Developing the Environment Agency's policy position on addressing environmental inequalities
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Background and drivers of the project In the UK there is growing interest in the relationship between environmental quality and social equity. Recent research has shown that the most socially and economically deprived people live in the worst environments. This presents difficult challenges to government and its agencies in delivering sustainable development, but also an opportunity to better integrate social and environmental policy and deliver a better environment and quality of life for everyone. This project arose out of the Environment Agency's interest in understanding these issues, and its social responsibilities in improving and protecting the environment. This report provides a reflective and critical analysis of a work-based project between September 2002 and September 2004 to develop the Environment Agency's policy on addressing environmental inequalities. Research objectives The overall aim of this project was to strengthen the Environment Agency's contribution to sustainable development by: • developing the Environment Agency's understanding of the relationships between environmental quality and social deprivation; • helping to clarify the Environment Agency's role, and ensure its policies reflect the need to address environmental inequalities; and • ensuring that others' strategies to tackle multiple disadvantage and promote sustainable development reflect the need to address environmental inequalities. Methodology and project activities An action research approach provided the overall framework for the project, in which cycles of action and reflection were used to develop evidence-based policy and wider organisational change. The project utilised a variety of research techniques, including quantitative statistical analysis, documentary research and collaborative inquiry with critical stakeholders. The data was triangulated to understand the relationships between environmental quality and social deprivation, the Environment Agency's role in addressing environmental inequalities, and wider policy options. A wide range of the Environment Agency's staff and its external stakeholders were involved in developing the research, making sense of the evidence, and developing and negotiating the policy solutions. Results The project established that: • While the quality of the environment is generally improving, the most socially and economically deprived communities tend to live in the worst environments. For example, those living in the most deprived wards in England experience the worst air quality, are most likely to live next to industrial sites and are most likely to live in tidal floodplains. In Wales, the picture is very different. Air pollution is generally better, the location of industrial sites show some bias towards affluent areas, and the link between flooding and deprivation is less clear. • The Environment Agency's role is to contribute to a better quality of life for everyone, by improving and protecting the environment and whatever their background and wherever they live. To inform its approach, the Environment Agency carries out research on environmental inequalities and works with others to develop the most effective ways of tackling them. It takes account of the social and economic impacts of its work whenever possible and includes the interests of disadvantaged communities in its work. The Environment Agency advises on the environmental impacts of planning decisions, and advises government on environmental inequality, • The Environment Agency is committed to doing what it can to address environmental inequalities and will ensure that it does not contribute to inequalities in the future. It will undertake further research on environmental inequalities and scrutinise its approach to modern regulation and flood risk management. It will carry out Strategic Environmental Assessment to assess the impact of its plans and programmes on people, and continue to provide information, and support processes that help people to make better decisions about their environment. • Work is also needed by government, business and society to address environmental inequalities at a national, regional and local level. The Environment Agency is calling for: a better understanding of environmental inequalities and the most effective ways of addressing them; government policy to promote a reduction in environmental inequalities; government to address environmental inequalities through tackling disadvantage; regional and local planning authorities to prevent further environmental inequalities; - communities supported and involved in decisions that affect their local environment. Project impact The Environment Agency's understanding of the relationships between environmental quality and social deprivation has developed considerably as a result of this project. New knowledge about environmental inequalities has led to increasing dialogue at different levels within ~ and outside the organisation about the Environment Agency's role in improving and protecting the environment in deprived areas. The project has laid the foundations for future changes in Environment Agency policy and practice. The project has provided leadership in championing these issues across government and has been instrumental in informing the commitments within the UK Sustainable Development Strategy. Through collaborative work with the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, the Environment Agency has seen a shift in the government's thinking about the environmental dimensions of disadvantage and wider commitment to integrate environment and social justice across government policy. Recommendations The project developed specific recommendations for future research, policy and practice to address environmental inequalities. This report also makes recommendations for Ihe ways in which the Environment Agency should take these forward by: (i) continuing to shape and Champion research and policy to address environmental inequalities, but also demonstrating its commitment to this issue (as set out in its Environmental Vision and position Statement) by integrating environmental equality into its policies and processes, and through its corporate targets. (ii) undertaking practical pilots with local. regional and national partners to demonstrate the value of addressing environmental inequalities; (iii) placing greater emphasis on joining up the practical experience of its staff on the ground with the needs and views of the communities it works with, in the development of policy; (iv) supporting the use of social science and encouraging the inclusion of more diverse voices, particularly those that are most excluded, in the development of evidence-based policy; (v) continuing to promote the use of participatory approaches to support the development of science and policy; (vi) supporting greater opportunities for reflection, evaluation and learning from the experience of practice and policy – for example through work-based doctorates. learning sets. reflection, mentoring. and secondments.