Environment Agency funding cut by 50% over past decade as sewage spills rise, analysis shows

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Dead chub floating on the polluted waters of the once thriving River Ray in Wiltshire (Angling Trust/PA)
Dead chub floating on the polluted waters of the once thriving River Ray in Wiltshire (Angling Trust/PA)

Funding for environmental protection services provided by the government’s Environment Agency (EA) has been cut by 50 per cent over the past decade, analysis shows.

Largely funded by the government, the EA has struggled to improve air quality and biodiversity, tackle water pollution, and better regulate farms and sewage works as a result of the cuts, critics say.

According to analysis by Prospect, a trade union which represents professionals in the public sector, the government’s grant for “environmental protection” is currently 56 per cent lower in real terms than it was in 2009/10.

Last year, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) provided £94.3m in funding for the EA’s environmental protection services.

More than a decade earlier, in 2009/10, the same grant stood at the equivalent of £213.8m, after taking into account rising inflation rates.

Paul de Zylva, a campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said: “The government’s environment watchdogs were the early targets of austerity cuts and sadly we’re still seeing the fallout today through loss of expertise, skills and funding.

“These consequences can be seen in the decline of nature in the UK, including the poor condition of our rivers and seas, as well as the failure to grasp what’s needed to regulate polluters.

“Budget cuts may have saved money in the short term, but they certainly haven’t provided value for money. Now it’s our natural world that’s paying the price.”

Recent recruitment rounds at the EA have filled less than 25 per cent of the vacancies advertised in some cases, according to Prospect.

Many of the applicants do not have the required qualifications, despite a relaxation in this requirement for certain jobs, the union said, adding that many of the jobs which remained unfilled concerned the regulation of sewage overspills.

Labour analysis of official figures shows that since 2016, raw sewage discharge in England and Wales has more than doubled, from 14.7 per overflow to 29.3 in 2021.

Mike Clancy, general secretary of Prospect, said: “A decade of cuts to the funding allocated to environmental protection has left the Environment Agency in the grips of a recruitment and resources crisis making it harder to hold polluters to account. Unless this is fixed, sewage in bathing waters will only become more common.

“Far from attempting to address the crisis, the government is looking at significant further job cuts and failing to adjust budgets to take account of rocketing inflation – making an already dire situation worse.

“The bottom line is that ideological cuts from successive Tory governments have created an environment where polluters can potentially get away with all but the most egregious breaches and it’s going to get worse.”

An Environment Agency spokesperson said: “To make the best use of our resources, we continue to focus our work on the greatest threats to the environment and target our regulatory interventions where they are needed most.”