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Environment Agency

Volume 836: debated on Thursday 7 March 2024


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the work of the Environment Agency in protecting public health and the environment.

My Lords, I declare my interests as set out in the register. Protecting public health and the environment is a priority for the Government. The Environment Agency, as a regulator, operator of flood defences, technical adviser on the environment and category 1 responder, is up to the challenge. Defra works closely with the Environment Agency to ensure that it is equipped to carry out its functions effectively and to deliver for the public. Since 2015, the Environment Agency’s budget has been increased by more than £700 million to £1.96 billion in this past year.

I thank the Minister for his Answer. A fuller Answer might be that the Environment Agency is dysfunctional because of government cuts, but let me be more positive and move on to the future. From 1 January 2028, which is quite a long way in the future, the Environment Agency will be able to rescind, revoke or change any licences of water companies which are damaging chalk streams, which, as the Minister knows, are a precious resource. Globally, we have most of them here. Is a list already being drawn up? Some 77% of this country’s chalk streams are already failing to reach good ecological status, so the list needs to be written today if it is to be enacted on 1 January 2028.

The noble Baroness makes an insightful point about these precious and irreplaceable water bodies—chalk streams. Indeed, 2028 is a key date for changing the current system. Specifically, 95 licences have been revoked in chalk stream catchments since 2008. In addition to reducing the burden of abstraction pressures, the Government are protecting chalk streams and have identified them as a priority site in our storm overflows discharge reduction plan. We are also delivering restoration projects amounting to 400 kilometres in chalk stream areas, increasing investment into restoring chalk stream catchments and looking at further options as part of the environmental land management plan. Defra is also working closely with colleagues in Natural England and the Environment Agency on the chalk streams recovery package, which is intended to set out the broader approach to protecting and recovering chalk streams.

My Lords, part of the problem with Environment Agency funding is the arbitrary definition of what constitutes capital spending and operational expenditure. Will my noble friend look very carefully at this in considering a total budget, or at least at getting rid of some of the arbitrary definitions that are in place?

I thank my noble friend. She is absolutely right that there are issues around this. However, there is a degree of flexibility within the capital and revenue budgets. Money is allocated each year to maintain and look after flood defences, and money is allocated for capital expenditure to make future improvements. Only last year, during the very stormy weather in the autumn, the Secretary of State reallocated capital expenditure funding to revenue for this very purpose.

My Lords, will the Minister consider making sure that the Environment Agency and the Office for Environmental Protection consult other bodies? The huge benefits to mental and physical health from being active in the countryside, or even outside, in a non-formal way are documented. Is there, for instance, regular contact between the Department of Health and the Environment Agency or are we just waiting for this to happen by magic?

I am not entirely sure what the key question was. If it was about linking up across government, I assure the noble Lord that it takes place across all departments.

My Lords, I declare my interests relevant to this matter. In the past, the Environment Agency did not give sufficient priority to the discharge of sewage into our rivers. The Minister just explained how its budget has been increased, but the most important thing is to make the discharge of sewage and cleaning up our rivers a sufficient priority within the management of the Environment Agency. Is the Minister convinced that that is now the case and that what happened in the past will not recur, and we will have more effort from the Environment Agency in cleaning up rivers?

The noble Duke is absolutely right. Just in the last year, the Government published the Plan for Water, which marks a step change in how we manage our water. We plan to deliver clean and plentiful water for people, businesses and nature. We are delivering this with tighter regulation, tougher enforcement and more investment. The Government are committed in the 25-year environment plan to restoring three-quarters of our water bodies to be close to their natural state, and this plan will help us achieve that.

My Lords, during Covid, we all became aware of how important it is to have access to outside space. Yet we know that many people do not have access to outside space, let alone green space, and we know the health benefits of having that space, particularly for mental health. In my work, I often visit communities, particularly in Hull and Middlesbrough, where so many people simply do not have this kind of access, and I see the consequences. I am wondering what steps the Government are taking to try to improve the situation. It is estimated that 10 million people in this country may not have ready access to green space. What steps are being taken to address this?

The most reverend Primate makes a very good point about public access. The Government are committed to everybody being within a 15-minute walk of a green or blue space. On the water environment, the designations for our bathing sites have never been in better condition. Just last week, we consulted on creating 27 new water designation bathing sites.

My Lords, I would like to ask the Minister about air quality. The European Environment Agency has estimated the number of attributable deaths that could be avoided if extra air quality measures were implemented. It has also attempted to quantify the health burden associated with specific diseases caused or exacerbated by air pollution. Does UK equivalence exist in this? For example, what work is our Environment Agency doing with international equivalents to share ideas and best practice on how to tackle public health?

The noble Baroness raises a really good point on air quality. It is the single biggest pollution problem that we have. Per the Environmental Permitting (England and Wales) Regulations 2016, the Environment Agency regulates larger industrial installations, medium combustion plants and a range of other industrial areas. I am not aware specifically of the consultation we do with our European colleagues, but perhaps I can write to her on that in due course.

My Lords, I am sure that the Environment Agency would accept that councils play an important part in the management of flood risk and coastal erosion. Despite this, councils report anecdotally that the process of securing grant-in-aid funding is becoming more and more bureaucratic and competitive. Will my noble friend the Minister update the House on what is being done to place fewer burdens on councils so that they are not forced to use taxpayers’ money to compete against other councils for grant funding?

My noble friend is right: local authorities play an absolutely crucial role in protecting the public from flooding. There is a bidding process for funding from the Environment Agency, which looks to assess where funding is most needed to protect and repair the most property and individual life. I appreciate that this is not a perfect system, and I will take this point back to the department.

My Lords, what is the Environment Agency doing to improve the detection and, more importantly, reduction of the levels of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in our aqueous environments?

The noble Lord raises a very topical point. In the wider context, reducing antimicrobial resistance is one of Defra’s key objectives. I am pleased to say that, in the farming community, we have reduced the use of antibiotics by over 50% as part of the antimicrobial plan. I mention this because one of the main causes of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in our waterways comes from the agricultural sector. The Environment Agency continues to use the latest scientific tools to monitor and trial interventions against antibiotic resistance in our rivers, bathing sites and coastal waters. In October last year, the Environment Agency published a review of methods used to better survey and understand antimicrobial resistance. These are being fed into the second five-year antimicrobial resistance action plan.