A good system of environmental metrics is particularly important in the light of the government’s 25-year plan for the environment, setting out its ambition to improve the natural environment in England within a generation.
Meeting this ambition will require significant and co-ordinated action across a range of different sectors of the economy, and in some areas, it will involve reversing long-term trends of decline. Good performance metrics will be essential in ensuring that the government’s ambitions are met.
The National Audit Office's recent report is an update to a 2015 NAO briefing on environmental and sustainability metrics which raised a number of concerns. While there are aspects of government's approach which are good, and which compare favourably internationally, as a whole weaknesses we raised in 2015 remain.
The UK is one of the countries that has progressed furthest with developing data sources to report against a set of globally agreed indicators for the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
The Climate Change Act 2008 is widely regarded as establishing a robust framework for measuring progress on climate change mitigation and adaptation, which includes metrics on projected as well as current performance on greenhouse gas emissions.
However, there remains a patchwork of metric sets that do not clearly fit with government's overall objectives or with each other. While the UK publishes data for 64 percent of the global Sustainable Development Goal indicators, there is a timelag with a third of published information at least three or more years old.
Separate NAO reports have also raised concerns about how effectively metrics are used to inform decision-making in practice.
On air quality, the NAO found that that there was no clear single responsibility within government for knowing whether the initiatives form a coherent portfolio that delivers good value for money as a whole for air quality. For packaging recycling, Defra had not asked important questions about risks and value for money when reviewing performance against the main measure.
Much environmental monitoring is currently undertaken by the EU. Government needs to put robust performance measurement and monitoring processes in place to meet its commitment that leaving the EU will not mean environmental protections are diluted.
At the same time, EU exit could bring opportunities for Defra to review their wider reporting to assess whether it all adds value in relation to UK goals.
Government's plans for a new group of performance indicators to measure progress against its 25-year Environment Plan are promising. These aim to give an overview of the health of the natural environment, including the quality of air, water and wildlife diversity.
These plans should help decision-makers understand whether government's actions as a whole are consistent with its ambition to improve the natural environment within a generation, and it should help highlight potential interactions between different policy areas.
However, there are several issues that government will need to address. Defra has not yet done enough to engage other parts of government with its approach, nor to set clear accountabilities for performance. This is despite the Departments for Transport, Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and Ministry for Homes, Communities and Local Government having a significant impact on the natural environment.
There is no clear, single point of ownership for performance as a whole across government on the 25-year Environment Plan and more work is needed to embed environmental metrics into government’s core planning and performance monitoring.
Government is establishing a new environmental watchdog to fill a potential 'governance gap' after EU exit, given the role that the European Commission has played in holding government to account for environmental legislation, including on air quality.
The draft Environment Bill would establish the watchdog as the Office of Environmental Protection, with an obligation to publish an independent annual progress report on implementation of the 25 year Environment Plan, and to investigate the compliance of public authorities with environmental law. It would be able to set its own strategy, and would have the power to issue formal compliance notices to public authorities and to apply for judicial review.
The watchdog will be funded through Defra, with a Chair appointed by the Secretary of State for Defra. While in principle this is not incompatible with it being functionally independent it could bring risks for its independence in practice, or for its perceived independence.
Amyas Morse, the head of the NAO, said: “Robust performance data and transparent reporting is essential for Parliament and the public to hold government to account on its ambition to improve the natural environment within a generation.
"Government’s new system of environmental metrics could transform its approach. But the critical tests will be whether all parts of government actually use this information to monitor progress and take action, and whether the new environmental watchdog has the ‘teeth’ to play its part effectively.”
This article is based on a press release from the National Audit Office