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NCC troubled by government's progress report on the environment

Words: Laura Edgar
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The Natural Capital Committee (NCC) has expressed concerns about the government’s progress report on its 25-year-environment plan, finding that it fails to assess whether England’s environment has improved.

Responding to the government’s progress report on the 25-year environment plan published in May, the NCC says there is “little evidence of progress”.

Instead, it found that there is “some worrying evidence of declines in our environment”.

In 2011, the government published the Natural Environment white paper. In that, the committee highlights, was a commitment to “be the first generation to leave the natural environment in a better state than it inherited”.

The committee’s report states that the “existing metric and indicator framework do not provide a baseline against which progress can be measured”. Progress, it explains, cannot be measured until such a baseline is established and the proposed Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) will not be able to carry out its scrutiny function without it.

It also advises that the environmental baseline census should be conducted across England in 2020, and then repeated every five years to ensure that there is a “clear, periodic understanding” of trends in the country’s natural capital assets.

The committee points out that the progress report focused on a long list of actions rather than providing an assessment of outcomes. It states that reporting on progress must go beyond a summary of actions or administrative processes.

“Urgent” action and commitment is needed from the government to develop targets and metric to assess progress, which are placed on a “meaningful” statutory basis in the environment bill.

The committee supports the notion that the OEP should be truly independent, as it will be “essential” in providing an impartial assessment of progress against the targets.

The 25-year environment plan, published in January 2018, includes 10 goals. The committee recommends that each of these goals should be clearly defined. Currently, they are “high-level descriptive statements” – they “are not quantitative”.  All of the goals must be “supported by a number of statutory, quantitative targets”.

Professor Dieter Helm, chairman of the NCC, writes in the report: “Unfortunately, the progress report does not in fact tell us very much about whether and to what extent there has been progress. On the contrary, the progress report provides a long list of actions, and presents very little evidence of improvements in the state of our natural capital. This is especially disappointing since eight years have now passed since the white paper set its objective.

“This failure is due to the lack of a natural capital assets baseline against which to measure progress. From the ad hoc evidence presented in the progress report, not only is there little evidence of progress, but some worrying evidence of declines in environmental quality.

“To turn this around, the NCC has already recommended that the 25 YEP should be put on a meaningful statutory footing, including statutory targets and five-year milestones to ensure the objectives are met. As a matter of urgency, the government should commit to establishing an environmental baseline against which progress can be measured.”

The Natural Capital Committee’s Response to the 25 Year Environment Plan Progress Report can be found on the UK Government website (pdf).

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