Wasteful ways on South Western waterways

As the South West is battered by storms and floods, one attempt to harness the power of a local waterway has cost the taxpayer an estimated £1.3m pounds in legal action—to stop it happening!

In 2009, local builders at Avoncliff in Wiltshire wanted to restore a watermill on the River Avon in order to generate hydro electricity, but the Environment Agency (EA) objected to the project and has poured hundreds of thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money into a judicial review and numerous other blocking procedures involving the Information Commissioner, the Parliamentary Ombudsman, the High Court, planning inspectors and MPs.

‘I am estimating the Agency was spending the best part of £1,000 a day, even by the EA’s own wonky accounting, still trying to impose an arbitrary outcome to get their way and moving heaven and earth not to be seen to lose,’ says local campaigner Tom Oliva, quoted in Narrowboatworld. The specialist waterways news website has had its own tussle with the EA, which threatened legal action for daring to report the costly saga.

Oliva has used Freedom of Information requests to reveal the full extent of the costs to the public purse. ‘What is the accumulated total EA funding allocated to tasks associated with Avoncliff licence determinations,’ he asked, ‘including consultancy billing and legal expenses?’ In answer, the EA said: ‘We have interpreted your request to mean the accumulated funding allocated to tasks associated with the Avoncliff licence determination since their return by the Court on 11 April 2012. Please inform me if we have misinterpreted your request. We estimate our funding for the items you list to be £611,000.’ This can be only part of the overall cost as the whole procedure started way back in 2009.

This is not the only complaint of wasteful ways at the EA. A whistleblower inside the taxpayer funded organisation alleges there is a need for ‘improving management oversight, reducing abuse of the flexi and holiday system, which currently lacks any audit trails, oversight or consistency, the way in which manpower is put to use, particularly Flood and Environment Officers, and finally the consistency in information and processes from one region to another.’ According to official figures, the EA employs 12,529 staff, and has a budget of £1.2 billion (£723 million of which came from Government grants, with the remainder coming from various charges).

‘Given that they’re bleating plaintively about the cuts and bigging up their part in the floods and making a case for more money,’ says Oliva, he is determined to carry on revealing ‘how they are presently spending a non trivial bit of their present budget and costing other public bodies time and money too.’

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