‘The whole of society needs a break this Christmas’: Environment Agency’s Emma Howard Boyd on 2020

2020 was a year unlike any other, with the coronavirus pandemic upending the work of government and changing how we live our daily lives. Senior figures from across the civil service tell us how the unprecedented 12 months affected them, and look ahead to 2021
Emma Howard Boyd, chair, Environment Agency Photo: Paul Heartfield

By Civil Service World

22 Dec 2020


What are you proudest of your organisation achieving in 2020?

I’m in awe of how members of the Environment Agency and the whole public sector has kept going despite extraordinary personal and professional challenges this year.

Before the coronavirus, Environment Agency flood schemes protected almost 130,000 properties during the winter 2019/20, even though water levels were higher in some places than the floods in 2007 when 55,000 properties flooded. During the coronavirus lockdown, the Environment Agency developed safe ways of working enabling more that 90% of flood schemes across the country to continue. Then in the summer, we launched the nation’s new flood strategy to 2100 and the government doubled the flood budget to £5.2 billion over 6 years.

In July, we published our 5 Year Action Plan published which explains how we plan to transform the intent of the government’s 25 Year Environment Plan into action, and I’m looking forward to seeing results.  

What was the hardest part of being a leader in 2020?

I have been particularly concerned about the health and wellbeing of our staff this year, they have coped amazingly but the whole of society needs a break this Christmas.

My role is all about understanding people’s concerns and how these relate to the environment. The Environment Agency is a place based organisation so not being able to travel, meet people in person and see what’s happening on the ground in person as much as I’d like has been frustrating.

In these difficult times, with so much money needed to fight coronavirus and support the wider economy, the government is having to bear down heavily on other public expenditure. We will always do the very best we can with the money we have, but ultimately we will get the environment the country is prepared to pay for.

That said, it wasn’t all hard. One of the great privileges of 2020 for me was being a judge on the Women’s Hour Power List 2020, which had the theme “Our Planet”. I got to meet an incredibly diverse group of women whose passion and action for the environment was utterly infectious. It gave me a lot of joy and hope.  

What are the main challenges facing the organisation in the coming year?

By 2050, summer temperatures are set to be up to 7.4˚C hotter, we anticipate 59% more winter rainfall, and once-a-century sea level events are expected to be annual events. The threat the climate emergency presents is not just these trends, but that they will overlap and we will see new extremes. This is the main challenge faced by the Environment Agency and, I would argue, the whole of government for the foreseeable future.

In the immediate term, the Met Office suggest we could have a wet January and February. Dealing with this while assisting Local Resilience Forums and others with coronavirus recovery and at the end of the transition period is going to need close attention.

A lack of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) skills is estimated to cost industry £1.5 billion a year in recruitment, inflated salaries, and additional training costs. At the same time, the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted many inequalities in society, and the Environment Agency is still a long way off being as diverse as the communities we serve. These issues are linked and we need to see faster progress on both.

People will have to be more creative about celebrating this year. How will you make the festive period on Zoom special?

I will be doing everything I can to turn off Zoom and go outdoors. In the summer, Hilary McGrady [the director general of the National Trust] said the lockdown clearly showed that “people want and need access to nature-rich green spaces near where they live”. I certainly feel that after a year of online meetings.

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