England’s environment is being put at risk by weaknesses in the Government’s monitoring of regulations, the public spending watchdog has warned.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) had a backlog of 63 post-implementation reviews by March, limiting its insight into how well regulation is working.
Defra also has limited data on the effectiveness of its regulation which inform decisions about future activities and resources, the National Audit Office (NAO) found.
Meg Hillier MP, chair of the Committee of Public Accounts, said more action is needed to protect nature for future generations.
She said: “Government knows regulation is key to meeting its ambitious environmental targets, but it hasn’t tackled the issue head-on.
“Today’s NAO report shows that Defra has failed to use the five years since its 25 Year Environment Plan was published to take stock of what works, or set itself up to achieve its goals.
“We know government struggles to protect the environment today, so Defra needs to take swift action to convince citizens and businesses that our natural environment will be protected for generations to come.”
As of 2020, only 16 per cent of waters in England were deemed as being in good ecological status but the Government’s Water Framework Directive is working to a target of 75 per cent by 2027.
The Daily Express has highlighted the state of the nation’s waterways through the Green Britain Needs You campaign.
There are more than 30 bodies involved in regulating environmental outcomes, including the Environment Agency (EA) and Natural England.
Both EA and Natural England face workforce challenges, the report warned.
In February 2023, the EA had vacancies of around 600 full-time equivalent posts, five per cent of its planned staffing.
Natural England has reduced its vacancy gap from over 250 in September 2022 to one in February 2023.
Defra is still at “an early stage” in understanding how existing regulations affect its plans, the NAO said.
The Department published detailed strategies on resources and waste in 2018 and air quality in 2019.
It published its water strategy earlier this month while work is underway to set outcome reporting for each of the statutory targets.
Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO, said: “If the government is to achieve its ambitious environmental goals, Defra will have to be much clearer on the detailed changes to regulation required as part of its overall approach.”
The NAO recommended that Defra set out a detailed plan for how it will achieve the goals of the Environmental Improvement Plan by December 2024.
It also suggested that the department has a better administrative handle on its post-implementation reviews by the same period. This includes clearing the current backlog.
A Government source insisted Environment Secretary Therese Coffey is switching Defra’s strategy from “delay to delivery”.
In December, she made it a priority to publish the Government’s delayed legally binding targets to protect the environment, boost nature and clean up air and rivers.
A Defra spokesman said:“Our Environmental Improvement Plan is a clear blueprint to deliver on our commitment to leave the environment in a better state than we found it.
“We are already taking robust action to halt nature’s decline – this includes the creation of 175,000 hectares of wildlife habitat equivalent to the size of Dorset, and targeted efforts to improve species abundance, air and water quality.
“Regular monitoring, planning and reporting underpins our work to achieve our long-term environmental targets, as well as scrutiny from the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) and Parliament.”