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Ripe for change

With a revamp at the top and a critical report looming, is it time the beast that is the Environment Agency was broken up?

Terrorism, global warming, the credit crunch, immigration, gun crime, obesity…Britons in 2008 have an ever-growing list of issues to feel worried about, and for politicians to note.

Since last summer, another issue has increasingly worried the public: flooding. And flooding has experienced a stratospheric rise in its political currency as a result.

Next month Sir Michael Pitt will deliver the conclusions of his review of the 2007 floods, evaluating how England and Wales could be better organised to combat flooding and mitigate its effects.

With his interim report last December and several leaks about the contents of his full report to the press, it was thought that Pitt’s report would hold few surprises. He will call for local authorities to become the lead organisations in the management of surface water flooding and drainage.

He will also suggest each council has a flooding expert on its staff. He will also illustrate the level of threat to UK infrastructure and suggest the creation of a body similar to the anti-terrorist Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure to coordinate protection of key infrastructure sites from floods.

However, could it be that, at least as far the Environment Agency is concerned, Pitt has kept an ace up his sleeve?

Last week NCE reported that the Agency’s chief executive Barbara Young was seeking employment with the Department of Health, while former Labour minister Chris Smith was confirmed as the replacement for Agency chairman Sir John Harman.

Young and Harman took up their roles in 2000 and their sudden departures after eight years in charge look too close to the publication of the Pitt report to be labelled coincidental.

It looks likely that Pitt will order some form of shake-up of the organisation’s structure, and perhaps he will go as far as echoing the ICE presidential commission report on the 2000 floods.

Ordered by then-deputy Prime Minister John Prescott and chaired by ICE past president George Fleming, the commission’s report, Learning to Live with Rivers, called for an independent floods body that is separate from the Agency.

Speaking to NCE after last summer’s floods, Fleming renewed this call, saying that the Environment Agency had too many roles and faced too great a conflict between its roles as habitat protector and planning regulator (NCE 2 August 2007).

In all, the Agency has responsibilities across eight different areas (see box). In other areas as well as flooding, engineers feel that this multiplicity of roles creates conflicts of interest.

"There’s always a tension between the role of the Agency as a policeman and enforcer and the overall desire to develop facilities which are good for the environment in the long term," says ICE waste board chairman Nigel Mattravers.

In the water industry the Agency was for a long time regarded as hugely bureaucratic and demanding, asking for the highest possible treatment standards from water firms and their contractors with little regard for cost.

"That attitude has thankfully changed a little bit towards more of a cost-benefit attitude," says British Water director Paul Mullord.

It has also attempted to address accusations that it is overly bureaucratic by streamlining its permitting system. From 6 April, pollution prevention and control permits and waste management licenses were rolled up into one Environmental Permit.

But despite such reforms, claims that the Agency has too many responsibilities, conflicts of interest, and is overly bureaucratic persist. As a result it has all the symptoms of a Government body ripe for restructuring.

Given the rising political importance of environmental issues, a break-up of the Agency should be far from surprising. In May 2007 the government reorganised the Home Office to focus on terrorism and created the Ministry of Justice to handle all matters relating to the criminal justice system, so it is clear that ministers are not averse to initiate big shake ups.

It is also unsurprising that perhaps, given the Agency’s elevated status in politics, someone like former Labour MP and culture minister Chris Smith would be regarded as a safer pair of hands for Gordon Brown’s beleaguered government than someone like current chief executive Barbara Young, who has made several politically damaging statements in recent months.

She has, for example likened building a barrage across the Severn Estuary to "scribbling a note on the Mona Lisa" and declared that the Norfolk Broads would be left undefended against coastal erosion before any public consultation had taken place.

The question now is, who will replace her, and what will their role be?

Environment Agency: Its roles

  • Flood risk management
    The Agency is the main body responsible for creating and maintaining flood defences and providing flood warning systems.

  • Waste regulation
    It is the regulatory authority for all waste management activities including the licensing of sites such as landfill and incineration facilities.

  • Pollution control
    It is the main regulator of discharges to the aquatic environment, to air and to land.

  • Air quality management
    It regulates the release of air pollutants into the atmosphere from large, complex industrial processes.

  • Water quality management
    It has a duty to maintain and improve the quality of surface and ground water and as part of this duty it monitors the quality of rivers, lakes, the sea and ground water on a regular basis.

  • Water resource management
    It manages the use and conservation of water by issuing water abstraction licences for activities like drinking water supply, artificial irrigation and hydro-electricity generation.

  • Navigation
    It is the designated navigation authority for some waterways such as the River Thames and the estuary of the River Dee.

  • Fisheries
    It is the body responsible for maintaining and improving the quality of fisheries in England and Wales, and issues fishing licences.

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