Local authorities play a ‘critical role’ in improving air quality and the natural environment but they lack the necessary resources and expertise, according to the public spending watchdog.
The National Audit Office (NAO) has published a new report assessing the Government’s progress on achieving its long-term environment goals since it declared in 2011 that this would be the first generation to leave the natural environment in a better state that it inherited.
Seven years after that declaration, the Government published a 25 Year Environmental Plan to achieve this ambition. The plan set 10 overarching goals covering issues such as clean air, clean and plentiful water and thriving plants and wildlife.
The NAO concluded that while there has been some progress, it is ‘not yet clear that the Government has in place what it needs to meet its long-term environmental goals.’
‘The Environment Plan marked a step forward in setting direction for environmental policy, but its headline ambitions are a mixture of aspirations, legally binding targets and policy commitments, with varying and unclear timescales,’ the report summary reads.
The report acknowledges that in January 2020 the Government presented what the NAO describes as ‘a wide-ranging’ Environment Bill to Parliament, which would help clarify ambitions for five of the Government’s environmental goals.
The Bill includes requirements for the Government to set at least one new long-term target for air quality, water, biodiversity and resource efficiency and waste reduction. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic the Bill’s progress through Parliament was paused between March and November 2020.
The head of the NAO, Gareth Davies, warned that much more needs to be done if the Government is to meet its stated aim.
‘The Government wants this to be the first generation to leave the natural environment in England in a better state than it inherited,’ he said.
‘However, it is now nine years since the Government set this ambition and it still does not have the right framework to achieve it.
‘Some progress has been made on elements of the Environment Plan but significant action is needed across national and local government, working with business and the public, if the environmental goals are to be met.’
The report found that there is a skills and resource gap which it says could set back progress towards the Government’s environmental goals. In particular, it warned that this was affecting local authorities which, according to the NAO, are ‘critical’ to achieving the Government’s environmental goals.
They are responsible for local air quality measures including new ‘clean air zones’. They are also responsible for waste management services, including recycling collections, and for developing local plans to guide development in their area, with the aim of meeting economic, social and environmental needs and opportunities.
A recent study has in fact revealed that over half of councils in the UK have set a goal of reaching net-zero carbon by 2030 or sooner.
The NAO’s report warned that COVID-19 was putting pressure on local authorities’ resources and undermining their access to the right expertise, including ecological expertise.
Responding to the report, Cllr David Renard, environment spokesperson for the Local Government Association (LGA), said: ‘This report underlines the key role that councils can play in tackling environmental issues, from improving air quality to ensuring local developments support the natural habitat.
‘However, it rightly highlights the significant pressures councils are under as a result of COVID-19, and the need for local government to have the right powers and resources so they can ensure local areas can be green and climate-friendly.
‘We would also like to see the Government establish a national framework where it works with councils and businesses to tackle the climate emergency, setting out clear roles and a commitment to co-operation from all public sector bodies.’
A Government spokesperson commented: ‘We are leading the world in protecting the natural environment and combatting climate change, and have made significant progress implementing our 25 Year Environment Plan for a greener future. Our landmark Environment Bill will go further by enshrining environmental targets for our air quality and biodiversity into law.
‘As we build back greener from the coronavirus pandemic, we are committed to shaping a cleaner and more resilient society to protect and restore our natural environment and diverse ecosystems.’