EA Chief Executive Sir James Bevan reflects on how the Agency has operated throughout the coronavirus lockdown to keep the environment and communities safe
Life under lockdown: what we did
Like every other organisation in the country, the Environment Agency went into lockdown on 23 March. We followed the government’s instruction then that all our staff should stay at home and go to their workplaces only if absolutely necessary.
Most of our teams have been working from home since then. But we did not stop working. We continued most or all of what we do: regulating industry; designing, building and maintaining flood defences; warning and informing the public about flooding; managing the risk of drought; protecting our air, water and soils; creating new habitats; planning and place-making; tackling the climate emergency; and most of the other things the EA does day in day out to create a better place.
We also finalised and launched two major initiatives designed to create an even better place: our new National Flood and Coastal Erosion Risk Management strategy, which sets out the practical steps we will be taking to make the country ready for flooding and coastal change from now to 2100; and EA 2025, which sets out what we aim to achieve over the next five years: a nation resilient to climate change; healthy air, land and water; green growth and a sustainable future.
Nor did all EA staff stay at home during the lockdown. Our teams were out and about wherever necessary. 90% of our flood defence construction projects continued as normal, with hygiene and social distancing measures to protect staff and the public. We continued to staff and operate the Thames Barrier and our other critical assets that keep people safe. We conducted onsite inspections of the most hazardous industrial facilities. We deployed our staff to serious environmental incidents. We continued to fight waste criminals, including with a successful joint raid with the police on a major illegal waste site in Lincolnshire. We even made history with the first successful prosecution for possession of a chemical weapon.
Exiting lockdown: what we’re doing now
Like most of the rest of the country, we are now seeking to bring ourselves out of lockdown and back to something closer to what was normal. Our aim is twofold: to restore the EA to full operations with all deliberate speed, taking care as we do so not to put the public or our own staff at risk; and to emerge from the Coronavirus crisis not as the same organisation but as a better one.
We have now restarted most of our outdoor work that we had to pause during lockdown. So:
- Our field teams, who maintain and operate our flood defences, clear river obstructions, manage habitats and so on are now back to work more or less as normal, with appropriate social distancing and PPE.
- Our flood defence construction work is back in full swing. We are on course to meet the current investment programme’s target of 300,000 homes better protected by April 2021. And the government has just announced additional funding to allow us to jump-start the next six year investment programme that will better protect another 336,000 properties.
- Our fisheries work has now restarted, including bailiff patrols to check licenses and stop poaching, and responding to fish kills.
- We have reopened for boaters the rivers and other navigable waterways for which we are responsible, with assisted passage restored at most of our manned locks except where social distancing or hygiene requirements make this unsafe.
- Our major laboratories in Exeter and Leeds, which support much of our work to protect the environment, have reopened. We have restarted our drought monitoring, our sampling of bathing waters at the coast and our aerial photography that helps monitor both flood risk and environmental threats.
- Our outdoor regulatory work, which helps ensure that businesses follow the rules to protect the environment, is getting back into gear. We have restarted our field based compliance and enforcement activities, including with onsite inspections and use of drones and other remote technologies.
Finally, we are thinking hard about how we can be a better organisation in the light of what we’ve learned over the last four months.
The main lesson for me is that we can do much of what we do just as well (or better) outside the traditional workplace than we can in it. More flexible working patterns – sometimes in the office or outside workplace, sometimes at home or working remotely elsewhere – will be good for our own staff’s productivity and wellbeing. By reducing commuting and office use, we can also reduce our carbon footprint and help tackle the climate emergency. Adapting where and how we work can be a triple win: for our own staff, for the communities and businesses we serve, and for the planet.
But there is another lesson I’ve learned, which is this: home working and IT will only get you so far. Many of the things the EA does – like responding to fires or pollution incidents and maintaining flood defences – can only be done out there on the ground. Really effective working with our partners, our business customers and the communities we serve cannot be done purely virtually, because the best way to understand, communicate with and influence others, is still face to face. And lockdown has shown that humans need other humans: ensuring that our teams can still work alongside each other in the same place is as important for their wellbeing as for their productivity.
So the EA’s future way of working, like that of many other organisations who are all going through the same thought process, is likely to be a blend: the speed, convenience and low carbon footprint of virtual, home and remote working, combined with the operational efficiency and (yes) comradeship of the workplace. That’s a future I look forward to.