By McCARTHY, Michael
New Statesman (1996) , Vol. 130, No. 4520
It's always warning about floods, and nobody knows what it is. But it's set to be a big green crusader with a [pound]625m budget
You don't have to be Noah to find fame because of a flood. As last autumn unfolded in all its soggy misery, as the waters rose remorselessly on Severn and on Ouse, as the rain-fed tide slopped towards the sandbagged doorsteps of Shrewsbury and York and dozens of other unhappy places, and eventually overwhelmed them, one name bleeped through the news bulletins like a distress beacon: the Environment Agency. "The Environment Agency has issued a further 19 severe flood warnings...The Environment Agency says that the critical time at Worcester will bejust after midnight...The Environment Agency says that the worst at Lewes is probably over...The Environment Agency this...The Environment Agency that..."
It is Britain's biggest green quango, dwarfing other environmental bodies with its staff of 10,500, annual budget of [pound]625m and a quite enormous store of scientific expertise; yet it has taken unprecedented civil emergency for the agency to break through into the public consciousness. The combination of its flood warning and relief activities (it is legally responsible for flood defence) with the wettest autumn on record suddenly made the nation aware of the agency -- as we are of the Met Office, and in a way that we are not of the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, say, or the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science. The nation might not know exactly what the Environment Agency does, other than tell you when you are about to lose your carpets, but it knows now that it is there.
People were hardly aware of it before. The reason? Perhaps that the agency -- in essence, a pollution policeman tightly regulating emissions to air, land and water from factories, power plants, rubbish dumps and sewage works -- is a striking example of a public body of huge power and influence which, hidebound by its history and internal culture, has never quite realised its full potential. There is no doubt that, in the five years of its existence, the agency has delivered environmental benefits far beyond the routine policing of pollution. It has brought about a [pound]7.4bn programme of clean-up investment by the water companies, which will more or less sweep away the Victorian sewerage system. It has helped make some of Britain's rivers their cleanest for 200 years. It has made detailed information on local sources of industrial pollution -- and, latterly, of flood risk -- available to every household in Britain. It has "named and shamed" Britain's worst polluting companies, and called loudly for the cour t fines they incur to be jacked up to levels that will really hurt. It has conceived a raft of recovery programmes for endangered wildlife, from salmon to the water vole. Great stuff, all of it.
But, if you think of a national environmental champion -- which is what the agency could and should be, with all those staff, all that money and all that expertise -- what springs to mind? Friends of the Earth? Greenpeace? The Council for the Protection of Rural England? Not the Environment Agency.
If something is missing from the agency's heart, it is to be sought for in the origins of the beast. The idea of a powerful pollution watchdog, at arm's length from government (and able to tell the government to get its act together), is very recent in Britain. Before the widespread dawning of environmental consciousness at the end of the 1980s, pollution control was a hole-and-corner affair, anything but a glamour job: the first national body regulating the gunk coming out of factories was the Alkali Inspectorate, set up in 1863, which eventually metamorphosed into the more substantial Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Pollution (HMIP). Only in 1989 did environmental regulation really take off in Britain, when the Conservatives privatised water.
Regional water authorities had always done their own pollution control; they had slapped themselves on the wrist if their sewage disposal operations polluted their water supplies and, as they were public bodies, no one really objected. …