Opportunities and Threats for UK Environmental Policy

Major threats to environmental policy over the current Parliament include deregulation, economic uncertainty and the dominance of the Treasury, according to panellists at a ‘Castle Debate‘ at the Law Society on 15th March. The event, ‘Government Environmental Policy: Opportunities and Threats‘, was the latest in a regular programme of discussion meetings organised by Pamela Castle OBE, providing an opportunity for leading experts to disseminate and discuss factual information on environmental science, policy and law, open to all.

Oliver Ilot, Institute for Government, introduced the challenges presented to two Government Departments, DECC and Defra, by the Government’s 2015 Spending Review. Between 2010 – 2015, remarkably for a Government Department in a time of austerity, DECC saw its day-to-day spending increase by 13 per cent. Its headcount similarly increased, by 36 per cent, due to the recruitment of a large number of Grade 6 and Grade 7 civil servants (policy analysts). This increase in spending and people was due to DECCs’ status as a newly formed department, ‘finding its feet’.

From 2015 – 2020, DECC must find seven per cent savings, a change to its previous position. Oliver suggested that DECC, over the course of this Parliament, faces a ‘fundamental transition’. Facing budget cuts for the first time in its history it is also operating under its first Conservative Secretary of State. Its priorities as a Department are ambiguous and, as Oliver described, ‘in a state of flux’.

Defra in contrast suffered large cuts to its budget between 2010 – 2015 and, combined with planned budget cuts from 2015 – 2020, will, over 10 years, have seen its budget cut by 45 per cent. The next five years for Defra, said Oliver, will be defined by the Department’s relationship with its ‘Arms Length Bodies’; from its non-ministerial departments, to its executive agencies and ‘Non-Departmental Public Bodies (NDPBs)’ (including the Environment Agency and Natural England). Many of these NDPBs have statutory independence and Defra is therefore constrained in the extent to which it can direct them to meet objectives in its business plan. A major question for Government in the next five years, said Oliver, is whether it can get its Arms Length Bodies to implement budget cuts in the way that it wants and get them working in a coordinated way – without impinging upon their independence.

Matthew Spencer, Director of Green Alliance, highlighted the need for all concerned parties to keep making the call to Government that smart policy and smart regulation is needed to encourage innovation and investment, for example in decarbonisation. The first half of the Coalition Government, said Matthew, saw the development of innovative environmental policy – from the Green Deal to the Zero-Carbon Homes standard and Carbon Capture and Storage. Progress stalled in 2013 and hasn’t been regained. There has been little momentum since the 2015 General Election, and even the remarkable agreement brokered at COP21 in Paris in December last year has little affected UK policy or politics with respect to carbon.

One significant threat to environmental policy in the coming years is, in Matthew’s opinion, the ‘major dominance of the Treasury’, which has no effective countering force within Government. This dominance , and the dominance of the push to reduce short term costs, makes it much harder for spending Departments to maintain stable policy. It also leads to a lack of innovation in policy as Departments seek only to comply with minimum standards, rather than take a dynamic approach. Recent policies dropped due to short-term spending targets include the ‘Zero Carbon Homes’ standard. This had taken eight years to develop and was supported by the housing sector, but was dropped based on evidence that it could slightly increase costs to house builders. The Green Investment Bank too will be sold off in 2016, despite being established only in 2012, due to the overriding objective of reducing the Government’s balance sheet liabilities.

The panellists presented few opportunities for the environment over coming years. Matthew Spencer did however suggest that catchment management could be a positive development for natural capital and biodiversity. An increase in extreme weather, and flooding in particular, has driven a renewed interest in the Cabinet Office and Defra in upstream planning. Catchment management plans are proposed across the UK that could have a genuinely positive effect for nature conservation.

Overall, the panellists called for greater leadership from the Government with respect to environmental policy; from the Prime Minister clearly voicing his support for environmental issues in public fora to the Government improving the ways in which it engages with the public and other stakeholders on environmental matters.

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