Watchdogs Challenge DEFRA Over Delaying Air Pollution Targets
Nov 07 2022
All told, we’ve had three different Secretaries of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) this year – but there’s a worrying consistency to their approaches.
In March, under George Eustice, Boris Johnson’s appointment to the position, DEFRA announced an indefinite delay to promised reforms regarding extended producer responsibility as part of the UK’s Resources and Waste Strategy – the first update of Britain’s waste management system in a decade. The reforms were originally planned for introduction in 2023, but now it’s completely unclear what the timeline is going to be or when the Department will again raise the question. Similarly, when Ranil Jayawardena stepped up to the plate in early September, it took less than a week for a delay in the introduction of new checks on certain foodstuffs crossing the border to be announced. And now, Rishi Sunak PM’s pick for Secretary, Thérèse Coffey, has announced perhaps the most consequential delay of this delay-filled year: there will be an indefinite pause before the announcement of new air pollution targets (as well as those for water quality and biodiversity), a delay which breaches the Environment Act of 2021.
Many environmental pressure groups and watchdogs, including the RSPB, all of the Wildlife Trusts and the National Trust, have been unsparing in their criticism of this decision, with many emphasising the accumulation of indicators that DEFRA is constructing a culture of delay. For instance, Ruth Chambers of the Greener UK coalition told the Guardian that: “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.” Broadly, these organisations are united in the demand that this delay in publication be used to draw up a stronger set of targets in time for the UN’s Biodiversity Conference in December.
Most importantly, though, the Chair of the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP), Dame Glenys Stacey, has expressed severe concern over the delay, and has been holding talks with the Secretary on the matter. The OEP is licensed to launch investigations into government action in the interest of mounting a legal challenge, if necessary. Reportedly, the Dame has warned Coffey that the possibility of pursuing such a course was being kept under active review.
Set up prior to the delay, the meeting aimed initially to consider the strengthening of the proposed targets, an improvement for which many environmentalists had been lobbying. “The targets proposed earlier this year,” wrote Stacey in a letter to Coffey, “are welcome in many respects. “There is room for improvement, however, and a chance, still, to present a suitably ambitious and comprehensive suite of targets.” Nevertheless, whatever the targets may be, Stacey emphasised that it is imperative that environmental targets be in place by the end of the year: “Further delay risks unduly the implementation of important environmental policies so much needed to fulfil government’s commitments to environmental protection.”
As Stacey approaches her conclusion, the tone darkens: “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.” Unfortunately, then, Therese Coffey may pay the price for the failures of her predecessors and the generalised political upheaval of this year, yet it is clear that some action must be taken to reverse a dangerous trend of inaction.
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