‘Priority’ species in freefall across England, Defra confirms

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has this week published its fourth annual report on its progress against the objectives set out in the 25 Year Environment Plan, analysing its performance against 50 natural capital indicators spanning air, water, waste, biodiversity, and soil.

The update sets out a stark picture on the state of biodiversity protection in England, with just five of 20 indicators in the ‘thriving plants and wildlife’ category of the report found to have shown notable improvement in recent years.

The report, which is arranged into 10 broad themes, reveals the relative abundance of priority species in England deteriorated by 17.2 per cent between 2013 and 2018, while their distribution contracted by 9.3 per cent between 2011 and 2016.

The percentage of breeding seabirds in the Greater North Sea, the percentage of wintering waterbirds in the Celtic Seas, and the abundance of breeding wild birds on farmland and woodland in England have also declined in recent years, the assessment reveals.

The report also highlights a lack of progress on reducing waste levels, highlighting that the number of fly-tipping incidents in England has risen by 36 per cent between 2013 and 2018, with levels of residual waste on the rise as well. In addition, it confirms that there has been little or no change in the amount of waste from households recycling rates and the total number of illegal waste sites in England.

Defra’s update also reveals that per capital water consumption in England increased by 3.7 per cent between 2015/2016 and 2020/2021, and raw material consumption rose by 10.3 per cent between 2012 and 2017.

In more positive news, the report highlights significant progress in reducing emissions of greenhouse gases from natural resources between 2013 and 2018, as well as a fall in England’s total consumption-based greenhouse gas emissions between 2012 and 2017.

And it notes the frequency in the public’s visits to the natural environment in England has risen rapidly, highlighting a 13.9 per cent increase between 2013 and 2018.

Elsewhere, it reveals the condition of bathing waters in England has improved, and the number of serious pollution incidents to water has gone down. However, the report comes just days after an annual report on the environmental performance of the water industry was published by the Environment Agency, which provided a damning assessment of the sector’s continued failure to address still high numbers of serious pollution incidents.

Defra’s new assessment was published on the same day that Environment Secretary George Eustice responded to the Office for Environmental Protection’s recent monitoring report on progress against the 2018 25 Year Environment Plan, which warned the government’s current draft goals for species recovery, habitats, and air pollution are “unambitious or lack sufficient urgency to reflect the scale of change needed”.

In the letter to Dame Glenys Stacey, chair of the OEP, Eustice said he agreed with the OEP on the need to take a “comprehensive and systemic approach across the environmental agenda”.

He said he intended for the 2023 update to the 25 Year Environment Plan to become “the main environmental work program for the department, and wider government, to drive outcomes and work on delivery”.

The Secretary of State also said he agreed with the green watchdog about the need to bring order to the UK’s “existing suite of ‘legacy’ environmental targets”, which sit outside the recently adopted Environment Act.

“I have already said publicly that I intend to review these targets over time to bring them into the Act’s framework, where appropriate,” Eustice wrote. “This will ensure they are also subject to robust reporting and accountability mechanisms, including via the OEP. It will also help to create a holistic approach to environmental delivery through the EIP rather than separate plans and strategies.”

Eustice added that Defra was committed to reviewing interim targets every five years to ensure they had the “necessary breadth and ambition” and would continue to assess progress against the 25 Year Environment Plan every year, increasing the number of indicators used in the exercise from 50 this year to 66 by 2024.

The Secretary of State said the department would also work with the government statistics agency to enhance its understanding of how the environment interacts with economy and society. “We will develop a shared vision which includes improving the interoperability, coherence, and accessibility of cross-government statistics and data on the environment,” he wrote.

Eustice also noted that Defra was currently reviewing feedback from MPs on its draft Environmental Principles policy statement. “We are already supporting government departments in understanding and applying the requirements of the new duty in their policy-making, and will set out the next steps regarding the implementation period shortly,” he wrote.

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