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Government gets red card for wildlife protection, flooding prevention and air quality

16 September 2014

The Government has been given a ‘red card’ for its efforts to reduce health-damaging air pollution, protect biodiversity and prevent flooding in a scorecard assessment of its green policies during this Parliament produced by the Environmental Audit Committee. The report comes as the main political parties prepare for their manifesto-setting party conferences. The Committee calls for the creation of new legal commitments to protect the environment, to be overseen by a new ‘Office for Environmental Responsibility’ to ensure all Government policies are compatible with those commitments.

Chair of the Committee, Joan Walley MP, said

"Our inquiry provides a wide ranging examination of the state of the environment and shows that further and continued effort is required to protect it properly. A dedicated, wide-ranging ‘Environmental Strategy’ is needed, overseen by a new ‘Office for Environmental Responsibility’ to ensure the Government meets the requirements to protect human health and the natural world."

Air pollution

Emissions of a number of airborne pollutants increased in 2013, after being steady between 2010 and 2012 and in a longer term decline before that. The UK failed to meet targets for nitrogen dioxide pollution in 34 of the 43 zones specified in the EU Ambient Air Quality Directive in 2012, resulting in the European Commission launching infraction proceedings against the UK in February 2014 in regard to 16 zones that would not be compliant by 2015. In July 2014, Defra reassessed the time likely to be needed to meet nitrogen dioxide limits, stating that Greater London and two other areas would not meet the required levels until after 2030.

Joan Walley MP commented

"A whole generation of young people in our cities will potentially have their health impaired by pollution before the Government meets air quality safety standards. That is not acceptable. We need to see much more urgent action in this area and we will be looking at this area in more detail when we publish the results of our inquiry later this year."


The Government's Biodiversity 2020 Indicators set targets for biodiversity to be achieved by 2020. Defra's first assessment of progress against the Indicators in 2013 showed improvement against 13 measures, deterioration against 13 measures and little or no change in 11 (12 measures were in development or had insufficient data). The latest Sustainable Development Indicators show a deterioration in the counts for three out of four types of bird populations, used as a litmus test for the SDI's ‘UK wildlife' indicator. Invasive species, which harm native biodiversity, are becoming more prevalent.

Flooding and coastal protection

Climate change appears to be driving an increase in extreme weather, including sudden heavy rainfall, and rising sea-levels which will put pressure on coastal defences. Exposure to flooding risks is influenced by the extent of building in risk areas (eg on flood plains), the embedding of defensive measures in existing and new building (eg sustainable drainage) and the building and maintenance of flood defence infrastructure.  The Environment Agency and local defences protected properties in approximately 1.3 million instances, but 2.4 million properties are still at risk of flooding from rivers or the sea, and three million from surface water. There was widespread and persistent flooding in the winter of 2013–14.


The Committee’s report recommends an overarching Environmental Strategy be implemented, to set out strategic principles and good practices; facilitate discussion between central and local government and identify how they can work together and with the wider community; encompass clear environmental assessments; identify work required to fill data gaps in assessments; map appropriate policy levers to environmental areas; and set out how environmental and equality considerations will be addressed in policy areas across Government.

The report concludes that the Government should set up an independent body—an ‘Office for Environmental Responsibility'—to (i) review the Environment Strategy we advocate; (ii) advise Government on appropriate targets; (iii) advise Government on policies, both those in Government programmes and new ones that could be brought forward to support the environment; (iv) advise Government about the adequacy of the resources (in both central and local government) made available for delivering the Strategy; and (v) monitor and publish performance against the Strategy and its targets.

Joan Walley MP added

"Effective action on environmental protection is essential, both during the current Parliament and beyond. Parties should therefore be considering credible environmental protection in their manifestos. I want them to use our report as both a wake-up call and a template for the measured that need to be put forward. Consistent action by successive Governments will help ensure that the benefits of nature are available to future generations as much as they are to ours."

Background info

The Prime Minister stated in May 2010 "I want us to be the greenest government ever". The Government has made some progress in some areas, including publishing a Natural Environment White Paper in 2011 and establishing the Natural Capital Committee. The White Paper set out an ambition for this to be "the first generation to leave the natural environment of England in a better state than it inherited."

The National Audit Office (NAO) published a review of Environmental Protection in July 2010, which examined 10 key environmental protection areas. In June 2014 the NAO published a follow up review assessing progress in the same 10 areas. The Committee’s report includes its assessment of these 10 areas and recommended actions. Three areas are assessed as ‘red’: biodiversity, flooding and air quality. The rest are assessed as ‘amber’.

Further information