The Environment Agency has been cut and cut again by government, but the costs could be huge for people and our environment.
The recent floods were just one example of that, but there is so much more at risk.
Climate change and the Environment Agency
Recent incidents of extreme weather – resulting in tidal surges and flooding – have brought aspects of the work carried out by the Environment Agency into sharp focus.
The government’s own scientific advisors have estimated that the impact of climate change will increase the amount of flooding that the UK experiences – four times as many homes will be at risk over the next 20 years.
The government has, by and large, protected capital investment in flood defences, but that’s rather less impressive than it sounds when you consider that it has also slashed revenue spending – the money for maintenance and repairs.
Did you know?
At a time when inflation has increased by 11%: in real terms, the Environment Agency grant has been cut by more than a quarter.
How much are we spending?
In 2009-10, total grants to the Environment Agency were £846.7m.
For 2010-11, these were cut to £799.6m, then to £749.5m in 2011-12.
Further cuts in 2012-13 brought the figure down to £723m.
There was another cut, of £14m, for this year. This is a reduction of 16% – at a time when inflation has increased by 11%: in real terms, the grant has been cut by more than a quarter.
A false economy
The floods at the beginning of 2014 highlight a contradiction of the cuts.
Treasury advice says new schemes need to demonstrate that each £1 of public money spent needs to save £8.
Cameron’s dredge pledge is like the badger cull. It is useless. It is counterproductive.
The Guardian, 30 January 2014 “Dredging rivers won’t stop floods. It will make them worse”
The Association of British Insurers paid out some £1.2bn after the floods of 2012 followed the country’s second wettest period on record and the Environment Agency estimated that the floods of 2007 cost the economy £3.2bn.
In the first half of February 2014, accountancy firm Deloitte was reported as estimating that, if the extreme weather claims extended further into the month, the insurance industry could face a bill of £500m, while agricultural economists Mitchells Accountants told ITV that Somerset farmers alone will face £9m extra costs.
And then there is the cost of dealing with the damage left by the pre-Christmas tidal surges on the east coast, which destroyed many existing defences and caused between £250-£300m of damage.
The threat to jobs
UNISON has many members working in the Environment Agency and they are deeply concerned – not just about the threats to their livelihoods but also about the damage job losses on the scale proposed will cause to communities.
Government cuts to the Environment Agency budget mean that around 1,500 jobs are under threat. Add that to the job cuts which have already taken place, and around a quarter of the pre-2010 workforce will have been lost by October 2014. (This is slightly complicated by the fact that the pre-2010 figure included Environment Agency staff covering Wales, but a new Welsh agency – National Resource Wales – was created in 2013.)
Scotland is covered by the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency.
UNISON and our members believe that the severe cuts being imposed by the government will mean the Environment Agency will no longer be able to offer the full range of services that are currently provided and so some services will be reduced in a significant manner.
This will leave communities throughout England at a greater risk of environmental harm.
More than floods The Environment Agency, and other bodies in the devolved nations, was set up to protect and improve the environment and to contribute to sustainable development.
In England alone, the Environment Agency’s key responsibilities include:
- regulation of major industry;
- flood and coastal risk management;
- water quality and resources;
- waste regulation;
- climate change;
- contaminated land;
- conservation and ecology;
Although not an emergency service, the Environment Agency is a “category one” responder under the Civil Contingencies Act. It plays an important role in preparing for, and supporting the response to, emergencies.
Staff are always on standby to respond to incidents 24 hours a day.
The government’s approach to continued cuts at the Environment Agency is a classic case of being penny wise and pound foolish.
Matthew Lay, national officer, UNISON
The areas that are most vulnerable to cuts are those which do not have ring-fenced funding allocated.
These areas include the prevention and prosecution of waste crime, work with planning authorities to ensure environmental safeguards are always in place for new development, monitoring and protection of migratory fish and pollution protection, to name just a few.
In essence, UNISON is saying that the proposed cuts will deliver a licence to pollute for those who seek to do so.
It is important we raise the profile of these services because much of the focus on the Environment Agency has been on its role in flood and coastal management, not on its environmental protection function.
Environment Agency worker
Andy Theaker, a UNISON member who works for the agency as an engineer in flood risk management, says the two months from 23 December to 23 February had been incredibly hard for staff, with more serious events “than anyone can remember”.
Staff from areas other than those related to floods were drafted in for “this prolonged effort”.
He notes that after the press had given the agency “a good kicking”, staff felt a sense of relief when Environment Agency chairman Chris Smith had “snapped” at all the criticism.
“Year on year, we’re having cuts in revenue spending,” explains Mr Theaker, emphasising that this is what is spent on repairs and maintenance.
The service, he says, is “going down, down, down” with attempts to avoid doing work that isn’t on facilities that the agency itself actually owns and has total responsibility for, such as some locks and the Thames Barrier.
He cites a bylaw that says that it’s up to individual landowners to look after water courses on their property, explaining that, over the years, politicians have suggested using this increasingly in order to shift responsibility – and cost – away from the state.
But, continues Mr Theaker, if you think how many people that would involve near, for instance, any of London’s rivers then “it would be impossible to organise”, leaving the agency as the coherent option for undertaking such work.
However, with the agencies’ call centres already outsourced to a French multinational, the prospect of attempts to hive off more of the agencies’ work is not far from the minds of staff.
Mr Theaker believes that the planned further cuts to staff levels will have a serious impact on waste and enforcement. It’s “one of the things we do well,” he observes, but adds that, with fewer resources and less emphasis on such work it will be “a free for all with people dumping things in ways we don’t want” and all that could obviously mean for increased pollution.