The UK government is failing to keep its promises to improve England’s environment as wildlife declines at an “eye-watering” rate, according to its own watchdog.
In 2018 ministers pledged a 25-year plan to protect the UK’s natural environment and leave it in a better state than when the government found it. They set out a range of priorities, including the abundance of wildlife species and habitats, air and water quality, access to the natural world, the treatment of waste, managing resource use and cutting pollution.
Advances were pledged on all of these under a series of five-year environmental improvement plans. But in an assessment of their progress, the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) – the watchdog set up to oversee the targets – has found:
Species abundance is in “inexorable” decline, despite a pledge to halt the decline of wildlife by 2030.
Of 23 environmental targets examined, the government was demonstrably on track on none of them.
On 14 of the targets,it was judged to be clearly off-track.
The government is failing even to collect data on many key areas.
Only 38% of sites of special scientific interest are in “favourable condition”, with “negligible” progress on this over the past decade.
Farming policy has failed to focus on the environment.
No joined-up approach across government.
Only limited progress in improving air quality, and moves to reduce emissions, partly in response to the Covid-19 lockdowns.
Concerns over plans to scrap EU laws that could reduce environmental protections.
Dame Glenys Stacey, the chair of the OEP, said wildlife in particular was suffering “eye-watering” declines. She said species abundance was of particular concern, as it was “pivotal” to any assessment of the UK’s environmental performance. “Species decline stands out – the rate of decline is inexorable,” she said. “This needs a lot of intervention, that is absolutely required.”
Stacey said the government had not aligned its farming policies – the environmental land management schemes – with its biodiversity or clean air and water targets. “Farmers play a critical role, and we really have to build on that,” she added.
Ruth Chambers, a senior fellow at Greener UK, a coalition of 10 large environmental organisations, said the government must act urgently. “The new green watchdog pulls no punches. Ministers need to make tackling the nature and climate crises a priority. That means more resources, greater focus and better coordination,” Chambers said.
More funding was also needed, added Richard Benwell, the chief executive of the NGO Wildlife and Countryside Link. “To halt the decline of nature, the days of fluffy wishlists and back-of-the-settee funding for nature policy must end. The environmental improvement plan needs scientifically sound delivery plans to stop the decline in wildlife, backed by the funding to make it happen,” he said.
Benwell said there was a lack of coordination across government, and warned about the impacts from scrapping EU law. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) could not make a success of restoring nature while the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities dallied on planning reform and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy pressed ahead with the “destructive deregulatory agenda of the retained EU law bill”, he said. “The prime minister should sponsor the environmental improvement plan and rally the whole of government to deliver it.”
Paul de Zylva, a senior nature campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said the public were losing out as a result of government inaction. “Enhancing our natural world isn’t just good for the environment, it also benefits our health and economy too,” he said. “Instead of focusing on the sustained actions needed to build a greener future, ministers seem obsessed with ditching existing standards despite promising tougher environmental protections.”
The next five-year improvement plan will be published by the end of this month, the government said this week. It will include an environmental principle policy statement, which will require all relevant government policies to be assessed with regard to their environmental impact.
A Defra spokesperson said: “Since the publication of the 25-year environment plan in 2018, we have funded new nature recovery projects spanning over 120,000 hectares [300,000 acres], increased our tree planting rates and started work on the restoration of our peatlands at a landscape scale. Our international efforts through our presidency of Cop26 and leadership at Cop15 also placed nature at the heart of tackling the twin challenges of climate change and biodiversity loss.”
Jim McMahon, the shadow environment secretary, said: “That the government’s own eco watchdog has published such a damning assessment lays bare the extent of the environmental damage caused by 13 years of Tory government. The environment secretary, only three months into the role, has already moved the situation from dismal to downright dangerous, by breaching her own environmental targets and announcing a plan that inflicts more toxic air and sewage dumping, for longer. It’s clear that the Tory party has given up on governing.”