Should the EA be charging for advice?

03 AUGUST 2017

Along with other regulatory bodies such as HSE, the EA now charges for forms of support that have traditionally been considered part of its grant in aid funded duties. With the scale of recent budget cuts, it is perhaps understandable that they should wish to find other ways of raising revenue, but are these charges fair and are they at risk of being counter-productive?

Two recent cases we have been involved in illustrate the scale of these costs. The first was a fire at a disused factory that had been used for illegal waste disposal. The fire was relatively minor, but there was a lot of fire water which had to be monitored for pollution potential. As it happens, the pollution was very minor, but the Agency charging policy now sees the clock being started on the first call about an incident and then being applied to any officer that could have had the slightest involvement. Area Comms Officer, Mapping and Visuals officer, Area Duty Manager, Logistics Cell Lead officer. In all, 17 jobs titles were charged to the landlord - the innocent party - at a cost of £84/hour for 131 hours over two days.

The second is a small industrial unit applying for a Vehicle Dismantling Environmental Permit that now needs a Fire Prevention Plan. To try and reduce the game of ping pong over the content of the Plan, we have sought on site advice from the Agency which has been quoted at £125/hr per officer for two to visit the site, the clock being started the moment they leave their office to when they return. This is the equivalent of £1000 per day.

There are two points here. The first is the scale of the charges. Why are they different and how do you justify the latter? But the second is perhaps more important. With the decline in available guidance on GOV.UK and the increasing complexity of regulatory requirements, are these sorts of charges counter-productive?  Is there a risk of incidents not being reported? And won't the cost good guidance up-front just lead to extra cost down the line for everybody?

The Environment Agency's role is to protect the environment. Isn't the constant escalation of cost for meeting regulatory requirements just going to push more and more people out of an essential business and even worse, drive more people outside regulation and create an even bigger environmental problem?