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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Helena Horton Environment reporter

UK government delays clean water and nature targets, breaching Environment Act

New environment secretary Thérèse Coffey leaving Downing Street.
New environment secretary Thérèse Coffey leaving Downing Street after the first Cabinet meeting under prime minister Rishi Sunak. Photograph: Victoria Jones/PA

The government has delayed publication of clean water and biodiversity targets, putting it in breach of its Environment Act, ministers have admitted.

Thérèse Coffey, the environment secretary, published a written ministerial statement on Friday confirming that the targets underpinning the country’s nature recovery would not be released on 31 October as promised.

This could prove an embarrassment on the world stage at the Cop27 UN climate talks in November, as the deadline was set so the delegation would have biodiversity and nature targets to present to other countries.

Coffey did not give a new date for the publication of the targets, and it is understood to be unlikely they will be announced by the second week of the international climate summit, which is when biodiversity and nature are expected to be discussed.

The statement reads that in light of a “significant public response” to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ consultation on nature recovery, “we will not be able to publish targets by 31 October, as required by the act”.

She added the department would “continue to work at pace in order to lay draft statutory instruments as soon as practicable” and that the government will “remain committed to our future target to halt the decline in species by 2030”.

Caroline Lucas, the Green party MP, said: “Defra admits in a cursory statement slipped out this morning that it’s failed to fulfil statutory duty to publish environment bill targets. This matters. Yet the government claims they have capacity to review 570 green laws by end of next year under the retained EU law bill! Madness.”

The government has been accused of trashing its reputation on nature by threatening more than 500 environmental laws under the retained EU law bill. This is due to a a sunset clause set for the end of next year, by which time any bills not amended or retained by parliament will fall. Critics say it is unlikely the government could review the thousands of laws in that time.

Environment groups including the RSPB, Wildlife Trusts and National Trust have accused the government of an “attack on nature” for policies including weakening environmental protections in investment zones, the retained EU law bill and threatening to downgrade new environment-friendly farming subsidies. The Truss administration briefed that the nature groups were lying in order to boost membership numbers.

Coffey is trying to calm tensions by arranging a meeting with leaders of these groups on Friday but this latest government failure is likely to make that task more difficult.

Craig Bennett, the chief executive of the Wildlife Trusts, told the Guardian: “It’s both astonishing and disgraceful that this government has failed to deliver on the requirements of the Environment Act, which it passed just a few months ago, and which earlier this week the prime minister said we should all see as a matter of pride.

“If it doesn’t have the bandwidth, capability and focus to set a handful of targets for nature’s recovery, how on earth does it think it has the ability to review 570 pieces of environmental legislation in the next 12 months, as will be required by the appalling retained EU law bill? The new prime minister and secretary of state have only been in post a few days but I urge them to sort out this mess as soon as they possibly can.”

The shadow environment secretary, Jim McMahon, described the failure to meet the deadline as “a huge embarrassment to them and deeply worrying for the UK’s environment”.

“Failing to meet the legal deadline to introduce targets to ensure we have clean air, land and water amounts to a monumental dereliction of duty,” he said. “This is yet another example of the Conservatives being all talk when it comes to the environment, but failing to provide the leadership and the action that is desperately needed.”

Coffey said: “I was part of the ministerial team that created the 25-year environment plan and prepared the environment bill presented to parliament in 2019. Defra will continue to work at pace to finalise these environmental targets.”

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