Of the many ways in which life in lockdown changed perspectives, a heightened awareness of our local environment was surely one of the most valuable. “When you’re only getting out once a day for exercise, you really appreciate the green spaces around you, for mental wellbeing as much as anything else,” says Joanne Holt from the Environment Agency (EA). “I definitely did – and it was a reminder of how lucky I am to do something so meaningful and to feel my work is contributing to preserving what we have.”
Joanne is a manager in the national enforcement service at the EA, working to catch and disrupt those who damage our environment. While Nominet plays a small role in this work – the EA is one of the law enforcement agencies that instructs the registry of criminal domains – her responsibilities and those of the organisation are far broader than many will realise.
“Most know of us through the flood management work we do, but the Environment Agency has a really wide remit with units that cover everything from climate change and pollution to waste, flooding or biodiversity.” In Enforcement, Joanne and her team spend the majority of their time tackling what has grown into “the most serious, organised crime, carrying the highest risk for our environment,” waste crime.
“People will have heard of fly tipping, but waste crime is usually far more serious than that,” Joanne explains. Those illegally collecting and dumping waste are no longer a one-man-band but highly organised and adaptable criminal groups, often adding this very lucrative activity into a wider portfolio. Frustratingly, these criminals are not only breaking the law and damaging the environment, they also place others at risk of prosecution, from the ‘customers’ who pay for their waste to be collected to the landlords leasing land without realising it will be used for illegal dumping – nor that they have to bear the cost of the clean-up.
“We are very focused on trying to create a hostile environment and disrupt activity wherever possible – it’s often the quickest way to halt the behaviour compared to fines or prosecution,” explains Joanne. For example, if Nominet suspends a domain on which illegal waste removal services are being advertised, the source of customers runs dry. Alternatively, a call to the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA) can result in an illegal vehicle being seized if there are contraventions to their licence. This then makes them unable to collect or dump waste.
The Enforcement team is dynamic, and over her two decades with the EA Joanne has observed a change in approach as they work to keep pace with very innovative criminals. In recent years, the team has become “far more intelligence-led and we’ve really grown the partnership approach, collaborating with a huge variety of different organisations to tackle this.” For Joanne’s team – one of many enforcement teams at the Agency – they work with over 40 partners including HMRC, the police, the DVSA and companies such as Nominet.
“We’ve also invested in a national Joint Unit for Waste Crime (JUWC) that helps to connect up the whole picture across the country,” Joanne says. “This includes other environment agencies, such as the Scottish Environment Protection Agency and Natural Resources Wales, because these criminals operate across the country; they don’t pay attention to borders.”
The evolutionary working environment is one of the reasons that Joanne remains so engaged with a job she has been doing for the majority of her career. “It’s so varied and no two days are ever the same, which keeps it really interesting,” she says. “You are also constantly having your problem-solving skills tested and that keeps you sharp.” Communication skills, too, are stress-tested in a role like this because “we are always trying to build relationships with people, speaking to other agencies, members of the public and even criminals. You are having critical conversations and must be very sensitive to the people you are engaging with. Many people don’t realise how crucial communication is to enforcement.”
The team also strives to communicate more widely to educate the general public on the risks and responsibilities when it comes to waste. “We all have a duty of care to dispose of our waste legally or we can be prosecuted,” she explains, “and not enough people realise that.” To spread the word, the EA released a pair of informative videos to explain to members of the public and land-owners, such as farmers, about what to look out for and the risk they might face. “We always encourage members of the public to report anything suspicious, such as lots of lorry movements in and out of a site where there is no official signage or burning late at night. They can contact us directly or report anonymously to Crimestoppers.”
Understandably, the increased use of technology has made it easier for people to fall prey to waste criminals, with social media platforms and e-marketplace sites like eBay often being used to advertise. “My advice would be, if an ad is offering very cheap waste disposal, be suspicious. If it sounds too good to be true it probably is. It will always cost more to have waste taken away legally because legitimate sites need a permit and must pay tax. You simply can’t cut corners.”
Joanne is hopeful that a renewed appreciation for the green spaces around our homes will help more people want to take care of them – and help her team to identify when and where the criminals are working. For her, lockdown may have altered her working environment but not her mission; “I’m realistic of course, I know we can never remove waste crime completely because criminals are fantastic at adapting, but we can keep them on their toes by adapting our response, being proactive and working in partnership to disrupt them – and keep our environment safe.”