England’s water is bad and getting worse, with regulators too poor or politically cowed to do anything about it
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.
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.
John Vidal was the Guardian’s environment editor