New captain must bring about sea change at Environment Agency

Jacob Hayler, Mar 27, 2023

Jacob Hayler, Executive Director of the Environmental Services Association examines what is in store for the new Agency leader, and the opportunity that he has to tackle waste crime and permitting issues to restore the support of ESA and its members

The recycling and waste sector recently learned that the outgoing CEO of the Environment Agency (EA), Sir James Bevan, will be replaced by Philip Duffy, who arrives at the Agency from HM Treasury, where he was Director General of Growth and Productivity. Sir James will step down at the end of this month and John Curtin will man the fort as interim CEO until Philip Duffy arrives in July. 

Philip Duffy joins recently appointed EA Chairman, Alan Lovell, and this new leadership team will have their work cut out for them, as far as our industry is concerned, to reverse a legacy of dismal performance across the vital enforcement and regulation which protects and supports respectively the legitimate recycling and waste sector. 

I would like to be able to reflect on the Environment Agency’s successes during Sir James’ tenure, and I am sure it has had them across the many sectors it regulates, but unfortunately from our perspective, we continue to suffer from a material deterioration in waste crime and ongoing disastrous permitting performance – both of which threaten to undermine the ability of recycling and waste management operators to deliver investment in new services and infrastructure during a period of once-in-a-generation policy reforms happening across the United Kingdom. 

Sir James’ recent comments calling for an export ban on recyclable material are also a distraction from the real domestic waste crime issues and are unhelpful while the United Kingdom remains reliant on export markets to achieve circular economy outcomes, and while the regulatory authorities are doing little to support legitimate industry domestically. 

Commenting on his appointment, Philip Duffy said he “looked forward to hearing from all sides about what should come next” so I would like to press upon him, on behalf of our members, the need for urgent intervention on waste crime and permitting performance. 

Over the past decade, the ESA has commissioned and published three comprehensive reports highlighting the growing extent of waste crime and its impact on the economy and environment. Our most recent research estimated that known waste crime costs England £1bn annually but, in reality, this figure is likely to be substantially higher. The National Audit Office (NAO) highlighted in 2022 that the more waste crime is investigated, the bigger the problem it is revealed to be, and that reported statistics and official data understate the true extent and scale of the issue. 

Additionally, following an independent review in 2018 into serious and organised crime, we know that organised crime groups are now involved in waste crime to a greater extent, in part due to the increased attractiveness of the market and the low barriers to entry.  

Furthermore, last year, the Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee (PAC) noted that most waste crime is responded to with a minimal, or entirely absent, enforcement response; that fewer incidents are investigated, investigations are taking longer, and advice and guidance or warning letters are the most common responses for most types of waste crime - with prosecution numbers falling 90% since 2007. 

This is wholly unacceptable, and it is imperative that more effective enforcement outcomes are achieved under the new EA leadership team and that these efforts do not continue to be hamstrung by a paltry enforcement budget of just £17 million – a drop in the ocean compared with the annual cost to society of waste-related crime. Both the ESA and the EA itself estimate that every pound spent by government on this enforcement activity could yield between £4-5 in return to the public purse, so the investment case is clear.  

The Government has outlined in its Environmental Improvement Plan (EIP) a hugely ambitious target of eliminating waste crime by 2043 (HM Government, 2023) but with the current approach and resources dedicated to tackling waste crime, this simply cannot be achieved.

On permitting, we have similarly been pressing to EA to improve performance for many years now. A process which should take a few months can instead take up to several years in some cases – presenting a clear barrier to investment and stifles the industry’s ability to deliver Government’s Resources and Waste Strategy outcomes. The Agency needs more resources to get queue times down and, if they do not have the capacity to do this vital work in-house, then we believe the UK should employ accredited third-party permit providers (which already happens in Germany for example) to lighten the load. 

The UK is desperate for green growth and jobs so the pursuit of these outcomes must not be held back by under-resourced and poor-performing bureaucracy.  

The ESA and its members value our relationship with the Environment Agency and we recognise that resources are finite and that change takes time, but we have been banging this drum for many years now without noticeable improvement. The core activities above are fundamental not just to the Agency’s role and purpose, but also to the health and vitality of the recycling and waste management industry; the pursuit of a more circular economy and delivery of green growth and jobs. 

I look forward to working with Philip Duffy and his team to find pragmatic solutions to the aforementioned challenges and our members will support as much as they can where appropriate – but we must start to see performance trending in the right direction under new leadership.  

*This article was first published on on Wednesday 22nd March 2023