New research published by Unchecked UK claims to demonstrate the failure of environmental deregulation to deliver the efficiency and cost-savings promised by successive governments as part of an ideological drive to cut red tape.
The report – Our Better Nature – shows that in a number of cases, environmental deregulation has instead added procedural complexity and increased costs for businesses and society as a whole, even as key governmental environmental policy goals have been undermined.
Far from delivering reported savings of £1.5bn, for example, the 2010 – 2015 Coalition Government’s ‘red-tape cutting’ initiatives are now estimated to have increased regulatory burdens on business by at least £3.1bn.
Emma Rose from Unchecked UK said, “The report shows that time and time again, repeated waves of deregulation – driven all too often by ideology and short-termism – have delivered precious few examples of the efficiency and cost savings that successive governments have promised.
“Staggeringly, these dogmatic drives to deregulate have actually resulted in increased complexity to businesses, as well as creating social, environmental, and ultimately financial costs for our nation.”
Examples of the hidden environmental, social and fiscal costs to society of deregulation include:
- The scrapping of the ambitious Code for Sustainable Homes and the Zero Carbon Homes initiative threatens to undermine the UK’s progress towards meeting legally binding carbon budgets, and has led to heavy job losses and a legacy of drafty newbuild with high heating bills.
- Deregulation of permitted development rights in planning has led to some appalling examples of office to residential conversion, leaving families in substandard homes with no access to facilities or open space, and displacing many small businesses in parts of London.
- Progress on tackling UK water quality has been undermined by ongoing failures to regulate firmly, the shifting of regulatory responsibility to the private sector, the deferral of key targets, the decline in reporting frequency, and the rolling-back of monitoring programmes. At the current rate of progress it will take over 200 years to hit key government targets on water quality.
- The wider push to deregulate planning has seen numerous changes to environmental assessments requirements (key tools for analysing the impact of large developments on environment and sustainability). This has troubling consequences for wildlife and habitats – for example, requirements have been side-stepped for the £106bn HS2 project, despite the fact that it will damage more than 100 ancient woodlands.
- Cutting budgets of regulators is an indirect but no less damaging form of deregulation, inevitably leading to slashed staff head count, weakened monitoring and enforcement capacity. The Environment Agency has seen its budget and staff drop by 63% (real-terms) and 25% respectively since 2009. Natural England’s budget has fallen by 72% (real-terms) in the decade to 2018/19, its staff by 20%. Enforcement activity has fallen accordingly.
Dr Paul Hatchwell, lead author of the report, said, “Across a wide range of sectors, we are now seeing the accumulated impact of years of deregulation by successive governments, both directly and indirectly.
“Our rivers are dirtier, protected areas are in poor shape, air quality is still failing in major cities and our underfunded planning system is under attack from vested interests.
“As we near the end of the Brexit transition period, there are also big questions over the powers of the new Office of Environmental Protection and the readiness of the new legislative framework.”