Environment Agency staff starting industrial action last week can only have looked on with bemusement at the Conservative leadership candidates vying with each other to see who can shake the magic money tree the hardest.
Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt are pledging more and more public money to mitigate the impact of a man-made disaster: no-deal Brexit. Meanwhile the public servants who protect us from natural calamities such as flooding have had a pay cut of nearly 20 per cent since 2010.
These are dedicated and highly skilled professionals, who often volunteer for out-of-hours emergency call-outs to deal with urgent pollution and flooding incidents. As Prospect, the union representing Environment Agency workers, has said, their members are taking this action “with heavy hearts”.
But with pay down, 2,000 jobs cut since 2010 and many more staff seconded to work on Brexit preparation, it’s no wonder that their patience has finally run out.
It’s not just that Environment Agency staff, having gone nearly a decade without a pay rise, may struggle to afford family holidays or after-school clubs for their children – although that is shocking enough. It’s also the devastating impact austerity is having on our environment.
The Environment Agency has significant responsibilities across England, including managing and preventing flooding, stopping pollution from waste, industrial and nuclear sites, and preserving wildlife. With 20 per cent fewer staff on its books than in 2010, and morale at an all-time low, the Agency’s capacity to deal with these threats is increasingly stretched.
Reduced services – whether from cuts to frontline staff numbers or continued industrial action – will leave communities throughout England at a greater risk of environmental harm, effectively giving a licence to pollute and hampering efforts to reverse wildlife species decline.
Nor is it just the Environment Agency affected by these cuts. Natural England, another government agency tasked with conservation, has had its budget slashed by more than half since 2010 and lost over 1,000 staff. At the end of last year, a leaked document from Natural England itself revealed that the organisation is too stretched to prevent “further human-induced extinctions of known threatened species”.
This government appears to be slowly waking up to the need to protect our natural environment. After pressure from Labour – and the fantastic campaigning efforts of groups such as Extinction Rebellion and the school climate strikers – the UK parliament became the first in the world to declare a climate and environment emergency.
But simply paying lip service to the most pressing challenge of our age is not enough, as these strikes are showing. Protecting the environment requires specialist staff, and those staff deserve to be properly supported and remunerated.
The Environment Agency is set to make a special business case to the Treasury and Cabinet Office, setting out the need for more money to protect our natural environment. As shadow secretary of state for the environment, food and rural affairs, I’m calling on my counterpart in government Michael Gove to put his money where his mouth is and back this bid for funding.
To truly safeguard our environment for future generations, we need austerity to end for everyone – not just for the Tory leadership contenders.
Sue Hayman MP is Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs..