Wild swimming has never been more popular, but you should check the water quality before diving in. Our rivers are awash with an unholy cocktail of sewage, slurry, fertilisers, pesticides, pharmaceuticals, industrial chemicals and plastics. It’s a miracle ducks aren’t dissolving as they bob along the current. But at least we have the Environment Agency, a robust organisation of more than 10,000 people which spends around a billion pounds each year on protecting our rivers and wider environment, right?
Wrong. Well, it does exist, but according to whistle-blowers from inside the agency and a chorus of angry green groups, plus plenty of hard evidence, it’s not protecting much at all. On its watch, the proportion of England’s rivers meeting legal standards for overall health totalled zero. Nil. Nada. Just 14% met the standard for good ecological health but they were all found to be contaminated with chemicals and so everyone failed to meet the overarching water quality target.
It’s not hard to imagine when you stare into the shit-brown Thames, which moves almost as one gelatinous mass on calm days. Even so, I think most people are blissfully unaware of just how bad things have become. The two biggest river polluters, according to the Environment Agency, are the water sector, which dumps breathtaking volumes of raw sewage into them legally and illegally – at least 400,000 times in 2020 for a minimum of 3.1 million hours, according to the water firms themselves (although you can be assured the actual figures are far higher) – and agriculture, where run-off from fields forms a rich, fish-killing smoothie of unmentionables.
The agency is supposed to guide these sectors into good behaviour and punish them where they fall short, ensuring the transgression is not repeated. But for the most part this isn’t happening.
Many commentators say it’s because the organisation needs to be better funded, but despite a rise in overall government grants for the agency in recent years, the amount ring-fenced for environmental protection has been shrinking, from about £170m in 2009-10 to a low of £76m in 2019-20, and £94m last year.
The shortfall is made up by income from chargeable activities, such as demanding permits for potentially polluting activities. However, this money doesn’t make it to frontline officers, who should be out in the field attending pollution incidents and ensuring regulated businesses are toeing the line.
Instead, these roles have been cut back and replaced by managers “who don’t leave the office”, according to one of three Environment Agency whistle-blowers. The trio have come forward to dish the dirt on a regulator they say “is no longer a deterrent to polluters”.
Calling the agency out is a brave act, considering the chief executive Sir James Bevan has threatened to sack any staff found bad-mouthing the organisation to the media. Its reluctance to tackle pollution was laid bare earlier this month, when a briefing document telling Environment Agency staff to ignore reports of low-impact pollution incidents was leaked to the Guardian and the environmental policy magazine ENDS Report. The document said reports of low-level pollution should be “shut down”, though failed to say how it would be possible to determine the seriousness of an incident without first visiting it. One of the whistle-blowers confirmed it would be “impossible” to do this, while many suspect that so-called “low-impact” pollution incidents turn out to be more harmful after investigation.
For its part, the agency says it has been clear with government that it doesn’t have enough resources to do its job properly and that “you get the environment you pay for”. But almost in the same breath it argues that ignoring the lower-impact incidents will enable the agency to concentrate on more serious ones.
Green and angling groups are appalled, saying the move will lead to “death by a thousand cuts” for rivers. But the phrase could as easily be applied to the agency itself. The whistle-blowers say the agency’s frontline operations have been slashed to such an extent they are no longer able to do their jobs. “It’s been cut and cut and cut and left us… with a very limited resource,” they told the Guardian. The only beneficiaries are the polluters, they added, and the resulting reduction in enforcement would “embolden people to break the law”.
The upshot is that morale at the Environment Agency among frontline officers is at rock bottom. “You’ve got a lot of very passionate, very well-meaning people, very often forbidden from doing their jobs to the full,” said one of the whistle-blowers. “They join the agency because they care, they really want to make a difference, [but then] their ambitions are invariably stifled and slowly blunted by an organisation that just grinds them down and gives them very few opportunities to make a difference.”
The agency was set up in 1996, taking over the roles of the National Rivers Authority and Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Pollution. It used to be free to challenge government, but insiders say that in recent years it has been partly subsumed by Defra and its independence compromised. If the agency can still be considered an arm’s length body, it appears those arms have drawn it into a close and uncomfortable embrace.
Rachel Salvidge is an environmental journalist and deputy editor of the environmental policy magazine the ENDS Report. She regularly writes for the Guardian and hosts the fortnightly podcast the Eco Chamber. Her work covers everything from water and air pollution to nature, land use, waste and resources, chemicals, energy and climate