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Environment Agency Prosecutions 6% of the Level they were a Decade Ago

As rivers fill with sewage, budget cuts have contributed to a decrease in enforcement actions against corporations by the Environment Agency, reports Max Colbert

Raw sewage emptying onto a UK beach. Photo: Ashley Cooper Pics/Alamy

Environment Agency Prosecutions 6% of the Level they were a Decade Ago

As rivers fill with sewage, budget cuts have contributed to a decrease in enforcement actions against corporations by the Environment Agency, reports Max Colbert

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There has been a steep decline in the number of enforcement actions taken by the Environment Agency (EA) against corporations since 2012, according to new research.

The Good Jobs First violation tracker found a six-fold decline in enforcement actions by the Environmental Agency over the past decade, with a decrease in both civil and criminal sanctions. Overall there has been an 84% decline in enforcement actions taken by the agency. 

The research also reveals a significant decrease in prosecutions against corporations. In 2012, there were just under 300 prosecutions – 16 times more than in 2021, when the number fell to under 20. Civil actions have decreased less dramatically, with a two-fold decline.

Of the 4,074 enforcement actions taken against companies during this ten-year period, nearly 60% (59%) did not result in any fine at all. 

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Lack of Accountability?

The Byline Intelligence Team has previously highlighted how the number of investigations launched by the EA between 2015 and 2020 dropped by 30%, from 11,436 to 8,088. 

The data, obtained via freedom of information requests, revealed that the number of cases where “no further action” was taken by the agency increased from 10% to 15% within the same period.  

Water companies have continued to discharge raw sewage into rivers. According to analysis published by the Guardian, water companies discharged sewage into rivers on 292,000 occasions in 2019, and over 400,000 in 2020. 

This number dropped slightly to 375,000 in 2021, after an amendment placing a legal duty on companies not to pump waste into rivers was voted down by Conservative MPs. The combined total number of discharges amounted to 6 million hours from 2019 to 2021. 

Water Companies have Paid Nearly Half a Billion in Fines for a Decade of Violations

Sian Norris

As enforcement actions against corporations have decreased, so has the Environment Agency’s budget. Grants provided to the EA by the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) shrunk as a result of austerity measures: in the latest budget, the grant provided was 43 lower in 2011/12, and 56% lower currently than it was in 2009/10.

When inflation is taken into account, then in real terms the Environment Agency has half the amount to spend on environmental protection than they did a decade ago.

According to Good Jobs First, cuts to the EA have contributed to corporations being able to “continue breaching environmental laws and regulations with impunity”. England’s water companies have been forced to pay a total of £405 million in penalties for environmental, water service, workplace health and safety, and labour violations since 2010. 

In 2021, the Environment Agency called on the Government to reinstate a £120 million grant to increase surveillance of waterways and help cut river pollution. 

Its chief executive Sir James Bevan told MPs that water companies and the farming industry – the two largest polluters of rivers – were not doing enough to protect the environment. He argued that the scale of budget cuts since 2010 was “having an effect on our ability to know what is going on and to act effectively”. 

The DEFRA grant for environmental protection last year stood at £94.3 million, compared to the equivalent of £213.8 million in 2009/10. This is a decrease of more than £113 million.

Nature Under Attack

There has been rising public anger about the state of Britain’s rivers and beaches,  leading wildlife and climate campaigners accusing the Government of launching an “attack on nature”.

As well as criticism of the cuts to the EA’s budget, there are concerns that plans to scrap environmental laws previously protected by EU membership could put clean air, water and landscapes at risk. 

Groups including the RSPB, the National Trust, Wildlife Trusts, and the Wildlife And Countryside Link have told the Government that “nature is not a negotiable luxury” and they are “gearing up to fight the biggest attack on nature in a generation”. 

Only 14% of England’s rivers are now considered to be of good ecological status.

Speaking to Byline Times, the research director of Good Jobs First Philip Mattera said: “Our hope is that the data in Violation Tracker UK will shine a new light on both enforcement practices and corporate behaviour. We believe that the official government regulatory information we compile is more meaningful than the company selective self-reporting used in most ESG analyses”.

This article was updated at 10am on 3 January 2023 to reflect that it is English water companies that have been fined £405 million, not UK water companies and 14% of English rivers that do not have good ecological status, not the UK’s .

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