The Environment Agency - the nation's least favourite quango?

The Environment Agency sprang into being almost 20 years ago. Here's the lowdown on the nation's least favourite quango, bar none.

by Andrew Saunders
Last Updated: 27 Feb 2014

Formative years

The Environment Agency sprang into being back in 1996, a fast-flowing new flood-protection outfit to take over from a pair of silted-up old ones: the National Rivers Authority and Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Pollution. It also assumed responsibility for waste management, previously handled by local authorities, and flood warnings, previously issued by the Police (bet plod are glad they dodged that).

Under the auspices of Defra, it was an attempt at joined-up government, uniting disparate local agencies under a single national umbrella.

Recent history

So much for the theory. Cue the rainiest January since 1776 and that national umbrella started leaking like a sieve. With thousands of acres of the Somerset Levels under water since Christmas, rail routes to the West Country washed away and residents of the Thames Valley from Oxford to Chertsey also having to don wellingtons and stockpile sandbags, the country's floodwarden-in-chief has itself been inundated - by a river of public ire.

Despite protesting about drastic Treasury budget cuts since 2010 and also that 'the EU made us do it', the EA does seem to have lost its way. From a budget of £1.21bn last year, some £593m went on staff and pensions but only £219m on capital works.

Just £20m of that was spent on clearing rivers and drainage channels, actions that many claim could have averted the Somerset disaster in particular.

Who's the boss?

The buck stops with Baron Smith of Finsbury, aka former Labour culture secretary Chris Smith, who takes home around £97,000 pa for a nominal three-day week. The EA chairman has been branded arrogant by those calling for his resignation.

But at least he has the nerve to point out that the Government can't have its cake and eat it. Sea levels are rising, so it's sensible that the increasing effort - and cost - of protecting low-lying and sparsely populated regions be weighed against their economic and social value.

The secret formula

The EA's holistic remit - to protect the environment in the round - was intended to help encourage sustainable new ways of managing floods, rather than simply using steel and concrete to keep the cataracts at bay. But it has led to claims that the agency puts the interests of birds, molluscs and water voles ahead of people and property.

Don't mention

Dredging. Would scouring out the rivers Parrett and Tone really have prevented the flooding of the Somerset Levels? Given that the low-lying wetlands flood regularly even in normal winters, probably not. But why worry about the facts? A political punch-up is much more fun.

VITAL STATISTICS

Grant from taxpayer: £723m
Total expenditure: £1.21bn
Employees: 12,252

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