MPs say Environment Agency has made little progress in its first years

The Environment Agency's first three and a half years have not been as successful as hoped, concludes a Parliamentary select committee. The committee's report implicitly backs up 'green' groups' criticisms of the EA's first chairman, Lord de Ramsey, who retired last year.

“The truth is that the Environment Agency under Lord de Ramsey had no idea what its direction was,” Mike Childs, senior campaigner at Friends of the Earth UK, told edie. De Ramsey attracted criticism for a range of environmental faux-pas – including selling some of his land for greenfield housing development and allowing GM crop trials to be grown on his land. After his retirement, his farm was convicted of excessive groundwater abstraction.
It would seem that members of the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR) Select Committee agree with environmentalists like Childs. Their report states that “if more effort had gone into developing a coherent vision for the Agency at an early stage, many of the problems which it has experienced … might have been dealt with more effectively.”
Overall, the DETR Select Committee wants to see the EA “engage more vigorously in public debate and raise its profile”. Noting UK Environment Minister Michael Meacher’s avowed support for the EA, the report says that “we fully expect that [the EA] will start to say things which the Government may not want to hear. The Minister’s support for its right to do so will be crucial if it is to become an effective ‘champion’ for the environment and sustainable development”.
Although highly critical of the EA’s early years, the report approves of the EA’s new environmental strategy and urges the Government to assist the EA with adequate funding and prompt legislative changes where necessary.
Childs believes that Sir John Harman, the EA’s new chairman, has six months to prove himself and Childs admits to being hopeful that Harman is up to the job. Commenting on Meacher’s support for the EA, Childs points out that a strong and vocal environmental protection agency could help Meacher in any disputes he has with the Treasury and other arms of government. “Meacher knows that if he had an EA that is tough and critical of Government, the more power he has when he’s negotiating with government departments,” says Childs.
The EA has two months in which to respond formally to the Select Committee’s report. Its initial response to the report has been largely positive.
The report’s recommendations include:

  • creation of specialist teams for environmental protection rather than the present ‘generalist’ approach
  • improving staff morale, including rationalisation of pay structures
  • further training of staff involved in environmental regulation of the waste management industry
  • increased regulatory consistency across regions and prompt replies to enquiries from industry
  • continuation of the practice of ‘naming and shaming’ polluting industries
  • development of indicator system to assess individual companies’ environmental performance
  • increased use of public meetings and other communication efforts with communities when there is controversy over a site regulated by the EA
  • increased use by planning authorities of the EA’s knowledge of the risks of development on floodplains
  • provision to the general public of flood risk data accessible by postcode
  • speeding up of the water abstraction licensing system
  • prioritisation of fly-tipping prevention

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