According to Unearthed, possibly not.
According to the Environment Agency, yes.
According to me, well read on and see…in particular I want to comment on the Unearthed article which, while having a core of truth is guilty of misrepresentation in places.
Let’s start with the gross misrepresentation of
“nearly 1,000 EA staff – all of which were in corporate services such as finance, HR and IT – have been transferred to the department since July 2016.”
In practice this doesn’t represent a loss to EA field staff (the ones who collect samples, investigate pollution incidents and inspect premises) and doesn’t really represent a loss to the EA as these people are still providing the same services to the EA. What bothers me about this particular aspect of the arrangements is that they may not have the same priorities as directly employed staff. You can bet your bottom dollar that once in Defra any flexibility of movement or interpretation or creativity will quickly get knocked out of them.
A paradox resolved?
The article makes a big play on the number of inspections being reduced. So what? Our drinking water is self-monitored by the privatised water companies and is generally (and correctly in my informed opinion) considered to be amongst the best in Europe. A good self regulation scheme, with strictly controlled sampling regimes, quality assured analysis and routine reporting of results to both the regulator and the public can lead to a massive improvement in quality at negligible cost to the regulator. Maybe, just maybe, this is what lies behind the apparent paradox of reduced inspections yet also reduced non-compliances? I would welcome a comment from the EA (or perhaps some recently departed member of staff) on this proposition.
A big play is made about the reduced number of prosecutions and a shift towards Enforcement Undertakings. (I will overlook, no I will not, the factual error suggesting that the EA imposes fewer fines. The EA does not impose ANY fines, they are matters for the independent court system).
I personally support the concept of Enforcement Undertakings and want to see them used much more extensively. Believe me, from the discussions I have had with the EA they do not regard them as “less-costly and less-risky”, in fact I see the parts of the EA putting obstacles in the way of their use rather than facilitating them. The great advantage of an EU is that the money, which as to be of a similar amount to that which would have been levied as a fine, goes directly to environmental charities to spend improving the environment rather than into the ‘chancellor’s back pocket’. The recent emergence of Environmental Liability Notices is a development that we should follow with interest.
“Things are (not) getting worse”
The article propagates the oft repeated view that
“Only 14% of the rivers in England are classed as having ‘good ecological status’, down from 27% in 2010.”
I read statements such as this with dismay. Having spent the last 42 years of my life dedicated to improving our rivers, let me tell you that they are better than ever.
When I started on the River Aire in 1974, the prospect of fishing the river in the centre of Leeds was laughable, now we have reliable records of salmon being caught there and we are starting on a major project (DNAire, a partnership project with the EA) to return salmon to the headwaters and hence stimulate a sustainable migratory fish population.
Nearly all of these reported changes are to do with standards so low as to be unachievable (e.g. Phosphate in sewage effluents) or recategorisation of water bodies using rules drawn up to report compliance in line with European Legislation, many of which are much less lax in other countries. If any of the complainers can truly convince me that matters are getting worse, then I promise to pack up tomorrow and consider my life’s work to have been a waste of time.
Investigations and Sampling
Now let nobody get the idea that I am not critical of the EA, for I am indeed critical of certain aspects of how they go about their work (and not just in the environmental field, as a member of the RFCC I have been a persistent champion of getting more from the FCRM programme). We can quote examples of grossly inadequate incident investigations, damaging riverbank maintenance, inadequate levels of sampling and monitoring of their own capital schemes and of baseline environmental data (the silence on the long standing Strategic Monitoring Review is worrying) etc. These are to some extent caused by staff and money shortages and need challenging. The prospect of many of these functions being handed over to an even less well resourced Civil Society is worrying. Catchment Hosts are already expected to draw up Integrated Catchment Plans using the grand sum of £15000 per year (yes, thousands of pound not millions!), the funding we might receive to do some of this other work fills me with no enthusiasm whatsoever.
Yes, by all means criticise the EA for their weaknesses, but the argument is diluted by inaccuracies and misrepresentations.
Your thoughts are welcome, I have opened Comments on this post.