'Some people can no longer afford to work for us': low pay forcing staff out, Environment Agency chief says

Chief exec says low pay is "bad for the country" as staff are forced to leave and this "impacts on outcomes"
Photo: Adrian Sherratt/Alamy Stock Photo

By Tevye Markson

15 Mar 2023

The Environment Agency will push for a higher pay rise for staff this year, the agency’s chief has said, as he told MPs it was "wrong" that some are using food banks or having to leave the organisation because their pay is too low.

Outgoing Environment Agency chief executive Sir James Bevan told MPs yesterday the department is looking into whether it can make a pay business case to the Treasury, whereby it would offer "transformations" in exchange for higher-than-average pay awards.

"We have not been able to pay our staff, for a decade or so, pay that reflects the increase in the cost of living," Bevan told the Treasury Committee this morning.

"The net effect of that has been that people are significantly poorer than they were and... some people can no longer afford to work for us.

“So people have left us over the last year to two, almost always saying ‘I really don’t want to leave but I can’t afford to work for you’. And I think that’s wrong."

He added: “People work for us because they want to create a better place. That’s fantastic, but sometimes they want to buy a house or they want to put food on the table, and they’re being forced to choose to go elsewhere."

Bevan warned last year that the government’s 2022-23 pay offer of 2% – plus a £345 performance-related bonus – was “unjust, unwise, and unfair” amid the cost-of-living-crisis. He said his staff were "experiencing real hardship" as inflation soared, and some were using foodbanks, in a letter to the then-environment secretary George Eustice.

Overall, Environment Agency wages there have fallen by more than 20% in real-terms since 2010, according to the Prospect and Unite unions. Members have walked out in the last few months over the pay concerns. 

Bevan told the Treasury Committee that pay erosion is not only bad for staff, but also "bad for the country" because of the benefits and outcomes these staff are delivering.

The departing chief, who confirmed some staff are still using food banks, said “extensive” discussions with the government and unions about the issue had led to the decison to seek an abover-average pay award this year.

‘We’re doing well despite the challenges’

Despite the pay issues, Bevan, who is leaving the Environment Agency at the end of the month, said the organisation has begun to overcome some of its recruitment challenges.

Prospect warned last year that the organisation was struggling with “severe recruitment difficulties” for some roles because of poor pay and record turnover levels.

“We have been running very high vacancy levels,” Bevan admitted.

“A year or so ago, we were running a 10% average vacancy level across the organisation, and in some of our most skilled and technical qualified jobs like electrical engineering it was a 50% vacancy rate and that was starting to have an effect on our ability to operate the things we do."

The Environment Agency’s workforce has increased from roughly 10,500 to around 12,250, the organisation's chairman Alan Lovell confirmed to the committee.

However, the new recruits' backgrounds mean difficulties remain in delivering the organisation’s objectives.

“These tend to be younger people or people coming in from different industries and they need training and capacity building and that takes time,” he said. 

“So even though we are more or less back to the headcount we wish to be, we are not able to deliver all the outcomes to the extent that we would want.”

Bevan said the Environment Agency is also doing well at motivating staff “despite the challenges”.

“I know that because I’ve just seen the results of our latest staff survey and that is showing an increase in motivation, [which was] already high but it’s higher,” the chief exec said. 

Bevan said the Environment Agency is able to keep attracting people due to the “astonishing work” on offer – “the chance to make the world a better place, people really will get out of bed for that” – as well as the opportunity to work with “astonishing colleagues”.

“It is a fantastic place to work,” Bevan said. 

He said two kinds of people have joined in the last year: twenty-somethings in their first "real" job who are “delighted to be in an organisation that is full of such great people who are committed to creating a better place”; and people with an existing career – such as police chiefs and senior NHS staff – who want their employer to reflect their values and treat them well.

Another key attraction is flexible working, which has "improved productivity not harmed it”, Bevan said, echoing comments by Disclosure and Barring Service chief executive Eric Robinson that hybrid working had had a “significant positive effect”.

“There will be never be a situation when the EA – or, frankly, most other public sector organisations – will be able to pay top dollar compared with the private sector so we do have to find alternative solutions," Bevan said.

"Though that doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t get a decent wage in the public sector,” he adds. 

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