Fears over role of environment `regulator'

Agency alert: Rivers authority chief warns secrecy will lead to loss of public confidence
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The Independent Online

Environment Correspondent

The powerful new Environment Agency comes into being today with a grim warning of pitfalls ahead from the chairman of the largest of its predecessor organisations.

The Government's free-standing agency will be one of the largest organisations of its kind in the world, employing 9,000 staff with a budget of just over pounds 500m a year, much of it raised from charges on industry, commerce and anglers.

Lord Crickhowell, the outgoing chairman of the now- defunct National Rivers Authority (NRA), has warned ministers that the new organisation may be too secretive and that its top management is likely to be severely over-stretched.

The new agency covering England and Wales is run by a statutory board of part-time non-executive directors and eight full-time executives. It takes over the role, staff and funding of the NRA, Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Pollution and the waste disposal regulators of more than 80 county and district councils. A similar body is being established in Scotland.

The new agency has the task of regulating polluters and waste dumpers, along with the nuclear industry, managing rivers and protecting against coastal and riverine flooding, as well as being the Government's key environmental adviser.

It will be chaired by Lord De Ramsey, a former director of the Country Landowners' Association. The chief executive is Ed Gallagher, who held the same post at the NRA. Lord Crickhowell said the agency must be independent of government and offer as much of its opinion as possible in public. His awkward advice comes in a "valedictory report".

Mr Gallagher has argued that the NRA's influence with government was blunted by being too independent from Whitehall. But Lord Crickhowell said if too much of the new agency's advice was given behind the scenes it "would quickly lose the public respect and support that has been such an important part of our [the NRA's] success". He said it is important for the agency to take a full part in the debate about the costs to industry and the public of improving the environment. The NRA's voice had been stifled in the past because the information was "price sensitive" for water companies.

Lord Crickhowell said management needed more freedom than the Government seemed likely to grant to set up a unified pay and benefits system for its staff. Whitehall and ministerial intervention "constituted a huge obstacle to sensible management".