This is what ‘cutting red tape’ gets you: rivers polluted without consequence 

Last year the Environment Agency received more than 100,000 reports of water, air and land pollution in England. The public told of rivers flowing with human faeces, chemicals dumped, fish killed, factories emitting dangerous fumes, nature reserves and the countryside trashed, as well as unbearable noise and dirty air.

John Vidal 

Nearly all these reports were ignored and now we know why. According to shocking leaked documents, the agency, which is the statutory protector of England’s natural environment and therefore of much of its health and safety, had ordered its staff to ignore all but the most obvious, high-profile incidents. Its staff were sent to observe only 8,000 of the 116,000 potential pollution incidents and only a handful of companies were taken to court.

In effect, there is now no one in authority even questioning the pollution that blights much of Britain, causes disease, destroys the natural world and costs billions of pounds every year to clean up. That toxic waste dumped at the bottom of your street? Forget it. Your local nature reserve or park despoiled? Don’t worry. That factory illegally belching formaldehyde? Look the other way.

Fighting pollution is no government’s strong point, but protection against the destruction of nature has been bitterly fought for. Now it is being wilfully trashed. At least in the 1980s, when environment secretary Nicholas Ridley was dubbed the “minister against the environment” and Britain was the “dirty man of Europe”, the EA was more or less independent of government, science-based, and quick to jump on polluters and to prosecute. Anyone fouling a river was likely to be investigated and at least admonished. The problem then was that the fines imposed by the courts were so minimal that the law was flouted at will.

To understand what is happening now, go back to 2011, shortly after David Cameron was elected. In his autumn statement the chancellor, George Osborne, said that he wanted to remove the “ridiculous” social and environmental costs of business. A list emerged of 174 regulations he wanted scrapped, watered down, merged, liberalised or simplified, and the prevailing governing coalition – shame on you, Nick Clegg – knowingly set about trying to abolish controls on asbestos, invasive species and industrial air pollution, as well as protections for wildlife and restrictions on noise pollution.

It was war on the environment and public safety. The forests were to be sold off, badgers exterminated and the land fracked. The climate crisis was not to be addressed at the expense of business, and profit was not to be subservient to nature. Even as the crisis was building, and nature everywhere was known to be in steep decline, government was ideologically obsessed with deregulation and actively making a grim situation even worse.

Thanks to fierce opposition, not least from some of his own backbenchers and EA staff, not all of Osborne’s anti-red tape measures could be shovelled through. But faced with opposition, the government simply strangled, muzzled or frightened the major regulatory bodies that together have been charged with protecting people.

The leaked document shows the extent of the damage done. Over the past 10 years, the EA has had its budget slashed, its staff massively reduced and its powers weakened. Polluting businesses are now expected to self-regulate and report their own transgressions, prosecutions are rare, and the agency admits that it has neither the staff nor the money to do anything other than scratch the surface of control. In words destined to become as notorious as when disgraced environment minister Owen Paterson said “the badgers have moved the goalposts”, the agency now warns, “you get the environment you pay for”.

Last week, too, the environmental audit committee reported that a “chemical cocktail” of raw sewage and slurry was polluting many of England’s rivers. According to watchdog group Unchecked UK, between 2011 and 2016, the agency’s protection budget fell by 62% and staff numbers were cut by nearly a quarter. Prosecutions fell by 80%, the number of pollution incidents logged dropped 29% and water samples taken by the EA fell by 28%. Meanwhile, nearly half of England’s sites of special scientific interest – the jewels in the crown of nature – haven’t been checked for many years.

Nor is it only the EA, or England. Taking cues from Donald Trump in the US, all other protection agencies have been neutered, including Natural England, the Forestry Commission, Natural Resources Wales and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency. Funding for the Food Standards Agency was slashed by half between 2009 and 2019, , and that of the Health and Safety Executive, which oversees workplace safety, by 53%. Proactive inspections by local authorities have been almost abandoned and prosecutions have plummeted.

The obsession with cutting “red tape” has been ruinous. Deregulation of the construction industry contributed to Grenfell and the cladding scandal, and allowing water companies to use rivers as sewage dumps – even as they were allowed to cut investment and reward shareholders – will cost tens of billions. Public outrage and the courts may have forced small improvements in air pollution, but tens of thousands of people still die needlessly every year because ministers refuse to bring standards up to the minimum World Health Organization levels.

It is now just a matter of time before another major chemical incident like that at Camelford, in Cornwall, in 1988 – when water was contaminated and up to 20,000 people poisoned – takes place. Proposed new rules buried on a government website suggest that the new post-Brexit British chemicals regulator will have only limited powers and that Britain may become a dumping ground and a laboratory for toxic chemicals. The proposals will not be subject to public consultation and will not require a vote in parliament.

Supposedly overseeing the almighty regulatory failure of the past decade will be the new Office for Environmental Protection. This new public body is to report to parliament and be theoretically independent from government. But the secretary of state will appoint the chair and other board members, there is no guarantee it will be adequately funded, and it will not take on all functions of the EU institutions that previously protected the public.

Britain is already one of the least safe places to live in Europe. From now on, the government can introduce damaging policies with little fear of official comeback and companies are more or less free to abuse the environment. With cash-strapped, politically cowed regulators muzzled, few inspections likely and little danger of prosecution, we can look forward to a pandemic of pollution.

‘Transport in Exeter and Devon: Fighting the Climate Crisis’

Hosted by Exeter Labour for a Green New Deal, Monday 24th January at 19:30 on Zoom.  

Speakers include transport activists and policy makers.

Road transport accounts for 31% of Devon’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, the   largest emitter in the county.

Following on from our successful event in October at Exeter University, Exeter Labour for a Green New Deal are hosting an online Zoom event to discuss how to tackle the climate crisis through transport policies and campaigning and 

The panel event will feature short presentations  a question and answer session. 

Panel members

  • Anna Semlyen – Campaign Manager, “20’s Plenty for Us”- lowering speed limits 
  • Mike Walton – Chair, Exeter Cycling Campaign who will be presenting on decarbonising transport
  • Councillor Rachel Sutton – Exeter City Council lead councillor on Net Zero Carbon Exeter 2030 
  • Councillor Steve Race – Hackney Council, Member of the Skills, Economy, & Growth Scrutiny Commission who will be presenting on Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs)
  • Councillor Tom Hayes – Oxford City Council, Deputy Leader and Cabinet Member for Green Transport and Zero Carbon Oxford who will be presenting on Ultra Low Emission Zones (ULEZ)
  • Chris Hinchliff – Rural Transport Campaigns and Policy Officer, CPRE The Countryside Charity, who will be presenting on the Every Village, Every Hour, campaign to improve rural buses.
  • Councillor Danny Barnes – Devon County Council 
  • Ben Bradshaw MP

Join us at this free panel event on January 24th by registering for a ticket here: 

Questions for the panel can be sent to 

Moon landing hoax more believable than PM telling truth about parties, pollster finds

That was at the beginning of last week, by Wednesday the figure was 6 per cent, which is about the same number who believe in the Loch Ness monster according to reports in both the Mirror and the Times. and

People are more likely to believe the moon landings were faked than believe Boris Johnson is telling the truth about the alleged Christmas parties, according to a political pollster.

Opinium Research’s Head of Political Polling Chris Curtis this morning told BBC News that the string of party allegations have rocked the government’s popularity and ratings.

Curtis’s appearance on BBC News follows yet another allegation facing the government. This time, it’s been alleged that Downing Street staff were invited to a bring-your-own-booze (BYOB) event in May 2020.

Speaking on Tuesday morning, Curtis spoke of a poll published on December 8th, just after ITV published a leaked mock press conference from Downing Street.

Curtis said: “One question we asked, which really sums up how bad this is for the government, was ‘do you think Boris Johnson is telling the truth about what’s happening?’.

“And just 12 per cent of people thought he was telling the truth.

“That’s fewer than the number of people who believe that the moon landings were fake, so there isn’t much trust in the prime minister when it comes to this issue among the British public at the moment.”

A 2019 poll from Opinium Research found that 21 per cent of UK adults believe that Apollo 11 mission was a hoax (which broke down into 8 per cent who believed it was definitely faked, and 13 per cent who said it was probably faked).

When it comes to the Christmas party allegations, just 12 per cent believed the Covid rules were followed at the supposed shindig, whereas 65 per cent believe they were not.

Commenting on Twitter, Curtis wrote that although these statistics relate to the Christmas allegations, “I would imagine you would get a similar (or worse) result if we asked about May.”

Just one in ten believe Boris Johnson told the truth when asked about the allegations, compared to 63 per cent who believed he was fibbing.

More Conservative voters were likely to believe him (20 per cent) in comparison to Labour voters (5 per cent).

Labour voters were significantly more likely to believe the prime minister was telling porkies (85 per cent) in comparison to just under half (46 per cent) of Conservative voters.

Curtis also noted that the prime minister’s approval ratings were at a low at the end of December, before making a slight recovery in the new year.

Either way, it looks like Sue Gray has her work cut out for her…

Cummings says PM was told No 10 party ‘broke the rules’ but said it should go ahead

Dominic Cummings says evidence will show Boris Johnson “lied to parliament” by denying he knew about the No 10 garden party, plunging his position deeper into jeopardy. 

An email sent by “a very senior official” warned the “bring your own booze” event broke Covid rules, the exiled former chief aide claims – blowing apart the prime minister’s defence that he thought it was “a work event”.

In an explosive blog post, Mr Cummings wrote: “Not only me but other eyewitnesses who discussed this at the time would swear under oath this is what happened.”

The warning came after No 10 denied Mr Johnson was “warned about” a party, or that he told aides objecting to garden gathering that they were “overreacting”.

Many MPs believe Mr Johnson cannot survive in office if it is shown that he misled parliament with his repeated denials that parties took place with his knowledge.

But, in his post, Mr Cummings said that, after Mr Johnson’s private secretary Martin Reynolds sent the invitation “a very senior official replied by email saying the invite broke the rules”.

“This email will be seen by Sue Gray (unless there is a foolish coverup which would also probably be a criminal offence),” he has written – of the senior civil servant leading the investigation.

Mr Cummings claims Mr Reynolds told him he would “check with the PM if he’s happy for it to go ahead”, on 20 May 2020.

“I am sure he did check with the PM. (I think it very likely another senior official spoke to the PM about it but I am not sure),” the post states.

And it adds: “The idea that the PPS [principal private secretary] would be challenged by two of the most senior people in the building, say he’d check with the PM then not – is not credible.”

Many MPs believe Mr Johnson cannot survive in office if it is shown that he misled parliament with his repeated denials that parties took place with his knowledge.

Mr Cummings has written: “The events of 20 May alone, never mind the string of other events, mean the PM lied to Parliament about parties.

“Not only me but other eyewitnesses who discussed this at the time would swear under oath this is what happened.”

The fresh allegations came as one senior Tory backbencher warned people are now “too angry to forgive” Mr Johnson for the rash of lockdown-busting parties.

“Right now, listening to the public who remember very well all the sacrifices they made, I think people may well be too angry to forgive,” former minister Steve Baker said.

Asked for the scale of the anger in his Wycombe constituency, Mr Baker replied: “Absolutely furious.”

Conservative MPs are contemplating the growing evidence that voters want Mr Johnson to quit, even before Ms Gray concludes her inquiry later this week or next week.

No 10 refused to say whether the prime minister has been interviewed by her, but said the “full” report will be published when it is ready – not just its key findings.

The allegation that Mr Johnson was warned that he should scrap the garden party was made first by his close friend Dominic Lawson, in a column for The Sunday Times.

Mr Lawson said an official also him that “at least two people” had alerted the prime minister that “this was “a party” and should be immediately cancelled”

“I was told that Johnson’s dismissive response was to say they were “overreacting” and to praise Reynolds as “my loyal Labrador”,” the columnist wrote.

But, on Sunday, a No 10 spokesman said: “It is untrue that the prime minister was warned about the event in advance. As he said earlier this week, he believed implicitly that this was a work event.”

In his blog, Mr Cummings also said he expected the Gray inquiry would get to the bottom of his earlier allegation that he stopped Mr Johnson visiting the Queen “when he might have been infectious”.

“This episode was also witnessed by others who will tell the official inquiry that what I have said is true and the official denials are false,” he has written.

And he warned: “There are many other photos of parties after I left yet to appear. I’ll say more when SG’s [Sue Gray’s] report is published.”

The former aide also attacked Downing Street briefings about a “drinking culture” in No 10, arguing it was false and “intended to shift blame”.