UK environmental inaction blasted by MPs

The chairman of the powerful Environmental Audit Committee  has hit out at the “years of delay” over the UK’s environmental policies.

Philip Dunne MP has written to the environment secretary, Thérèse Coffey, raising the Committee’s concerns that a culture of delay at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is holding up  progress on a range of promised environment policies.

It comes after the UK government failed to meet the statutory deadline of 31October to confirm new long-term targets for air quality, water, biodiversity and species abundance and resource efficiency and waste reduction.

The deadline to establish these targets was set in the Government’s Environment Act, which received Royal Assent in November 2021. The letter from the EAC has called for the targets now to be set and published ahead of the final stage of the COP15 international biodiversity conference, which is scheduled to open in Montreal on 7 December.

Coffey told the House of Commons she was “disappointed” to find that the Government was not yet in a place to publish the targets. This followed a consultation period which closed in June 2022.

Dunne said: “In common with many other stakeholders in the environmental sector, the Committee is increasingly concerned to note delays in substantive policy progress at DEFRA in crucial areas where the Government now has control of policy.

“The country is facing grave challenges as we look to reverse the decline of our precious biodiversity. Prompt, clear and decisive action is now of the utmost importance. My letter to the Environment Secretary clearly sets out for her the Committee’s views on the policy areas which urgently need clarity after – in some cases – years of delay.

“I am confident that the new Environment Secretary, who is no stranger to DEFRA, will swiftly get a grip on these issues which have been backed up in her department. She will know that if we want the UK to be a global leader on sustainability, we must make more urgent progress. The Committee expects to see targets under the Environment Act published before global environmental leaders come together to discuss protecting biodiversity at next month’s landmark COP15 conference.”

Within the letter, the Committee pointed out several other policies and initiatives which have been delayed.

It called for actions to set out a timetable for publication of documents on initiatives such as the Extended Producer Responsibility scheme for packaging, the Chemicals Strategy, the Environmental Principles Policy Statement and the National Action Plan for Pesticides.

In his letter to the Secretary of State, Dunne singled out water quality and tackling fast fashion as key areas with slow progress.

In the last Parliament, EAC published a report on measurers to tackle the negative environmental impacts of cheap clothing. While Ministers rejected the majority of the report’s recommendations, the Government did pledge to launch a consultation on tackling textile waste – taking into account an Extended Producer Responsibility scheme and product design and consumer information – and on fishing gear. However, neither consultation paper has yet materialised.

On water quality, the letter raises concerns that the Government’s delay in setting a strong strategic direction for regulators and the industry via the statutory target under the Environment Act is holding up Ministers’ commitments to addressing the widespread issues affecting water quality in rivers in England.