Government consults on direction of Environment Agency

The Government has issued a consultation document discussing revised statutory guidance on the direction of the Environment Agency’s work in England over the next five years, but the Environment Industries Commission (EIC) is warning that extra funding will be needed or the Agency will be overwhelmed.

The draft guidance was developed in the wake of the Agency’s first financial, management and policy review, which noted that while the Government’s environmental agenda had progressed considerably since the EA was set up in 1996, there was no single statement of the Government’s strategic objectives for the regulator.

The draft also pointed out a lack of up-to-date guidance on the contribution the Agency is expected to make to sustainable development.

The revised document is intended to correct these omissions: it sets out objectives for the Agency’s work in various areas: flood defence, water quality and resources, waste management, process industry regulation, fisheries, radioactive substances, contaminated land, navigation and biodiversity.

Further objectives look at how the Agency should do its work, instancing the adoption of an integrated approach to environmental protection and enhancement.

A dual roles is identified for the Agency in terms of achieving sustainable development: to protect and enhance the environment while taking account – consistent with its legal obligations – of economic and social considerations, and to be a wide-ranging, independent advisor on environmental matters affecting policy-making.

The reforms also set out the principles that the Environment Agency should follow in deciding priorities.

The Environment Industries Commission responded by warning that there is a great deal of concern that the EA will simply not be able to cope with its new responsibilities.

The EIC claims the EA is already struggling with its current workload, and the Commission Chairman, Adrian Wilkes, has written to Meacher urging him to provide it with sufficient funding. The letter notes: “Over the next few years the Environment Agency will be required to implement a substantial number of key new EU Directives that the UK has signed up to, including the Landfill Directive; the Integrated Pollution Prevention and Control Directive; and the End of Life Vehicles Directive. The Agency’s recent December 2001 Board meeting concluded that substantial new resources will be required to deliver these new duties.”

At this meeting Agency Director of Environmental Protection Paul Leinster set out in detail the extra resources that the Agency’s new duties would require. He estimated that an extra 1300 staff would be needed over the next three years, that permitting activities would more than double in two years and a direct increased cost of £60 million a year would be incurred.

The EIC letter warns Meacher that Agency regulatory activity is already under-resourced. It instances inspection of discharges to water falling by 28,000 between 1997/8 and 2000/01 and monitoring of significant consents to discharge to watercourses falling to 67% in 2000. Wilkes notes: “Without further resources to meet new regulations it is inevitable that the Agency’s ability to implement its regulatory duties will be severely undermined.”

The letter concludes: “Environmental regulation (and its proper enforcement) plays a key role in setting standards that industry must meet in order to protect the public and the environment. It is therefore a vital public service.”

“An underfunded EA would also help undermine those industrial ‘environmentally responsible citizens’ that have invested in environmental protection, but face their competitors being allowed to pollute for free.”

The EIC is urging Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to use the current spending review to convince the Treasury to give the Agency the extra funding it needs.

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