The email was sent to staff at a time of public outrage over pollution in English rivers. It was triggering parliamentary debates, demonstrations, and mass petitions.
The agency was responsible for protecting and improving the environment. However, the emphasis was on threatening staff with dismissal if they discussed the agency’s work outside of the organisation.
James Bevan (a former Foreign Office mandarin, was appointed in 2015 as the chief executive to run the regulator. He issued a severe warning to staff about their silence After a lot of criticisms about its performance in protecting rivers, it was finally approved.
He stated that staff should not criticize or discredit the organization in the media or social media and should not disclose any confidential information relating to the Environment Agency to anyone other than the person authorized to receive it.
In serious cases, dismissal or disciplinary action could be taken against any breach. All comments made within or outside the workplace, including derogatory remarks about the organisation, managers and stakeholders, customers, contractors or customers, as well as statements that bring the agency into disrepute or reflect on its performance, are subject to sanction.
Although pressures on the agency have increased each year, as its government grant has been gradually slashed by almost two-thirds, the threat from Bevan was a significant nadir. It is desperate, according to Nick Measham from Salmon and Trout Conservation. It is a sign that there is no confidence in the workplace and it is very unhappy.
Perhaps Bevan felt the need to send his message at such a time. It could be traced back to November last year, when staff received formal instructions to stop investigating low-level pollution events (so-called level 3 or 4 incidents).
The Guardian obtained the memo which clearly highlighted the dire state in which the organisation’s enforcement, investigative, and enforcement capabilities were. We don’t have the funding to continue our current level in environment management incident response. This memo stated that it was clear to government that they only pay for what they get. We have decided to reduce our response for unfunded low and zero impact environmental incidents.
This memo acknowledged that this would not be liked by the public, many who volunteer to fill gaps in Environment Agency monitoring rivers for pollution.
This transition is not easy and our officers are being criticized by our customers for the reduction of our service.
Environmental charities suspected that the axing core pollution detection work was in place for a while. Michelle Walker, Rivers Trust, stated that they don’t like to respond to pollution incidents if there is dead fish or the right amount of dead fish. It is quite shocking that they have now formalized this policy.
Frontline staff are those who have the responsibility to investigate pollution, identify polluters, and hold them accountable. Insiders claimed that this was another example of how their work was not prioritized in the EA. The Guardian was told that managers had made multiple complaints about the removal of frontline response for some time.
Some employees have continued to do the work despite being reprimanded by managers.
Insiders say that attending level 3 or 4 pollution incidents can help to prevent more serious pollution incidents in the future. A staff survey that was done in October and Nov revealed dismay at the rising levels of workplace stress, low morale, and staff struggling with their mental well-being.
The agency, which has been a statutory regulator for 26 years, has shifted away from its primary enforcement and monitoring role over the past two decades. It changed its policy in 2009 to allow water companies to monitor their discharge and report any breaches. Instead of staff visiting them and taking independent samples, it now allows them to do so.
Southern Water was convicted last year of deliberately discharging billions litres of raw wastewater into the sea. This was despite significant under-reporting of its actions.
The government funding for its environmental protection work is continuing to decrease. It was 170m in 2009-10 and 94m in last year. These gaps are being filled with charges to the industries and business the agency regulates. The Guardian has heard from whistleblowers that the agency’s money has changed as a result of the shift in funding. This is happening because middle managers, who are responsible for the regulation of the businesses, have become more involved in its investigation and monitoring of pollution.
According to data compiled by, monitoring water quality in freshwater environments decreased by half between 2013 and 2018, from 10,797 sites down to 4,656, Salmon and Trout ConservationA farmer can expect an EA officer to visit him once every 263 year, as per the agency’s own admission.
One insider said that these management teams appear to be funded directly by the businesses we regulate at the expense the teams that are responsible for investigating and enforcement. Another source told Guardian that the general feeling is that this is not an accident, but that water quality is no longer a priority.
It appears that the direction is to work alongside water companies, industry, and agriculture, instead of regulating them. The EA seems to be as far from the polluter pays principle than it has ever been. What is more concerning is that this seems to be intentional.
The number of prosecutions by the agency has fallen significantly over the past decade. Since 2010, enforcement undertakings have been more popular. They are voluntary, legally binding agreements that require the offender to contribute financially towards the environment.
According to Caroline Lucas (Green MP and member on the parliamentary environmental audit committee), we are in a situation where the number of court cases for water violations brought by EA has fallen from 235 to 20 in 2002 to three in 2020. There is clearly something wrong. The agency is dependent on income from permits paid by the very companies it is supposed to regulate.
Tom Burke, cofounder of E3G, stated that the policy shift was due to a political plan to weaken environmental regulation through stealth. He said that the agency was established in statute and any attempt to close it would require primary legislation. This would lead to a storm of opposition. Its budgets and independence are gone, creating a nice label for today’s gutless business service organization.
The public’s frustrations and discontent seem to be increasing, but the public is responding more often. Residents living near polluted landfills, river users calling for cleaner waterways, coastal communities setting up groups to monitor regular sewage discharges by water companies, all of these people believe that the agency isn’t doing enough to prevent pollution, hold polluters accountable, and protect the environment.
Amy Slack, Surfers Against Sewage, stated recently to MPs: We have never seen greater awareness or appetite for change than we do now. People don’t want to be swimming in polluted waters and are often shocked when they discover the extent of it.
A spokesperson for EA said that the Environment Agency delivers a tremendous amount for the nation. However, like the rest, we operate within tight budgets and must prioritise to ensure that we are doing the most for the people we serve and the places we serve.