The Environment Agency (EA) has a crucial role to play in protecting our natural environment and communities. From protection and maintenance of rivers and waterways, to monitoring of pollution risks and the impact of business and industry on the environment. It is therefore vital they have the tools and enforcement powers necessary to fulfil this role. I was therefore pleased to have the opportunity recently to respond to their consultation on calculating appropriate penalties for environmental offences.
Runnymede and Weybridge is a great place to live, with a beautiful natural environment, thriving towns and excellent transport links. It is also an area of relatively high population density, built between our many rivers and lakes, surrounded by large areas of flood plain.
These factors lead to environmental challenges due to increased pressure on infrastructure, and a strong environmental enforcement regime is needed to help us to tackle these issues. I have written to the EA to express my support for Defra’s decision to remove the current £250,000 cap on financial penalties for environmental offences and make the amount unlimited. The EA is now looking at whether the method for calculating these penalties is sufficiently clear and whether proposed amendments will lead to proportionate and fair fines.
I support the EA’s principles in calculating fines, which are aimed at punishment, deterrence and trying to ensure that polluters do not gain from commission of environmental offences. However, reticence to take enforcement action, and the previously low level of fines, have led to a situation where polluters do not take their environmental responsibility seriously enough, to the detriment of our communities.
I have seen first-hand is the difficulty residents experience in getting a timely response from water companies when flooding and sewage spills happen. Companies and other agencies often appear reluctant to admit ownership of the problem, or there is confusion over which organisation has the responsibility to act.
In my consultation response, I have called on the EA to introduce into their guidance consideration whether an organisation provided early assistance to victims as a factor mitigating (or increasing) the size of a civil financial penalty. I believe that this could act as a powerful tool in incentivising polluters to act as quickly as possible to remedy damage caused by environmental incidents.
I will continue to monitor developments in the EA’s guidance and approach closely. In the meantime, you can find my full consultation response below.