'Insufficient investment' means government will miss clean-water targets, watchdog warns

Just 12% of Environment Agency's £51bn costing for improvements has been confirmed, Office for Environmental Protection says
Photo: Environment Agency/Twitter

By Jim Dunton

13 May 2024

A government pledge to significantly improve the quality of England's rivers, lakes and coastal waters by 2027 is likely to be missed because of "insufficient investment", the Office for Environmental Protection has warned.

A just-published OEP review focuses on key water-quality legislation and the way it is being implemented by the Environment Agency and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. It has found that the government is not on track to meet its target of having 77% of rivers, lakes and coastal waters classified as "in good ecological status or potential" within the next three and a half years.

A worst-case scenario produced by the OEP found that just 21% of surface waters could achieve the target over the period, which the watchdog said represents only a 5% improvement on the current situation.

According to the OEP, the Environment Agency has calculated that £51bn would be needed to achieve the government's objective – and that the result would be £64bn in monetisable benefits. But it said only £6.2bn of funding, or 12% of the required figure, has been confirmed so far.

The OEP said that while "significant further investment" from the water industry is expected for implementing plans to reduce storm overflow discharge, the "amount, pace and contribution" of those investments is not fully known.

"Overall, we do not yet see a picture of the necessary resources being directed to all major pressures to meet the environmental objectives," the report said.

"In the meantime, the benefits or avoided costs that additional investments could deliver are not being realised."

Other "serious barriers" identified by the OEP include: improvement plans being too generic and not specific to locations; lack of certainty, pace and clear deadlines to implement measures; and inadequate governance.

OEP chair Dame Glenys Stacey said the government needs to speed up and scale up its efforts to protect and improve England's waters.

"We have found that, while the relevant law here is broadly sound, it is simply not being implemented effectively," she said.

"This means it is not delivering as intended and, as a consequence, most of our open water is likely to remain in a poor state in the years ahead unless things change. This is deeply concerning.

"While we know that there are dedicated and professional people working hard to improve the condition of our rivers, as in so many other aspects of the environment, government must now ensure substantial funding for a wider range of specific action, at pace and with ambition."

Stacey warned that failure to do so would lead to the 2027 target being "missed by a considerable margin".

Mike Clancy, general secretary of Prospect – which represents professionals such as scientists and engineers in the civil service – said the OEP report confirms some of the union's longstanding concerns.

"The Environment Agency is simply not sufficiently well-funded to adequately fulfil its regulatory obligations," he said.

"Years of insufficient funding and pay restraint have seen a disastrous loss of experience and skills piling pressure and workload on those remaining and leading to a recruitment and retention crisis.

"Our regulators are vital if we are to protect our natural environment. You simply can’t get the results you need when you do things on the cheap."

A government spokesperson said the current administration has "done more than any other" to protect and restore rivers, lakes and coastal waters "with record levels of investment, monitoring and enforcement".

"We are confident that the river basin management plans are compliant with the current regulations and we have already committed to reforming these plans and delivering tailored long-term proposals to improve all water bodies in England," they said.

"This is alongside our work to fast-track investment and hold water companies more accountable – including consulting on a ban on bonuses and bringing in a four-fold increase in inspections."

An EA spokesperson said it had directed more than £14bn of investment from the water industry into improvements to the nation's water environment since 2000.

"The OEP’s report has highlighted that there is much further to go, which we welcome, and we are committed to working with government as well as with all partners to help achieve our shared goal of clean and plentiful water," the spokesperson said.

The government has three months to give its detailed response to the OEP report to parliament, setting out its view on the watchdog's 15 recommendations and any action it intends to take.

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