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Interview | Sir James Bevan, Environment Agency

New medmery cover photo

Outside the office of Environment Agency chief executive Sir James Bevan, London is sweltering in a full blown 31˚C heatwave.

It is a stark reminder of the challenges the Agency is facing in terms dealing with climate change.

For the former diplomat, who has seen “up close and personal” what happens when the environment is not looked after, the role of the Agency in managing and regulating the environment is immeasurable.

Before Bevan took up his post in November 2015, he was British High Commissioner in India. He describes living in a country that is home to a sixth of the world’s population as “life enhancing”. But he also saw the consequences of environmental damage, such as the Bhopal disaster, where in 1984 toxic gases leaked from a chemical plant resulting in thousands of deaths and causing disabilities among the third generation of children descended from the victims. Elsewhere pollution has left some of the River Ganges biologically dead.

Regulating well

“They always say if you think education’s expensive, try ignorance. Well, if you think regulation’s expensive, try not doing it. That’s what happens, that’s a lesson to regulate well,” he says.

Regulating industry and waste is one of the Agency’s responsibilities. Others include overseeing treatment of contaminated land, flood risk management, water quality and water resources.

Bevan says the biggest insight he gained from his time in India is the philosophy of sustainable growth, which is embedded in the Environment Agency’s founding law.

“What you should not do is force people to choose between protecting the environment on the one hand and growth on the other, because if you force people to choose, particularly in India but also in the UK, they will choose growth over the environment. The answer is to say you don’t have to choose, you can do both,” he says.

James bevan high res crop

James bevan high res crop

Bevan: Trying to walk the sustainability walk

And that’s where engineers come in. Yes, Bevan says the Agency needs technically skilled engineers, but it also needs engineers who can build relationships with communities and work in partnership with stakeholders. This will enable its schemes to protect and manage the environment, as well as having wider benefits.

“We’re here to create a better place. That’s what good engineers do and that’s what we try to do,” he says. “And the better place is not just about the concrete and the steel, it’s about the feel and the economy and the community and all those other things that maybe don’t get talked about at engineering school, and that’s our philosophy: we want to be a placemaking organisation in the broadest sense.”

These future schemes might look like typical large infrastructure projects, for example a new Thames Barrier will be needed by 2070, but there will also be schemes which use natural measures to control flooding such as leaky dams. But more schemes will combine both, such as in Pickering, Yorkshire, where natural flood management such as leaky dams and the planting of 40,000 trees, combined with installation of a flood storage reservoir upstream has slowed peak river flow by 15-20%.

Upstream management

“The future is more upstream management, some concrete and steel, and then also being prepared to accept we will never be able to prevent all flooding,” says Bevan.

“Climate change is likely to drive more flooding, and therefore the rest of the answer is about making sure our cities and communities are more resilient when it happens.”  

The Environment Agency is currently procuring a £1.5bn flood defence framework, which includes one lot worth £300M for professional services including design and consultancy, and one lot worth up to £1.2bn for programme delivery. The new commercial arrangements should be in place by July next year.

As the organisation tries to “walk the walk” in terms of sustainability, it will also ask contractors to do the same, through more efficient use of sustainable materials, but also including ditching single use plastic cups in staff kitchens – something which Bevan has had a hands-on role in doing since the Environment Agency moved into its Westminster office.

“When we got into this building… we had a nice little kitchen, but it also had a container full of plastic cups, so we ripped it off the wall. That’s an example of us trying to walk the walk. What we want from ourselves and our suppliers is that we bear down as far as possible, as close to zero use of single use plastic,” he says.

’Fourth blue light’

The framework will help deliver the Agency’s £2.6bn six-year programme to better protect 300,000 homes and businesses from flooding. It is the impact this work can have on people’s lives that Bevan says gets him, and his staff, out of bed in the morning. He sees the Agency as becoming the “fourth blue light” in the way it responds to incidents.

The Cumbria floods in December 2015 hit when Bevan was just six days into the job. According to the Met Office, a new record for two consecutive rain days was set when 405mm fell at Thirlmere.

“I went up there and stood in the homes of people whose lives had been wrecked by flooding. It’s not just a physical thing that happens, it’s an emotional thing and it can have quite severe long-term consequences,” says Bevan. “What gets me and Environment Agency staff out of bed  is the life-changing effects we can have when we can give people a much better sense of security by knowing they can go to sleep and not worry about flooding, and knowing we don’t just protect them against floods but help growth, placemaking and the wider benefits that come from being better protected.”

These wider benefits include enabling communities to get decent insurance and ensuring that flood risk does not deter investors.

Climate change threat

Bevan says climate change is the biggest threat to the UK in the long term and the Agency works with government at all levels to shape the response, from the 25 Year Environment Plan launched by prime minister Theresa May in January, to staff embedded in major projects such as High Speed 2.

Bevan says he took the helm of an innovative, collaborative, delivery focused Environment Agency where engineering is part of its DNA. He wants to see more of this, with the body becoming “pacier”.

Bevan wants the Agency and its engineering to be known and loved, because its impact on our future is crucial.

“Unless we both manage down demand and manage up supply, including in major new infrastructure investment, in 20 or 30 years’ time the lines between supply and demand will cross and there won’t be enough water for the country,” he concludes.


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