The UK needs to fix its regulatory enforcement problem if it wants a resilient economy

This post is by Emma Rose, director of Unchecked UK.

The government has set out strong ambitions with respect to the environment, alongside welcome assurances that both Brexit and the Covid-19 crisis will lead to a strengthening, not a weakening, of environmental standards.

However, robust rhetoric will only get us so far. Ambitious polices and regulations are only as good as the enforcement which underpins them. Now, new research into the UK’s regulatory infrastructure reveals the sorry state of the regulators which enforce our most important environmental laws.

The UK’s environmental enforcement gap
The research, carried out by us at Unchecked UK, sets out the systematic erosion of environmental enforcement capacity across the UK. And the losses in local and national regulatory capacity are staggering.

Natural England’s funding has fallen by 72 per cent in real terms over the past decade, while staff numbers have fallen by a fifth. The Environment Agency’s funding has been cut by nearly two thirds, and staff numbers have fallen by 25 per cent. The Forestry Commission and Marine Management Organisation have both seen their funding fall by over half since 2009.

This state of affairs is mirrored in the devolved nations, albeit not quite as severely. Natural Resources Wales’ funding has fallen by a third, and Scottish Natural Heritage and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency combined funding has dropped by 22 per cent. Local authorities have been badly hit, and now spend a third less on environmental services than ten years ago.

These trends have been accompanied by declines in almost every metric of enforcement activity over the past decade. Here are a few examples:

  • The number of water quality samples taken by the Environment Agency has fallen by 28 per cent.
  • Natural England’s real terms spend on monitoring Sites of Special Scientific Interest has fallen by 64 per cent.
  • Environment Agency prosecutions for waste crime have fallen by 44 per cent.
  • Local authority air pollution checks of businesses have fallen by at least a quarter.
  • The number of planning response deadlines which were missed by Natural England due to resourcing issues rose by 148 per cent.

A view from agency staff
Unchecked also spoke to many ex and current regulatory staff, who shared their views anonymously in our report. It is from these individuals that the impacts of the UK’s enforcement gap are given colour.

We heard that staff feel hamstrung by funding restrictions, by their agency’s lack of independence, by insufficient powers. We heard that many have watched subtle shifts in regulatory oversight from the public to private sector. We heard reports of high stress and low morale, as staff saw first hand that “less money meant less activity”, leaving them to wonder “how on earth are we supposed to do our jobs? How are we going to realise our environmental ambitions?”

What does this mean for environmental protection?
The erosion of these public bodies hampers their ability to protect people and the environment, and undermines the efforts made by most businesses and individuals to act fairly and responsibly.

No one who takes an interest in the environment would doubt that the chickens are coming home to roost. The UK is missing legal targets on water quality, with not one river or lake in England meeting standards for ecological and chemical health last year. Just 39 per cent of England’s SSSIs are classed as being in ‘favourable condition’. Forty per cent of UK species are in decline.

The erosion of regulatory enforcement capacity also accompanies worrying trends in public health, with poor air quality now causing around 40,000 premature deaths in the UK.

The regulations which underpin these policy areas are by no means perfect. But the failure to properly enforce the rules that are in place risks undermining the progress made over the years.

The fate of the OEP
None of this bodes brilliantly for the new Office for Environmental Protection (OEP). Aside from the increasingly urgent question of whether the new regulator will be up and running by 31 December, concerns remain about its funding (which will be set by Defra), independence (the OEP will be accountable to the Defra secretary of state, who is also appointing its chair and board), and powers (given the limitations of judicial review and the inability of the OEP to issue fines).

The government has provided repeated reassurances in response to these concerns, but a quick look back at the trajectory of the past ten years suggests that many of them may be justified. After all, history has not been kind to our environmental regulators.

Political choices ahead
The erosion of regulatory budgets, powers and independence has not taken place in vacuum. These are political choices, made by successive governments.  

These decisions pull in the opposite direction to the current government’s environmental ambitions. If we are going to see progress, the guardians of these goals must be properly recognised and properly funded. Environmental protection cannot be achieved on the cheap.

Strong, well enforced rules are key to building a more resilient Britain going forward. As the government faces the challenges of rebuilding our economy after Covid-19, negotiating trade deals and delivering on ‘levelling up’ promises to newly won constituencies, it will need to make many bold financial decisions. Fixing the UK’s enforcement gap must be one of them.

Read Unchecked’UKs report

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