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Updated Nov 3, 2022

Government breaches its "World-leading" Environment Act

The Government has breached its own legislation, after missing a deadline to introduce new legally binding targets for air quality, water health, nature, and waste management set under the "World-leading" Environment Act 2021.

Thérèse Coffey, the new environment secretary, published a written ministerial statement confirming that the targets designed to support the country’s nature recovery would not be released on 31 October as promised. No new date has been given for publication of the targets, just that they would be issued once Defra officials had dealt with 180,000 consultation responses. Coffey said the volume of responses had made it impossible for Defra to meet the deadline.

The breach could prove an embarrassment for the UK on the World stage, with COP27 UN climate talks due to begin on 6 November. The deadline for the Environment Act targets were set specifically so the delegation would have biodiversity and nature targets to present to other countries.

What should have been done?

The missed requirements under the Environment Act 2021 specifically required draft legislation to be laid before Parliament by 31 October 2022 which set out:

  • environmental targets;
  • the PM2.5 air quality target;
  • the species abundance target.

Click here to read that section of the Act on Cedrec.

OEP reaction

The Office for Environmental Protection (OEP), the independent department set up under the Environment Act to hold the Government and other regulators to account over compliance with environmental law, has expressed concerns of "a pattern of missing legislative deadlines".

In a statement, OEP chair Dame Glenys Stacey called the issue "deeply regrettable", warning the Government it could face enforcement action over its failure to publish the targets.

"We will continue to monitor progress and will hold the Government to account to ensure targets are in place quickly," she said.

Dame Stacey had previously warned Coffey that, while the OEP would take any further action just yet, Defra had missed five other legal deadlines for environmental measures, largely connected with water.

She added, "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."

Green groups response

Green groups have submitted a letter of complaint to Defra over the Government failure to meet its legal deadline, urging it to publish the targets as soon as possible. 

The complaint has also been shared with the OEP.

Dr Richard Benwell, CEO of Wildlife and Countryside Link, said:

"It is a worrying sign that the Government has failed to meet the legal deadline for setting targets. It does not inspire confidence that the Government will meet the targets themselves.

"The Government should work quickly to publish its package of targets, using this extra time to ensure they are as strong as possible. The package must include targets for the condition of habitats, for the overall quality of our rivers and streams, and an ambitious target to reverse the decline of wildlife – all of which were missing in the consultation, but all of which are necessary for the future of nature."

Ruth Chambers of the Greener UK coalition also commented:

"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."

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