Today is the last day to apply to be the new chair of the Environment Agency. Chris Smith stands down in July and interviews for his replacement are to be held in April. Faced with storms of both a physical and political nature, and coming after painful budget cuts, it is hard to imagine many people will want the role. Yet, the Environment Agency’s job remains one of the most important of any public agency and we need its top team to be able to continue to show brave but nuanced leadership.
A frontline, 24 hour role with limits on its power
Brave because, in relation to flooding, the Agency has a frontline role of huge complexity and sensitivity. First, it has to see the flooding coming. For this it uses weather forecasts from the Met Office and its own increasingly sophisticated modelling, but neither are infallible. It has to persuade people to receive warnings; although these are free, not everyone signs up. It has to understand where water might go (a mixture of modelling and gut instinct), maintain and operate the flood defences and help to rescue people when it all goes wrong. But the Environment Agency doesn’t hold all the cards. Surface water flooding, which has been a big contributor to flooding, is the responsibility of local authorities, and much havoc can be wreaked by the simple failure to clear drains. Finally, if you believe the media, the Agency’s people have to be everywhere at once, 24 hours a day.
The Environment Agency’s leadership also has to be nuanced because its role in preventing flooding is hugely constrained. It can’t decide how much money to spend overall on flooding against other parts of its considerable brief; that’s for Defra to decide. It can’t decide how to weigh the costs and benefits of specific schemes; it’s the Treasury which lays down the rules on that. And it cannot speak out if it disagrees with the government’s judgement.
It knows, from its own modelling, that climate change is likely to increase the incidence of flooding, but the budgets are not keeping pace. The game is about keeping everyone on board with a mission to gradually upgrade defences, while staying on top of the maintenance of those already in place and, in future, attracting more private money to augment the public spend. If you want to build on a floodplain, you must fork out to help keep the waters at bay. If you want to defend agricultural land, new pots of money will have to be found.
Huge, unseen improvements to the UK’s environment
What no-one sees is the flooding that has been averted, which is a large part of the Agency’s invisible public service. Unfortunately, no-one is interested in dogs that don’t bark in the night. Much public money is spent making sure that we don’t see plumes of pollution from industrial chimneys, that we don’t swim in sewage, that our rivers sparkle when once they ran livid with factory discharges, and that we no longer live near to leaking landfills. You also don’t see the criminals who are prevented from creating lethal stockpiles of dangerous wastes, the illegal shipments of toxic substances not being dumped in unsuspecting countries or the car breakers who are no longer pouring engine oil down the drains.
The advances in pollution standards and flood protection made since the Environment Agency’s inception in 1996 have been huge. John Major’s government’s mission was to create a streamlined, professionalised and highly committed organisation from a disparate collection of bodies, while inheriting a bewildering plethora of regulatory instruments and departmental agendas. History will judge that, in its first 17 years, it has quietly made a huge impact on the quality of the UK’s environment.
The question is, what will the Environment Agency be able to achieve in its next phase? The appointment of the next chair will be critical. And it’s in both the government’s and the public’s interest that it has a strong but collaborative chair. The government needs a reliable partner who can deliver an expanded flood protection programme. The public needs an Agency that is trusted to help protect them, and the Agency’s staff need someone who can maintain morale when the brickbats fly. We have to all hope that such candidates are still willing to apply.