Ministers have been reported to England’s new environment watchdog for failing to meet a deadline to set new targets for clean air and water.
Campaigners including the National Trust, the RSPB, Wildlife Trusts and Asthma & Lung UK submitted a complaint to the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) on Tuesday after raising the issue with the government earlier this month.
Therese Coffey, the environment secretary, acknowledged last month that her department was going to miss the 31 October legal deadline to publish new targets to clean up air and water, and to stop the decline of wildlife. But she said it would “continue to work at pace” and lay the targets before parliament “as soon as practicable.”
But nearly a month later, the targets – which are meant to help the government meet its “vision of leaving the environment in a better state than it was found” – have still not been published. They are seen as crucial to protect public health and boost wildlife and biodiversity in England, as well as to show leadership on the world stage ahead of the UN’s biodiversity conference in Canada next month.
Earlier this month, green groups submitted a letter of complaint to the Department for Food, Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra) urging ministers to publish a timeframe for introducing the targets and outline what measures they would take to avoid missing such deadlines in future. They also copied the watchdog and publicly called on it to investigate the government’s failure to set the legally-required targets in time but did not submit a formal complaint.
The groups said the government replied to their complaint last week but failed to provide a specific timescale and to acknowledge that in missing the deadline it had broken the law. The organisations say a proposal for an independent review of why the deadline was missed was also dismissed.
In response, more than 30 organisations have now escalated their action by backing a joint complaint to the OEP. They say they are concerned that the failure to publish new targets will now impact on the legal deadline to publish the Environmental Improvement Plan by 31 January, which sets out the steps the government intends to take to improve the natural environment, including measures needed to meet its targets.
“Within a year of passing it, the government has broken the key part of the Environment Act which would have seen new targets set to clean up our air, improve water quality and stop the decline of our wildlife,” said Matt Browne, head of policy and advocacy at Wildlife and Countryside Link.
“Following repeated failures to set a new timeline for these targets, we have no other option but to complain to the watchdog the Government itself created for scrutiny of its environmental work.”
The OEP has the power to investigate and commence legal proceedings when needed.
The complaint comes after the OEP itself warned the government that it was concerned over “a pattern of missing legislative deadlines”, and that it could be subject to a court challenge.
It called on the government to publish its environmental targets by the end of the year “at the latest.”
It comes after environmentalists accused the last Conservative government under Liz Truss of launching an attack on nature, for greenlighting fracking and for proposing to liberalise planning rules in so-called “investment zones” across the country, among other proposals.
Earlier this year, the High Court ruled that the government’s strategy to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 was unlawful because it was too vague and requested it publishes an updated strategy by March. The new version will have to show clearly how government policies will deliver on official targets.
Speaking in November Dr Coffey said the government already has existing legal targets for action on air and water quality, and that air quality is improving across the country.
This article has been updated