Dirty Waters

The Environment Agency is the watchdog that aims to “create better places for people and wildlife” – but insiders tell Andrew Kersley that funding cuts have left it struggling to do its job

In Ilkley, on the border of the Yorkshire Dales National Park, the fish have started to desert the river. Instead, local fishermen catch sanitary towels, wet wipes and condoms on their lines, according to Karen Shackleton, a dog-walker and naturalist who helped form the Ilkley Clean River Group back in 2019.  

“I went down to see what was happening and it was absolutely horrific… There is a pebble beach where in summer people swim, play, paddle and picnic. And when it did rain the sewage was coming out of the outflow and across…into the river,” she tells The House.

“There were sanitary towels and condoms littered across the riverbed. People hadn’t a clue what they were paddling, swimming and playing in.”

According to a letter written by the local campaign group to Nicola Shaw, the chief executive of Yorkshire Water, raw sewage was released into the river at Ilkley across 146 days in the last year.  But when the group asked the Environment Agency (EA) to investigate the crisis, they were told it would be more than a decade before they could launch a full investigation.

Since 2020 there has been growing national outrage over the dumping of untreated sewage. That year there were 403,171 raw sewage dumps into England’s rivers and seas, or more than three million hours of spillages. That figure was a 37 per cent increase on 2019. Those figures only slightly dropped in 2021 to around 375,000 untreated sewage discharges, for a combined total of more than 2.7 million hours. Now just 14 per cent of UK rivers are judged to be of good ecological standard, i.e. close to their natural state.

But while the country's privatised water companies face widespread criticism for high executive bonuses and shareholder dividends and slashing investment in the country's sewage infrastructure, less discussed is the situation inside the Environment Agency, the regulator tasked with holding to account the UK’s biggest polluters and protecting the country’s environment and ecology. The agency is nominally responsible for stopping the worst polluters from being able to get away with it.

The House has spoken to insiders at the agency who describe a regulator stuck in a constant state of triage behind the scenes, with vacancy rates as high as 80 per cent on some teams, and eight-month waiting lists for permits. Staff are at the time of writing being balloted over future industrial action – unions are confident this will result in what would be only the second pay-related strike in the agency’s history.  

Multi-decade veterans of the agency described the regulator as “broken”.

One insider even warned that cuts to certain teams could result in a surge in deaths if the flooding response is rendered inadequate this winter.

They said their team had been dealing with a 50 per cent vacancy rate for three years. “In September, we lost one of our team members who left the agency and got a job as a delivery driver. It’s closer to home, better hours, and considerably more pay than what he was getting working in the field team,” he said. “People just can't do it anymore.”

Since 2010, the EA has been on the end of massive cuts to its grant-in aid budget from the government, particularly in its frontline environmental protection work, which dropped from £170m in 2009-10 to a low of £76m in 2019-20, and £94m last year. While overall funding for EA operations has increased slightly, The House understands most of that money is ring fenced for items like flood barriers and other overdue capital projects rather than day-to-day operations and staffing. In 2013, the service cut 1,700 staff, or 15 per cent of its workforce, to reduce costs.

For much of that same period, the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs – which oversees and funds the EA – was run by the now-former prime minister Liz Truss. One insider expressed concerns that the department as a whole is often seen as a backwater by politicians; it has the third smallest budget in Whitehall and it underwent a roughly 30 per cent real terms cut to its budget between 2010 and 2016. They describe it as a department where it is presumed that the damage of cutbacks is less tangible and often takes longer to materialise.

"If I cut your and your family's income by 60 per cent I would be leaving you destitute."

However, agency insiders we spoke to say the impact of the cuts has been dire, particularly on staffing.

What used to be a stable career many staff would stay in for their entire career has seen an increasing churn – in what was described by those we spoke to as an unprecedented "recruitment and retainment" crisis.

One senior trade union rep who has been involved with negotiations with the agency told The House that the EA had a staff vacancy rate as high as 20 per cent, with certain frontline teams facing a vacancy rate nearer to 80 per cent.

"From one week to the next you don’t know who is on a particular team or who’s in charge of something or who you need to speak to," said one staffer, who added that in any given year the average team usually saw 30 per cent of its staff leave. "I've seen smaller teams nearly wiped out."

Multiple staff said that most new hires now only join the agency for a couple of years as something they can "put on their CV" before immediately decamping to the private sector they had just been regulating. That means that the agency repeatedly finds itself training new employees for their skilled work, only for them to leave "exactly as they're becoming useful", as one staffer put it.

"We're having more problems recruiting than we've ever had," added another staffer, explaining that the one benefit the agency had – a decentralised, flexible work schedule – has been badly undercut by the shift to hybrid and remote working during the pandemic.

Those we spoke to said the primary cause behind the churn simply came down to wages – a decade of below-inflation pay settlements means average staffer pay has dropped by 20 per cent in real terms. The House understands a new starter in most frontline teams at the EA will earn around £19,000 – barely above the national minimum wage – and within three years will still be earning less than £21,000.

Officials with UNISON, the largest trade union at the agency, told The House that union research conducted before the pandemic found that a significant number of staff at the agency were relying on food banks and universal credit to meet their basic costs. They added that recently the union has started to see rising numbers of frontline inspectors saying they can't afford to attend incidents as they couldn't even afford the subsidised cost of petrol to drive to the site.

One emergency flood responder – the staff who respond during floods and flood risks to try to reduce the impact and save lives – was concerned that with winter coming, in the event of heavy rains their team would not be large enough to properly respond – risking not just millions in property damage, but people’s lives.

They said their team had been dealing with a 50 per cent vacancy rate for three years. “In September, we lost one of our team members who left the agency and got a job as a delivery driver. It’s closer to home, better hours, and considerably more pay than what he was getting working in the field team,” he said. “People just can't do it anymore.”

“From one week to the next you don’t know who is on a particular team or who’s in charge of something or who you need to speak to.”

Those The House spoke to said the cuts had gone far beyond efficiency savings – the agency has been forced to change its own "ground rules" for investigations and enforcement to a level that one staffer suggested meant polluters were now marking their own homework.

"You cannot cull any organisation's budget by 60 per cent. It doesn't matter who it is," says Feargal Sharkey, an anti-pollution activist and former lead singer of The Undertones. "If I cut your and your family's income by 60 per cent I would be leaving you destitute."

A leaked document seen by the Guardian in March indicated that some 93 per cent of prosecutions for serious pollution at the agency were dropped despite recommendations from frontline staff to the contrary – though the reasons those cases were dropped was not disclosed.

However, one insider told The House the reason that the agency was failing to pursue the prosecutions of so many polluters was largely down to a lack of funding and staffing power to engage in lengthy court battles. They cited one case they worked on where the polluter was prosecuted for only one year’s worth of illegal dumping despite having illegally polluted for five years previously, as it would “take too much resource” to prosecute them fully.

They added that in their team they had essentially stopped responding to most public complaints about potential pollution incidents as they didn't have the staff to attend, adding that they felt it now meant the country's worst polluters were essentially self-regulating.

Other staff said a mixture of a high internal bar set for the amount of evidence needed for full prosecution, along with staff and funding shortages, meant the agency often dropped prosecutions and other forms of enforcement unless they were “cast iron cases”, as one put it.

Another said that during their tenure they had seen several “multi-year, multi-site investigations” dropped as a result, adding that a former colleague of theirs had left the agency in protest at the way prosecutions for serious polluters were handled.

That issue had particular relevance for sewage dumping in UK rivers, with a third insider saying a lack of enforcement has meant that “water companies have found it easier to take a few hits in court in terms of some fines than to actually do what they're supposed to do”. In January, the agency instructed staff to no longer attend low level category three and four pollution incidents as they lacked the resources and staffing power to investigate.

Inside the national permitting team, The Houseunderstands that there is a six to eight month backlog on even interacting with any permit applications, which, a source said, has forced the EA to allow services to operate without a permit once an application was made to avoid excess delays for industry. A recent Channel 4 investigation found in the water sector alone some 870 un-permitted sewage overflow pipes were in operation, outfall of which for many was unmeasured.

Several people The House spoke to felt the cuts to day-to-day operations weren’t just having a devastating impact on the environment, but were also a false economy – citing issues like air pollution or flooding where preventative spending can offer high savings to the government in the long run.

"The Environment Agency has been dealt a bad hand by the government,” said UNISON head of business and community Donna Rowe-Merriman. "Its budgets have been persistently cut, making it hard for the dedicated workforce to do their jobs properly… The staff who work there deserve much better."

"Every time I run into someone from the EA in a dry suit standing in a river they are without exception just incredibly patient, dedicated people trying to do a good job in a horrendously difficult situation," added Sharkey. "Genuinely it is a case of lions led by donkeys."

An Environment Agency spokesperson said their staff were "vital" to the agency's work and they try to give them the "best possible pay settlement" that is "within the constraints of government pay guidance".

They stressed that most vacancies at the organisation were for new, not historic roles and that they were "making good progress" on a "recruitment campaign to fill new roles".

They highlighted the eight prosecutions concluded against water companies for pollution in 2022, and the more than 90 per cent success rate of agency prosecutions.

In 2022 so far, more than £3.7m worth of fines have been given to water and sewage companies through EA prosecutions.

All those The House spoke to were given blanket anonymity due to the fact the agency's chief executive James Bevan (who recently announced he was stepping down) warned staff against speaking to the media, threatening disciplinary action or dismissal for any staff that "openly criticise or discredit the organisation" or disclose any "confidential information".

Those that chose to speak out, despite the risk, did so because they felt the current crisis posed an existential threat to the future of the agency that in many cases they had dedicated decades of their life to. One said they were now convinced the agency's ability to police polluters had been critically "compromised".

"I really fear for the future of the agency. What will we be regulating? Will there be anybody left to do it?" asked another lifelong staffer. "The environment surrounds everybody… and people want to live in a decent environment. But we can't do that for free. We need good people and proper funding, and at the moment we’re losing the good people and all the funding is disappearing."