Environment Agency: sustainable development and the 25 year environment plan

Twenty-five years ago, the Environment Act 1995 established the Environment Agency (EA) and set out its duty to promote sustainable development.  

The UK is committed to the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda. As part of this commitment, the UK Government published its 25-year environment plan for England in 2018. The plan set out the Government’s vision to restore and enhance the environment for the next generation and to deliver sustainable development in the UK. The EA will play a key role in delivering the plan. 

Statutory role in sustainable development 

The EA took up its statutory powers and duties in April 1996. It was set up to protect the environment in line with the government’s commitment to sustainable development. That purpose has not changed. In carrying out its duties the EA is required to consider the costs and benefits both to society and to the environment.  

The EA’s priorities are to manage flood and coastal risk, to advise government and to ensure that businesses comply with environmental regulations. The EA states that its work “protects” and “enhances” people’s lives, helps wildlife “thrive” and “promotes economic prosperity”.  

The EA’s responsibilities concern England. Responsibility for the other UK regions lies with the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA)Natural Resources Wales and Northern Ireland Environment Agency.   

Delivering the 25 year environment plan 

One of the EA’s current key priorities is to help deliver the Government’s 25 year environment plan.  

The plan was launched in 2018 by the then Prime Minister, Theresa May. It set out the Government’s ambition “that we will be the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than we found it”.  

The document set out a vision for England of cleaner air and water; thriving plants and animals; and sustainable and efficient land use. The environment plan sits alongside the industrial strategy and the clean growth strategy.  

The EA will have a central role in delivering the 25 year environment plan’s ten goals:  

  • Clean air. 
  • Clean and plentiful water.  
  • Thriving plants and wildlife.  
  • A reduced risk of harm from environmental hazards such as flooding and drought.  
  • Using resources from nature more sustainably and efficiently.  
  • Enhanced beauty, heritage and engagement with the natural environment.  
  • Mitigating and adapting to climate change.  
  • Minimising waste.  
  • Managing exposure to chemicals.  
  • Enhancing biosecurity 

The EA’s work in helping to deliver the plan includes: 

Revising the flood and coastal erosions risk management strategy (FCERM)  

The EA manages the strategy, and a commitment was made in the environment plan to update it.  

A draft strategy was open for consultation between May and July 2019. It focused on action that should be taken over the next 10 to 30 years to help support the longer-term change needed by 2100. It set out three high level ambitions: make the nation climate resilient between now and 2050; ensure today’s growth and infrastructure is resilient to tomorrow’s climate; and create a nation of climate champions, able to adapt to flooding and coastal change through innovation. The revised strategy is scheduled to be published in spring 2020.  

Managing the current FCERM investment programme  

The current six-year investment programme of £2.6 billion runs from 1 April 2015 to 31 March 2021. The EA has committed to reducing the risk of flooding and coastal erosion to at least 300,000 homes. 

Regulating property development  

The EA has a role in statutory planning consultations to make sure that new developments are flood resilient and do not increase flood risk. 

Creating sustainable water supplies 

In March 2020 the EA launched its National Framework for Water Resources. It is intended to help reduce demand, halve leakage rates, develop new supplies, move water to where it is needed and reduce the need for drought measures that can harm the environment.  

Maintaining clean recreational waters 

The EA is responsible for developing a forecasting and warning system so that the public can be warned of a possible short-term pollution problem in ‘bathing waters’. According to the May 2019 progress report on the plan, the EA was on track to deliver its system by May 2020.  

Recent developments: Environment Bill 2019–20 

The Environment Bill is part of the Government’s agenda to “leave the environment in a better state than in which we inherited it” and to fulfil its manifesto pledge to create a framework for protecting the environment following Brexit. Its provisions would apply in various ways to different parts of the nations of the UK. 

The bill places a statutory duty on the government to produce an environment improvement plan at least every five years. The bill would make the 25 year environment plan the first plan. It would also legislate for new powers to be given to the EA on areas such as water abstraction (taking water from the source, such as groundwater) and waste disposal. For instance, some older abstraction licences do not take account of the amount of water available and may allow too much to be taken from the environment. The bill would enable the Environment Agency to vary licences without a liability for compensation from 2028. 

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Image of the Broads National Park, Norfolk, by Janette Austin from Pixabay.