Faced with successive cuts to both their service and their pay, Environment Agency workers have had enough. They speak to Tribune about why they’re on strike for the first time in their history.

(Twitter / UNISON)

As well as ripping a hole in the economy with her disastrous mini budget, her passionate rants about cheese and pork markets and, of course, being outlasted as prime minister by a head of lettuce, one of Liz Truss’s lesser-known legacies is the damage she caused to the Environment Agency (EA) in her time as Environment Secretary.

Last summer, dozens of pollution warnings were issued for beaches and swimming spots in England and Wales following heavy rain that overwhelmed the sewage system. Labour Party analysis of official figures at the time showed that between 2016, when Truss was in charge of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), and 2021, raw sewage spill events more than doubled from 14.7 per overflow to 29.3. This coincided with cuts of £80 million to sewage monitors, one part of a £235 million Tory axe to the Environment Agency’s budget.

This, of course, is part of a broader trend which has seen the Environment Agency systematically stripped under successive Conservative governments. Budgets have been slashed by nearly two-thirds since 2010, hamstringing the Agency’s capacity to perform any of its functions—not only regulating sewage works, but also improving air quality and biodiversity, better regulating farms, and maintaining important safety structures like coastal sea defences and the Thames Barrier.

The results have been detrimental both to the environment and the wider public and to Environment Agency workers. They’ve endured successive real-terms pay cuts, increasing workloads, and now, with inflation running in the double digits, they’ve been handed an insulting two percent pay offer. That’s why today, these workers are striking for the first time in the Agency’s history—a sign of just how desperate the situation is, after the accumulation of years of anger.

Tom has worked at the Environment Agency for over ten years now, after joining two years into the austerity programme introduced by David Cameron’s government. ‘Funding has been slashed pretty dramatically across all the areas of work that we provide, certainly in terms of waste regulation and enforcement,’ he says.

He’s worked a variety of roles within the agency, including spending half his stint in a regulatory role in the waste sector. At first, he was in a team of thirteen covering a fairly large area. ‘It was a mix of urban and rural with lots going on,’ he says. But as the belt was tightened, workers like Tom faced an ongoing pay freeze—and at the end of his time regulating, he says, the team had dropped to six.

Many of his colleagues would leave the profession over poor pay—a situation in some ways favoured by a government committed to cuts, Tom suggests. ‘They pushed for voluntary redundancies and, when some of my colleagues would leave for better paid jobs in the private sector, they would avoid backfilling those positions if they could get away with it.’

In 2013 alone, 15 percent of the EA’s workforce was made redundant. ‘We were essentially trying to regulate a massive patch of the country with a huge amount of waste sites—some of which are criminal in how they’re operated,’ Tom continues. ‘At the same time, we were trying to train new people and had a real skills issue. We ended up doing double the work.’

Chris joined the Environment Agency five years ago, and now works as part of a team monitoring rainfall and groundwater levels. ‘The data that we produce feeds all of the flood warnings and regulations around what comes out of the river as well,’ he explains. ‘There’s a lot of flood prevention work that we do. Part of the core role in the day job is actually to build defences.’

Communities rely on critical workers like Chris, particularly during the bouts of extreme weather and amid the rising problems of river pollution that only look likely to grow worse in coming years, and he describes his move to the Agency as one motivated by his passion for protecting the environment. But he says he too as seen his teams dwindle in numbers while he’s been there.

‘I’m managing a team that, on average, has been three or four people short of where we should be according to the work that is required of us,’ he continues. ‘It means we’re constantly having to make choices of what gets done and what doesn’t, or what’s a priority in terms of funding and where to make savings. We have to make quite difficult decisions all the time about what we focus on, because we just don’t have enough people to do the job that’s asked of us.’

Retention and Recruitment

As teams shrink and the threat from the climate crisis grows, many like Tom now feel the EA is simply not equipped for the challenges that lie ahead. ‘The pay and the reward for the effort put in was never substantial enough for the difficulty of the job,’ he tells Tribune. ‘It’s pretty thankless and wasn’t something I could do for a long time.’ Today, he works in an office role as part of a national team, but many of his colleagues have permanently left the profession.

Like the NHS, the Agency is suffering a retention and recruitment crisis, and like the NHS, it’s not difficult to understand why. Last year, three whistle-blowers based at the EA said their workplace had been cut back to such an extent that they couldn’t do their jobs and that the regulator was no longer a deterrent to polluters.

‘We have a lot of vacancies that we can’t fill. We’ve gone out to advertise not just internally but externally as well. We just don’t get the applicants. That puts pressure on what we can deliver,’ says Tom. As well losing experienced skilled professionals, the Agency struggles to attract recruits who could earn a substantially higher wage in the private sector. Chris says he’s personally overseen job vacancies where the Agency hasn’t had any applications whatsoever.

EA workers like Chris have just one standard salary across grades. ‘There’s no incremental levels of salary change to reflect my experience or how competent I am in jobs. It stays the same for the whole time I’m in the job,’ explains Chris. ‘I’ve got somebody in my team who we really rely on, who’s really essential to our area of expertise. He’s been doing the job for twenty years and he’s being paid less now than he was when he started doing that job.’

This, for Tom, is a key factor in the retention crisis. ‘With no way of progressing under current pay scales, funding being slashed across the board and pay cut after pay cut, EA workers have very little incentive to stay. If you’re not going to be rewarded for the work you do, you’ve got to question why you’ve stayed.  Unless you leave or you change your job within the Environment Agency, that’s where you’re going to stay forever. People are fed up with it.’

A lot of the work in Chris’s area around managing flooding, particularly out-of-hours work, used to be taken on a voluntary basis. Now, the EA has changed contractual arrangements so it’s mandatory for new joiners to do these roles. With goodwill eroding fast, it’s no surprise staff are becoming less inclined to volunteer for extra response work.

The Final Straw

The two percent pay offer comes after years of declining take-home pay and the freezing of EA pay entirely in 2021. The government’s pay remit was set before summer 2022 and fails to take into account soaring inflation and spiralling energy bills. With the Agency having no delegated power to amend the pay remit without prior approval from DEFRA, workers feel insulted by this latest assault.

‘It doesn’t make you feel valued,’ says Tom. ‘It’s not really scratching the surface of the real-terms pay cuts that we actually experienced in the last ten years.’ Chris says workers are over twenty percent worse off since 2010, which means they’re essentially working an extra day a week for free.

It’s those on entry-level grades and hourly rates equivalent to the minimum wage who are struggling the most. ‘Our officers are the people that go out and do the regulatory work; waste site inspections, looking at the state of waterways, dealing with pollution incidents,’ says Tom. ‘They get paid around £21-23,000, and the work is hard. It can grind you down. Some of my colleagues are using foodbanks. It’s 2023—this shouldn’t be happening.’

Chris says he’s seen colleagues having to leave because they simply can’t afford to live on their current wages. As a union rep for Unison, he says he knows many who rely on the union’s hardship fund, and a significant number on foodbanks too.

EA chief executive himself James Bevan wrote to the government in July last year, expressing concerns about the hardship some staff were experiencing and urging the Environment Secretary to lobby for an improved offer for civil servants. Bevan said pay constraint was ‘unjust, unwise, and unfair’, and that it was affecting the agency’s ability to fulfil its commitments, which require ‘a full workforce with high levels of technical ability and commitment.’ At the time, the organisation had a 10 percent vacancy rate, with much higher levels in some of its most critical functions.

Since the Agency’s establishment in 1996, workers have never gone on strike. Now, morale in the organisation is at rock bottom, and with the government refusing to negotiate with other workers on pay, staff feel like they are speaking to a brick wall. ‘Looking at the lack of interest that the government seems to have in the Environment Agency, and looking at who we have as an Environment Secretary—Thérèse Coffey—I don’t feel very confident that we are being taken seriously or that they’re listening,’ says Chris.

Workers like Chris therefore believe strike action is the only tool they have left at their disposal. ‘We can’t keep going on like this,’ he adds. ‘It’s not sustainable. There’s only so much stamina that can make up for the lack of investment from the government. We’re a qualified workforce that doesn’t get paid anywhere near enough for the skills and the dedication that we bring to the profession. We just can’t afford to live.’

This anger is being fuelled by the government’s plans to implement new anti-trade union laws, and the attempts to justify doing so on the basis of public safety. ‘The cuts they make every year to both the funding and the restrictions on our wages so we can’t fill our roles are what really put public safety at risk. What we’re doing is helping to highlight those shortfalls, because we’re holding a stack of cards together with the bare bones,’ Chris adds.

The workers are keen to highlight that they are not in dispute with the Environment Agency, whose hands have been tied by the government. It’s the government that controls the purse strings, they point out, so it’s the government that’s at the centre of the frustrations of these workers—as with so many others.

‘What we’re asking isn’t unreasonable,’ Chris says. ‘When they say they can’t afford it, it’s a choice. They can find money for things that they deem to be important. It’s not a case of what they can afford—it’s a case of what and who they care about.’

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