The Environment Agency One Year On: How Low Can Enforcement Go?

December 14, 2023

A sewage pipe on the beach.
Source: Lolostock for Canva

Last year we reported that total enforcement actions by the Environment Agency had declined by 84% between 2012 and 2021, with 2021 seeing 113 enforcement actions in total. This year has continued a seeming systematic disregard for environmental issues and policies by the government — demonstrated by United Kingdom Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s U-turn on key green targets in September — with enforcement actions dropping yet again.

It has also been another key year post-Brexit for environmental legislation, with the Environment Act now having been in place for two years, and 2023 providing the first Environmental Improvement Plan, derived from that Act.

The Environmental Improvement Plan was released in January 2023 and has 10 goals under the key themes of improving environmental quality, improving the use of resources, improving mitigation of climate change and improving biosecurity. This plan is an update on the 25-year environment plan set out in 2018.

However, 11 months on and both the National Audit Office and the Office for Environmental Protection (‘OEP’) argue not enough action is being taken. This plan also influences what the Environment Agency focuses on, and therefore it is important when it comes to regulation and what we would be expecting their regulation to focus on moving forward. But how has regulation fared over the last year in the face of these changes and contexts?

Systematically declining enforcement action

The data shows that in 2022, there were 88 enforcement actions by the Environment Agency. This year up until November 2023, the data shows that there have been 82 enforcement cases. It is worth noting that this is enforcement data for organisations only and does not include data on cases against individuals.

Even since 2021, there has been a 25% decline enforcement cases. Furthermore, overall, since 2012 there has been an 88% decrease in enforcement actions.

In July 2021, the Environment Agency announced its biggest ever fine. This fine was against Southern Water for £90 million. Since then, the biggest fine in 2022 was £1.6 million and in 2023 so far, it was £3.3 million. Furthermore, in 2022 and 2023, the Environment Agency was still mostly enforcing against water companies. In 2022, eight out of the top 10 fines given out by the Environment Agency were to water companies. Similarly, in 2023, seven out of the 10 fines given out by the Environment Agency were to water companies.

Therefore, the focus still seems to be on water companies, yet our waterways are still being polluted heavily by water companies, as shown by the numerous sewage scandals this summer.

How low can enforcement go?

This massive 88% decrease in enforcement since 2012 and the continually dwindling enforcement figures even over the last two years should be alarming. We cannot protect our environment if corporations who breach regulations are not held to account. However, the Environment Agency is acting against a backdrop of substantial cuts to funding, as well as a government that has systematically shown a lack of care and commitment towards its environmental goals.

Over the last 15 years, there has been a prevalent belief in the idea of ‘cutting regulatory red tape’ for businesses. This idea was originally seen within the context of the Hampton Review in 2005 but it is still haunting UK regulation today. This can be seen from a recent report that no enforcement action will be taken against those businesses that do not provide either a Waste Transfer Note or a Hazardous Waste Consignment Note when dropping waste off at wholesalers. These notes provide a vital component of responsible waste management, which in respect of hazardous waste, an audit trail and the ability for accountability if it is disposed of incorrectly is crucial. This has been done in the name of ‘cutting red tape’. Whilst this may not seem like a big change, it provides an example of the continued ebbing away of enforcement against environmental protections.

The question is, how low can enforcement go? And how many regulations are going to go officially unenforced and therefore essentially redundant as regulations?

Violation Tracker UK has data from each of the environment agencies throughout the devolved nations of the UK, which is made up of the Environment Agency (England), Scottish Environmental Protection Agency, Natural Resources Wales and the Northern Ireland Environment Agency. In future blog posts, we will be looking at the data and the context of each environment agency, how they are functioning and what the data tells us about their regulatory enforcement.

Violation Tracker is on Twitter. Follow us at VT_UK (note the two underscores).