UK environment watchdog rebukes government for slow action on nature

Slow progress on the UK’s 25-year environment plan could lead to ecological tipping points such as collapsing fish stocks, says the Office for Environmental Protection


12 May 2022

Pollution on the Jubilee river in Taplow, UK

Maureen McLean/Shutterstock

The UK’s post-Brexit “green watchdog” has criticised the government’s slow progress on its flagship plan to protect and restore nature, warning that a “stately” pace of action could lead to environmental tipping points including collapses in fish stocks.

In its first public intervention since being created by law in November 2021, the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) warned of worrying declines in the numbers of birds and other wildlife, and lamented falling funding for monitoring the health of rivers and soil.

“We’re edging seemingly inexorably towards real tipping points for the environment,” says Glenys Stacey, chair of the OEP, a new independent agency designed to safeguard environmental standards after the UK’s departure from the European Union.


Overall progress on the government’s 25-year environment plan, launched four years ago, has been too slow, the group said in a report today. Policies since 2018 have failed to reverse declining biodiversity or significantly improve polluted waterways and the air, the watchdog said.

Only 16 per cent of rivers in England were in good ecological health, the group pointed out, while only 33 of the UK’s 44 air quality zones complied with annual limits on nitrogen dioxide, a harmful pollutant mainly produced by diesel cars. Stacey says progress to arrest degradation of the marine environment has been weak, and was “stately at best”.

Simon Brockington at the OEP says the pace of progress means the UK is nearing ecological tipping points  “where a very slow and persistent and gradual decline suddenly becomes catastrophic”. He says examples include setting fish catch quotas too high, destructive “bottom trawling” of the sea floor and nutrient run-off from farmland, which can pollute waterways.

Outside the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), cross-government support for the 25-year plan lacks the gravitas or urgency of the UK’s net zero goal, the group adds. “Our message to government is clear: do not delay making the changes necessary to protect, restore, [and] improve the environment,” says Stacey.

Senior environmental figures in government told New Scientist they hope the intervention by the OEP injects some momentum to meet the aims of the 25-year plan, which is meant to deliver on a 2011 pledge to “leave our environment in a better state than we found it”. The new report indicates that the UK is no closer to that goal now than it was at a damning assessment by the country’s spending watchdog two years ago.

Craig Bennett from the Wildlife Trusts charity says of the report: “We strongly agree with this. There is a problem within government: there’s just not a sense of the kind of timescales and urgency needed.” He says too often policy announcements on nature were piecemeal and moves by some departments undermined Defra’s positive steps.

The OEP, which since January has had legal powers to take enforcement action against public authorities for environmental failings, revealed it had already received 39 complaints from members of the public.

Defra says it welcomes the report and will respond to its recommendations later this summer.

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