Our CEO Dr Laurence Couldrick comments on the recent speech from the Environment Agency’s Chief Executive regarding the environmental regulation of our rivers.

I was interested to read Sir James Bevan’s speech on 4 August titled In Praise of Red Tape. Within the speech he rightly identified the need for better regulation and the end quotes, specifically Hilary Clinton’s “There’s nothing magic about regulation: too much is bad, too little is bad”, certainly strikes a chord.

Poor regulation can confuse and dilute important regulations so I fully support the desire to get this right. However, two key points need a response from what we see from the riverside.

The first is that for those on the ground it is not the presence of good or poor regulation that’s the problem, but the growing absence of enforcement of any of these regulations.

Local Environment Agency staff do a great job trying to get to grips with this but our rivers are dying from a thousand cuts and there just isn’t sufficient boots on the ground to enforce even the most sensible regulations.

Recently we have seen local Environment Agency teams taking the initiative to find project funding to address this lack of enforcement but this is nonsensical as enforcement should pay for itself in avoided costs so should be centrally funded as it can only be delivered by the regulator.

Over the last ten years, we have witnessed a halving of the Environment Agency budget and so it is perhaps not surprising that only 14% of our rivers meet the ecological standards set out in the Water Framework Directive.  

This brings me to the second point, which is the ‘one out all out’ principle. As mentioned in the speech, currently it highlights that only 14% of our rivers have a completely healthy suite of indicators.

Abandoning this for just the elemental status (e.g. fish, invertebrates, phosphate, hydrology, etc…) sounds attractive as it is easy to see this as a sensible move, especially as it means we can then state that 79% of our river indicators our healthy.

However, our rivers are more than just the sum of their parts. They are complex integrated systems so we simply cannot say that because three things are healthy the river is okay. That would be like me saying that I am okay because my lungs, liver, and kidneys are working but my heart has stopped. This may be facetious but top-level figures are important as they drive action. 

Ultimately it doesn’t matter how we dress up data about our rivers they need our help as a healthy well-managed river and the contributing area it drains sustains our life.

It puts food on the table, ensures manageable drinking water bills, protects us from flooding and droughts as well as providing a fantastic place to live and play, something that’s become all too apparent in lockdown.

So in summary, yes the right red tape is vital but it is nothing without enforcement and however we assess our environment it should never hide the need for action.

We all have a part to play and it is imperative we play it! 

Dr Laurence Couldrick – CEO Westcountry Rivers Trust

Sir James Bevan’s speech (4 August):


The Guardian article (19 August):


The Independent article (20 August) inc. our CEO’s response: