Why Environment Agency staff feel underpaid and undervalued

In December’s annual report for the Environment Agency, chief executive Sir James Bevan praised his 10,000 staff for their “skill, professionalism and commitment”. The pandemic had completely changed the way the regulator worked. Staff decamped from offices to kitchen tables but the threat of floods remained, while waste criminals readied themselves to exploit any gaps in policing. “They are unsung heroes. I am hugely grateful to every one of them. We should all be,” Bevan wrote.

Prime minister Boris Johnson with EA chair Emma Howard Boyd in January. Photograph: Paul Ellis/AFP/Getty Images)

Warm words. But less than 12 months on and those heroes have been given the cold shoulder, facing what unions have described as a “miserly” pay cut. “It’s sad to see,” one former EA staffer told ENDS. “You see the work on flooding, emergencies and Covid-19 – the hard work to keep things going. And then they are slapped in the face by paltry pay awards.” 

In this year’s pay offer to EA staff, the government has offered a £250 or 0% consolidated increase. In real terms this represents a pay cut, leaving the workforce “feeling undervalued and unappreciated”, according to Unison national secretary for environment and union joint secretary for the EA, Donna Rowe-Merriman.

So far, two of the unions have voted to reject the offer. GMB is expected to announce its members’ vote on Monday. Unison was approached for an update on its ballot.

These are not the stories that a government preparing to host and lead global talks on climate change needs. A well-resourced, focused and bold regulator is essential if environmental targets – from climate to biodiversity, air quality to water purity – are to be met. “If the first year of ‘the climate decade’ is anything to go by, we will have to keep our energy up in the next nine years,” wrote Emma Howard Boyd, EA chair, last year. “The dedicated people of the Environment Agency are up to it.”

But are they? This latest spat between staff and their government paymasters is just one of many over the past decade or so that has eroded both confidence in the EA and arguably that of its staff too.

Industry insiders and experts ENDS spoke to warned of “deeper problems” at the agency than just salaries. There are reputational issues, some said, with a regulator once held in high esteem across the globe now visibly weakened. “It’s only going to get tougher to achieve some of the environmental targets being set and that requires a strong regulator,” explained Katie Vickery, regulatory and compliance partner at law firm Osborne Clarke.

Chip away at the resources though and cracks will appear. Environmental ambition is “often undermined” by a failure to properly invest in the regulators that exist to enforce the law, said Emma Rose from Unchecked UK. “This is the area of regulatory policy most often overlooked.”

That the rhetoric rolled out by ministers on environmental protection is failing to match the reality is nothing new. 10 years ago the EA had 11,937 permanent staff; in that 2019/20 report the figure was 9,807. Reliance on temporary staff is causing concern; so too the lack of on-the-ground enforcement.

An EA insider told ENDS last year that money for environmental protection was being directed into senior management, while the number of frontline officers continued to shrink (The salaries for Bevan and Emma Howard Boyd, EA chair, have remained steady; but the former still earns £185,000 while the latter is on £100,000 for her three days per week, according to the agency reports and the latest organogram data, published in June 2021).

Environmental lawyers said this used to be a regulator that kept clients “on their toes” but enforcement activity has dropped away. Has the risk of being caught decreased? “The power is there to fine quite heavily but there isn't enough resource within the Environment Agency and the other regulators to do the type of enforcement that they used to do,” said Vickery.

Bevan and Howard Boyd have complained that budget cuts are to blame. During a session before MPs on the EFRA committee in January Howard Boyd spoke of the “heroes and sheroes” in the agency’s legal department, and blamed failures to successfully prosecute on the companies that “throw really expensive lawyers at us”. 

The comments irked lawyers working for smaller waste companies, which feel they are being hounded by an unnecessarily heavy-handed regulator. The waste sector is often treated with contempt, said Anna Willetts, an environmental criminal lawyer at GunnerCooke. She thinks the problems go deeper than salaries and wonders if performance-related pay should be considered.

Others also said prosecutions failed because they are poorly prepared and the evidence isn’t gathered properly. “It’s all around quality,” said the former staffer. “Pay is at the nub of it … but the whole service tends to suffer as a result.”

Indeed, it’s no secret the agency regularly loses staff to consultancies and the private sector. “You've got to invest in it to have the right people,” said Vickery, “but you also need to look at the organisation itself and how it's running and how it's deploying its resources”.

Complaints around permit applications, for one, have spiralled in recent months. Shovel-ready projects – which operators have invested huge amounts of money and time in, can help the green recovery and are part of the circular economy – are still being held up in the huge pile of outstanding permit applications. And increasingly applications are also being refused and rejected for “strange, seemingly irrelevant and spurious” reasons, according to Willetts: “They seem to be making life difficult for themselves because operators, rightly, feel the need to then appeal these decisions.” 

External consultants have arrived to help clear the massive backlog, so perhaps they are taking time to get up to speed. Beyond that is the brain drain that has beset the agency following those years of budget cuts. Experts told ENDS of the “pragmatism” and “commercial awareness” of experienced staff that is harder to find these days. “You have lost that wisdom,” said Vickery. 

Whether staff are underpaid and undervalued or not, the government is foolish to think a little more cash will solve what appear to be more deep-rooted problems at its Environment Agency.