'Struggling' Environment Agency cuts pollution checks

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The Independent Online

Britain's main environmental watchdog has cut back checks on potential polluters, and is planning further reductions as its chairman warns of a "huge black hole" in its funding.

A document put before the board of the Environment Agency warns that it will not have the resources to inspect firms as frequently as in the past. Signed by Paul Leinster, the agency's director of environmental protection, it says: "Substantial reductions have already been made in activities such as attendance at pollution incidents, permitting activity, inspection frequencies and environmental monitoring."

Mr Leinster also warns the board that a heavy load of new duties, many imposed by new EU directives, will "significantly increase" his workload over the next few years. The agency will continue to focus on the highest risks, he says, but adds: "The room for further savings by re-prioritisation is now extremely limited."

Sir John Harman, the agency's chairman, said it was a "complete fantasy" to think that the agency could perform its new duties within existing resources, and warned of a "huge black hole" opening up in its finances. Some board members are concerned that the reduced inspections and monitoring are already leading to firms avoiding controls.

Baroness Young, the agency's chief executive, yesterday insisted there was nothing amiss. She said: "We are not in the middle of a funding crisis," adding that "smarter" regulation could cut out unnecessary inspections by focusing on the most hazardous plants and practices.

But Tony Juniper, director designate of Friends of the Earth, dismissed her assurances as "nonsense" and said the agency was "struggling" for lack of resources. He said: "There needs to be more inspection, better enforcement of the rules, and more prosecutions. The trouble is that if the agency cracks down on polluting firms it upsets some of New Labour's best friends."