Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth. And in my experience, everyone doesn’t like regulation until they need it, and then they want even more of it than we regulators can deliver. Every politician I meet, every media outlet that scrutinizes us, and every local community where we operate want more, not less, regulatory action from the Environment Agency (EA) to stop things like landfills, smelly factories, tackle dirty rivers and so on.
It’s a good problem to have. And a reminder that the answer you get to a question often depends on how you ask it. Do any of us want bureaucracy and bureaucracy? no Do we want clean water, air to breathe, a green country, jobs and growth? Yes – and these are some of the things you get from regulation when done right.
My pitch to you today is that good regulation is essential for most things that we all want. The report we are releasing today, Governing for People, Environment and Growth – the clue is in the title – lays out what the EA is doing to support these things.
But no regulatory system is perfect, including ours. Brexit is a tremendous opportunity to rethink regulation in this country. The government has started this process and we welcome the debate. Today I want to offer some pointers as to where this debate could usefully take us and the key principles that I think should guide it.
Let me start with an important fact: regulation works. Examples:
Water Safety: The EA regulates water abstraction in this country. If you want to take more than 20 cubic meters from a river or the ground daily, you need an EA license. The EA has reviewed, amended and in some cases revoked these licenses to bring them in line with what is sustainable. This eliminates the risk of removing around 1.7 trillion liters of water. That’s enough water to power London for two years. As a result, nature, wildlife and all of us are better off.
Water quality: In 2021, a record 99% of bathing water on England’s coasts met or exceeded minimum quality standards due to the EA’s regulation of water companies. This is the highest level since stricter new standards were introduced in 2015. Thirty years ago, most of our bathing waters would not have met even today’s minimum standards. Regulation did that.
Air Quality: Since 2010, emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx) have decreased by 72%, sulfur oxides (SOx) by 90% and particulate matter (PM10) by 52% at our regulated industrial sites. So our air is cleaner than before, and cleaner air means people are living longer, healthier lives. This is what regulation has done.
Waste: I have dubbed waste crime “the new narcotics”: it harms people, places and the economy, including by undercutting the legitimate waste industry. Our regulation of the sector ensures waste is managed safely and our fight against criminals helps the economy: for every £1 we spend on it, at least £4 benefits the economy. The right regulation contributes to growth.
Climate: In 2021, the climate protection, emissions trading and energy efficiency programs managed by EA resulted in a reduction of nine million tonnes of CO2 compared to 2020. And since 2010, greenhouse gas emissions from the sites we regulate have decreased by 50%. The planet is better off as a result. regulation works.
But no regulatory system is perfect. Both the regulations themselves and the behavior of the supervisory authorities must keep up with the times. They must reflect changes in technology, in business needs, in the risks we are trying to manage, in public demand, in government policy and law, and in the world around us.
Brexit is a tremendous opportunity to rethink regulation in this country.
The government has started to repeal, revise or maintain current EU legislation, much of which forms the basis for most environmental legislation in this country. We welcome that. We believe this is a great opportunity to achieve better regulation and better outcomes – for people, business and nature.
There is already a great deal of debate about which legislation should be retained, which should be reformed and which should be repealed. And there should be a debate, because that’s really important and because if we make the right demands, we can do what the Environment Agency exists to do: make a better place.
There will be examples of legislation that we feel we don’t really need. There will be examples where changing the law allows us to achieve better outcomes for the environment and nature and support economic growth. And there will be some laws that make a lot of sense to comply with.
Let me give you a real life example of each. These are my personal views, not those of the EA or the government, but the point I want to illustrate is that we should not view the current body of legislation as sacrosanct.
I would repeal the flood directive. This requires EU Member States to carry out flood risk assessments, draw up flood risk maps and flood risk management plans. This is all very reasonable which is why the UK was already doing these things before the directive came and why the EA will continue to do them now because they are best practices and guidelines. But the purpose of the directive was to encourage cooperation between continental EU Member States that share river basins – we clearly do not belong in that category.
I would reform the Water Framework Directive (WFD) to achieve better environmental outcomes. Every time I say this I get flak from everyone so for the avoidance of doubt let me say again I would reform it to improve the water quality and restore nature, not destroy it. The WFD rightly places high demands on the water quality in rivers, lakes, estuaries and groundwater. But the way we must categorize the condition of these waters is complex and can be misleading about the actual condition of these waters, for both good and bad. And because the directive dictates that bodies of water can only achieve “good” status if they tick all of several different boxes, it may force regulators to focus time and resources on indicators that may not make much of a difference to the actual one making water quality, and diverting focus from things that would. I would not repeal the WFD. But I would reform it to ensure it drives policies that provide the clean and plentiful water we all want.
I would keep the bathing water directive, which protects public health and the environment by keeping coastal waters free from pollution. It has done just that, prompting the water utilities, regulators, local authorities and local communities to make huge improvements to the water quality on most of our beaches. High-quality bathing water promotes health and well-being and boosts the local economy. The 135 million day visits to the coast in England in 2019 were worth £4.4 billion to the economy, according to Visit Britain. A great example of good law and good regulation leading to better outcomes for nature, people and business.
principles of good regulation
Let us be guided by a few principles in this debate about what kind of regulation we want for the future. Mine would be:
- We think in new ways: Good regulation is not bureaucracy. That brings you green growth and a blue planet.
- Focus on results. Start and end with those we want: safe and healthy people, restored nature (not just protected or its degradation slowed), sustainable and inclusive growth.
- believe better The test for any regulatory change should be whether it leads to better outcomes.
- Less is more: Regulate less, target better. Only regulate what needs to be regulated.
- Do it right: If you need to regulate, do it well. Good regulation is proportionate, risk-based, evidence-based, results-oriented and (provided companies do the right things) business-friendly.
- Strong regulation needs strong regulators: If regulators are to do their job, they need the right powers, the right resources, the right laws and the right support.
Ronald Reagan said that the government’s traditional view of the economy could be summed up in a few short sentences: “If it moves, tax it.” If it keeps moving, regulate it. And when it stops moving, subsidize it.” He was, it’s safe to say, not a natural fan of regulation, let alone government. But he also said: “The government exists to protect us from each other. Where government has overstepped its bounds is in choosing to protect us from ourselves.”
That’s a good distinction. Regulation does not exist to protect us from ourselves. It exists to protect the things we value – people, nature, our economy – that would otherwise be harmed. So let’s not have more regulation than we need and let’s have the right kind. But when we need it, we make sure we have it.