The government wants this to be the first generation to leave the natural environment of England in a better state than it inherited. In 2022 it published binding statutory targets in four priority areas: air quality; water; biodiversity; and resource efficiency and waste reduction, which came into force in January 2023. Achieving these targets will require action, not just from the government but also from businesses and individuals.

Jump to downloads

The Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) has lead responsibility in government for environmental policy areas except net zero. In January 2023 it published the Environmental Improvement Plan, revising the 2018 25 Year Environment Plan in light of the statutory targets. The Environmental Improvement Plan (EIP) sets out the importance of both existing and planned regulatory interventions in contributing to environmental goals.

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, alongside other interventions.

Scope of the report

This report examines whether Defra and its arm’s-length bodies are using regulation effectively to achieve its environmental objectives. We reported in 2020 on how government was set up to deliver its long-term environmental goals.

This report also reviews progress against recommendations we made in our 2020 report, where they are particularly connected to Defra’s use of regulation. This report maps out where these bodies are already using regulation, often alongside spending or other government activity. It also assesses how regulation is working in practice in case studies of individual regulatory interventions. Our evaluation and recommendations are based on our good practice guidance on the principles of effective regulation.

The report covers:

  • the extent to which the government has set a clear direction for environmental regulation and how well it understands how its regulatory interventions fit into its overall ambition
  • how well Defra oversees its regulatory bodies in respect of delivering its environmental objectives, and evidence on current regulatory performance and capacity to deliver
  • whether Defra has suitable arrangements for evaluating and measuring the performance of regulators and regulatory interventions in supporting Defra’s environmental objectives


Defra put the ambitious targets to deliver its 2018 25 Year Environment Plan on a statutory footing in 2023, and, in 2021, set up the Office of Environmental Protection with a duty to monitor progress. The Environmental Improvement Plan, published in January 2023, sets out the changes Defra is seeking to meet its targets, and envisages an important role for regulation and regulatory reform. However, according to its own data, Defra is not on course to achieve its 2018 environmental goals. It is too soon to judge performance against the targets it has just announced.

Defra’s work to understand how its current regulation supports its overall environmental objectives is still at an early stage. Key bodies with regulatory functions are falling behind on aspects of their existing work, and the resource requirements for the activity set out in the Environmental Improvement Plan are still being estimated. Defra has started to strengthen its governance arrangements and develop a strategy for evaluation. But it does not have the information it needs on the effectiveness of regulation, and it has a backlog of regulatory Post-Implementation Reviews.

These gaps limit its ability both to make evidence-based decisions about where to deploy its resources, and to understand wider impacts of its regulatory approach. These are serious weaknesses, and Defra must take swift and effective action and build on its recent work to address them in order to get the best value from its limited resources and give itself the best chance of achieving its objectives.


Publication details

Press release

View press release (21 Apr 2023)

Latest reports