The body tasked with protecting Scotland’s environment has had its funding slashed by more than a quarter in real terms since 2010, prompting accusations it is not a “priority” for the Scottish Government.
A Ferret analysis of Sepa’s funding by the Scottish Government has revealed an effective cut of 26 per cent between 2010-11 and 2023-24. Although the agency’s funding increased from £45m to £49m in cash terms, it would have had to increase by a further £17m to keep up with inflation.
The Ferret has been investigating the role of Sepa as the Scottish Government’s major environmental watchdog, following growing concern from readers. We are publishing a series of stories exposing its record on tackling pollution, transparency, and funding.
So far this week we have revealed that another Scottish Government agency is examining Sepa’s “failure” to stop sewage pollution, and concerns about the body’s transparency on issues surrounding Scotland’s environment.
Sepa has defended its record on keeping Scotland’s waterways clean, and largely blamed a criminal cyber attack for the shortfalls in transparency.
Sepa is the Scottish Government’s environmental regulator. It’s responsible for the health of Scotland’s natural environment and for ensuring businesses don’t break rules on pollution.
The rate at which prices have increased over a period of time.
It is important because, while Sepa’s funding may have increased in monetary terms between 2010-11 and 2023-24, the amount of things that level of funding can pay for has reduced. This is known as a ‘real terms’ cut.
A series of economic measures introduced in the UK in 2010 to reduce the country’s debt. Austerity meant that the government spent less money on public services.
The public sector body which advises the Scottish Government on all matters relating to nature. It was previously known as Scottish Natural Heritage.
‘Polluter pays’ principle
A principle in environmental regulation which means that the costs of pollution should be borne by those causing it, rather than the wider community or individuals who suffer because of it.
But according to two former Sepa chief executives, many of the body’s problems could be down to its stretched budget. James Curran, who led Sepa until 2015, told The Ferret cuts could mean management is “inevitably distracted to cost-saving exercises, and away from front-line environmental regulation”.
Campbell Gemmell, who headed the regulator between 2003 and 2012, said the “starving of funds” for Sepa would ultimately lead to “weakened protections, greater risks of harm and a poorer quality” environment in Scotland.
The Scottish Government said it provides “substantial” funding for Sepa and is working with the regulator to “ensure resources are prioritised to maximum effect”. Sepa said it was “adapting to a tightening fiscal outlook”.
The Scottish Greens – who are part of a coalition government with the SNP at Holyrood – did not respond to a request for comment.
Sepa gets around half of its income from government funding, while the other half comes from charges it levies on businesses who are allowed to discharge pollution into Scotland’s environment.
Income from charging has also decreased 6.2 per cent in real terms since 2010, resulting in a further squeeze on Sepa’s budget.
Sepa is not the only Scots environmental body to see a reduction in its spending power since 2010, the year that public sector austerity was introduced in the UK by the Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition at Westminster.
The wildlife agency, NatureScot, saw its funding reduced from £69m in 2010-11 to £61.1m in 2023-24. In real terms, that’s a reduction of 40 per cent.
Meanwhile, funding for independent environmental research by other bodies like the James Hutton Institute, the Moredun Research Institute, and Scotland’s Rural College has collectively reduced by 55 per cent in real terms over the past 13 years.
Overall, spending on Sepa, NatureScot and programmes of research make up just 0.27 per cent of Scotland’s 2023-24 budget. That compares with 0.55 per cent in 2010-11.
That decreased proportion is partly a result of the budget cuts, but also reflects the fact the Scottish Government budget has actually increased in real-terms since 2010-11 at the same time that funding for environmental services have fallen.
According to James Curran — who is also a former chair of the James Hutton Institute – environmental regulation which can often be “bitterly contested” cannot be done “on the cheap”.
“Good science and good research, providing solid evidence, monitoring of impacts, inspections, as well as accredited systems, openness and transparency all cost,” Curran told The Ferret.
“If budgets are driven down, then management is also inevitably distracted by cost-saving exercises, and away from front-line from environmental regulation.
“Once the science and the regulation are undermined, public trust is lost, and we all suffer.”
Curran’s view was echoed by his predecessor as Sepa chief executive, Professor Campbell Gemmell.
Gemmell, who is now an environmental consultant and has advised Scottish ministers, said that despite the Scottish Government’s “rhetoric” around net zero and the climate crisis, “the environment and the public services required to protect, remediate and improve it” are “not the priority they should be”.
Gemmell added: “This reduction, indeed starving of funds, is very disappointing and ultimately leads to weakened protections, greater risks of harm and a poorer quality of our fundamentally important Scottish environment.”
Mary Church, the head of campaigns at Friends of the Earth Scotland, branded the cuts to Sepa as a “damaging act of self-sabotage”.
Church said: “In this era of heightened environmental threats, from climate breakdown to toxic air and polluted waterways, a well-resourced regulator is more essential than ever.
“Instead, by presiding over a real terms cut in funding for SEPA, the Scottish Government is leaving people exposed to greater environmental harms.”
Sepa’s current chief finance officer, Angela Millloy, said the organisation’s “fresh leadership” was “resetting our organisation, focusing on outcomes and targeting our resources to maximise environmental benefit”.
“Like all public services, we’re adapting to a tightening fiscal outlook, better balancing our budget in line with the polluter pays principle.
“Later this year, in addition to strengthening our board, we’ll engage on our new corporate plan priorities for the next three years as we continue our work on behalf of Scotland’s environment, community and economy.”
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Sepa has decades of experience regulating Scotland’s environment. This is achieved through substantial funding from the Scottish Government alongside Sepa’s regulatory activities funded by cost recovery under the principle of ‘polluter pays’.”
“We will support Sepa and other public bodies to ensure resources are prioritised to maximum effect, recognising the pivotal role they play to protect, restore and value nature, and maintain a safe, healthy and sustainable environment for the people of Scotland.”
The Ferret’s investigation into the Scottish Environment Protection Agency has been supported by members of the Environmental Funders Network, a UK-based network of foundations and donors supporting environmental causes. The Ferret maintains complete editorial control.
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Cover image: Alan Morris/iStock