Tony Blair is planning large cuts in Britain's pollution clean-up programme in a move that will invite a series of prosecutions of the Government in the European courts. The Prime Minister - anxious to hold down increases in water bills in the wake of the row over soaring council tax - is insisting the programme be slashed almost in half, despite intense opposition from Margaret Beckett, the Secretary of State for the Environment.
But the cuts will spare families a rise of only £2 a year over the next five years on the average £234 water bill - a fraction of the £72 total increase that water companies plan to impose over the period. And they will scrap action to rescue vital wildlife areas and to stop raw sewage spilling into rivers.
Last night, Peter Ainsworth, chairman of the cross-party Commons Environmental Audit Committee, threatened to hold an urgent inquiry into the cuts if they go ahead.
Michael Meacher, the former environment minister, described them as "madness". He said that they would return Britain to the days, more than a decade ago, when it was known as the "dirty man of Europe'' and was repeatedly prosecuted by the European Commission for failing to implement anti-pollution laws.
The cuts of up to 40 per cent are planned as part of the Government's review of water prices, which takes place every five years. Ofwat, the official regulator, has long campaigned for big reductions in the companies' clean-up spending - one of the elements deciding the level of water bills - but Mr Blair's plans go even further. Ofwat would like a cut of £5bn from the £20bn budget.
Ms Beckett - who is due to announce the size of the clean-up plans in the next two weeks - says that the programme has already been pared to the bone, and that further reductions will lead to breaches of European law.
Top Ofwat officials, in private, can barely conceal their joy at Mr Blair's stance. But environmentalists say a new round of prosecutions would be inevitable, and that these would force Britain to take far more expensive clean-up action in the long run.
The cuts would cause Britain to renege on pledges to clean up rivers for fish and waters for cultivating shellfish, which it has already made to stave off imminent EC prosecution. It is an open invitation to be taken to court.
In the wake of court cases, the EC is also almost certain to insist that Britain undertakes more drastic clean-up programmes than originally envisaged. Meanwhile, the cuts will also make it impossible for the Government to implement a law that it introduced to protect sites of special scientific interest.
Ofwat says environmental spending is "a major driver'' of water price increases and must be cut "to make bills acceptable''. But its own survey, published last week, shows that almost twice as many people would be prepared to pay the extra amounts for the clean-up as would not.
Graham Wynne, executive director of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, said the cuts would "cause a big loss of environmental benefits for very small savings to the consumer''.