‘It is desperate’: how Environment Agency staff were silenced as pollution worsened

·7 min read
<span>Photograph: Maureen McLean/Rex/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: Maureen McLean/Rex/Shutterstock

The internal email dropped into staff inboxes at a time when public outrage about pollution in English rivers was in full cry, generating parliamentary debates, demonstrations and mass petitions.

But within the agency responsible for protecting and enhancing the environment the focus was on gagging staff with the threat of dismissal if they discussed its work both inside and outside the organisation.

Chief executive James Bevan, a former Foreign Office mandarin who was appointed in 2015 to run the regulator, issued a draconian warning silencing staff after a wave of criticism about its performance protecting rivers.

Staff should not, he said, “openly criticise or discredit the organisation in the media or on social media” or “disclose any confidential information in connection with the Environment Agency to anyone who is not authorised to received it”.

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All breaches could lead to disciplinary action or, in serious cases, dismissal. Comments made “inside or outside work”, including derogatory statements about the organisation, managers, colleagues, stakeholders, customers or contractors, and anything that brought the agency into disrepute, or reflected on its performance, were all subject to sanction.

Although pressures on the agency and its staff have grown each year as its government grant has been incrementally slashed by nearly two-thirds, this threat from Bevan marked a nadir. “It is desperate,” said Nick Measham of Salmon and Trout Conservation. “It shows a lack of confidence and suggests a very unhappy workplace.”

Why Bevan felt compelled to issue his message when he did can perhaps be traced back to a few weeks before in November last year, when staff were given formal instructions to shut down and stop investigating low level pollution events, so-called level 3 and 4 incidents.

The memo, seen by the Guardian, clearly laid out the dire state of the organisation’s investigative and enforcement capabilities. “We do not have sufficient funding to continue to provide our current level of environment management incident response and have made it clear to government that you get the environment you pay for,” it read. “As a result, we have decided to reduce our response to unfunded low and no impact environmental incidents.”

The memo admitted this would not be popular with the public, many of whom work as volunteers to plug gaps in Environment Agency monitoring of rivers to track pollution.

“This is not an easy transition and our officers and advisers are facing criticism from our customers for the reduction in our service,” it read.

The axing of core pollution detection work was something environmental charities suspected had been in play for a while. Michelle Walker of the Rivers Trust said: “Anecdotally we had heard for some time that they just won’t come out to a pollution incident unless there are dead fish, for example, or unless there are the right number of dead fish. But the fact that they are now formally making that policy is shocking.”

For frontline staff, the individuals whose task is to go out and investigate pollution, identify polluters and make them accountable, it was, insiders said, another example that their work was not a priority in the EA. Multiple and repeated complaints to managers had been made internally about the move away from frontline responses for some time, the Guardian has been told.

Some staff have carried on doing the work, only to face reprimands from managers.

Insiders point out that attending level 3 and 4 pollution incidents can prevent higher risk pollution incidents in future. A staff survey carried out in October and November reflected the dismay, revealing increasing levels of workplace stress and low morale, with staff struggling with their mental health.

After 26 years as a statutory regulator the agency has moved in the last two decades away from its frontline enforcement and monitoring role. In 2009 it changed its policy to allow water companies to self monitor their own discharge and report breaches, rather than their own staff visiting and taking their own independent samples.

The conviction of Southern Water last year for deliberately discharging billions of litres of raw sewage into the sea, and covering up its actions by very significant under-reporting of the pollution, has not led to a change in this policy.

As government funding for its environmental protection work continues to decline; from about £170m in 2009-10 to £94m last year the gaps are increasingly being filled by charges to the industries and businesses the agency regulates, including water companies and waste firms – £330m in 2021/2. Whistleblowers speaking to the Guardian say the money within the agency has shifted as a result from the officers investigating and monitoring pollution to middle managers dealing with the businesses being regulated who increasingly provide the funding for its work.

Between 2013 and 2018, monitoring of water quality in freshwater environments was halved from 10,797 sites to 4,656, according to data collated by Salmon and Trout Conservation and a farmer can only expect a visit from an EA officer once every 263 years, by the agency’s own admission.

“These management teams now appear to be directly funded by businesses we regulate, at the expense of the teams that are tasked to carry out the investigation and enforcement,” said one insider. “The overall feeling is that this has not happened by accident but that water quality is no longer a priority and the environment in most cases is expendable,” another source told the Guardian.

“There appears to be a direction aimed at working alongside water companies, industry and agriculture, rather than regulating them. The EA 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.”

Prosecutions by the agency in the decade to 2020 have fallen dramatically. Civil sanctions, known as enforcement undertakings, have increasingly been used since 2010; they are a voluntary legally binding agreement that avoids anyone being held criminally responsible and instead requires an offender to pay a financial contribution towards the environment.

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“We have a situation where court actions for water offences brought by the EA fell from 235 in 2002 to 20 in 2019 to three in 2020,” said Caroline Lucas, the Green MP and member of the parliamentary environmental audit committee. “Something is clearly going wrong and there is a clear conflict of interest when the agency is left so dependent on income from the permits paid for by the very companies that it’s meant to be regulating.”

Tom Burke, co-founder of the environmental consultancy E3G, said the shift in policy was the result of a deliberate political plan to weaken environmental regulation by stealth. “The agency is set up in statute so any effort to close it would require primary legislation, which would run into a hurricane of opposition,” he said. “By taking away its budgets and independence you get a nice label for the gutless business service organisation we see today.”

Increasingly, however, the response of the public seems to chime with the apparent frustrations and discontent of frontline staff. From residents who live near polluted landfill sites to river users pushing for cleaner waterways to coastal communities setting up their own groups to monitor the regular discharges of raw sewage by water companies, the view is the agency is not doing enough to stop pollution, bring polluters to account and protect the environment.

As Amy Slack of Surfers Against Sewage told MPs recently: “We have never seen greater awareness and appetite for change as we are now … people do not want to be swimming and playing in polluted water and are generally shocked when they find out the extent of the problem.”

An EA spokesperson said: “The Environment Agency delivers a massive amount for the country – like the rest of the public sector we operate within a tight budget and must prioritise to ensure we are doing the best we can, with the money we have, for the people and places we serve.”

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