The head of the independent environmental watchdog is holding talks with the environment secretary over delays in meeting key targets to tackle water and air pollution and halt the decline in nature.
Dame Glenys Stacey, the chair of the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP), has told Thérèse Coffey, the new secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs, that the possibility of taking formal enforcement action against the government over multiple missed targets was being kept under active review. The OEP can launch an investigation and take legal action if it deems it necessary.
Stacey is meeting Coffey after the government missed a key deadline to come up with targets on water quality and halting the decline in nature, which are key planks within its own Environment Act.
Coffey said the targets underpinning the country’s nature recovery would not be released on 31 October as promised but gave no new deadline.
Environmental charities including the RSPB, the Wildlife Trusts and the National Trust have filed a complaint to the OEP and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) over the failure to come up with new legally binding targets for air quality, water health, nature and waste management. They also raised a complaint about failures to come up with promised policies to tackle pollution, including a deposit return scheme for plastic bottles first promised by Michael Gove in 2018.
The charities said that multiple missed deadlines suggest delay is at risk of becoming the default culture within Defra.
Ruth Chambers of the Greener UK coalition said: “By missing this deadline the government is undermining its own flagship legislation. We urge the new secretary of state to make this an urgent priority and set ambitious targets for restoring our natural environment.”
Stacey’s meeting with Coffey was set up to address strengthening the targets and the delay in their publication. “The targets proposed earlier this year are welcome in many respects,” she said in a letter to Coffey. “There is room for improvement, however, and a chance, still, to present a suitably ambitious and comprehensive suite of targets.”
Her concerns are echoed by environmental groups who want the delay in publication to be used to bring forward a stronger package of targets before the UN Biodiversity Conference (Cop15) in December.
Stacey warned Coffey that it was imperative the environmental targets are in place by the end of this calendar year at the very latest. “Further delay risks unduly the implementation of important environmental policies so much needed to fulfil government’s commitments to environmental protection,” she said.
“This is not a singular incident of a missed statutory deadline. I have set out … details of other environmental law deadlines which appear to have been missed recently … We remain concerned that there is a pattern of missing legislative deadlines.
“It is in this context, and the significance of the failure to comply with landmark domestic legislation, that we will keep our decisions on the use of any formal enforcement powers under active review as you progress your work now.”