'No other option': Thousands of Environment Agency staff to strike this week

Unions Prospect and Unison join forces in dispute over low pay and understaffing
Photo: Geogphotos/Alamy

By Tevye Markson

06 Feb 2023

Thousands of Environment Agency officials who are members of unions Prospect and Unison will go on strike this week, escalating an ongoing dispute over pay concerns.

Staff working in areas such as river inspection, flood forecasting, coastal risk management and pollution control will stage a 12-hour strike on Wednesday, 8 February, starting at 7am.

Unison head of environment Donna Rowe-Merriman said the decision to strike was not being taken lightly.

“Not a single Environment Agency worker wants to take action but the government’s failure to find a solution has left them with no other option but to walk out again,” she said.

As well as strike action, for 12 hours either side of the walkout Environment Agency employees will escalate their ongoing work to rule action by withdrawing from incident response rotas. This action short of a strike starts at 7pm on Tuesday and kicks in again immediately at the end of the strike for another 12 hours, concluding at 7am on Thursday.

During these hours, there will be fewer experienced Environment Agency staff to provide cover if an incident occurs, Prospect and Unison said.

However, where there’s a genuine threat to life or property from an incident like a major flood, officers will step in as emergency “life and limb cover” has been agreed with the agency’s managers.

Prospect and Unison members at the Environment Agency backed strikes over “derisory” pay and staffing concerns in November.

Unison members at the Environment Agency first walked out over the dispute on 18 January. Prospect members have so far been staging action short of strike.

Employees in both unions have been working to their contracts and refusing to volunteer for overtime for several weeks. For short periods around the festive season they also withdrew from incident rosters.

Both unions have slammed the government for “not doing anything to end the dispute”. They have asked ministers to grant senior managers at the Environment Agency permission to start proper pay negotiations.

“It’s in everyone’s best interests that a solution is found quickly,” Unison's Rowe-Merriman said.

“The government must act now to get talks in motion that will prevent further escalation.”

The unions say the government’s failure to fund the agency properly over many years has meant wages have tumbled to “nowhere near the going rate for the skilled jobs these workers do”.

Environment Agency employees received a 2% pay rise plus an additional £345 this year, but in 2021/22 most staff received nothing. Overall, wages there have fallen by more than 20% in real terms since 2010, according to the unions.

They say this real-terms wage decline has led to many staff leaving for better paid jobs, leaving the Environment Agency struggling to cope.

Severe staff shortages have placed intolerable pressure on the workforce, the unions have warned. With too few employees to provide cover, they say there is an increasing risk of inadequate responses to major environmental incidents.

 “Low pay, under-resourcing and under-staffing mean it’s almost impossible for Environment Agency staff to properly inspect, regulate and protect the natural environment,” Prospect general secretary Mike Clancy said.

“This has resulted in problems including sewage discharge and pollution of waterways, which will only get worse unless action is taken.

“Staff love their jobs, but simply cannot continue to do them when their pay is decreasing in real terms every single year. The only option left is industrial action.”

Sir James Bevan, chief executive of the Environment Agency last year slammed the 2022/23 pay offer as “unjust, unwise, and unfair”, warning that some of his staff had turned to foodbanks to cope with cost-of-living increases.

An Environment Agency spokesperson said: “As a public sector organisation the Environment Agency remains bound by the pay policy of the government of the day.

“We have plans in place to minimise disruption to our essential work to protect the environment and respond to critical incidents.”

Mitigations the Environment Agency has put in place include the automation of flood warnings and the use of call-back mechanisms for significant incidents where there is a threat to life.

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