Into the breach
Environment Agency chief executive Barbara Young tells Rob Bell about her plans for the Agency in 2004, and why the regulator's performance is constantly getting better
Since becoming Environment Agency chief executive in December 2000, Barbara Young has tirelessly defended an organisation forever taking flak from all sides, while hammering home the message that environmental improvements must and will happen; and that “smarter” regulation is the key to that goal.
Presiding over a regulator with responsibilities that continue to grow exponentially – she describes “a huge bulge of new duties in the next 18 months” – Young has resisted calls for the Agency to be split. “Over my dead body,” she says. And despite the number of serious floods over the past five years, she doesn’t see the Agency’s responsibilities in the area as detrimental to its regulatory role.
“The whole point of creating the Agency in the first place was to create an integrated approach to the environment, because air, soil and water are intimately related,” she says.
“It is of major benefit to this country that we have an integrated approach to the environment, and the upcoming Water Framework Directive underlines that even more – integrated management around catchments is going to be absolutely vital.”
Firm but fair – and smarter
But while the Agency juggles regulation of industry alongside bathing water quality, fisheries, recreation, navigation, regeneration and flood defence, Young is forthright in stating that the Agency is “very, very pressed on our environmental protection work, with more and more new duties coming in from Europe”.
Young is determined that it remains a “a firm but fair regulator” on its existing duties – a constant refrain – but says that means finding smarter ways to keep business in line. In other words, doing more with less.
“There are two issues – have we got enough money and have we got enough staff,” she says. “Government agencies never have enough money.”
But Young’s strategy for smart regulation means taking on yet more responsibility. Late last year she called for high-level Agency involvement in the formulation of UK legislation, and now says: “We have to make sure that both new and existing regimes are streamlined at national and DEFRA level; and even at European level.
“We need to be there in Europe along with government when directives are only a twinkle in a Eurocrat’s eye, so that we make sure that the directives which emerge have clear environmental objectives; and that they are constructed in a way which allows us to build on previous regimes.”
Effectively, Young wants to dedicate scarce Agency resources to mirror DEFRA’s work both in Brussels and at home. While this might appear a bureaucratic duplication of responsibilities, Young is adamant it is necessary.
“Doing an effective job for the environment with the best use of our resources means making sure we’re not inventing a brand new system for each new piece of legislation because that costs industry money, and it costs us money.
“What we need from both Europe and the UK government is modern, streamlined regulation. The reality is that the Agency knows what it’s like to implement regulation, so we can give valuable input – alongside DEFRA – to the European process on what will and won’t work in practice.
“Government needs a clear view of the nature of the partnership between policy and delivery. Policy needs to be implemented in a way that makes delivery easier and builds on previous regulatory regimes – and it needs to be done in good time, so businesses have time to adapt and put proper systems in place before regulations come into effect.”
Two sides to the story
A lot of companies talk of excellent relationships with Agency officers, and most would probably admit that Agency input to the deliberations of DEFRA civil servants might well help iron out the more weird and wonderful legislatory quirks. However, one complaint heard regularly about the Agency is a lack of consistency on policy implementation, a refrain that has become louder as IPPC permitting moves forward.
Young says there are two sides to the story, but defends the Agency with a wry tone: “IPPC is a huge process, an entirely new permitting system across a huge range of sectors. I always laugh a bit when industry says we’re inconsistent, because they also talk about flexibility, saying: ‘we want maximum consistency, and flexibility at the same time’. Well, one man’s flexibility is another’s inconsistency.”
The Agency has “busted a gut” producing guidance, appointing co-ordinators for each sector; introducing process management to streamline and simplify the permitting process, and maintain regular meetings with industry trade bodies, she says.
“Our policy folk try and make sure that we are as consistent as possible. Sometimes we do get it wrong, but sometimes when we look at the inconsistency argument there are differences between the factories and the processes companies are operating. The issue may even be a case of a different setting with different environmental challenges.”
The very nature of IPPC, and its application across diverse sectors, many of which haven’t been regulated in the same way in the past, and the fact that so many sites have never had similar relationships with the Agency, is a major obstacle to be overcome. Young says: “It is difficult with something as particular as IPPC permits to be absolutely standard, because the processes themselves and the environment can have a significant bearing. But we are committed to being as consistent as possible, and we’re sure as hell a lot more consistent than we were when the Agency was first formed.”
A real challenge
Waste is another area where big changes are being made. Stringency in the regulation of hazardous waste disposal is being increased massively, leading to the number of sites accepting such material being slashed across the country. Yet more work for the Agency. Young says: “Waste is going to be a real challenge, particularly hazardous waste as landfill becomes more expensive and hazardous waste becomes more heavily regulated.”
However, she dismisses the possibility of another fiasco on the scale of the ‘fridge mountain’ that so embarrassed then environment minister Michael Meacher. “Once there’s a bit more clarity about waste acceptance criteria and treatment requirements the industry will rise to the challenge and start seeing it as a business opportunity,” she says.
An opportunity for business
The European emissions trading scheme is another big challenge, with the Agency pushing companies to submit their applications before the 31 January deadline. “We’re up for it,” she insists.
Young is completely behind the trading scheme, which she sees as an example of the style of regulation both Europe and UK need to implement. “It’s the kind of scheme business should embrace, because it gives companies the opportunity of decide when in their investment cycle they can make improvements in the most effective way.”
Young has a message for government too: “The government needs to decide on the size of the cap. And it needs to be ambitious – reflective of its target for a 20% reduction in emissions and its ultimate target of a 60% reduction.”
The Agency’s biggest challenge
2004 may well be the Agency’s biggest challenge yet, especially if predicted flooding occurs in the next couple of months. But Young is confident that the Agency can cope, and that it will continue to improve the way it carries out its regulatory duties. And her message for business? “Tell them that we’re doing a great job for the environment. Bathing water’s getting better; we’ve achieved further reductions in air pollution from the industries that we regulate; otters are back in the rivers and fish numbers have increased five-fold in the past 25 years; we’ve produced guidance for SMEs in 70 business sectors on the NetRegs site; and we’ve made over 500 IPPC determinations so far. We’re winners!”