Staff blow whistle on Environment Agency that ‘no longer deters polluters’

Staff at England’s Environment Agency say it has been cut back to such an extent that they cannot do their jobs and the regulator is no longer a deterrent to polluters.

Rachel Salvidge

Three officers at the EA have described to the Guardian and Ends Report how they are increasingly unable to hold polluters to account or improve the environment as a result of the body’s policies.

The officers wish to remain anonymous because the EA’s chief executive, Sir James Bevan, has “been very clear that he will sack anybody that is seen to be openly criticising the agency”, one officer said.

The Environment Agency has a large budget but the officers say it is not being directed towards protecting or improving the environment. Government grants to the agency rose from £880m to £1.05bn over the past two years, and money for flood operations has steadily increased. But government funding for the agency’s environmental protection work has slumped from about £170m in 2009-10 to a low of £76m in 2019-20, and £94m last year.

As a result, work that does not generate any income for the agency, such as attending pollution incidents, has been deprioritised, say the officers. Last week the Guardian revealed that the agency would no longer respond to lower-impact pollution incidents.

One EA officer said there had been a “drive to make the agency almost entirely self-sufficient, so if you can’t charge for something it gets a lower priority, which is why a lot of the officer roles have been cut – those that go out to pollution events and inspect works … it’s been cut and cut and cut and left us where we are at the moment, which is with a very limited resource on that side.”

In a speech on Tuesday, Bevan signalled that he would like industry to eventually pay the full cost of its regulation, alongside tougher punishments for polluters that could lead to custodial sentences for the worst offenders.

A second officer said increases in charges and other agency income filled the gap left by dwindling government grants but the money did not find its way to frontline work. Instead it was directed to middle management, they said.

“Part of the theory of paying for a permit is that a certain percentage is used to tackle illegal activity that operates without one,” they said. “Yet frontline officers have to watch this money go elsewhere, usually to fill newly created management roles that have no impact on frontline duties. The only sectors to benefit are the operators who want to avoid meaningful regulation. The Environment Agency appears to be making a choice to direct current funding away from frontline water quality.”

Other moves by the agency that are said to stifle fieldwork include “new incident teams that don’t leave the office” and the “removal of lease cars to attend incidents”.

Issuing permits for a potentially polluting activity, such as discharging effluent into a river, brings money into the agency, but one officer said that when making a decision on the activity, “we’re told, largely through the permitting process, to give business the benefit of the doubt, rather than the environment.

“Unless you can find a 100% solid reason not to grant something, you will grant it. The precautionary principle, which is what a lot of these decisions should be based on, is not prevalent … we don’t really get to use it.”

Permitting decisions are further undermined by the patchy nature of the agency’s data, according to the insiders. “It’s all tied up with the fact that our monitoring now is a lot poorer,” one officer said. “When you try to make a decision on an impact of something, it’s so much more difficult to prove because the data isn’t there any more. Priority is given to the applicant rather than the environment unless it’s absolutely clearcut.”

The upshot is that the agency’s funding and operational decisions have “resulted in a regulator that is toothless,” said one officer. “Should a polluter be caught, any tools that were at [its] disposal to take action have been systematically removed … Officers are actively encouraged not to take enforcement action, and asked to find another solution. We are no longer a deterrent to polluters.”

There is considerable anger among staff that “those who adhere to the legislation are paying significant sums, whilst those that chose to ignore the legislation escape any charge or meaningful punishment,” according to one officer.

Another officer said the reduction in enforcement activity would “embolden people to break the law because they know that there’s not really a strong police force out there watching over them and able to take any form of significant action against them”.

The overall feeling is that areas such as water quality are “no longer a priority and the environment in most cases is expendable. There appears to be a direction aimed at working alongside water companies, industry and agriculture, rather than regulating them.

“The Environment Agency is as far removed from the ‘polluter pays’ principle as it has ever been, and what is most concerning is that this appears to be by design,” said one.

Being unable to get out into the field to do the jobs they were hired to do has also taken its toll on staff morale, according to the officers. “Morale is so low, and the main reason for that is our poor performance on water quality and enforcement – it upsets people when they see the stuff they’re passionate about being red-carded and ignored,” said one officer.

Another said: “The majority of staff joined the Environment Agency because of a vocation for environmental protection, and their morale is at rock bottom because they are being asked to ignore this vocation with no visible justification.”

Another officer said: “You’ve got a lot of very passionate, very well meaning people, very often forbidden from doing their jobs to the full. They join the agency because they care, they really want to make a difference, [but then] their ambitions are invariably stifled and slowly blunted by an organisation that just grinds them down and gives them very few opportunities to make a difference.”

An Environment Agency spokesperson said: “Our staff are vital to our work to protect the environment, people and wildlife from harm, and we are committed to providing a healthy and high-quality working environment.

“Our most recent employee people survey highlights many positive aspects of working at the Environment Agency – with staff engagement at 68% and the majority reporting they like their job, feel supported in their health, safety and wellbeing, and want to stay within the organisation. However, we are not complacent and understand the last few years have been particularly challenging for all public servants. We continue to listen to and act upon feedback from our staff as a key priority.”