Environment Agency struggling to recruit frontline inspection and permitting staff due to pay crisis

15 August 2022

While our members at the Environment Agency are currently being balloted on the latest pay offer, Prospect has learned that a pay crisis for Regulatory and Permitting Officer roles in Waste and Industrial Regulation is leading to severe recruitment difficulties.

The crisis is not limited to frontline regulatory and permitting roles; supporting technical roles are also increasingly hard to recruit to.

Some recent recruitment rounds have failed to fill more than 75% of the vacancies advertised. Many of the applicants do not have the required qualifications, despite a relaxation in this requirement in some cases. A vacancy rate approaching 50% within some teams is preventing the EA from tackling the growing backlog of often business-critical permitting applications from waste and industrial site operators.

A shortfall of boots on the ground is limiting the EA’s effectiveness in fighting pollution. This comes while the public is increasingly concerned about the impacts on rivers from water company and industrial effluent discharges.

Prospect understands the EA has identified a need to recruit to 2,000 posts across the organisation in the coming year. That’s roughly equivalent to all the staff in Natural England.

Some of these posts are for new roles funded by central government for regulatory and permitting work, which hasn’t been resourced appropriately. Mostly of the vacancies are to cover turnover, which is the highest it’s ever been in the organisation.

Many loyal staff, who had no intention to leave the EA after decades of experience, are moving to better paid roles elsewhere. This is causing a loss of corporate memory, and a “brain drain.”

Historically, the Agency has suggested its overall flexible working package compensated, to some extent at least, for poorer pay. The number of staff leaving demonstrate that this is clearly no longer the case.

Specialist recruitment teams

The recruitment situation is so severe that the EA is setting up a specialist team to help address the issue across the organisation. It recently advertised up to 22 posts, all recruitment-focused Business Support posts with salaries ranging between £24,000 and £36,000.  This perhaps demonstrates that the centralisation of functions (including HR and finance) across Defra Group is not providing the services required, or the efficiencies expected.

Prospect Negotiator Kevin Warden said:

“With or without a new recruitment team, unless the government tackles the fundamental problem of ever-poorer pay and reward at the Environment Agency, it will continue to find it hard to attract candidates with the appropriate skills and experience it needs to perform many of its core statutory duties.”

After 12 years of pay restraint, the EA’s remuneration package has been eroded so much that it is no longer attractive, causing the recruitment challenges we see today. This is also the reason that the Agency is finding it hard to entice staff to volunteer for incident response roles.

As Kevin Warden says, “EA staff have seen the value of their pay fall so much since 2010 that they are now working the equivalent of one week in four for free. With goodwill eroding fast it’s no surprise staff are becoming less inclined to volunteer for out-of-hours incident response work.”

Worsening Terms and Conditions

Despite the challenges that poor remuneration is causing, the organisation is proposing to introduce even more onerous terms & conditions. It wants to make out of hours incident response compulsory for all new starters. The Agency is not proposing any additional reward for these new terms. Prospect does not believe that this proposal will address the root cause of inadequate pay and reward across the organisation.

If imposed, these new terms and conditions will make the EA’s job offer even less appealing. It will exacerbate the recruitment and retention issues. The terms and conditions are expected to be rolled out to all staff in due course.

Pay negotiations

A pay claim submitted by the joint trade unions this year asked for a consolidated 10% increase across staff grades. This modest and reasonable figure was to protect living standards, after the last 12 years of pay restraint.

The claim also called for reinstatement of pay progression within grades. New starters can ask for pay above the grade rate, meaning they are paid more than the existing staff who are asked to train them. In some cases, this is up to 13% more.

The formal offer from the EA is based on pay remit of a 2% increase, plus 1% to address pay pressures. The Environment Agency have proposed a consolidated increase of between 2.6% and 3.9% across different grades coupled with a non-consolidated ‘performance award’. There is no commitment in relation to progression. The offer ultimately means staff face the biggest real terms pay cut this year. That’s in addition to more than 20% they have already absorbed over the last 12 years.

The Environment Agency board is fully aware that this year’s pay offer is totally inadequate. The EA’s Chief Executive James Bevan took the unprecedented step of writing to the Environment Secretary George Eustice complaining that the government-imposed restriction on pay in the EA was ‘unjust, unwise, and unfair”.  This letter came after the EA presented its formal pay offer to staff last month.

The Agency has said it “understands” that many of its staff experiencing financial despair. It recently responded by signposting various welfare support and charitable options which are available to its staff.

Prospect is now balloting members on the current pay offer. Its members at the EA have voted to reject the annual pay offer in three of the four previous years. The branch only suspended a rejection during the COVID crisis because of the pressure on government finances.

Prospect members have been dismayed that the EA has imposed each annual award on its members. It is likely the same will happen again this year when the problem will be more severe with the cost-of-living crisis. At the same time, critical regulatory and permitting functions have a huge backlog of work, and the problem will not be resolved in the short term.

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