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All Talk and No Action: The OEP reports on the Government´s 25 Year Environment Plan

When the UK left the EU, there were some concerns about the ability of the proposed new environmental watchdog, the Office of Environmental Protection (OEP), to scrutinise and enforce environmental law in the UK.

Would the OEP be weak and ineffective? Unable to effectively enforce the law without the ECJ´s ability to levy fines against the State? Could the OEP really be independent if it was appointed by and resourced by a minister? Would it hold the government to account, or would it be ineffective and reluctant to criticise government?

Despite these misgivings, the OEP was legally created on 17 November 2021 (under the Environment Act 2021) with a mission “to protect and improve the environment by holding government and other public authorities to account.”[1] Six months later, on 12 May 2022, the OEP published its first monitoring report on the Government’s 25 Year Environment Plan.

The Government’s 25 Year Environment Plan (published in 2018) set out goals for improving the environment in ten key areas:

  1. Clean air.
  2. Clean and plentiful water.
  3. Thriving plants and wildlife.
  4. A reduced risk of harm from environmental hazards such as flooding and drought.
  5. Using resources from nature more sustainably and efficiently.
  6. Enhanced beauty, heritage and engagement with the natural environment.
  7. Mitigating and adapting to climate change.
  8. Minimising waste.
  9. Managing exposure to chemicals.
  10. Enhancing biosecurity.

The OEP’s first report

The OEP’s first report is highly critical of the government´s lack of progress on these goals. It says:

Four years on, it is time to turn ambition into action and outcomes. Regrettably, 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 environmenturgent action is needed to achieve the ambitions of the 25 YEP, by focusing on the actual delivery of environmental improvements”.[2]

It is a relief to see that, even if it does not have all of the enforcement powers many would like, at least the OEP is not afraid to scrutinise government.

However, it is appalling that the report has found that despite all the government´s talk about what it is doing to combat environmental pollution, it has not even managed to significantly slow down the damage that is being done to the environment. We do not have time to wait years while the government does too little too late. People like Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah are dying from air pollution.

In its report, the OEP looks at the various issues which are preventing progress on the government´s environment goals. Key themes which emerge are a failure to prioritise, incoherent policies and strategies, and a failure to collaborate effectively across government.

The OEP sets out a clear framework for action to combat this, comprising 6 building blocks (understanding environmental drivers and pressures, creating a vision, setting targets, coherent strategy and policy, governance and monitoring, assessing and reporting) and 16 recommendations.

We are pleased to see that amongst the recommendations (building block 1 – understanding environmental drivers and pressures), the OEP highlights that air pollution must be a key priority, as it is “a major human health hazard”. The OEP says this “is an area which merits urgent action”. [2]

We hope that the government listens to this.  There is an opportunity right now to make sure that other children like Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah do not have to breathe filthy, polluted air. The government must pass ´Ella’s law´, the landmark Clean Air bill currently going through Parliament, which would establish a human right to clean air in the UK.

There is also no excuse for the government not to set new air quality and environmental targets now, in line with WHO guidelines. The government’s consultation on air quality targets is still ongoing and has been extended until 27 Jun 2022. Responses can be submitted on the DEFRA website.

Complaining to the OEP

We also agree with the OEP’s view that far more extensive environmental monitoring and reporting is needed. Members of the public can help with this, by complaining to the OEP if they think that a public authority, such as government departments or local authorities, have broken environmental law.[3]

The OEP website notes that the two most common ways in which a public authority could fail to comply with environmental law are:

  • failing to take proper account of environmental law when carrying out its activities, for example not carrying out an environmental impact assessment.
  • unlawfully exercising, or failing to exercise, any activities it has to carry out under environmental law, for example not properly regulating environmentally harmful activities it is responsible for licensing.

As well as complaining to the OEP, in some cases it may also be possible to take legal action against a public authority that has failed to comply with environmental law, for example by bringing a Judicial Review claim in the High Court. HJA’s Environmental Justice Solicitors can advise and assist with making complaints to the OEP and are also increasingly being instructed on Judicial Review claims.

We say to government: No more talk, it’s time for action.