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Environment Agency staff cuts risk economy and reputation

Who you gonna call? (They’ve all been fired) Anna Gowthorpe/PA

In the days after typhoon Haiyan tore through the Philippines, David Cameron said that such extreme weather demanded that we take steps to prevent and mitigate against climate change. These are encouraging words from the PM who promised to deliver the “greenest government ever”. But one wonders how the country will practice what he preaches when its own environmental champion and chief regulator faces decimating budget cuts.

Within the coming year, the Environment Agency will axe 1,700 jobs, representing about 15% of the agency’s manpower. This is a far deeper and more rapid cull than anticipated. It is all but inevitable the environment will suffer as well.

The agency has always been modestly resourced; there is almost no fat to be trimmed. The job losses will cut deep into the flesh and bone of the its mandate. The agency has offered the usual assurances about safeguarding the frontline, but effective ring-fencing is extremely difficult in an area as deeply interconnected as environmental protection.

For example, ecologically resilient river banks form a much better flood defence than depleted landscapes. When floods do occur, polluted water poses a much greater environmental and health risk. Less money for environmental regulation can also negatively affect the economy. Polluted areas contribute less to the economy than ecologically rich ones via food production, tourism, pollination or other “ecosystem services”.

The environmental and related economic costs of this scale of layoffs at the Environment Agency should be taken seriously. By themselves they are unlikely to sway a government that, regardless of its claimed green ambition, pursues an agenda of environmental deregulation. Yet there are other significant legal and political costs that may have escaped the government’s attention so far but are significant.

More power to the EU

For the future of the Environment Agency, it is important to remember that the UK does not act in a vacuum. It is subject to European Union environmental law, which still needs to be enforced. The Environment Agency interprets EU rules and regulations in the light of local conditions, and in advises domestic enterprises on how to meet their European legal obligations. Dismantling the agency will strip UK businesses of this source of support.

It will also force the agency to rely more on external expertise; to cut and paste European rules rather than tailor them to fit. Deregulation of this kind does not result in the absence of regulation so much as the displacement of regulation to a different, more remote level of authority. It is unlikely this is what the UK government had in mind.

Weakening the agency not only increases the UK’s dependence on external expertise, but magnifies the risks of EU litigation. The European Commission has a redoubtable success rate when taking countries to court for non-compliance with EU environmental legislation. In many cases, the problem is a failure to transpose EU requirements into national law in a timely and effective manner, but failure to implement and properly enforce can also result in an embarrassing condemnation by the European Court of Justice, and steep fines.

In 2012, Ireland was fined €3.5m for its persistent failure to effectively regulate the installation of septic tanks and to implement EU environmental impact assessment requirements. The Irish Environmental Protection Agency has since devoted considerable time and energy to developing a more effective regulatory strategy and to training personnel, but it learned its lesson the hard way. An understaffed and under-resourced Environment Agency is a potential liability.

The dirty man of Europe

There are long term political costs that come with the loss of international credibility if the UK is perceived to revert to its former position of “dirty man of Europe”. Environmental leaders speak louder than laggards. The UK risks being placed in the latter group, all the more so because the Environment Agency cuts are the latest in a string of environmental disappointments.

Within the span of a few short years, the UK government has closed down the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, relaxed planning controls for everything but wind farms, made a botched attempt to sell off woodland, tried and failed prematurely to recall feed-in tariffs for solar panels, opposed regulation of neonicotinoid pesticides, and railed against the “wickedness” of opponents of genetically modified foods.

This is a questionable track record. It may put a serious dent in the UK’s authority when it defends its policies and its national interests in European and international environmental negotiations. It also affects the government’s ability to hold other countries to account for their environmental failings. Unless the UK salvages its reputation as an environmentally committed and responsible nation, well-intentioned statements such as those made in the wake of typhoon Haiyan will come across as lip-service at best, and hypocrisy at worst.

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