England’s rivers will continue to deteriorate unless the Environment Agency stops “shutting down” the public’s calls about pollution, according to an ex-employee who worked at the agency for three decades.
Officers are told to ignore calls from the public and told not to look at possible incidents if the caller thinks they are lower impact, meaning they fall into so-called category 3 or 4. This has left staff “demoralised” says Helen Nightingale, a catchment planner in north-west Lancashire who left the Environment Agency in April.
Once a river is damaged, it becomes harder to have a major incident on it. “You can only kill so many fish. Once you’ve already killed them, the chances of getting a significant incident are much reduced,” said Nightingale, who is appearing on Channel 4’s Dispatches program Britain’s Water Scandal on Monday evening. “The health of the poorer rivers will go down quite quickly … it’s just wrong”.
Between 2010 and 2021, the agency’s annual budget for enforcement fell from £11.6m to £7m. Without staff to go out and look at these incidents the Environment Agency relies on the public to accurately report the impact. “You wouldn’t get a member of the public to assess you if you’d had a car accident. The general public aren’t experts,” she said.
Officers will still go and look at rarer category 1 and 2 incidents – such as the blue-green algae currently carpeting Lake Windermere – that are considered to have a major or significant impact on the environment. Data from the National Incident Recording System shows that in 2021, there were 116,000 potential incidents reported, and only 8,000 were attended.
“If you phone up and report a category 3 and someone in the call center says we’re not going to attend this, you’re not going to keep calling up because you feel like you’re wasting your time. So we are getting less and less evidence on what’s happening in rivers,” said Nightingale. An example of a category 3 could be a “2km spill of oil or sewage in a river”.
As well as getting the public to report in, the Environment Agency is relying on water companies to police themselves. “They’re under-reporting, under-classifying, trying to sort it out before anyone gets there, and as a private company you do that,” she said. Bonuses paid to water companies executives increased by 20% last year, with the average executive getting a one-off payment of £100,000 in addition to their salaries.
When Nightingale started the job 31 years ago she was out of the office almost all the time. Now environment officers get out of the office for a maximum of one day a week, with some “sneaking out” more often.
“It’s depressing, it’s completely demoralizing … I can do more environmental good in my back garden than I could when I was at work at the end,” said Nightingale, who believes who rivers are “just written off” because staff are told only to look at incidents once they have become serious or very serious.
There are so many people leaving, the agency can’t recruit enough people to fill the gaps, she says, with many feeling really demotivated. “It’s sad that people aren’t being allowed to do the job … you get the criticism and you’re not able to defend yourself and say ‘this is why it’s going on’, you just have to take it on the chin.”
Nightingale’s comments come ahead of the Channel 4 Dispatches investigation, which has revealed the extent of untreated sewage being flushed into waterways. The investigation shows there are more than 870 sewage discharge pipes across the UK which do not have a permit, meaning water companies may be using them to illegally dump untreated sewage.
The investigation also found faecal pollution on Ryde beach on the Isle of Wight, which is rated as having “excellent” water quality, was 40 times higher than usual. It follows recent analysis that found sewage monitors at popular seaside destinations are not working or not installed.
Christine Colvin, from the Rivers Trust, said: “Environment officers are on the frontlines of pollution, nature and climate crises worldwide – they are the guardians of our future. It’s heartbreaking to hear how their work is being undermined and how they are struggling to stay motivated. We absolutely need more boots on the ground, and boots that are enabled to get the job done and enforce the law.”
An Environment Agency spokesperson said: “The Environment Agency receives between 70,000 and 100,000 incident reports a year, ranging from pollution to coastal erosion and flooding. We will always respond to serious incidents.
“Like every public organization, given finite resources we will always focus our efforts on the greatest threats to the environment. We assess and record every incident and it will always be attended if there is a significant risk to people or the environment. All information we receive is used to shape regulatory interventions where they are needed most.”