EA chief executive Sir James Bevan argues strong environmental regulation crucial to post-pandemic economic recovery
A stronger focus on “better regulation, not deregulation” after Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic are critical to helping businesses to thrive while protecting England’s air, land and water from threats such as climate change, according to Environment Agency (EA) chief executive Sir James Bevan.
Bevan said the economic damage wrought by the coronavirus crisis alongside the UK’s recent exit from the EU opened up both the need and opportunity for a rapid recovery strategy facilitated by effective regulation, which he argued could both help businesses succeed while also stopping environmental destruction.
But the former Foreign Office CEO, who took over at the helm of the EA in 2015, warned against “false choices” in any moves to reshape the UK’s approach to regulation post-Brexit, as he called for adequate resources and funding for the EA to carry out its work.
“Better regulation isn’t code for deregulation,” Bevan said. “The test for any changes in legislation must be that they will deliver better environmental outcomes as well as being good for the economy.”
He added that the EA needed “the right resources, funded by operators and by government, to deliver the high ambitions we all have in enhancing our environment”. “Ultimately, we will get the environment we are prepared to pay for,” he said.
Bevan’s comments are likely to find favour among green business groups and NGOs which have long warned against opening the door to a post-Brexit regulatory bonfire that could lead to a ‘race to the bottom’ on environmental and climate standards.
That comes in stark contrast to the stance of arch-Brexiteers, many of whom have viewed the UK’s exit from the European Union as an opportunity for to ditch many regulations that affect businesses. Last month, meanwhile, the leaders of 250 businesses were also asked by the government for their views on which rules and regulations they would most wish to see dropped.
But Bevan argued strong environmental regulations were of benefit to both the economy and the environment. “Good regulation isn’t complicated, bureaucratic, and costly; it is simple, impactful, and money-saving,” he continued. “The best regulation will stop environmental damage at the source, rather than the costly impact to the public purse and the environment of responding to damage after the event.”
It came as the EA yesterday published a new report it said set out the benefits of environmental regulations in protecting air, water and land from harmful pollution. The report, which covers data from regulatory activities in 2019, claims to demonstrate improving trends in environmental compliance, pollution incidents, crime and emissions.
Since 2010, air pollution emissions have fallen significantly, with nitrogen oxides dropping 63 per cent, sulphur oxides falling 81 per cent and PM10 particle pollution cut by just over a third, the report shows. Meanwhile, it shows the number of serious pollution incidents fell 12 per cent to 467 between 2018 and 2019, while the EA said it stopped illegal waste activity at 940 sites, fining businesses and individuals a total of £4.4m for environmental offences.
Even so, other bodies have repeatedly warned of a worryingly steep decline in the England’s natural world, however, with the government having failed to meet any of the internationally-agreed biodiversity targets set 10 years ago. Last year the Natural Capital Committee warned there had been virtually no progress against the government’s own biodiversity, water, air and soil quality goals. Data from the EA last year also showed all English rivers failed to meet quality tests for pollution.
But Bevan insisted the findings of the EA report yesterday “shows that regulation works”.
“We are already playing a significant role through regulation, by enabling the technologies needed to decarbonise the UK economy, including nuclear, hydrogen, and carbon capture, and we have launched the new UK Emissions Trading Scheme,” he said. “But as we and our world continue to change, we must not allow the environment to be left behind.”