England & Wales, Scotland Climate action and sustainable development, Communities and society

In Conversation with… Terry A’Hearn, Scottish Environment Protection Agency

Photo by Gary Ellis on Unsplash

Andy: I am talking to Terry A’Hearn, Chief Executive of Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA). We are going to talk to us about the work that SEPA do and their work with local government. To start off can we discuss flooding and flood management and how SEPA and local government work together in Scotland.

Terry: The situation in Scotland or the structure of responsibilities in Scotland is a little bit different. At SEPA we produce the strategy, and we do the warnings and forecasts. Local government is the primary responder unlike in England and some other places. What impressed me coming here in 2015, was how strong the relationship is between SEPA flooding staff and the flooding staff in the various local councils, as well as key people in the blue light agencies. That is an absolutely tremendous asset in any work, let alone emergency work. So it puts Scotland in a really good place when we’re planning, and we’re doing strategic thinking and we’re thinking about issues. It also puts us in a good place when there’s actually a flood happening and that is an asset and approach that has been built over a number of years. What SEPA are keen to do is use those strong relationships to say, with climate change happening, we know we’ll have more storm events, we know that we’ll have more extreme weather events in general, how do we use that to plan ahead and not get caught out? In particular, what sort of innovative things can we do together that will help Scotland become more resilient in what will be a tougher future?

Andy: Do you see, the good practice from flooding, and the partnership working something that you can grow and develop across the whole of SEPA’s work?

Terry: Yeah, and people talk about all sorts of things happening, whether it’s, government action, or business action or third sector, the only thing that makes decisions and takes action is people. At the end of the day, it’s all about people and if you’ve got really strong relationships that have been built up over a number of years, that’s a great basis for us to do things even better, and do things differently. So, when we look at building flood defence walls, what can we get out of them? One local council was talking to me, I won’t name which one, but they were saying ‘Well, if we have to build the wall, what sort of other things can we do with it? Can we put sensing in to get recordings of who’s going jogging?’ Actually, they were talking about having the wall as a running path, or alongside a running path. So great ideas out there in local government, with funds being tight, flooding work you need to do but how can you achieve a multiplicity of public aims, which, we’re quite excited about. And when you got good relationships, what happens is you can have those conversations, and you can have them early enough to do something with them.

Andy: Have you got examples of where that crosses over into a local biodiversity agenda, for example? I know that there’s lots of discussion around natural flood management, is that something which you’re partnering up with local authorities on?

Terry: Yes, we are trying to do work on natural flood management and other techniques, including, how do we partner with the insurance industry and others, which I know everyone’s looking at. So it’s not just natural flood management, but biodiversity and environmental protection generally. We’ve got what we call a sustainable growth agreement in the Leven catchment, which is around Fife, with 14 organisations. Fife Council is the key partner but there is also Keep Scotland Beautiful, Diageo whiskey manufacturer, the coal authority, and a whole bunch of groups. What that enables us to do not just on flooding, not just on biodiversity protection, but more broadly, is think how could we make this part of Scotland different and better in the future.

Local government, of course, is the primary local delivery agency from a public policy perspective. Having good relationships gives us the ability not just to come in and say, well, we’ve got to do certain things on catchment management, but actually how do we get a group of organisations together with the public. What’s the economic and social future for this part of Scotland? And how do we genuinely work in partnership to create a different economic and social future which will include better flooding outcomes, better biodiversity protection outcomes, better pollution control, higher water quality, the whole set of environmental things that we’re partly responsible for with others. Everyone talks about working in partnership but again, I come back to this: if you have a clear collective vision, you have genuine relationships, which are more than just we tick boxes and have meetings, you sit down and say, what are we all trying to achieve? And then try and deliver, you’ve got a much better chance of making stuff happen.

Andy: We’ve done a lot of work with local authorities on what we call place-based leadership, which sounds very similar. One of the barriers is, the perception it is resource-intensive, particularly in terms of staff. Have you found that that’s an issue, Or is it part of the normal work that you do?

Terry: I think it’s an issue if you do it badly, and it’s not an issue if you do it well. We have started taking a place-based approach. What makes it work with I think, the same resource and potentially less resource, don’t come in with your own process. We had to do a catchment approach in the Leven area and we would usually do catchment work in a particular way. But on this occasion one of our team – Pauline Silverman – went to work with the council, Diageo, all these other partners and said, not ‘what does SEPA want?’ but ‘what do you want?’ because they all want to do things in that catchment and local area anyway. If you can ground it in partnership, where we’re all trying to achieve certain things and we’re all spending resource on our individual things, and consider ‘what’s the set of collective aims that covers those individual things?’, then we’re just using the resource we were going to use in the first place.

Potentially we’ll get a lot more out of the sum of our resources because we’ve genuinely collectively agreed what we’re going to do, and that’s what we’re finding. The other thing that’s important is I’ve cited the Leven, where we’re in the lead as the coordinator because it just happened to be that way with a catchment programme, but in several of the other place-based approaches we’re not. In the Borders part of Scotland, the Government had set up a process and allocated some money down that way with the local councils and an enterprise body focus, so it’d be crazy for SEPA to come in and say, well, we want our catchment approach so we’ll lead. We just said, look, ‘we’ve got a bunch of things you want to achieve, there’s already a party here, can we come along and join in?’

Andy: One of the big issues is the sort of the multiple geographies sometimes, where people are working on different scales, council level, catchment scale, all those sorts of things. There’s quite a lively discussion about landscape scale going on at the moment, is that something which is built into your thinking and does that require aggregating local authorities across a landscape area.

Terry: So in a sense, we would be agnostic. What I mean by that is, we’re only ever going to be one player, in the DNA of a regulator is probably more telling than listening, it goes with the turf, you know, we set laws and we have to get people to abide by them. But we can actually do a huge amount of listening. So as long as we go in with a focus of, we will deliver outcomes if other people are delivering their outcomes and what they care about, then, whatever scale we work should be determined by the partners. And I think you’re quite right, there’ll be some issues where it makes sense to get all 32 local councils in Scotland together in some way, and say, let’s work a few things out nationally. In other cases, it will be a geographic collection, and won’t work unless you get three or four councils together. In some cases, that will be a tiny little micro focus. And in some cases, it will be local councils that aren’t geographically connected, but an issue connects them. So I think the critical thing for an agency like SEPA is we have to be driven by other people’s agendas, if we’re going to work in partnership, and particularly if we’re going to work with local government. If we’re going to achieve our agenda, which is only ever going to be part of the collective agenda, we have to be driven by the way other people are setting up their resources and their processes.

Andy: If I can just pick up on the regulatory side of what you do, there is, if I understand it correctly, a new regulator on its way – Environmental Standards, Scotland. Do you have a sense of how you would be working with them and whether you would hope they would adopt the same sort of culture?

Terry: So they’ll be an oversight body and there’s a similar one being set up in England, I think, the Office of Environmental Protection, so like all new bodies, it will be anything from a great assistance and a force for good through to something that gets in the way and it all depends how it operates. So it probably will have an oversight role in relation to organisations such as SEPA, what we’re hoping to do is work together as it gets set up to say, there are other places you can go to have reviews or complaint about an organisation like SEPA, (e.g. different types of ombudsman and parliamentary committees) and we’re keen that it doesn’t replicate those in the legislations being set up. We’re also keen that it doesn’t come in and look at individual complaints, before we’ve got the chance to fix them. What it should be doing is saying, look, there seems to be something systemic here that’s not quite working, can we work with you SEPA and potentially others to say, is something going wrong? And if it is, what is it? And how do we systemically fix it? So we’re quite hopeful that this body, if it can take that approach, which it seems to be set up for by the parliament, can actually add value.

Andy: If I can go back to the place-based approach, and in particular, I know you, you’ve got a strategy within SEPA called one planet prosperity, which is about, as I understand it, linking what you’re doing, particularly to economic development within an area.  You also have sustainable growth agreements that feel similar in their philosophy. I know you have a sustainable growth agreement with one local authority, Stirling, but presumably, that means that you haven’t got them with all local authorities, but you will probably like to?

Terry: It’s up to the partners. If you operate a certain facility like a landfill, you will need a SEPA permit, the law doesn’t give a choice. Sustainable growth agreements, we don’t mind how many we have, and with whom, as long as they create value. So I’d rather have four that create huge value than have 20 so that we can just have photos with me and a chief executive or council leader shaking hands. Overall we think they’ve got a lot of potential.

With Stirling, for example, this was partly coming out of Stirling looking at a City Deal and us saying, ‘Well, look, why don’t we sign a sustainable growth agreement where we can partner with you and work with you on creating a different and better future for the people of this council area and the adjoining areas. We can do all sorts of things with these sustainable growth agreements. The Sustainable Growth agreement could be simply about infrastructure development, and how we can make our approvals work quickly so that more sustainable infrastructure can get built with fewer impediments.

It could be about everything the local authority does – for Stirling, we had Mathis Wackernagel (who’s the guy who invented the ecological footprint concept) run earth overshoot day which we launched from Scotland in partnership with him, him meet Stirling Council CEO and a few key players and just talked about, well, if everyone in the world lived like Scots, we’d need three planets. The Council CEO said, well, I’m running a business and my costs are three times my revenue, I don’t say let’s change something by 1% or 2%. So we put that at the core of the sustainable growth agreement and said, Stirling and the surrounding area will be successful if it can develop a future, physical or non-physical – not just things you build, but the whole way of operating – that fits within one planet. If it doesn’t, it will just be building and constructing and creating risk in the future that probably won’t work. So we think the sustainable growth agreements give us a tremendous ability to work in partnership with councils and I know, I’m sort of sound like a bit of a broken record, driven by whatever their objectives are, that we think we can fit in and make a contribution to.

Andy: My sense is that local government would welcome that flexibility because, you know, they are working to build these placed-based partnerships and, and having to react to multiple agendas and going through continuous culture change from being service providers to making things actually happen and working in partnership with others. I think that general philosophy is one that will chime.

Terry: it’s up to SEPA, if we think we’ve got an offering, and some have found it useful, it’s up to us to find other councils and try and create the same value. If I give you another example of Glasgow Council, we haven’t signed a sustainable growth agreement with them, and in a sense that’s just a gift wrapping around the present and the present is how we work together. The Clyde has old sites that no longer have the industry that was there and a fair bit of that’s been redeveloped, but there’s a fair bit more that could be but most of it’s in a floodplain. Now, the old SEPA can sit back and say, well, we’ll just wait for planning applications to come in, and we’ll be a consult team will say, ‘No, we don’t think so’ Or ‘you can, but you can’t build that we reckon you should only be able to build this’ And we will do that, we are still the regulator, we’re still the environmental cops, if we have to say, No, we’ll do that, but I would like most of our work to be like what we’re trying to do now in Glasgow.

We’ve got this flooding expertise; sitting in SEPA, why just deploy it once the planning application comes in? Why can’t we get people, as we’re trying to do, to sit down with the council developers and others and say, a fair bit of this is at flood risk, what sort of development would work, what sort of creative things would work? For example, I don’t think this is actually being talked about but Vertical farming is an embryonic industry, which has started to take off, could you have some spots along the Clyde, where you have a flood retention area, and you build a vertical farm, because the vertical farm doesn’t have to start on the ground floor, you can basically just build a building on stilts. When you do have some flooding, that area could be used to divert floodwaters and you can still have the vertical farm going on. You don’t have the food miles and transporting the food and can fit in with traditional agriculture. Now, again, I don’t have anyone suggesting that, I’m just giving an example of what might happen if we all sit around the table and try and create the ideas rather than just responding to them.

Andy: Thanks. I’d like to finish off by asking if you were to put a request out to local government in Scotland for an offer that they would like or you would like them to make to SEPA what sort of thing would you be asking for?

Terry: I would say to local government, and I would say this to a business or an NGO, the same thing, I think the simplest way to change the nature of the relationship is to forget we’re SEPA, sit down with us and tell us the three most important things for your council to deliver in the next few years. They don’t have to have an environmental focus, it might be a significant improvement in access to childcare facilities, and it might be we want to increase social mobility. Because whatever it is, every human activity uses the environment. And if every council starts with what it most cares about, what its most is trying to do, and comes to us and says say do you think you can help? We might just say no, we can’t and that’s fine. We’ve just had a chat, nothing lost. But we actually might find ways of adding real value to what matters most to a council and presumably its constituents, and improves the environment because we’ll only say we can help if there’s going to be some way that reducing environmental impact will help deliver the better childcare with social mobility. So I would say put aside all the history of the relationship of how you’ve worked with SEPA in the past good and bad. And start with that: here’s what we really care about. Here’s what’s most important to us, SEPA, have you got any way to help?

Andy: That is a good note to end our discussion, thank you Terry.

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