department simply did "not yet understand the total costs required".

And they sounded the alarm on the government's new post-Brexit watchdog, the Office for Environmental Protection, which they warned might not be "sufficiently independent from government".

Meg Hillier, chair of the cross party committee, said: “These ‘generations’ will soon be coming of age with no sign of the critical improvements to air and water quality Government has promised them, much less a serious plan to halt environmental destruction.

“Our national environmental response is left to one Department, and months from hosting an international conference on climate change, the government struggles to determine the environmental impact of its own latest spending round. Government must move on from aspirational words and start taking the hard decisions across a wide range of policy areas required to deliver real results – time is running out.”

Prospect, the civil service trade union, said the report showed there had been a "worrying gap between the government’s rhetoric on environmental protection and the reality".

Its general secretary Garry Graham said the union had been warning that the government's environmental agencies "lack sufficient funding to do their jobs".

“The recent announcement that public sector pay will once again be frozen, having never recovered from ten years of pay restraint, could be the final straw for many skilled workers. Decades of institutional knowledge and skills are being lost across the country," he added.

“With COP26 on the horizon the government must set an example to the world by demonstrating that investing in nature means investing in the people who protect it.”

A Defra spokesperson said: “This Government has made significant progress in protecting the natural environment, improving biodiversity, and combatting climate change.

“We are ambitious in our determination to build back greener from the pandemic through a range of actions – including progressing our 25-year Environment Plan and securing Royal Assent for the

Environment Bill, which will enshrine environmental targets for our air quality, water, and biodiversity in law. We are also investing £640million in the Nature for Climate Fund and establishing an independent Office for Environmental Protection.”

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