The Policy Making Role of the Environment Agency

Back to all Motions

2015 Water, Environment & Transport Service Group
23 February 2015

The policy making role of the Environment Agency

Conference believes that the 2010-2015 coalition Government made a huge mistake when, in October 2010, it instructed the Environment Agency to “… cease policy making activities”. Previously the Environment Agency had been encouraged to use the expertise and experience at its disposal to contribute to the formulation of environmental policy. The extensive knowledge that Environment Agency workers have regarding often technical and scientific issues relating to environmental policy is widely recognised and respected.

Wasting this resource makes no sense. Conference believes that reversing this decision would improve the quality of decision making by Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) Ministers, of whatever political party. It would also have a positive impact on the working lives of many UNISON members working for the Environment Agency who have worked on policy making activities in the past.

The practical implications of the October 2010 decision can be seen in the mess that the 2010-2015 Coalition Government made of the issue of dredging as a means of reducing flood risk. At Ministerial direction, huge amounts of resources have been directed towards dredging on the Somerset levels since the 2014 winter floods, despite evidence that dredging there would be of very limited benefit, and might in fact make flooding worse by making river banks unstable and increasing erosion. The money spent on the exercise could have been far better spent in other ways, and the dredging was done entirely for political reasons.

There are also issues with waste policy. DEFRA has all but abdicated from making waste policy, and has pushed most of that responsibility onto WRAP (Waste & Resources Action Programme). However, WRAP has had its funding from Defra significantly cut, and has had to take on charitable status. Barring the Agency from getting involved has created a vacuum, which encourages criminal activity in the waste sector, adding to the Agency’s resourcing problems.

Conference further notes that in May 2000 the sixth report of the Environment, Transport and Regions Select Committee was published. This looked at the performance of the Agency during its first three years and recommended:

“As an important advisor to Government on environmental issues, we would like to see the Agency engage more vigorously in public debate and raise its profile on matters of importance where protection and enhancement of the environment and sustainable development are concerned. Clearly, the Agency must conduct itself in accordance with Government policy, but it should also play an important role in influencing that policy as it is formed.”

Conference believes that the loss of this independence has damaged the ability of UNISON members to do their jobs effectively.

Conference calls on the WET Executive to:

– Produce a report which presents the evidence for re-introducing the Environment Agency’s policy making role.

– Work with Labour Link to campaign and lobby for the re-introduction of the Environment Agency’s role in policy making, highlighting the knowledge and experience of UNISON members working in the Environment Agency.

– Build links with Non-Governmental Organisations to seek support for the restoration of the Agency’s policy making role