Then he pointed out something that is well-known but perhaps often forgotten. “It’s an unusual organisation,” he said. “It has a regulatory function regarding pollution and partly an operational function too with regards to monitoring. You could argue there's a potential conflict of interest there.”
There’s also an element of it being an organisation that marks its own homework. So, perhaps no one should be surprised that, in its latest so-called corporate scorecard, the Environment Agency has removed reporting of serious pollution incidents. Why admit to where things are going wrong if you don’t have to?
While no one is suggesting that the EA is responsible for contamination of our waterways with raw sewage or other pollutants, its job is to take action when such episodes occur. Failing to acknowledge these incidents certainly feels like an abdication of its duties to Rhiannon Niven, senior policy officer for the RSPB.
“Without transparent evidence and reporting, we've got no way of holding government accountable for their responsibilities,” Niven said. “And we can’t target our actions in the most appropriate way without a robust evidence base.”
It also makes Niven wonder what the EA is hiding. A Freedom of Information request made by Salmon & Trout Conservation (S&TC) in 2019 found that only 0.4 per cent of farms received a visit from the EA in 2018/19, suggesting the average farm would be visited once every 263 years. “Which really demonstrates that it’s no surprise that the government is no longer reporting on their pollution incidents with that sort of level of inspections,” Niven said.
Niven accepts that the EA is hamstrung by well-publicised budget cuts over the past decade, but Nick Measham, chief executive of S&TC, says there is more to the problem than this. Under legislation introduced in 2015, the EA – along with other statutory bodies – has a duty to promote economic growth, and this is as big an issue as budget constraints.
“Since the EA took on this duty not to get in the way of business activity, it doesn’t seem to be prosecuting its role as defender of the environment that we want to see,” Measham said. “That’s our fundamental frustration.”
Measham describes the dropping of serious pollution incidents from the corporate scorecard as “dribbling at the margins” when you consider these other issues. Adding, as the agency has, a measure on climate change adaptation is no panacea either.
“Climate change is a very serious problem, but I see [the adaptation measure] as an excuse to kick the can down the road and ignore the here and now issues,” he said. “So often you see money taken away or diverted from doing stuff now under the excuse of working on climate change by spending money on flood defences.”
For Nigel Watson, there is a different but equally fundamental problem with the way the EA is monitoring and protecting our freshwater bodies. While he still believes that the reporting of single, serious pollution incidents is important, the way in which the agency’s current approach is geared towards returning rivers to a presumed natural condition – under the auspices of the Water Framework Directive (WFD) – is limiting the effectiveness and efficiency of river management.
“My argument is that if we look at the full range of ecosystem services that a river can provide for nature and society, then we can identify the conditions and water quality standards needed to support those services. It is easier to then justify future investment and expenditure on that basis,” Watson said. “I’m not arguing against high standards, but against arbitrary standards that are not linked to ecosystem functions.”
Our knowledge and understanding of the state of our rivers is also limited by poor public access to data and evidence, Watson added.
“There was a time when the Environment Agency managed its own website, which was actually pretty good, whereas now you have to trawl through gov.uk to find any information,” he said. “If someone wants to quickly and easily find out what the quality of their local river is at the moment, it’s not straightforward.
“I know the EA is in a difficult situation with budget cuts and staff reductions in some areas over recent years, but it is still true that there is a lack of clear, transparent and easily accessible information regarding the water environment and indeed the wider environment in general.”