Environment Agency chair: We are not doing a good job

The environmental regulator in England is failing its duties, the head of the Environment Agency has declared and promised a step change in water regulation.

Alan Lovell made the admission to a parliamentary committee, while the regulator’s chief executive Philip Duffy said that stretched resources, budget cuts and insufficient staffing have left it “on the back foot”.

The pair, who both joined the Agency last year, gave their frank assessment while interviewed by the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC).

“I don’t think we can say that we are doing a good job at the moment,” Lovell said. “We have a lot to learn, we are improving in some areas significantly and within a measurable three or four year period, we will be able to answer that question more positively.”

He pointed to water company regulation as requiring particular improvement as well as ramping up efforts to control pollution from other sources including agriculture and highways.

Lovell said the Environment Agency was however “doing a good job” on nuclear and waste regulation.

“It’s patchy, because water is not in a good shape at the moment, our emphasis has to be on that,” the chair added.

Meanwhile, Duffy highlighted that the regulator was significantly under-resourced to carry out its duties.

He said: “There were 91 staff in an agency of 13,400 who are qualified to do water inspections, yet this is the top priority in my inbox.”

Last year the Agency carried out 1,420 inspections for water company assets, which averages out to 156 inspections per qualified staff member.

It is ramping up inspections to 4,000 this year and 10,000 from next year and plans to increase the number of qualified inspectors five-fold to 500 over the course of this year.

“We’re starting on the back foot, I’m very pleased we have had support from the government to turn that around,” the chief executive said, while warning this would not be an instant change.

Both Duffy’s and Lovell’s predecessors bemoaned the affects that chronic underfunding had had on the work the Agency was able to carry out, despite the efforts of overstretched staff. James Bevan told the EAC in February 2023 that budget cuts and insufficient staff numbers were putting the environment at risk.

On permitting, Duffy described a “collapse” of regime in the agency around environmental permits. To rectify this, he said the EA had been “frankly throwing resources at it” over the past year to recover.

The intricacies of renewing and rewriting permits to reflect 21st century conditions has added challenges, the chief executive said.

He mused that conditions on permits have been criticised as so complex that some water companies are confused to whether they are in compliance of the terms or not.

As well as a step change to permitting and inspections, the Environment Agency will make more data publicly available.

Duffy said despite fears from within the Agency and the water sector that publishing data on storm overflows would attract negative publicity, he believes the data must be shared.

Any misunderstandings from members of the public about whether spills are within the terms of a permit or are unlawful is a debate not to be shied away from, Duffy told the EAC.