Blair attempts to woo greens

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TONY BLAIR called leading environmentalists to Downing Street for a secret "private" meeting last week as green issues moved sharply up his agenda. And, in a separate meeting an hour earlier, two other prominent greens held talks with his top advisers.

The two meetings, on Thursday, are the biggest overture that the Prime Minister has made to environmental pressure groups since just after he came to power. They come amid signs that Downing Street is moving rapidly to green its image and policies, after nearly two years of sustained criticism.

Wednesday's Queen's Speech - as predicted in the Independent on Sunday last week - is almost certain to announce the Labour government's first environmental legislation in a Countryside Bill, which will allow access to four million acres of land and protect wildlife and landscape, and in Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott's Transport Bill.

Environment pressure groups are preparing to give the Government a fairer wind. Even Charles Secrett, the executive director of Friends of the Earth, the most critical of the Government of all the groups' leaders, last night welcomed the moves. "We are getting the first clear indications that Downing Street is prepared to take the environment seriously," he said.

In his speech to the Green Alliance on Wednesday, John Prescott called for "a positive partnership" between the Government and environmental pressure groups. And he announced that Britain would be fighting for "an environmentally friendly outcome" to talks on liberalising world trade that start in Seattle this month.

This amounts to an unprecedented greening of British trade policy. And next week Stephen Byers is expected to signal a similar change over industry in what will be the first green speech by any Trade and Industry Secretary.