Environmental Protection UK recently announced that it would stop being fully funded in March. Its chief executive James Grugeon explains how government funding cuts forced the difficult decision to make staff redundant but says he hopes to continue the organisation’s work on a voluntary basis

Last week, I spoke at what could be – but I hope is not – the last national conference organised by Environmental Protection UK (EPUK). The theme of Environment 2011 was ‘Adapting to change through localism’, which has a special, if unintentional, meaning for EPUK and our members.

We are the UK’s oldest environmental charity, established as the Coal Smoke Abatement Society in 1898 and responsible for ground-breaking legislation such as the original 1956 Clean Air Act. So we have been pretty adept at adapting to change as we played our part in developing sensible regulation put in place by successive governments of different political hues to protect our environment and promote healthier local communities.

EPUK represents a wide cross-section of practitioners. Local and national policymakers, experts in the public and private sectors, environmental health officers and leading UK academics form the core of our membership. We influence policymaking and its delivery at a local level by connecting government directly with that network. That is something that all the conference speakers acknowledged is critically important, not least in terms of the localism and wider Big Society agendas and how they relate to the protection of the local environment.

I’m very sad to say that EPUK’s trustees had to take a very difficult decision just over a week ago. After 113 years in existence as a universally respected and highly valued organisation we are now in the process of making all of our staff redundant and closing down vital support services to thousands of environmental practitioners across the country. This is despite our relevance today being, if anything, even greater than it was even ten or 20 years ago.

Difficult decisions imposed on local authority funders and members by central government cuts made our continued existence as a fully staffed and funded organisation impossible.

You don’t have to tell EPUK’s members, our staff team or members of our expert advisory groups that localism and the Big Society, when combined with massive cuts to local authority budgets and consequently resources and support networks, risk being just hot air.

My experience of working with and running an organisation that has been providing vital services to local environmental practitioners, sharing best practice, expertise, knowledge and providing support to the public and private sector is that organisations such as ours are the glue that makes working together to protect the environment at a local level happen.

EPUK is not alone in its current plight. Every week I speak to another third sector, large, national or smaller, local organisation providing vital services that is struggling to survive. These are often those critically important organisations that perform the vital role of both influencer and deliverer: engaging communities and linking up action to improve or protect local environments and working to embed those principles within the development of local and national policies and strategies.

And in the case of EPUK, linking local practitioners at the sharp end with policymakers at a national level at a time when significant changes to regulation, which could seriously impact on the protection of our environment, are being contemplated.

Everyone who has approached the Big Society and localism agendas without cynicism and with a commitment and intent to make them work – as I and many of us have had to do – knows that local and national government needs to invest in and grow resources deployed through organisations such as EPUK, not stand by while they struggle to exist.

But the most worrying thing about this government’s approach for me is that it is the poorest and least able to cope in our local communities that are likely to suffer if we don’t support them.

I worry about the balance between inequality and power in local communities. What will happen to the people with the least power in our local societies: people who are poor and have less resources, less time and are less able to get involved and to determine outcomes in their local community?

Building capacity and properly democratic ways to engage with people in less well-off areas is critical but it is often in these areas where local support networks and third-sector organisations are under the most pressure.

EPUK knows from our work to build healthier local environments that it is people with the least in our society who are most at risk from exposure to poor air quality, or risk suffering from mental health issues or health issues from lack of access to green or quiet spaces where they live. We know that tackling inequality is absolutely critical. But my worry is that we are now risking inequality becoming more entrenched.

With the potential demise of EPUK’s work to connect and support local practitioners across the UK and to positively influence local action and the development of sound policy at a national level there is now a risk that significant achievements and learning will be lost.

It is our intention to continue to do much of the work we currently carry out as a voluntary organisation. We are relying on the goodwill and time of our network of supporters to do that. I’d like to invite anyone who would like to help us survive and to support important campaigns, such as our Healthy Air Campaign, to get involved. I suppose our survival will be a test of the Big Society in and of itself.

The danger, of course, is that with the demise or significant scaling down of groups such as ours, years of good work, sharing of best practice, promoting partnership working and influencing change will lose momentum. Experienced local leaders could move on, move away or simply stop being involved. And the real danger now is that the result could be that environmental problems we have led on, such as work to tackle the public health crisis of air pollution, could get worse.

While I’d agree that local authorities and local communities are often well-placed to decide how their local environment is protected – in decisions on planning, on development and on important issues such as air quality, access to quiet or green spaces or on sustainable transport for example – there is a very real need for co-ordination at a larger-than-local level to ensure that development happens within sensible environmental limits.

I really believe in the power of local partnerships and in the need for businesses, third-sector groups and local communities to work together but surely the aspirations of individual communities must be linked to the aspirations of the country as a whole.

What we need is joined-up thinking to deliver on strategic environmental priorities such as air quality, climate change and resources to support that strategy on the ground.

This government’s primary focus on deficit reduction and economic growth – seemingly at any cost – is something that as an environmentalist and as CEO of EPUK causes me a lot of concern. Policy, strategy and investment decisions seem to put deficit reduction and economic growth in a short-term context rather than within the context of improving our wellbeing, and respecting and protecting our environment.

When local authorities are given freedom without the responsibility to continue working on shared challenges such as climate change and the protection of our environment, and this is combined with a funding crisis in many local communities, my worry is that decisions will have a long-lasting and damaging effect on local environmental quality.

Without specialist expertise and support, partnerships will be less powerful and there is a risk that the most vulnerable in our community will be marginalised and lose out. Where that expert support to help communities to collaborate effectively at a local level will come from in the future is far from clear.

The chancellor’s autumn statement returned to the government’s irresponsible and dangerous theme that EU and UK regulations, which were put in place for sound and pragmatic reasons to protect our environment, are a burden on UK businesses. He told parliament:

If we burden [British businesses] with endless social and environmental goals – however worthy in their own right – then not only will we not achieve those goals, but the businesses will fail, jobs will be lost, and our country will be poorer.

I find that depressing and disappointing but also revealing; this government continues to see environmental protection as a “burden”. Risking hard-won environmental improvements that have led to improvements in the quality of people‘s lives across the UK in the pursuit of short-term growth is dangerous. To be honest, it feels like an ideological assault for very little short-term gain and a lot of long-term pain.