WET conference: Invest to protect our environment

Debate at the water, environment and transport conference in Brighton on Sunday turned to canals, buses and the Environment Agency

Image: Steve Forrest/Workers’ photos

A key theme at Sunday’s water, environment and transport (WET) conference in Brighton was a lack of investment in the country’s environment.

Opening business was a motion discussing the Canal and River Trust funding. It noted that, in July 2023, the government announced a reduced grant to the trust from 2027. This funding reduction is equivalent to £300 million in real terms and, in Canal and River Trust’s own words, “will threaten the future of the nation’s historic canals”.

Speaking on the motion, David Dunwell of the West Yorkshire Combined Authority and Transport said that “currently, 40% of the trust’s income is spent on maintenance of the canal systems infrastructure”, adding that reduction in the funding will inevitably lead to the closure of canals.

Image: Steve Forrest/Workers’ photos

Environment agency

The consequences of cuts were also discussed in relation to the work of the Environment Agency (EA). One motion argued that the best way to protect the environment is retaining the EA and funding it properly.

The motion noted that the recent high-profile media coverage on sewage discharges to rivers and seas has brought intense scrutiny on the agency. It argued that the lack of funding has a direct impact on the ability of the agency to enforce on these issues.

It took aim at the Conservative government’s claim to be the ‘greenest government’ ever, calling it greenwashing and arguing that the problem is chronic underfunding and a political culture in hoc to polluting companies that put profit before the environment.

One speaker said that “it is an unashamed case for protecting the environment agency in its current guise”, adding that the skills and competences required to tackle environmental challenges are best served in an efficient and empowered Environment Agency.

Image: Steve Forrest/Workers’ photos


Continuing a theme from earlier in the conference around the failure of privatisation of public services, a motion was discussed around bus services and the reduction in passenger levels post-Covid.

Pam Sian (pictured above), chair of the passenger transport forum, noted that, in the “year ending March 2023 (according to government statistics), there were 3.4bn bus passenger journeys, with over half in London”.

Conference condemned the ever-increasing amount of disappearing bus services in communities and the consequent impact on UNISON members employed in the public transport industry.

Ms Sian said: “Private companies want subsidies from the public to cover unprofitable routes – conference these are the same political choices that have left us with tap water you cannot drink and rising energy prices”.

She added that, outside of the capital, the largest user of buses outside of London are low-paid and vulnerable people.

Moving on to solutions to the problem, she heralded the work of the metro mayors in the North West and West Yorkshire taking transport back in-house and argued that the country should be “taking public transport back into the public interest, rather than the interests of profit”.

The motion called on the service group executive to raise awareness, to ask branches and regions to lobby local MPs in protecting bus services and jobs in the sector, and to support the Save Our Buses campaign.