‘The agency is out there on the ground’: Emma Howard Boyd on the real world impact of the Environment Agency

Written by Mark Smulian on 18 June 2019 in Interview
Interview

After working on some of the first “green investment” schemes in the 1990s, Emma Howard Boyd has relished the chance to get closer to the action as chair of the Environment Agency. But, she tells Mark Smulian, she’s still keeping a keen eye on the money, as the agency strives to protect communities and businesses as well as people and plants

Photos: Paul Heartfield

From school children on strike to MPs declaring an – admittedly entirely symbolic – climate change emergency, environmental issues are high on the agenda at the moment. Some of the most contentious issues fall to non-departmental public body the Environment Agency, whose chair Emma Howard Boyd declares her hobbies as “walking and cycling as much as possible, I love being out in the environment myself”. Just as well really.

Howard Boyd is used to working across government departments and other public bodies, not least as the agency’s responsibilities – mainly waste and flooding – bring it into contact with everyone from the Treasury to the quaintly-named internal drainage boards, which have a role in river management.

Her career was spent in finance before applying to join the EA board, a step motivated by her involvement in the early days of “green” finance. “I’d started in investment banking then worked in asset management and always with an environmental focus; it was 20 years ago when it was still very pioneering to look at environmental issues through an investment lens,” she says. “Latterly I was in the Green Finance Taskforce that the Treasury and BEIS set up and I was encouraged to take on non-exec roles. So when recruiting started for the EA board, various people tapped me on the shoulder and said: ‘Why don’t you do this?’”


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She became EA chair in 2016, and in March this year was reappointed for a second term until September 2022. The three-day-a-week role allows her to get her hands if not exactly dirty then at least on tangible things that affect people and places directly.

“What I love about the agency is involvement in things you can see and touch,” Howard Boyd explains. “In finance you allow things to happen, but the agency is out there on the ground doing real things and you can see the progress and improvements.”

Things don’t come much more tangible than floodwaters, an eventuality that found Howard Boyd on the River Hull barrier on a January night in 2017, as a tidal surge threatened the Humber estuary, to see how the EA responds to such emergencies.

The spate of floods that hit England in the mid-2010s prompted criticism of all the various bodies involved in flood defence – not only over deficient physical measures to prevent inundations but also the complex overlap of responsibilities. Indeed in 2014, the National Audit Office complained that with the EA, plus 152 lead local flood authorities, 128 internal drainage boards and “numerous district councils and water companies” involved, it was hardly surprising there was confusion.

Howard Boyd says things have changed. “Since the earlier floods, a lot of effort has gone into understanding the relationships between different bodies and how we all come together – particularly during a big incident – to help communities. We are midway through a five-to-six year settlement for our flood investment and we are very mindful of what comes next. Having moved from annual settlements and seen the advantages of long-term planning, we are keen that long-term settlement is replicated into the future. We need to continue investing in resilience, and it’s really important to make sure the right levels of protection are there for existing schemes, as some receive a real battering from the oceans.”

Floods generate media images of distressed residents in knee-deep water, and policy has emphasised protecting homes. But Howard Boyd says the EA also has a role in defending infrastructure and the economy, reflected in her enthusiasm for seeing the EA promoting “green growth”.

“Everybody should understand the investment needed to protect not just homes but all types of infrastructure: transport and utilities, but also social infrastructure – schools and hospitals. As we go forward with climate change we need to ensure that embedded in that spending is protecting infrastructure from being too hot, cold, wet or dry, and making it low carbon as well,” she says.

To promote green growth, Howard Boyd wants to emphasise the importance of the environment to the economy. “By better protecting the environment you are strengthening the economy, it is not just a cost,” she says.

This is a change of attitude to flood defence from seeing it purely as an environmental matter to additionally being an economic one.

“Where we have put in significant flood prevention schemes, we know that unlocks development,” she says. “We can never totally protect communities from flooding because of climate change, but if you put a scheme in place, think about how nearby buildings are built and how the community can unlock future growth.

“The core of our work is protecting homes and people, but we need to protect jobs and businesses too to make sure there are still jobs near the people we protect. That way the area remains economically vibrant. The current funding formula emphasises houses and it needs to also allow for economic vibrancy and prosperity. This is something we’ll work on with Defra.”

The EA has put its money where its mouth is on green finance, using its staff pension fund as a force for change. Although relatively small at £3.5bn – and for historic reasons part of the Local Government Pension Fund – Howard Boyd says: “We have felt it important to embed environmental sustainability and climate risk into our investment strategy.

“While our fund is tiny compared with other funds, it’s known globally for actions to embed sustainability into the way the fund is managed. One way is through the transition pathway initiative with Church of England pension bodies, which involves understanding how portfolios are transitioning to a low carbon world and how high carbon business can transition to the ‘no greater than two degrees’ increase in average global temperature scenario.”

“The core of our work is protecting homes and people, but we also need to make sure there are still jobs near the people we protect. That way the area remains economically vibrant”

Work with the waste industry can lead the EA to deal with some unsavoury characters and it frequently publishes details of prosecutions for fly-tipping and pollution offences. The problem is bad enough that the government last November published the Independent Review into Serious and Organised Crime in the Waste Sector. Howard Boyd says the EA works with “responsible businesses who understand criminal activities are not just impacting the environment but also taking away from legitimate business”.

“There is organised crime in fly tipping, so we need to keep ahead of the criminals acting in this space. I’m delighted we will receive more funding – £30m over four years – to help us in our work in this area,” she adds.

The EA now shares intelligence with agencies like HM Revenue & Customs and the Driver & Vehicle Standards Agency on the basis that someone engaged in waste crime may well have fallen foul of other aspects of the law.

Waste crime is perpetrated by those who indeed see the environment as a cost.

But Howard Boyd thinks the better parts of the finance and business community “understand they will only be fit in future if they understand the risks and opportunities of climate change”. That may require some heavy persuasion. She says her background in finance led her to understand that “in regulation, what matters is the size of the stick and who is wielding that”.

She last year called for higher fines for transgressors and is frustrated that the largest fine against a water company is £20m, something like 10 days of operational profits. “If you look at financial regulations, the stick is far stronger. Boards need to see the business benefits of a healthy environment. Firms that get it wrong should no longer see fines as an operational expense, but something they will be held accountable for. The vast majority want to behave responsibly and, if they make a mistake, make things right.”

Although Howard Boyd came from the private sector, she has little patience with those who claim that it is somehow “better” than the public sector. “We recruit from public, third and private sector. If I was advising people starting their career, it would be to have the flexibility to move from one sector to another, which is something we should all do more of,” she says. “We’ve had a number of civil servants on secondment here from elsewhere in the service and it’s incredibly helpful.”

The EA’s relations with other government departments sprawl across Whitehall. It is a body set out in statute as sponsored by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs but it also works with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, particularly on climate change, and with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government on local issues.

Howard Boyd explains: “Our responsibility with Defra is as a delivery body, but we are also a regulator so it’s key that we are arm’s-length because we need to interpret policy and regulate accordingly. We’re also an adviser that must be seen as independent.”

The EA may, depending on Brexit, acquire a twin. Environment secretary Michael Gove has said he wants to create an Office for Environmental Protection to take over matters now regulated by the European Union. How these two bodies will fit together remains a matter for conjecture, but Howard Boyd says: “We welcome the Environment Bill and the OEP, which we want to focus on holding government to account.

“The opportunity comes from taking the 25 Year Environment Plan’s ambitions about putting the environment at the heart of government decision making,” she says. This plan was issued in 2018 with a message from prime minister Theresa May stating that its goals were simple: “Cleaner air and water; plants and animals which are thriving; and a cleaner, greener country for us all.”

“Boards need to see the business benefits of a healthy environment.  Firms that get it wrong should no longer see fines as an operational expense, but something they will be held accountable for”

Whether any of those are “simple” is debatable, but Howard Boyd says: “The OEP’s role will be hugely significant in holding the whole of government to account for the environment and it should not be underestimated for significance.” The OEP is to be a non-departmental public body, which Howard Boyd says is “the strongest and right structure if it has the right element of independence and its budgets are protected”.

She does not think environmental regulation will be weakened by Brexit: “Regulation will not be rowed back on. If anything, the opportunity is there to strengthen regulations and to put the 25 year plan on a statutory footing.” The UK’s Climate Change Act has, she thinks, gained real force and is admired by other countries. “One of the benefits that came out of the act was Defra’s work on planning for adaptation to climate change, which was communicated with a whole range of different bodies to understand how they were preparing for the physical risks of climate change. The way the Bank of England and Prudential Regulatory Authority responded led to [bank governor] Mark Carney’s speech and to the task force on climate related disclosures,” she says. “That has now become a global effort for companies to disclose how they are responding to transition risks, physical risks and how they plan for climate change. That shows how a bit of legislation from the environment and climate change space can have a real impact in other sectors around the world.”

Outside work, Howard Boyd is a board member of a small charity Share Vision, which helps investors put money into concerns with environmental and social objectives. She is also involved in Accounting for Sustainability, one of the Prince of Wales’s charities that links sustainability to accountancy. Howard Boyd is also the UK commissioner on the Global Commission on Adaptation, a body co-chaired by Ban Ki-moon, former secretary-general of the United Nations, Microsoft founder Bill Gates and World Bank chief executive Kristalina Georgieva, which describes itself as “a solutions broker, bringing together governments, the private sector, civil society, intergovernmental bodies, and knowledge institutions that can address the obstacles slowing down adaptation action”.

This is all on a different level from the EA’s hunting down of fly-tippers, but in Howard Boyd’s view all linked – the environment does, in the old slogan, demand that governments think global and act local.

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