Environment watchdog told to investigate government over delayed nature targets

Nature charities have filed a complaint against the government after it failed to publish legally-binding targets to clean up rivers and reduce air pollution by an October deadline.

The National Trust, RSPB and The Wildlife Trusts are among dozens of groups calling on the environment watchdog to investigate the government’s failure to set the legally-required targets in time.

The Environment Act targets are seen as a crucial step toward cleaning up Britain’s waterways and air pollution, as well as boosting the abundance of wildlife and biodiversity on Britain’s shores.

It comes after conservationists accused the last Conservative government under Liz Truss of launching an attack on nature, for greenlighting fracking, reviewing a farming scheme that aimed to enhance nature and for proposing to liberalise planning rules in so-called “investment zones” across the country among other proposals.

It also comes just days before the crucial Cop27 climate summit will start in Egypt.

The government has said the targets will help meet its “vision of leaving the environment in a better state than it was found,” and were supposed to provide certainty for businesses. The legal deadline for them to be laid before parliament was on Monday.

Richard Benwell, CEO of Wildlife and Countryside Link, an umbrella organisation for nature and conservation groups whose members backed the complaint, said it was a “worrying” sign that the government failed to meet the legal deadline.

“It does not inspire confidence that the Government will meet the targets themselves,” he said, adding that the government should work quickly to publish the targets, using the extra time to ensure they are as strong as possible.

There is also concern among conservationists that missing the deadline to set new targets on biodiversity may hinder plans for Cop15 - the UN’s biodiversity conference - to inspire ambition in other global partners.

An outflow pipe at Seafield beach in Scotland (Toby Williams/PA) (PA Archive)
An outflow pipe at Seafield beach in Scotland (Toby Williams/PA) (PA Archive)

The campaigners say they have submitted the complaint to the government’s environment department and the Office for the Environmental Protection watchdog, which could choose to pursue enforcement proceedings against the government.

In the letter of complaint to the government, the groups also point to other delayed policies and programmes, including the revised National Air Pollution Control Programme and the bottle deposit return scheme - and suggest “delay is at risk of becoming the default culture in Defra.”

It comes after the Office for the Environmental Protection watchdog had warned the government that it is concerned “there is a pattern of missing legislative deadlines”, and warned that it could be subject to a court challenge. It also called on the government to publish its environmental targets by the end of the year “at the latest.”

Therese Coffey, the new environment secretary under Rishi Sunak, said in a written ministerial statement on Friday that in light of the volume of material from the consultation that ended in June the government would not be able to publish the targets in time for the legal deadline.

“However, I would like to reassure this House and all interested parties that we will continue to work at pace in order to lay draft statutory instruments as soon as practicable,” she added.

Therese Coffey (PA)
Therese Coffey (PA)

However, the nature groups said the government had had plenty of time to prepare the targets, pointing out that discussions with stakeholders began in February 2019, and called on the government to publish a revised timeframe for publishing the targets.

They also call on DEFRA to commission an independent review to examine why this deadline was missed.

The complaint follows a recent decision by the High Court that the government’s climate strategy is unlawful because it was too vague, and requested an updated strategy by March.

The new version will have to show clearly how government policies will deliver on its targets.