EXCLUSIVE: Environment Agency boss backs controversial reform of nature and water laws

The bosses of the Environment Agency told an all-staff meeting yesterday that the agency supports the government’s planned reform of EU-inherited regulation, which includes significant laws aimed at protecting nature and water, and that it should support Number 10’s growth agenda, ENDS has learned. Green groups say the agency has “totally lost its sense of purpose”.

Sir James Bevan. Photograph: DEFRA

In footage of the meeting, seen by ENDS, Sir James Bevan said that the government “has said that it will zero out all EU-derived law by the end of next year or, with some extensions if necessary, 2025” and that “we think ourselves that we could improve a lot of the EU-inherited regulation”.

Bevan said the agency had its “own ideas about how you could reform that regulation to deliver better environmental outcomes with less cost for us and less transaction cost for business, so we’re going to put those ideas forward to the government and that’s an opportunity for everyone to emerge in a better place”.

An Environment Agency insider told ENDS that there were no details forthcoming “because how could there be? EU regulation is the gold standard for protecting the environment, and the Environment Agency is nowhere near close to complying with it and business can pollute with impunity.

“So how can removing it, and bringing in new legislation that means business needs to spend less, be any sort of an improvement?”

The agency’s new chair Alan Lovell, who took up his post yesterday, attended the meeting but left after half an hour, saying he had to “slip off” to go to a board meeting of another organisation, according to an EA officer who attended the meeting. 

The insider said Lovell was “only on for 32 minutes, said he couldn't answer some questions as he doesn't have the information, and his main points were that the Environment Agency needs to be a modern regulator to support the growth agenda”.

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Green groups have reacted with fury at the agency’s behaviour. 

“This is incredibly alarming,” said Craig Bennett, chief executive of the Wildlife Trusts, “and raises questions over whether the agency has totally lost its purpose and sense of direction. 

“It’s supposed to protect the environment, not to support the government… It must have lost any remaining sense of independence and is running scared, kowtowing to a 1980s ideology perpetuated by Liz Truss.”

“Where’s the evidence that regulation is causing the problem?” he added. “There have been countless reviews… which have shown that environmental regulation is good for business, but there’s a heck of a lot of evidence that lack of regulation and lack of enforcement causes problems - just look at the huge amounts of poo in rivers.”

“There is no public mandate for this,” said Bennett.

Musician and campaigner Feargal Sharkey said the agency’s leadership were “complete patsies, doing the government’s bidding” when they were supposed to be “above political interference, responsible to parliament, not to the secretary of state, the Treasury or Number 10.”

Sharkey was also shocked at Lovell’s behaviour at the meeting. “It’s an appalling way to treat staff and sends shocking signals.” 

Dr Richard Benwell, chief executive of Wildlife and Countryside Link, said some EU-derived environmental laws could be reformed to be strengthened. “It could be even clearer that our finest nature sites should be completely off the table for development and intensive land management. However, that’s not what’s on the table now.

“The government’s plans include a terribly tight deadline by which all EU laws must be renewed or scrapped, with unfettered powers to amend them. This unnecessary race comes alongside proposals to loosen planning protection for nature. Instead of an unjustified push for reform for reform’s sake, the government should focus on implementing the law properly and investing in nature’s recovery.”

This is not the first time Bevan has suggested reforming EU-derived rules. In 2020, the agency chief said he would like to see the Water Framework Directive’s method for assessing river health changed, saying it masked improvements to rivers. The change would mean many failing rivers would be classed as being in good health at the stroke of a pen, critics say.

A spokesperson for the Environment Agency said: “The government has been clear it will uphold the highest environmental standards and will not compromise these. Proportionate, risk-based and outcome-focused regulation is a core part of the Environment Agency’s work to protect nature and create better places.”

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