‘Smokescreen’: Campaigners call on Coffey to investigate potential EA conflicts of interest

Campaigners have called on the environment secretary to investigate whether potential conflicts of interest at the Environment Agency are being properly evaluated and recorded.

Thérèse Coffey. Source - GettyImages, Dan Kitwood

This comes after an investigation by the action group Windrush Against Sewage Pollution (WASP) found that Environment Agency staff and directors are permitted to hold shares in water companies and other businesses that are regulated by the agency.

In a letter to environment secretary Thérèse Coffey, written by founder of WASP Ash Smith, the group notes that 500 members of staff at the EA were found to be directors or “hold similar positions” at companies subject to EA regulation.

The EA said it did not recognise the figures shared by WASP.

The founder of WASP, Ash Smith, said: “Much of the current sewage scandal can be traced directly back to the catastrophic failure of regulation.

“We are now asking the secretary of state to intervene and find out what is really going on behind the smokescreen so that it can be fixed.”

Smith also raises a number of specific potential conflicts of interest that the campaigners identified through Freedom of Information requests and the Environmental Information regulations.

Examples highlighted by WASP include former deputy chair of the EA Richard Macdonald, who held the role between 2016 and 2020 and who declared that he was a non-executive director at the Cornwall-based dairy processing company Dairy Crest between 2010 and 2019. In June 2022 Dairy Crest was sentenced at Crown Court for a series of serious pollution offences committed over 5 years starting in 2016. However, according to the EA, declarations of interest were recorded and any risks were appropriately managed.

EA executive director for local operations John Curtin was also included in the letter, which highlighted that in 2020 he declared that he held shares in Severn Trent Water.

Sir James Bevan is due to step down as chief executive of the EA at the end of this month, and Treasury head of growth and productivity Philip Duffy set to take over the reins in July. In the interim, Curtin will be appointed chief executive of the agency until Duffy starts in the role.

In response to these claims, which were also raised in an earlier letter to  Bevan sent by WASP in October 2022, EA chief operating officer Lucy Hunt said that Curtin no longer has any shares with water companies.

Hunt did confirm that Curtin previously held 50 shares with Severn Trent Water, which the letter states were sold shortly after he became executive director of local operations in early 2021.

The letter further notes that his “previous responsibilities at the Environment Agency did not include regulation of water companies”.

The WASP list also includes former EA board member Clive Elphick who previously held a role and was a shareholder with the United Utilities Group. Toby Willison, the former director of operations at the agency, is also included on the list. WASP says that Willison accepted a job from Southern Water while it was on trial for breaching environmental regulations and was eventually fined £90 million.

In the letter, Hunt wrote on behalf of the EA: “With regard to the conflicts of interests of Toby Willison and Clive Elphick these people no longer work for the Environment Agency. However, I can assure you that these declarations of interest were recorded at the time and we are confident that any risks were appropriately managed [...].

“Clive Elphick left the Environment Agency after serving two full terms as an Environment Agency board member.”

Smith’s letter asked Bevan to provide “persuasive examples” of how risks through conflict of interest have been identified, managed and eliminated by the appointed committee at the Environment Agency.

However, WASP also said that the information it had received was not transparent enough and that the process needs to be improved.

Nick Measham, chief executive of Wild Fish, commented: “Conflicts of interest, whether real or potential, must be avoided to deliver credible, transparent regulation - and never more so than in regulating the murky world of sewage.”

Izzy Ross, campaigns manager at Surfers Against Sewage, said: “We're losing faith in our water company regulators. It's time they showed us they are capable of enforcing and regulating a fair, just and safe water and sewage network for the UK - because right now they are failing.”

An Environment Agency spokesperson said: “The Environment Agency takes the management of any conflicts of interests very seriously and has robust systems in place to manage and monitor these. In the cases cited, a declaration of interest was clearly recorded and risks were appropriately managed.

“We follow best practice for corporate governance and will always comply with HM Treasury’s corporate governance code.”