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Environment Watchdog Cutbacks "Could Risk Lives" This Winter

2 min read

Cutbacks to the Environment Agency, the regulator tasked with protecting the country’s environment and ecology, could "risk lives" this Winter, an insider has said.

Staff at the agency told a House magazine investigation they were working at a "broken" regulator stuck in a "constant state of triage" behind the scenes due to budget cuts, with extremely high vacancy rates and months-long waiting lists for permits.

The magazine heard allegations from staff that cuts to certain teams could result in a surge in deaths if the flooding response is rendered inadequate this winter. 

The regulator has seen huge cuts to its grant-in aid budget from the government. Its frontline environmental protection work has dropped from £170m in 2009-10 to a low of £76m in 2019-20, and £94m last year. 

The resulting staff churn has lead to an unprecedented "recruitment and retainment" crisis, sources told The House. "From one week to the next you don’t know who is on a particular team or who’s in charge of something or who you need to speak to," said one staffer.

One emergency flood responder raised concerns that his team would not be large enough to respond in the events of heavy rains – risking not just millions in property damage, but people’s lives.

The investigation also revealed allegations the agency was failing to pursue the prosecutions of many polluters due lack of funding and staffing to engage in lengthy court battles. One staffer suggested the cuts had left polluters marking their own homework.

A leaked document seen by the Guardian indicated that 93 per cent of prosecutions for serious pollution at the agency were dropped despite recommendations from frontline staff to the contrary.

An Environment Agency spokesperson said their staff were "vital" to the agency's work and they try to give them the "best possible pay settlement" that is "within the constraints of government pay guidance".

They stressed that most vacancies at the organisation were for new, not historic roles and that they were "making good progress" on a "recruitment campaign to fill new roles".

They highlighted the eight prosecutions concluded against water companies for pollution in 2022, and the more than 90 per cent success rate of agency prosecutions. 

Read the House magazine's investigation, "Dirty Waters", in full here.

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