People and Planet in the Accounts: NAO flags risks to long-term environmental goals
13 November 2020: Will the government be able to achieve its goal of this being the first generation to leave England’s natural environment in a better state than it inherited? The NAO has taken a look at progress and examines the risks.
The National Audit Office (NAO) has issued a report on how the government is doing on achieving its long-term environmental goals set out in ‘A Green Future: Our 25 Year Plan to Improve the Environment’ published by the Department for Food, Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra) in January 2018.
The government wants this to be the first generation to leave the natural environment of England in a better state than it inherited and to help protect and improve the global environment. Its 25-year plan set ten overarching environmental goals, ranging from clean air, thriving plants and wildlife to using resources more sustainably and efficiently.
The NAO comments that environmental issues are broad and can often be complex and it will be challenging for the government to achieve its objectives. The NAO highlights both strengths and areas for improvement in progress to date as well as significant risks to achieving the Government’s objectives.
The NAO report is split into three parts, starting with setting direction, which examines whether the 25-year plan is clear enough and whether people, both within and outside government, are buying into it.
The second part is on oversight and coordination, examining risks around the ability of different parts of government to work together effectively and to manage the links between different issues, while the third section looks at monitoring, learning and improving, including how government can ensure that problems do not go unnoticed or unaddressed and that good practice is shared.
The NAO has attempted to produce a fair and balanced report, providing praise where it is due but also pointing out the shortfalls and risks. Highlights from the report include:
The 25-year plan brings together a number of the government’s environmental commitments and aspirations in one place, but it does not provide a clear and coherent set of all of its environmental objectives and how they fit in with pre-existing national, EU and international targets.
Since 2018, Defra has developed more detailed strategies on some of the government’s ten environmental goals, as well as introducing the Environment Bill to put its plans on a statutory basis and clarify long-term ambitions. However, there is confusion between differing objectives and the government has not yet decided whether (or how) it will integrate and align the complex mix of legislative and non-legislative commitments that already exist with the new targets required under the Environment Bill.
The NAO recommends that the environmental ambitions be clarified so that any new legislative targets will be part of a coherent suite of objectives. Furthermore, it recommends the government assesses the costs of the delivery plan to ensure that Defra and HM Treasury have a shared view of the associated costs and how these might be financed.
The NAO also raises a concern about the government’s capacity to drive the environmental issues forward. Whilst COVID has slowed progress during 2020, progress was already slower than had been intended before the pandemic.
Oversight and coordination
Defra is developing governance arrangements to help manage the links between different environmental issues and has established a 25-year Environment Plan Implementation Board underneath the existing Environment Committee. The climate change elements of the objectives feed into the Cabinet-level Climate Action Strategy Committee and Climate Action Implementation Committee.
The report finds that the government’s arrangements for joint working between departments on environmental issues are patchy, recommending that the Cabinet Office and Defra work together to improve engagement across government and in how departments contribute to improving performance. Identifying how progress will be measured and monitored and strengthened coordination and oversight arrangements will be needed if Defra is to be clear how decisions on significant trade-offs will be made.
Monitoring, learning and improving
Whilst Defra’s approach to monitoring progress across the goals is developing, the NAO believes that serious gaps remain.
In particular, the government is not monitoring spend on delivering its environmental goals and there is no single point of responsibility for monitoring overall environmental spend or costs on an ongoing basis. This is likely to limit the government’s ability to assess and take action to improve the value for money of the portfolio of initiatives as a whole.
The NAO recommends that a deadline be set for securing a full set of outcome-focused environmental indicators and that Defra’s Environment Committee monitors progress against this deadline, taking swift action if things fall behind.
It also recommends that Defra works with the Cabinet Office and HM Treasury to monitor annual costs and spend on key environmental initiatives across government, linking them to the outcomes achieved, as part of developing performance reporting against the 25-year plan.
Alison Ring FCA, Director for Public Sector, ICAEW commented: “We really welcome the timely publication of NAO’s report on the UK Government’s efforts to achieve its long-term environmental goals. It is vitally important that the public sector doesn’t lose sight of climate and sustainability issues amidst the more immediate challenges of COVID and Brexit. Whilst progress has been slowed this year, it appears that the ambitions to tackle environmental and climate issues remain in place.
“I look forward to the creation of the new environment watchdog next year, the Office for Environmental Protection. It will be obliged to publish an independent annual progress report on implementation of the 25 Year Environment Plan and to investigate the compliance of public authorities with environmental law. I hope this will help hold the government to account in meeting its environmental objectives and spur on more action to make sure this generation does leave behind an improved environment as promised.”