Background to the report

Government wants this to be the first generation to leave the natural environment of England in a better state than it inherited, and to help protect and improve the global environment. This is in recognition of the role that nature plays in supporting our health, wealth and well-being, as well as its intrinsic value.

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In January 2018 the 25 Year Environment Plan was published, setting out 10 overarching environmental goals to achieve the ambition of being the first generation to improve the natural environment of England. The Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) has lead responsibility for all environmental policy areas apart from climate change mitigation, for which the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy has the policy lead. Other parts of government also have important roles to play in achieving government’s environmental goals.

Scope of the report

This report examines how government has set itself up to deliver its long‑term environmental goals. These are broad and complex issues and so the aim is to highlight the most significant potential strengths and areas for improvement, as well as key risks that government will need to manage, drawing on the NAO’s experience of auditing large-scale, longer-term or cross‑government projects and programmes.

The report examines risks in relation to:

  • how government has set direction. Without clear objectives and plans, it may be difficult to persuade people within and outside government to take the goals seriously, particularly at a time when government has limited ‘bandwidth’, given EU Exit and the COVID-19 pandemic;
  • oversight and coordination. Without good arrangements to bring stakeholders and delivery partners together, there are risks that people work in ‘silos’ and do not manage the links between different issues as well as they could; and
  • arrangements for monitoring, learning and improving to ensure that problems do not go unnoticed or unaddressed, and that good practice is shared.

Report conclusions

Defra has a range of schemes and projects under way to support its ambitions for improving the natural environment, and it is developing its arrangements to oversee, coordinate and monitor its work effectively. It is now nine years since government first set an ambition for this to be the first generation to improve the natural environment in England, and there is still a long way to go before government can be confident that it has the right framework to deliver on its aspirations and ensure value for money from the funding it has committed to environmental projects. The NAO recognises that the demands of responding to the COVID-19 pandemic over the past six months have slowed the momentum it had started to develop, but progress was already slower than government had intended. Environmental issues are broad, inter-related and complex, so these are not straightforward challenges to address, but government needs to pick up the pace if it is to improve the natural environment within a generation.

“The government wants this to be the first generation to leave the natural environment in England in a better state than it inherited. 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.”

Gareth Davies, head of the NAO


Publication details

Press release

View press release (11 Nov 2020)

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