Quangoes The Environment
Jim Carey slips behind the scenes of the newly-launched Environment Agency to uncover a nest of vested interests.
Squall 13, Summer 1996, p. 21.
Despite its significance to the future of Britain's environment, the recent launch of the Environment Agency went virtually unheralded in the media. And yet from April 1st this year, the EA became Britain's largest quango, overseeing a budget of £550 million and employing 9,500 staff. The responsiblities invested in this new leviathan include the regulation of air, land and sea pollution in England and Wales, and the prosectuion of industrial polluters.
Despite recent improvements forced by the European Union, the UK still has weak environmental legislation. The Environment Agency replaces both the National Rivers Authority (NRA) and Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Pollution (HMIP), whose weak armoury of available punitive measures was strengthened by their experience of industrial pollution and their knowledge of which companies had toxic substances they were keen to dump. Once made aware they are being watched, companies tend to avoid dumping their waste into the environment. There are some concerns that the rapid change of infrastructure involved in replacing the NRA and HMIP, might disrupt this fragile stand off.
The new Agency will also take over the responsibilities currently fulfilled by local authority waste regulatory bodies. These provided valuable locality-specific controls over environmental regulation, which have now been replaced with eight regional offices co-ordinated by the new super-quango. Despite extensive lobbying, local authorities failed in their bid to keep local environmental regulation accountable to the local electorate.
So who then is in control of this new unelected super quango, and can we rest safe in the knowledge that those running the Agency have our best environmental interests at heart? Even a cursory investigation suggests not.
The man chosen to be chairman of the new authority is Lord De Ramsey, a rich landowner resident in John Major's Huntingdon constitiuency. Both he and fellow board member John Norris, another large landowner, are previous presidents of the Country Landowners Association (CLA), an organisation representing the business interests of landowners. As such, its agenda is often at complete odds with environmental concerns. Indeed, over the last fifteen years, the CLA has vehemently campaigned against many pro-environment initiatives. The long list includes environmental conditions attached to farm subsidies, measures to reduce pesticide and nitrate use, measures to prevent the grubbing up of hedgerows, measures to manage ancient woodland, public access to the Land Registry and new legislation to prevent badger baiting.
Furthermore, the aggravated trespass sections of the Criminal Justice Act, currently much in use against environmental campaigners, were advocated and lobbied for by the CLA. Indeed, when Michael Howard was moved from the Department of Environment to become Home Secretary in 1993, the president of the CLA wrote: "If moves had to be made, Mr Major's choice has probably been as helpful to landowners as could be hoped for." The author of this sentiment was the then CLA president, Lord De Ramsey.
Further evidence of the CLA's agenda is revealed in the following statement made by its legal adviser in Country Landowner magazine: "While the CLA is not opposed to the creation of an environmental agency, we shall need to watch the Bill closely to ensure that the landowner's legitimate interest is protected, for example in representation on committees on river management and drainage."
This statement was made in 1994. By 1995 Lord De Ramsey, previous president of the Country Landowners Association for three years, had been selected to lead the new environmental agency. The successful positioning of both De Ramsey and fellow board member John Norris, completes what the country landowners must view as a highly successful coup.
Meanwhile the BBC documentary programme Here and Now investigated the political background of two the Environment Agencies regional chairmen. The first was Christopher Hampson MBE, appointed to the Agency's board and given specific responsibilities for the North East of England. Between 1984-1987, Hampson was Chief Executive of ICI Australia, a period which saw his company fined for pollution by the Australian government. Upon arrival in the UK, Hampson sat on the main board of both ICI and ICI Chemicals and Polymers, and once again his company was the subject of a string of pollution prosecutions. From here he was appointed to the board of the Environment Agency, whilst also becoming the non-executive chairman of Ready Mixed Concrete (RMC). Indeed, one of the factories within his region as North East regional chairman belongs to Blue Circle Cement. The Agency are currently contemplating whether to allow Blue Circle Cement permission to burn toxic waste in its kiln. This waste originates from the huge ICI plant on Teeside, another establishment with a long record of pollution breaches. The consequence of Blue Circle being given the go ahead will be the production of cheaper cement. Small surprise is it to The Observers of vested interest, that Hampson's Ready Mixed Concrete purchases one million tonnes of cement a year from Blue Circle.
The other board member investigated by the documentary makers was Brian Alexander, chairman of the Environment Agency's North West Advisory committee. Between 1989 and 1992, Alexander was Managing Director of North West Water, one of the region's top polluters and responsible for roughly 70 per cent of pollution discharges into the Mersey basin. After leaving this company Alexander's satirical career continued with a stint as Chairman of the Mersey Basin Campaign, a funded clean up operation. During his stay, the Campaign's progress slipped a staggering 100 years behind its target time for pollution clearance. Despite these shakey qualifications Alexander was then appointed to the Environment Agency board and given the responsibility for the region he is implicated in polluting.
Indeed he is just one of 18 board members each receiving £12,000 a year for working just four days a month.
In his launch speech, Lord De Ramsey assured the assembled dotage that his new Agency would recognise the "need to establish our credibility with all sections of society".
All in all then - a pretty bad start.