Former Arup boss Philip Dilley preferred candidate to chair the Environment Agency

Philip Dilley

Former Arup executive chairman Philip Dilley was this week named as the preferred candidate to take over from Lord Chris Smith as the new Environment Agency chair. 

It is clearly the latest selection by government of a tall, calm industry patrician to give politicians – and much of the public - confidence that, when it comes to infrastructure, “everything is going to be all right”.

Without question he will be entering a very different atmosphere from the one he left at Arup in May, an environment in which he has spent most of his working life so far. Arup’s mantra of fulfillment, mastery and autonomy is not necessarily replicated at the Environment Agency.

Already on that list is Sir John Armitt, brought in to steady Network Rail and then drive the Olympics, Sir David Higgins also at the Olympics and currently providing a reassuring lead for the tricky High Speed 2 project,

Provided the pre-appointment select committee hearing goes to plan, Dilley should provide a similar level of clear-headed reassurance for the embattled post-flood ravaged Environment Agency.

The need for a pre-appointment public hearing comes as a result of Government’s commitment to strengthen the role of Parliament in scrutinising major public appointments. Though the outcome is non-binding, Ministers will certainly consider the committee’s views before finally deciding whether to proceed with this appointment.

It is far from a straight forward role. Dilley, 59, will be joining an organisation that has been going through a tough time, taking the flack for winter flood failures - although in reality it actually did a remarkable job protecting much of the country from some extraordinary weather.

On top of that it has been losing staff, struggling with budgets and is generally in need of work to restore its battered morale and reputation. 

Without question he will be entering a very different atmosphere from the one he left at Arup in May, an environment in which he has spent most of his working life so far. Arup’s mantra of fulfillment, mastery and autonomy is not necessarily replicated at the Environment Agency. 

Dilley would be chairing an organisation responsible for delivering Department for Environment, Food and Rural affairs policy but not ostensibly having any say in it. That will without question make the role interesting, and a new challenge to say the least. 

There is little doubt that Dilley will use the example of people such as Armitt and Higgins to see how they have handled their changing roles. But maybe he will also have a long chat with fellow engineer, Highways Agency head Graham Dalton to understand how he has walked that particular tightrope for many years.

Regardless, Dilley has built up formidable political experience; he is currently chairman of the powerful London First lobbying organisation in the capital and for previous posts he can list membership of the Prime Minister’s Business Advisory Group, chairman of governors of the infrastructure and urban development community at the World Economic forum, membership of the professional and business services advisory group reporting to BIS, chairmanship of the CBI London Council.

Bearing in mind that his role is yet to be confirmed by the select committee, Infrastructure Intelligence asked around the industry to assess what might be at the top of Dilley’s Environment Agency in-tray should he get the nod. 

Here is the top ten issues to deal with and bear in mind:

  1. Learn how to manage the relationship with Defra.
  2. Work to resolve the delay in implementing SuDs legislation. SuDs are key to the country’s future flood prevention and defence yet remain so politically tricky to implement. Is he the man to make it work?
  3. Work to explain that development is possible on flood plain with the right prevention and management methods in place. Given that the UK’s housing shortage is becoming critical it is inconceivable that a blanket ban on flood plain development is sensible. Dilley can bring some Arup style lateral thinking to the problem.
  4. Halt the hemorrhaging of staff; the Agency relies on the knowledge and skills of its people and it is losing too much of that. Making the Agency the career destination for the best is vital to its future.
  5. Use his experience in consultancy to tap into the opportunity to share the Agency’s expertise around the world as the predicted £60bn market for resilient infrastructure develops. Sustainable cities are big business.
  6. Take charge of fracking issues. As one of the key regulators of shale, the Agency has to ensure that regulation is robust and science-based while retaining the confidence of local communities that it are not overly influenced by drilling companies or Government’s pro-shale stance.
  7. As waste regulation becomes more complex and compliance more expensive, waste crime, ranging from fly-tipping to organised crime using waste activities on a large scale to make money illegally has flourished. Investors in waste infrastructure need to know that they will not be undercut by illegal operators so a crack down is essential.
  8. Flood defence and prevention will clearly be a priority but it has little to do with other, equally important Agency responsibilities such as water quality monitoring and regulating industrial plants. Given the resource cuts in recent years, getting the balance right between areas of activity will not be easy but has to be managed.
  9. Engage the business community across the regions to ensure that the vital private sector funding is available to underpin the overstretched government funding for flood defences and environmental protection works.
  10. Change the Agency’s culture. It relies too much on process and not enough on judgment; justifications for a scheme can cost as much as the project and that is unsustainable.


If you have additional ideas on the areas that Philip Dilley might concentrate on should he be named as the new chairman of the Environment Agency please submit your comments below.

If you would like to contact Antony Oliver about this, or any other story, please email


Given my experience over 5 years dealing with The EA at Avoncliff in Wiltshire I would say that Sir Philip has quite a job ahead of him. Arup's highly professional corporate ethos is clearly alien to most folk at the EA (not all...) 1)The relationship with DEFRA actually needs building. The EA has historically enjoyed considerable independence and DEFRA have never really engaged in control activity... 2)SuDs has a significant EU component and whilst this has it's place - physical evidence based legislation must be drafted in a fashion that makes SuDs transperent and straightforward to implement to maximum effect on the ground. Much historical water legislation has been badly drafted - without regard for the engineering involved and one would hope that somebody from Arup would drive a pragmatic practical approach. 3)Houses on stilts... 4)This is important and to ignore the concerns of the skilled staff alluded to would be self harm. The whistleblower site has contibutions from almost 50 disgruntled individuals at various levels. 5) This would be a conflict of interest with Arups ... The Agency could develop it's professional services - but that would require a sea change in management and a willingness to take calculated risks - both would be resisted by incompetent managers and the obviously indolent members of the workforce. 6)Sir Philip would seem to have some experience in this area... 7)The Agency has caused considerable resentment with its high handed arbitrariness in the waste sector. Waste operators in general know their business a whole lot better than EA officials. The crack down alluded to has has in reality become a torment to all operators rather than a collaboration with the responsible operators... 8) The Agency does not have an unblemished record of capably discharging its statutory responsibilities and seems to be good at generating highly conflicted, inconsistent and unprofessional operational guidelines many times not based on evidence and ignoring precedent. This must change. 9) Give the "stakeholders" some effective control. In Somerset the EA's high handedness did little beyond irritate and alienate those with a vested interest in the effective discharge of the EA's statutory responsibilities. 10)Judgement can only be effective with reliable evidence - the expensive catalogue of mistakes littering the accounts and make it abundantly clear that poor quality evidence and uninformed or straightforwardly biased judgements have been arrived at by officials. There needs to be a change of culture at the EA - If Sir Philip can install some of the virtues valued at Arup then that would most definitely be a good thing. Changing the culture which has driven the EA is going to be key. The EA needs re-purposing and those individuals not fit for purpose must be let go - to seek other opportunities. I urge Sir Philip to spend some time reading the concerns of serving employees of the EA voiced via the whistleblower web site and weigh what he sees there against the platitudes he's fed at board meetings....
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