The ENDS Report's top ten stories of 2016

We round up ten of the most popular and important stories from the past year in environmental policy-making, law and management

Changes at the top of the Environment Agency

Dilley resigned from his job as chair of the Environment Agency (photograph: London First)At the start of the year, ENDS revealed that DEFRA had urged the then chair of the Environment Agency, Philip Dilley, to reject his preferred candidate for chief executive and re-run the hiring process.

Emails released under a freedom of information request showed the extent of government influence in the decision and growing tensions between the environment department and its arm's length body.

Dilley resigned shortly afterwards, with mounting public criticism of the way he had tackled the flood crisis, and was replaced by Emma Howard Boyd in September.

Brexit fallout

The UK faces the daunting task of building a separate national environmental policy framework after four decades of progress in the EU. Photograph: Marian Vejcik/123RFThe result of the EU referendum came as a shock to many in June. The environment was barely mentioned during debates, despite strong unease at international, national and devolved levels over the implications of Brexit and high levels of support from environmental professionals for continued membership.

In the months afterwards, concerns were raised about the future of environmental legislation, enforcement, staff shortages, devolution and funding. The vote also had big political implications, including a shake-up of government departments.

But leading figures committed to fight to protect the progress made during more than 40 years of membership. Some experts suggested that a buried DEFRA project scrutinising environmental law in England should be revisited.

Paris Agreement

Final adoption of the historic Paris Agreement was greeted by rapturous applause for the Comité de Paris. Photo: UNFCCCDespite political turmoil around the globe, the Paris Agreement on climate change came into force in November after it passed its signatory threshold.

The UK ratified the agreement shortly afterwards, having signed into law its own fifth carbon budget earlier in the year.

Work has already begun on putting the deal into action, with negotiators promising to set out the rules governing implementation by the end of next year.

How should flooding be tackled?

The government has been criticised for prioritising new defence building over maintaing old ones. Photograph: ronfromyork/123RF

Last winter’s severe storms caused the government to re-examine its approach to flooding, launching a national resilience review in January.

But its handling of the problem has come under repeated fire, with criticism that it is too reactive, prioritises new defences over maintenance and lacks a more holistic approach.

Environment Agency chief executive James Bevan emphasised the importance of flood defence to his organisation. But over the year a number of organisations, including the Natural Capital Committee, the Environmental Industries Commission and the Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs Committee called for the regulator to be stripped of its flood role and a new body set up in its place.

Staffing problems in policymaking and regulation

The number of full-time staff at DEFRA has dropped by two thirds in ten years. Photograph: Steph Gray CC BY-SA 2.0DEFRA and its arms’ length bodies have seen their workforce degraded in recent years and 2016 was no exception, with ENDS revealing that the department’s core staff body had been slashed by two thirds over the past decade.

Early in the year the Environment Agency launched yet another round of redundancies, looking to cut around 100 staff in its environment and business, operations, corporate services, evidence and communications departments. One those who left was Mat Crocker, deputy director of illegals and waste, who was not replaced.

DEFRA ran a parallel voluntary exit, even while knowing the referendum was looming, leaving its workforce swamped with work and demotivated.

It has since tried to boost its capacity again, admitting at last that Brexit will only increase its need for skilled policymakers and it will need healthy numbers to take on the huge amounts of legislative and regulatory work expected in the next couple of years.

Paying for non-compliance

Weststar Holidays Ltd promised to donate money to charity in lieu of prosecution. Photograph: Tatyana Tomsickova/123RFIn August, the Environment Agency accepted its first voluntary enforcement undertakings from companies that breached their environmental permits. The two sanctions were agreed with a holiday park operator and a dairy farm, both for water offences.

Enforcement undertakings were available in England since April for breaches of the Environmental Permitting Regulations but the process of deciding whether to accept them was complicated.

Meanwhile, fines for criminal actions continued to rise, with revised sentencing guidelines having a significant impact on company sentences. In December, Southern Water was fined a record-breaking £2m for polluting beaches in Kent.

Dirty waters in England

The EA is struggling to meet stringent EU standards. Photograph: Kevin Eaves/123RFIn January, ENDS revealed that most rivers, lakes and coastal and ground waters in England will still not meet legally binding EU water pollution targets by 2021 -  six years after the initial deadline.

The findings were based on DEFRA’s river basin management plans for England, which were finalised in February and described as “woefully unambitious”.

A study later in the year suggested that the quality of English waters might actually be even worse than expected.

DEFRA’s air quality plans not up to scratch

ClientEarth won another case against the government at the Royal Courts of Justice in London. Photograph: Chris Dorney/123RFAir pollution became a major public issue this year, with a huge amount of attention paid to the government’s plans to tackle the problem.

In 2015, the Supreme Court had ordered ministers to come up with a plan to bring air pollution down within legal limits as soon as possible. But ClientEarth was not satisfied and took DEFRA back to court this year. The High Court agreed and in November ordered the government to revisit its plans “as quickly as possible”.

Ministers were questioned on their progress towards the end of the year, but members of the Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs Committee were deeply unimpressed with their responses.

The dieselgate scandal also unfolded further this year. In December, the European Commission began legal action against the UK following its ongoing failure to prosecute Volkswagen for cheating emissions tests.

Treasury comes in for scrutiny

The Treasury is “highly influential and uniquely placed” to ensure the whole of government promotes sustainability. Photograph: 123RFIt is little surprise that the department that holds the country’s purse-strings has influence over its policymaking, but this year the Treasury was taken to task over its financial decisions.

During the court hearing on air quality, for example, it emerged that DEFRA’s original plans for a more extensive network of clean air zones had been blocked by the Treasury on cost grounds.

In November, the Environmental Audit Committee found its actions had seriously compromised long-term sustainability and said it must justify its future spending decisions.

This echoed reports from the Public Accounts Committee and the National Audit Office, which found that a political focus on reducing business costs had overridden wider societal costs and benefits, including those on the environment.

Infrastructure advances

Hinkley C should be online by 2025, eight years after the original date following repeated delays and setbacks. Photograph: EDF EnergySeveral long-delayed decisions on major infrastructure projects were made this year.

In September, the government approved construction of the controversial £18bn 3.26 gigawatt Hinkley C nuclear power plant in Somerset, subject to safeguards on security of supply and infrastructure.

And just a month later it gave the green light to a third runway at Heathrow.

Both projects are still some way off and subject to further scrutiny, but are signs of increasing attention being paid to the importance of national infrastructure.

Meanwhile, the high-speed rail link between London and Birmingham continued to be controversial, with dispute about its impact on ancient woodland.