Some food for thought for Henry I

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The Independent Online
HEAVEN knows what Henry I would make of it. Ministers are planning to save the dish that killed him.

William the Conqueror's youngest and ablest son (a stern critic of excess in others) died, as every schoolchild knows, of eating a "surfeit of lampreys". But the fish, the most primitive vertebrates on the planet, are in surfeit no more - though less because of royal appetites than through pollution, building dams, over-abstracting water from rivers, and so on.

Now ministers are proposing to make two of their remaining habitats - the rivers Avon in Hampshire and Eden in Cumbria - specially protected areas, and there are plans to reintroduce the 450 million-year-old species into rivers where it is extinct.

I think Henry would be glad. He may not have had much time for animal rights - he was so fervent a huntsman that he had all the dogs living near royal forests maimed so that they could not disturb the deer - but he was an early zoo-keeper and would surely have taken the fishes' side against today's water companies.

Last week, Baroness Young, the newly-appointed head of English Nature, the Government's official wildlife watchdog, said the companies were endangering 80 top wildlife sites.

Still, they can probably put up with the opposition of dead kings and lively baronesses (not to speak of all that public hatred) so long as they have the support of the regulator, Ian Byatt, a man who has made no bones about putting economics ahead of the environment in the past. Sure enough, he was defending the privatised companies' record last week. "I do not want," he said, "to go back to a poorly performing, environmentally hostile service." What does he mean, "go back?"

Just a few days before, Yorkshire Water had been fined pounds 12,000 after pleading guilty to supplying (without, of course, warning its customers) "water unfit for human consumption".

q TALKING of widespread opposition (and a powerful protector) brings me to good news about a measure which conforms to one of the spin doctors' basic rules: if it is really alarming, give it a crashingly boring name.

The Multilateral Agreement On Investment has generated enormous disquiet - from staid bureaucrats to environmental campaigners, from the right- wing US Congress to the Socialist French Government - but has excited virtually no interest in the public or (it must be said) the media.

Secretly negotiated in the rich countries' club, the Organisation For Economic Co-operation And Development, it would make it harder for governments to control multi-national companies. It would undermine their power to take environmental measures under a host of international treaties, from the Kyoto agreement on global warming to fisheries protection under the Law Of The Sea. Local authorities even fear it could limit their ability to promote local jobs and protect local recycling schemes.

It looked unstoppable, and was due to be signed next month. But last week, the chairman of the negotiating committee announced he would advise against this, shelving the measure for at least a year, if not forever. It's a victory for the more than 600 groups in 67 countries - including the World Wide Fund for Nature-UK - that had joined forces against the agreement. Last month the European Parliament - the first democratic body to debate it in depth - voted against it by an overwhelming 437 votes to six. The French government called for major changes, the US administration for "dramatic improvements".

Yet one head of government has been loud in support, even though - in contrav- ention of New Labour rhetoric - it gives the multi-nationals rights without imposing countervailing responsibilities. Yes, you've guessed. Tony Blair. "We have been active in promoting it," he told parliament five weeks ago, adding that once people "understood it" they would support it. Isn't that more or less what he says about Peter Mandelson?

q WHILE we're in Downing Street, let's have a brief kick at the door of Number 11 too. After banging on about Brown's brown Budget for the last two weeks, I was going to give it a rest. But that was before the Transport Secretary, Gavin Strang, called it: "The most far-reaching package of measures to promote cleaner vehicles and cleaner fuels this country has ever seen."

That, of course, is not saying much. But it bears repeating that the main measure, the six per cent increase in petrol tax, was just implementing, and slightly extending, a really radical commitment by the last government to raise it by five per cent every year. Though to hear the Tories moaning about the tax rise, you'd never guess.

Some of the criticism by the way seems to be getting through. The Treasury is now briefing that the next Budget will be really green. But that is what it said about this one...