Further progress towards ambitious 2018 goals for improving England’s natural environment are being put at risk by weaknesses in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ (Defra) oversight of regulation, a new National Audit Office (NAO) report says.

The NAO’s report, Regulating to achieve environmental outcomes examines whether Defra and the associated arm’s-length bodies involved in regulating for environmental outcomes are using regulation1 effectively to achieve environmental objectives.

Defra has lead responsibility in government for all environmental policy areas except net zero. In 2018, Defra published a 25 Year Environmental Plan to position the UK as a global environmental leader, setting 10 overarching goals including clean air, water, and wildlife.2

In 2023 the department set binding statutory targets in four priority areas: air quality; water; biodiversity; and waste reduction. In January 2023 Defra published the Environmental Improvement Plan, setting out the importance of both existing and planned regulatory interventions in achieving these environmental goals.

Defra is still at an early stage in understanding how existing regulations affect its plans. In 2011 Defra published a biodiversity strategy on how it would implement international and EU commitments up until 2020. It is yet to publish an update. Defra published detailed strategies on resources and waste in 2018 and air quality in 2019. Defra published its water strategy in April 2023. Work is underway to set outcome reporting for each of the statutory targets.

The Environment Agency (EA) and Natural England have key roles and are two of around 30 bodies involved in regulating for environmental outcomes. Both EA and Natural England face workforce challenges. In February 2023 the EA had vacancies of around 600 full-time equivalent posts (FTE), 5% of its planned staffing. Natural England has reduced its vacancy gap from over 250 in September 2022 to one in February 2023 but recognises that it has a significant risk around capability.

They are also facing demand to increase activity in some areas, such as monitoring and inspections to respond to failures on water quality. The report’s case studies identify areas where they and Defra are falling behind with their work, for example backlogs in permit applications or delays in developing plans to administer new waste regulations.

On water quality, the report notes that as of 2020 only 16% of water bodies in England were deemed as being in good ecological status; the Water Framework Directive3 is working to a target of 75% by 2027.4

The NAO found that Defra had a backlog of 63 Post-Implementation Reviews, as of March 2023, limiting its insight into how well regulation is working or the burden on business. The department also has limited data on the effectiveness of its regulation to inform decisions about future activities and where to prioritise resources. Defra developed a department-wide evaluation strategy in February 2023 and is in the early stages of taking this forward.

As Defra takes forward its environmental plans it has decisions to make about the design and operation of regulation to ensure it is meeting its targets. The NAO recommends that Defra sets out a detailed operational plan for how it will achieve the goals of the Environmental Improvement Plan, including the role of regulation alongside other policy interventions, by December 2024.

The NAO has also recommended that, by December 2024, the department has a better administrative handle on its Post-Implementation Reviews. This includes clearing the current backlog.

“If the government is to achieve its ambitious environmental goals, Defra will have to be much clearer on the detailed changes to regulation required as part of its overall approach.”

Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO

Read the full report

Regulating to achieve environmental outcomes

Notes for editors

Press notices and reports are available from the date of publication on the NAO website. Hard copies can be obtained by using the relevant links on our website.

  1. We use the term regulation to describe a set of rules and expected behaviours that people and organisations should follow, which will often involve bodies with regulatory powers enforcing and influencing compliance with those rules or behaviours. Defra already uses regulation extensively in achieving environmental outcomes, particularly through arm’s-length bodies such as the Environment Agency and Natural England.
  2. The 10 Goals of the 25 Year Environment Plan, as restated in the Environmental Improvement Plan
    • Goal 1: Thriving plants and wildlife
    • Goal 2: Clean air
    • Goal 3: Clean and plentiful water
    • Goal 4: Managing exposure to chemicals and pesticides
    • Goal 5: Maximise our resources, minimise our waste
    • Goal 6: Using resources from nature sustainably
    • Goal 7: Mitigating and adapting to climate change
    • Goal 8: Reduced risk of harm from environmental hazards
    • Goal 9: Enhancing biosecurity
    • Goal 10: Enhanced beauty, heritage, and engagement with the natural environment
  3. The Water Framework Directive (WFD) Regulations are a mechanism for assessing and managing the water environment in the UK. It originates from the EU Water Framework Directive, but still forms part of UK law post-Brexit.
  4. In November 2022, Defra indicated that it may want to make changes to improve the operation of the Water Framework Directive.