Defra defends its performance and budget plans

8th March 2016


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The environment department (Defra) has dismissed criticism about its performance by a cross-party group of MPs and insisted that its heavily reduced budget will be enough.

The parliamentary environment, food and rural affairs (Efra) committee scrutinised the department’s budget, which will be reduced by 15% by 2020 under an agreement reached between Defra and the Treasury. The MPs said that, given the scale of the cuts, Defra would face difficult choices over the next few years, particularly in relation to flood defences and environmental protection.

In its response, the department said that it had been allocated £2.7bn by the Treasury for capital investment, which was 12% more than in the previous five years, and that savings would come from cutting its operating costs.

Measures proposed by Defra to meet its spending commitments include streamlining back office functions, such as IT and human resources, and integrating work at the local level across the Environment Agency, the Animal and Plant Health Agency, the Rural Payments Agency and Natural England.

From July, the regional structure of the Environment Agency and Natural England will be aligned so that plans and budgets can be developed for each area.

Changes to the way it works will help the department achieve the 26% reduction in administration costs that is required by 2019/20, Defra claimed.

The Efra committee also criticised Defra’s infringement of EU water and air quality regulations. This put it at risk of incurring large fines at a time its budget is falling, said MPs, who warned that this might damage the services delivered by the department.

But Defra said that its air quality plan, which was published in December and includes the creation of clean air zones to reduce nitrogen dioxide (NO2) pollution, set out a comprehensive approach to meeting European targets. The environment department also pointed out that the UK was not alone in failing to meet the targets, with 17 out of 27 member states also struggling to comply with the annual mean NO2 limit.

Defra maintained its six-year capital funding plan for flood defences was on track to secure adequate investment from the private sector to help meet its spending targets. The Environment Agency needs £600m on top of the £2.3bn provided by central government, it said, adding that the agency had already secured £2.7m and identified sources for a further £330m.

Departmental budget cuts would not affect flood investment, since the agency had a programme to reduce the cost of maintenance by 10%, Defra said.

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