Cutbacks stopping vital work on river pollution and floods in England

Exclusive: Environment Agency chair warned minister of ‘real-world impacts’, FOI request reveals

Vital work on river pollution and flood defences is being stopped or cut back because the Environment Agency has been underfunded for years, freedom of information documents reveal.

A shortfall in funding of tens of millions of pounds is having real world consequences for our rivers, according to a letter from Emma Howard Boyd, the chair of the EA, to George Eustice, the environment secretary. The letter was obtained by River Action, a campaigning body, under FOI laws.

The funding is also affecting the agency’s ability to protect thousands of homes from increased flooding as a result of climate change, the letter goes on to say.

Howard Boyd’s agency and the government are under growing pressure over the state of English rivers. The latest data shows every river in England is polluted, failing to meet minimum standards of water quality tests. No river has achieved good chemical status, suggesting pollution from sewage discharge, chemicals and agriculture are having a huge impact.

But government funding for the EA’s work on areas including river quality for 2021-22 has remained at just over £40m, which represents a continuing reduction in financial support for the agency, said Howard Boyd. Since 2010, funding for the EA’s work has been cut by nearly two-thirds, from £120m to the latest settlement of £43m plus £5m for new activity.

In her letter to Eustice, dated 12 April 2021, Howard Boyd wrote: “This money has to fund all of our environmental work: our monitoring of air and water quality, enforcement of the regulations that protect the environment, prosecutions, closing down illegal waste sites and tackling waste criminals … responding to environmental incidents.

“Over the last few years the drop in grant has forced us to reduce or stop work it used to fund, with real-world impacts (eg on our ability to protect water quality) for which we and the government are now facing mounting criticism.”

Howard Boyd said the agency was now forced not to respond to environmental incidents such as pollution, only attending to the most serious ones.

Serious shortfalls in the money provided by the government to protect communities from the increased risk of flooding were also challenged by Howard Boyd.

The grant for building and maintaining flood defences in the face of increased risk as a result of the climate crisis was tens of millions of pounds short of what was required and, she said, would put communities at risk.

“We had extensive exchanges with you and your officials on this funding,” wrote Howard Boyd. “We advised that to deliver the government’s commitments in FY 2021-22 the EA needed an additional £50m resource grant on top of what we had in FY 2020-21.”

The £50m extra would pay the £17m required for the new six-year flood defence scheme promised by the government and a large programme of maintaining existing flood defences, many of which are reaching the end of their life, which required £33m investment. “We advised that without this uplift we would not be able to maintain all our defences in the desired condition, putting communities at risk,” she wrote.

But Howard Boyd said Eustice had rejected their request. “You decided that we would receive an effective increase of £12m for both programmes.”

The shortfall would leave the EA struggling to maintain the country’s flood defences, she said.

EA data obtained by Unearthed, the investigative arm of Greenpeace UK, in January revealed the dire state of flood defences in England.

Howard Boyd called for Eustice to give the agency more money in the next spending review for flooding and environmental work, including on river quality.

She said: “That would make it possible for us to deliver the government’s ambition to make us the first generation to leave the environment in a better place than when we found it.”

Charles Watson, the founder and chair of River Action, which is calling for a doubling of budgets for environmental protection, said: “With the Environment Agency’s funding slashed by 75% in real terms over the past decade, it no surprise that polluters are able to act with impunity and that river health is declining drastically in front of our eyes.

“It is time for government to heed these warnings: none of its nature recovery plans can be a success if it does not provide the funding and capacity needed to underpin them with effective monitoring and enforcement.”

A government spokesperson said: “The government recognises the importance of protecting the nation’s natural environment and we are investing accordingly. Defra and its agencies received a £1bn increase in overall funding at the spending review so we can do more to tackle climate change and protect our environment for future generations.”


Sandra Laville

The GuardianTramp

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