The Environment Agency is mired in “severe recruitment difficulties” for some roles because of poor pay and reward coupled with record turnover levels, a civil service union has said.
Prospect, which represents professionals such as scientists and engineers, said the agency was having particular trouble hiring regulatory and permitting-officer roles in waste and industrial regulation. But it said EA bosses were also finding supporting and technical roles equally hard to recruit to.
Prospect said it understood that some recent rounds has failed to fill more than 75% of the vacancies advertised, despite a relaxation in required qualifications. A vacancy rate approaching 50% in some teams is preventing the agency from tackling a “growing backlog” of permitting applications from waste and industrial site operators, the union added.
It said the staff shortfall is limiting the EA’s effectiveness in fighting pollution at a time of heightened public concern about the impacts on rivers from water-company and industrial effluent discharges.
Last month EA chief executive Sir James Bevan wrote to George Eustice expressing concerns about the hardship some staff were experiencing and urging environment secretary to lobby for an improved offer for civil servants.
Prospect said it understood that the EA needed to hire around 2,000 staff and had created a specialist team to help address the issue across the organisation, recently advertising for 22 recruitment-focused business support posts.
Union negotiator Kevin Warden said the new team would be unable to attract properly skilled and experienced staff unless ministers tackled the “fundamental problem of ever poorer pay and reward”.
“EA staff have seen the value of their pay fall so much since 2010 that they are now working the equivalent of one week in four for free,” Warden said.
“With goodwill eroding fast it’s no surprise staff are becoming less inclined to volunteer for out-of-hours incident response work.”
Prospect is currently balloting members on the agency’s 2022-23 pay offer of 2.6% to 3.9% across different grades, coupled with a non-consolidated “performance award”.
The union’s members have voted to reject the EA’s annual pay offer in three of the previous four years. A rejection was suspended at the height of the Coronavirus pandemic because of the pressure on government finances.
An EA spokesperson said the agency’s staff were “vital” to its work to protect the environment, people and wildlife from harm.
“We aim to achieve the best possible settlement for all our employees within the constraints of the government pay guidance and in negotiation with our trade unions,” they said.
“We are at the beginning of a planned recruitment campaign into roles identified and funded through the most recent spending review, which comprise the majority of our vacancies, in order to deliver [our] EA2025 [plan].”
This story was updated at 5.10pm on 16 August 2022 to include a response from the Environment Agency