Environment Agency chair Emma Howard Boyd on helping keep communities safe from floods and working to adapt to climate change
With the end of 2018 fast approaching, we asked the UK's top civil servants to look back at the year, outline their goals for 2019 – and tell us who would turn on their town’s Christmas lights.
Environment Agency staff Photo: Joe Giddens/PA
What was your highlight of 2018?
Lots. I love visiting our work all over the country. To be at the opening of a flood scheme when colleagues who’ve worked on a project for years are able to celebrate and say to a community, “you’re safer because of this” – that’s a highlight every time.
I was pleased the EA came top of the mental health charity Mind’s wellbeing index. It was also really cool that my colleagues James Trout and Tom Sewell were invited to talk to the United Nations in New York about their work with the Down’s Syndrome Association’s Workfit Programme.
In October, I became the UK commissioner to the Global Commission on Adaptation. At the UN in September, the prime minister backed this to help gather evidence on the actions needed to adapt to climate change ahead of the UN secretary general’s Climate Summit in 2019. It’s an honour.
What was the hardest part of being a leader in 2018?
Balancing focus on the present, the near future, and the long-term future.
This year, we had the UK’s joint hottest summer on record and the driest since 1921. The Environment Agency responded to a 330% increase in drought-related incidents. We made our abstraction regime flexible so farmers could keep businesses going. At the same time we are preparing for possible EU exit scenarios and in the long term there’s climate change. That will bring more environmental incidents like floods and droughts. We can’t afford to fall behind.
What are the main challenges facing your organisation in the coming year?
If there’s not much rain this winter, we could face more of this summer’s problems. Every year, keeping people safe in floods is a priority. Other priorities are making sure the EA is ready for EU exit and helping government, businesses and the public become more resilient to the impacts of climate change.
Also, staff wellbeing – the Environment Agency works to create better places for people, so we should do that for our colleagues too.
Which celebrity or historical figure would you choose to turn on the Christmas lights in your town, and why?
I recently read that the Bank of England was considering putting the mathematician Ada Lovelace (left) on the new £50 note. She is considered by some to be the first computer programmer, so she’d be able to sort the lights out if there was a glitch.
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