In the UK, as elsewhere, the environment is in a parlous state. Deeply concerning adverse environmental trends continue. Urgent action is needed to tackle the climate and biodiversity crises.

Businesses often want to do the right thing and NGOs are active in the sector. Even so, the environment often lacks a ‘voice’, with few economic interests willing or able to stand up for it in law. The environment dies in silence.

High reliance is therefore placed on government to address environmental problems, whether through regulation of polluting industries, or incentivising farmers to manage land for nature. Yet, against other issues competing for government attention, environmental interests are vulnerable to being over-ridden.

For 50 years the European Commission provided some counter-balance, overseeing the UK’s implementation of most of our environmental law, as it did in other legal fields. Following Brexit, Parliament created the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP), via the Environment Act 2021, to fill this ‘governance gap’. The OEP now operates in England and Northern Ireland, performing a similar oversight role to the Commission. Sister bodies cover Wales and Scotland.

The OEP provides environmental governance; protecting and improving the environment by holding government and other public authorities to account. Accountability arises through statutory reports the OEP lays in Parliament and the NI Assembly. Accountability also arises in law, with the OEP able to take enforcement action against public authorities that fail to comply with environmental law. The OEP can investigate and serve an escalating series of notices that can lead, ultimately, to litigation. This is via ‘environmental review’, a bespoke court process modelled on judicial review.

A statutory body with a remit to take enforcement action specifically against public authorities, including government, is a significant constitutional innovation. There is nothing like the OEP outside the UK. The UN, the EU and jurists around the world are looking at how the UK’s novel approach to environmental governance develops.

The UK has been a successful innovator before in this area. The 2008 Climate Change Act established a binding legal framework for Net Zero, with the independent Climate Change Committee to oversee this. The 2008 Act has had its ups and downs, but the Climate Change Committee has gained an authoritative reputation for its oversight of climate policy. Further, this oversight has broadly worked. The UK has met its carbon reduction commitments, and remains on track to continue doing so, at least for now and until 2027.

So there is reason to believe a body like the OEP can, over time, deliver improved governance and accountability, supporting government and others to deliver better environmental outcomes.

But independent oversight only works as well as the wider systems within which it operates. The Environment Act established a governance framework with four cornerstones, the first of which is the OEP itself. Second, the Act brings into domestic law international environmental principles, such as the polluter pays and precautionary principles, that should guide environmentally-aware policy making across government. It also establishes legally-binding targets in England, which government must meet. There are 13 such targets, including a target to halt the decline in wildlife abundance by 2030. This ‘Net Zero for nature’ is key to tackling both the climate and biodiversity crises.

Finally, the Act requires that government adopt an environmental improvement plan, to set out the steps it intends to take to significantly improve the natural environment. The Act then creates a ‘triple lock’ to drive progress. There must be a plan; it must be revised periodically, with further or different steps added as required; and government must report annually regarding that progress. The OEP also reports independently each year on progress and can take enforcement action should the Government breach its duties to achieve its targets.

In January the OEP published its second independent annual report, for 2022-23. That report found that, despite this triple lock intended to galvanize government action, environmental trends are not moving in the right direction far or fast enough for government to meet its targets.

Time is pressing, with the headline wildlife target due to be met in only seven years’ time. To achieve this and other targets, delivery of relevant environmental laws must be sped up and scaled up, and government must put in place transparent delivery plans that stack up.

So first, government must speed up deployment of laws that deliver for the environment: mandatory requirements for new development to secure biodiversity net gain being one example. In some areas, regulation of chemicals and pesticides for example, thinking and action are far behind the curve, the situation is not resolvable quickly, and significant work is needed.

Second, government must scale up its efforts. Change must happen right across the land and seascapes, and across numerous economic sectors, to alter negative trajectories entrenched for many decades. Implementing legislation such as that for farming subsidy, must occur at scale to meet government’s goals for nature, clean air and water. Government recently announced increases in payments for good land management as well as multi-annual deals and a streamlined application process. This is a welcome start, but the OEP will continue monitoring closely here, because scale is so important and so much is at stake.

Lastly, government’s plans must stack up. Government must be clear itself and, crucially, must explain publicly how it will change the nation’s trajectory at the pace and extent needed. Accountability requires transparency.

Further, businesses, investors, landowners, environmental groups, government’s delivery partners of all types, and the wider public, need to see what is required of them to have confidence in rising to that challenge.

If this is done, the UK’s bold approach to environmental governance can succeed and secure an environment that’s in a better state for future generations. The OEP will continue playing its full part in holding government to account for delivering on that ambition.

Peter Ashford is general counsel and Kate Tandy head of litigation and casework at the Office for Environmental Protection