The origins of the Department of the Environment (DOE) lay in the desire of government to unify and coordinate policy relating to environmental matters. In October 1969, a Secretary of State for Local Government and Regional Planning had been appointed to harmonize the work of the Ministries of Housing and Local Government and Transport, with special responsibility for regional planning and environmental pollution. In January 1970, a Machinery of Government Review was set up by Sir William Armstrong, Head of the Civil Service. Preparations continued after the change of government in June 1970.
Following a white paper Reorganization of Central Government (Cmnd 4506) published in September 1970, the DOE was formed in November 1970 by merger of the Ministries of Housing and Local Government, Public Building and Works, and Transport.
The DOE also took over the Central Unit for Pollution Control formerly located in the Cabinet Office (apart from a small secretariat appointed to serve the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution) and inherited the Ministry of Transport responsibility for coordinating work on the Channel Tunnel project.
The DOE's initial organisation reflected the key areas inherited from the former ministries. A Secretary of State for the Environment was appointed to take an overall view of policies and priorities (including public expenditure) and to exercise formal statutory powers. He was directly concerned with coordination of work on environmental pollution control, assisted by three junior ministers:
- Minister for Local Government and Development (renamed Minister for Planning and Local Government in 1974): planning, countryside, roads and water issues.
- Minister for Housing and Construction: new towns, building research and development, government accommodation, ancient monuments, the Government Art Collection, and the Government Hospitality Fund.
- Minister for Transport Industries (renamed Minister for Transport in 1974): ports, nationalised transport industries, inland waterways, road safety and recreation.
Environmental planning was a particularly large area of work. Duties were initially distributed across fourteen directorates dealing with rural and urban planning, royal and national parks, land use, mineral planning, strategic plans (regional and national) and transport planning. Environmental protection was another core area and Environmental Protection Directorates covered duties ranging from waste disposal and pollution policy to labelling of consumer goods and the relationship between industry and the environment.
During the DOE's initial development there was a need to unify the overlapping directorates transferred from the former ministries which provided central services. By 1971 a unified Establishment and Management Services Group, reduced to five directorates, had been created to assist in the establishment of the new department and provide necessary personnel services. Another central organization established by 1971 was the Finance Group with three directorates responsible for financial aspects of housing, local government and transport.
The DOE also had a number of responsibilities which were primarily research orientated, and several research-based units were transferred from the Department of Trade and Industry in the 1970s, including the Road Research Laboratory, the Water Pollution Research Laboratory, the Hydraulics Research Station, the Forest Products Research Laboratory, and the Fire Research Station. The last two of these merged in 1972 with the Building Research Station to form the Building Research Establishment.
The DOE also became responsible for administering grants to non-governmental research associations working in environmental and construction fields, and a Director-General of Research was appointed.
In May 1971 the DOE received residual functions of the dissolved Land Commission. The DOE received advice on particular aspects of its research programme from the Planning and Transport Research Advisory Council, the Construction and Housing Research Advisory Council, and a special subcommittee of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution.
The Property Services Agency (PSA) was established in September 1972 to provide other government departments with property management services, building construction and maintenance and appropriate supplies. The PSA was accountable to the DOE but had its own trading fund. The aim of this arrangement was to ensure that government building and development practices were in keeping with national environmental and conservation policies.
In January 1973 the DOE took on the Treasury function of coordinating policy on government land transactions. In November 1973, following the establishment of the Nature Conservancy Council, the responsibility of the Department of Education and Science for nature conservancy came to the DOE.
In 1974 a Minister of State with special responsibility for sport and recreation was added to the DOE's ministerial team. Conversely, administration of the Government Hospitality Fund was transferred to the Civil Service Department in 1974 and functions of the Alkali and Clean Air Inspectorate were transferred to the new Health and Safety Executive in 1975.
In 1976 the Secretary of State was given special responsibilities for inner city problems and was also assigned responsibility for problems arising from the water shortage during the summer drought. The DOE took over from local authorities the licensing of employment agencies.
Also in 1976, the transport functions were separated from the DOE and a new Department of Transport responsible to its own Secretary of State was constituted. This led to a reorganization of the DOE's ministerial structure, with the abolition of the posts of Minister for Transport and Minister for Planning and Local Government, their functions being transferred to the newly created Secretary of State for Transport and the Minister for Housing and Construction respectively.
A Departments of the Environment and Transport - Common Services organisation was however retained, between 1976 and 1989, comprised initially of the Establishment and Management Services Department, the Economics and Statistics Department, the Research Department, the Planning Inspectorate, and the Legal Department. Following a management review in 1978 the two departments' regional offices were also merged.
In 1984 functions relating to care and preservation of ancient monuments and historic buildings were transferred from the DOE to the Historic Buildings and Ancient Monuments Commission. In 1987 responsibility for industrial air pollution returned to the DOE when the Health and Safety Executive's Industrial Air Pollution Inspectorate was transferred and renamed HM Inspectorate of Pollution. By the 1990s a number of agencies and related bodies had been added to the DOE's scope of responsibility. In 1991 the creation of the Department of National Heritage led to the transfer from the DOE of the Heritage and Royal Estate Directorate and the Historical Royal Palaces Executive Agency.
In June 1997 the DOE was merged with the Department of Transport, to form the new Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR). In June 2001 the principal environment protection functions were transferred to the Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and the residual department renamed the Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions (DTLR). Following further machinery of government changes in May 2002, DTLR's functions were divided between two new departments: the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (ODPM) and the Department for Transport (DfT).