First it was the food banks that stepped in to fill a gap left by the retreating state, as successive Tory governments denied responsibility for the increase in their use.
Now it seems pollution monitoring of English rivers is also to be taken over by volunteers, because after years of severe cuts in the funding and staffing of the Environment Agency, it is no longer able to fulfil its statutory obligations by regularly monitoring all our rivers (Citizen scientists to monitor English rivers in £7m scheme, 14 September).
The Rivers Trust hopes that its £7m “citizen scientist” programme to standardise regular testing in 10 river catchment areas will lead to thousands of volunteers undertaking monitoring that the EA is unable to carry out itself.
Although all this new, regular monitoring sounds good, the volunteers will not be able to take action in response to incidents of pollution. They will need to report them to the EA, and I can find nothing to suggest that it is capable of properly processing and acting on all the pollution reports that will be coming its way. As the Guardian reported in January, the EA has already told staff to ignore reports of “low-impact” pollution events because it does not have enough money to investigate them.
The cynical among us might conclude that cutting back EA funding and letting volunteers step in is just another underhand way of our government implementing David Cameron’s “big society” through the back door.
Citizen science is no substitute for a properly funded Environment Agency with teeth, and stronger laws. The classic case in point must be the formerly glorious River Wye, which I visited as a boy. Then it was still the sight that had inspired poets and artists; now, thanks to lax or unenforced planning laws, it is virtually dead, poisoned by the droppings of millions of intensively reared chickens.
No number of citizen scientists will improve this situation; we must either stop eating chicken or ban such factories in environmentally sensitive locations – or at the very least make the polluters pay for cleaning up their mess and ensuring waste no longer gets into the water table.