The Office for Environmental Protection (the “OEP”) has published its latest report, Taking stock: protecting, restoring and improving the environment in England, pursuant to its powers under s.29 of the Environment Act 2021 (the “Act”). This power allows the OEP to monitor the implementation of environmental law and report on any matter related to this.

The report provides details of the UK’s progress since the publication of ‘A Green Future: Our 25 year plan to improve the environment’ (referred to as the 25 Year Environment Plan) in 2018 and how far we still have to go to protect our environment in the long-term.

The Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (“the Secretary of State”) is required by the Act to prepare a plan setting out how the Government will make significant improvements to the natural environment over a long-term period. It is also required to publish an annual report on the implementation of the environmental improvement plan and to provide detail on what has been done during the period, using data to highlight any environmental improvements made.

Once created, the plan must then be reviewed and revised if required. The first review must be completed before 31 January 2023. Before the Act came into force, the Government had been carrying out reviews of the 25 Year Environment Plan. These reviews, the latest of which covered a period from April 2020 to March 2021, presented an accurate picture of the Government’s progress, identifying the areas of the plan that were “mostly undesirable” and stating that there are some areas of “significant concern”.

The OEP shares these concerns and in the report states that “environmental laws and government strategy and policy have not yet proved successful in significantly slowing down, halting or reversing biodiversity decline or the unsustainable use of resources or the pollution of the environment.” It does however recognise the extensive provisions set out in the Environment Act and the ‘fresh opportunity to make a difference’.

The report also suggests a framework of six ‘building blocks’ to be put in place to accelerate the urgent actions required to achieve the objectives of the 25 Year Environment Plan. This includes:

  1. Understanding environmental drivers and pressures
  2. Creating a vision
  3. Setting targets
  4. Coherent strategy and policy
  5. Governance
  6. Monitoring, assessing and reporting

The OEP recommends that the Government must firstly take stock of its priorities and consider emerging issues that ought to be addressed now in addition to current ones. It must then prioritise the most concerning areas of the environment for improvement and set challenging targets.

The Environment Act requires the Government to set long-term targets in respect of air quality, water, biodiversity and resource efficiency and waste reduction. It also requires targets to be set for fine particulate matter (PM2.5) and species abundance. The Government are currently consulting on these targets and the OEP has not yet submitted its consultation response.

Governance is one of the key building blocks and the OEP emphasises the importance of strong central leadership, collaboration across organisations and clear lines of responsibility and resources for local delivery to ensure the current governance regime can meet the increased demands on the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (“Defra”). This means that although ambitious environmental targets can be set and a comprehensive, well-thought out plan prepared, they will ultimately be unsuccessful if Defra cannot access the resources.

The aim of the OEP is to support environmental protection and improvement. Although it was created to hold the Government to account and enforce against breaches of environmental law, its role is also to advise and assist the Government to ensure its targets are on track to be achieved and its environmental improvement plan is delivered.

The report demonstrates that the OEP is happy to collaborate with the Government, help set the direction for the future and maintain momentum. However, it will also not hold back on raising concerns where appropriate.

On the whole, it appears that the OEP is pleased to be taking an active role in shaping the future of the provisions that will ultimately improve the UK environment. How its approach to enforcement will shape up is yet to be seen.