Interview: Sir Philip Dilley, chairman, Environment Agency – one year on

Just over a year ago former Arup boss Sir Philip Dilley took up his role as chair of the Environment Agency, a post which required his brand of clear-headed reassurance to steady the embattled post-flood ravaged Environment Agency.

Sir Philip Dilley, chair, Environment Agency

The last year has been far from straight forward for Dilley. The Agency has, rightly or wrongly, continued to take much of the media and political flack for recent winter flood failures despite carrying out a tough and hugely challenging job of defending the nation from the impact of a changing climate. 

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Having secured a massive £2.3bn Treasury spending allocation for flood and coastal defences to protect 300,000 homes over the next six years, Dilley has faced the challenge of restoring its battered morale and reputation.

He also has to manage radical changes to the Agency’s senior leadership team. At the end of November former British High Commissioner for India Sir James Bevan takes over as chief executive of the Agency taking over from Paul Leinster who retired from the organisation on 25 September after 17 years.

Bevan is understood to be keen to link the environment with growth in the economy – not least as the government ploughs forward with its drive to set infrastructure investment in projects such as HS2, Northern Powerhouse and Hinkley Pont C at the heart of the economy.

Dilley says his challenge is threefold – to settle the new senior team, to drive efficient delivery of the capital spending programme and, crucially, to ensure the Agency is “better understood and loved by the public”.

Interview by Antony Oliver

One year into the job chairing the Environment Agency, how has your view of the organisation changed?

What is very clear to me is that [the Agency] is a 10,000 person organisation with people who are incredibly enthusiastic to do the right thing in their particular area. I had read that around the [time of the] floods of 2013/14 winter, morale wasn’t very good and that people were leaving. Well that is not actually true. Morale has been really good and [the Agency] has been in the thick of the repairs and has delivered incredibly well.

How do you describe the Agency’s main challenges going forward?

There are two principle strands of what the Agency does – it is a regulator and the deliverer of infrastructure where we are the client for a number of flood relief and coastal management schemes around the country. These are two distinct areas and in both areas there are challenges but in both areas the Agency is highly competent. Everywhere that we are working we are doing it for the good of the environment or the public – normally both. Yes, publicity comes when things don’t go right and often it is unfair publicity because our people work really hard to put things right. But there is also a lot of good publicity – associated usually with things that go on locally.

Do you think that that the public appreciates the Agency’s work?

Often when the proposal for a scheme is first mooted the public doesn’t like change, doesn’t like the disruption and is generally antagonistic. But gradually these things get brought around and after delivery they are [usually] delighted and want to know more about how it works.

Is the Agency’s future role likely to be more focused on regulation and enforcement?

I don’t think our core role will change very much. There may be a few adjustments at the edges no doubt but there will be small things. George Osborne’s recent agreed cuts with government departments related to running costs not capital spend. We have a £2.3bn budget for the next six years of flood and coastal management capital spend – governments can, of course, change their minds but I am pretty certain that this one won’t. 

How will the Agency engage more with the private sector in the future?

There are strings attached to the £2.3bn settlement, one of which is that we are asked to collect 15% of the spend as partnership funding. There are examples of us doing that in the past but this is more ambitious than ever before. The idea is twofold. First when we look at a scheme the cost benefit has to get above a certain bar and we prioritise on the a basis. So if your village [for example] can top up the funding to get over the bar that is positive. The benefit is not just getting the money – the people get interested in the scheme because they are contributing and are buying in with their money, minds and their interest. In a way it is an onward strand of the devolution agenda.

What impact do you expect 30% cuts to the Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs operating budget will have on the Agency?

While 30% sounds a lot, 8% year on year sounds a lot more deliverable. But the effect that we don’t want it to have is an effect on the delivery on the ground. We want to be able to continue to deliver what we need to do to improve the environment, to regulate, and to safe-guard people and the environment. But where we will be looking is at is ways to do things more efficiently and there has been a fair bit of that happening before my time. But there are more efficiencies to be had if you take off your blinkers and look across the whole spectrum of the work that the Agency does. For example we are already looking at the corporate services  - the Environmental Agency has a finance team, communications team and an human resources team as do all the other agencies [of DEFRA], so we are looking at joining them up.

Given the impending budget cuts, will the Agency have sufficient staff to administer its increasing programme of delivery contracts?

I must say I don’t hear that [there is a problem]. The way we are structured is that a lot of our activity and delivery is on the ground in 16 areas around the country and these are the people, by and large, that get involved in these projects and I don’t see that changing. We already look to the private sector to bolster this activity. Will it happen more? It could do. But in government there is a barrier between operating spend and capital spend and there isn’t much scope for shifting funds between the two. But if you are asking am I worried that we will have such substantial staff cuts that we won’t be able to deliver the £2.3bn programme then no, I’m not worried – we will find a way through that.

You have a new chief executive starting this month. How will this impact the Agency?

I see this as an opportunity. Sir James is currently the British High Commissioner to India and you might think what a strange choice. But he is brilliantly connected to Westminster and government processes and has spent his life negotiating in the field and he is brilliant with people. It is a modernisation of the leadership. We have environmental knowledge, engineering and environmental conscience in spades; what we need is a strong leader that to see us through the changes that are inevitable. I don’t in any way want to give the impression that I am criticising Paul [Leinster, former chief executive] – he did and incredible job. It is just inevitable that if you want change it is easier to get it with someone new.

What is the Agency’s role when it comes to planning and delivering the UK’s vital infrastructure?

A lot of what we do is not the big glamorous projects but we do quietly get on with very important infrastructure. We are formally a consultee to major project and they are obliged to consult us. But what we are doing more is helping them up front to get to a position where the environment can be improved not harmed.

What critical challenges face the organisation today?

There are lots of challenges and a lot of them are challenges that are faced by the whole nation - such as climate change, of course. That is undoubtedly going to make the risk of flooding higher. But there are also challenges to do with increasing population, particularly in the south east, and there are challenges to do with the waste industry and the way that has changed over the last decade or two. So there are lots of things that are coming our way. 

Do you see the Agency moving away from on the ground delivery to focus more on regulating and monitoring policy in the future?

The question has arisen historically over whether there should be [say] a separate Flood Agency. But the argument against that is that when there is a flood event we are able to harness lots of people from a range of teams. It has been talked about but I don’t see it heading that way.

Mitigating or adapting to climate change – where is your future focus?

We are a little bit involved in the regulation of mitigation but most of what we do is adaption and I believe that will continue. Government has policies around mitigation.  We get involved in air quality via regulation of the industry’s biggest emitters but on the high street, where it is mainly due to vehicle emissions, that is the responsibility of the local authorities.

To what extent does the Agency have the skills it needs to tackle the growing demands of a changing climate?

There is a continuing evolution of skills and technology and that will carry on but I don’t see the need for a big step change. One of the opportunities that is becoming apparent is automation - where we have historically, for example, we have sent people say out in boat to check water quality and then look at the samples under microscopes, that process can become a lot more automated. Actually we should question how many [field samples] we really need to do and how often. There are changing opportunities. 

Do you think the Agency’ work is sufficiently known by the public – does that matter?

No, I don’t I think it is. We need to be less modest, bolder, and tell the public more of what we do because we have some fascinating stories. I have been encouraging staff to engage with school children because they love it and they are our people of tomorrow. My guess is that there are a lot of clever scientific people here whose passion is doing what they do. They are not so good at telling people what they do.

What does success look like for you?

I will be delighted when James Is properly installed [as chief executuve] and having effect and that we are better understood and loved by the public. [The environment] is not a tail end task – the whole of our role in supporting the environment as part of economic growth is vital.

If you would like to contact Antony Oliver about this, or any other story, please email