Environment Agency calls for regulation to address water quality crisis

The government needs to lead on a solution to the UK’s water management crisis, the Environment Agency (EA) says in its annual report.

The report, published last week, calls for “a step change and collaborative approach to water management, which needs to be government led and underpinned by regulation”.”

It shows that the EA has introduced a new water quality risk into its corporate risk register for 2020/21 “to reflect the challenges in achieving the government’s objectives for clean and plentiful water”.

The report notes that there are “high public and political expectations of the Environment Agency on addressing the issue of poor water quality”. The organisation received significantly more complaints and correspondence to its executive team in 2020/21 than the year before, with flooding and coastal management the top subject.

The report says public expectation of water quality is increasing but general public understanding of water infrastructure is low. “We need to ensure that the public are aware of the issues as a platform to engaging wider action.” 

Businesses need to be engaged, it says, particularly farmers and water companies. 

The EA says it must also be more transparent about its own performance, specifically by supporting the farming industry with the new Environmental Land Management Scheme and “expanding our monitoring and regulation”.

However, earlier this year the organisation stopped reporting on the number of pollution incidents it dealt with and scrapped a goal of reducing them entirely. It has not given a reason for doing so, although experts suggest it might have a conflict of interest

The report sets out the EA’s well-documented financial struggles, noting the long-term decline in un-ringfenced funding from central government since 2010.

It is asking DEFRA for more money from the Treasury’s recent Spending Review, which gave the environment department a funding boost.

It will specifically be looking for money to fix its physical assets - primarily flood defences - the condition of which has fallen to its lowest level since 2009. This is mainly as a result of repeated flooding in recent years, says the EA, although it also has new evidence that assets are deteriorating quicker, “most likely as a result of the extremes of weather patterns, requiring greater levels of inspection, maintenance and repair”.

It also warns that a £10m waste crime funding pot, which accounts for more than half of its enforcement budget, is due to run out in March 2022 and it is unclear how this will be replaced.

The document suggests the EA will continue to get “closer” to its parent department DEFRA and further internal restructuring lies ahead under its ‘Fit for 2025’ programme.

The report also flags the growing risks of staff wellbeing. The EA notes that mental health remains the biggest reason for sickness absence, saying it is “very aware of high stress levels across the organisation” with workload a key contributing factor.

Following the death of an EA employee in February during an on-site accident at Shepperton lock, the organisation is also “putting in place further measures to seek to ensure this never happens again”.