Polluters Left to Mark Their Own Homework Due to Environment Agency CutsWarns Whistleblower
Andrew Kersley speaks to an insider about how austerity is damaging the regulator, as it battles against unprecedented sewage dumps
An Environment Agency whistleblower has warned that the agency’s “self-destructing” budget cuts and staff shortages have left it unable to scrutinise polluting companies.
The whistleblower told Byline Times that the number of inspectors in his region has dropped by between half and two-thirds – meaning that large companies have been left to self-report their own pollution rates, with the agency unable to verify if they are telling the truth.
The inside source at the Environment Agency, the regulatory body tasked with stopping pollution and protecting the natural environment in England and Wales, spoke exclusively to Byline Times under the condition of anonymity.
Since 2010, the Environment Agency has seen its budget slashed by two-thirds, from £120 million to just £40 million, one of the biggest cuts for any Government body. Its chief executive recently said that staff are now only able to make 9,000 inspections each year across its various responsibilities – while the country has some 15,000 combined sewage overflows (CSOs) alone.
In recent months, CSOs – which are sewage overflows into rivers during periods of unprecedented rainfall – have become a source of controversy as the UK’s privatised water companies used the outlets on an increasingly regular basis. There were 403,171 sewage dumps into England’s rivers and seas in 2020 – representing more than three million hours of spillages.
But, while sewage dumping is hitting record levels, the situation at the Environment Agency is only getting worse. Our insider explained that their operation – responsible for waste in the entirety of one of 12 UK regions – at full strength would comprise 33 people across three teams. Following initial budget cuts, this fell to 19 people in one team, and now he only has 13 inspectors.
Yet budget cutbacks are not the only cause of the staff exodus. Starting salaries for inspectors can also be pretty low (sometimes barely above the minimum wage), while subsidised vehicles to help inspectors visit sites are currently at risk of being cut back, saddling the inspectors with even more costs.
The impact of the lack of staff has been dire. The whistleblower explained that because of the lack of on-the-ground inspectors, the Environment Agency is not able to respond to most low-level incidents. In particular, events reported by the public, that may end up being far more serious than initially suspected, are frequently ignored, with those who made the report being sent generic letters.
That inability to inspect incidents means that in many cases, according to the agency insider, staff are reliant on the self-reporting of incidents by the companies themselves.
“The typical category three incident now would be like Southern Water ringing to say we’ve got a sewage spill but we can solve it ourselves and it’s all fine,” the whistleblower explained. “But there’s got to be a time where you go ‘hang on a minute how do you know if it’s not a category two or category one’, which is a genuine big environmentally disastrous type spill.”
Byline Times has previously uncovered that the UK’s water companies have paid a total of £405 million in fines for environmental, water service, workplace health and safety, and labour violations since 2010.
The budget cuts have also affected cases after misdeeds had been proven, with the whistleblower telling Byline Times that many legal cases into polluters have been dropped by the agency’s legal team, not because of a lack of evidence, but a lack of money to go to court against the well-funded lawyers of water companies.
“I worry that we’re almost designing to fail – either self-destructing, or someone’s doing a really good job of making our job really hard,” the insider said.
Commenting on the allegations, an Environment Agency 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.
“Last year we completed our latest flood defence building programme, better protecting over 300,000 homes alongside responding to hundreds of environmental incidents. We improved air quality by regulating down emissions; enhanced water quality in over 4,500 km of our rivers by tackling pollution, unsustainable abstraction and invasive species; and cut the number of illegal waste sites that blight communities.”
The spokesperson also stressed that the agency targets regulatory and investigative interventions on events that pose the greatest threat to the environment and that every incident was recorded and assessed.
FUND MORE INVESTIGATIVE REPORTING
Help expose the big scandals of our era.
A Culture of Silence
However, data from the Environment Agency’s National Incident Recording System states that, while 116,000 suspected incidents were reported in 2021, just 8,000 were actually attended – or roughly 6.8%.
“After a decade of Conservative rule, vital services continue to be stripped back thanks to cuts, while the pockets of shareholders are cushioned from any blow and working families made to pay the price,” Shadow Environment Secretary Jim McMahon told Byline Times.
“The system is clearly broken and the Government is refusing to listen to Labour’s calls for higher fines for water companies, proper annual parliamentary scrutiny of [the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs], Ofwat and the Environment Agency, as well as a proper plan for reducing raw sewage being discharged.”
Green Party MP Caroline Lucas added: “The Government is effectively leaving polluters to mark their own homework and send it in to the Environment Agency, a system which clearly isn’t working – which is why so many of our rivers are polluted with sewage and slurry.
“More broadly, there is a deeply worrying pattern of regulators being weakened by underfunding or legal changes, leaving them unable to do their job… A regulatory system which is not independent nor adequately funded is almost as bad as no regulation at all.”
Lucas also told Byline Times that a whistleblower had previously been in touch with her. Indeed, other concerned staff at the Environment Agency have come forward in recent weeks, leading to the regulator’s chief executive, Sir James Bevan, sending a message warning staff against speaking to the media.
Sir James told staff not to “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”. All breaches could lead to disciplinary action or, in serious cases, dismissal.
This warning came after news that the regulator had formally told its inspectors in January to “shut down” and ignore reports of low-impact pollution events as it did not have enough money to properly investigate them.