Timid green shoots in the garden at Highgrove

Every prospect pleased at Highgrove last week, as the hymnist would have put it, and only man was vile. No, I confess, that's over the top. The leading businessmen and women attending the reunion - where I had to give the after-dinner speech - at Prince Charles's country seat were extremely pleasant (and, no doubt, virtuous to match). What struck me was their timidity.

It came as a surprise. After all these are the very risk- takers that we have been endlessly told to admire over the past two decades. And the senior figures at the meeting of the Prince's Business and the Environment Programme - in a marquee surrounded intriguingly by black sheep wearing tinkling bells - are presumably far greener than most of their colleagues and competitors.

Yet, with a few exceptions, they seemed to approach environmental issues as threats, rather than opportunities. Some even said they did not publish reports on their companies' environmental achievements because they would be "putting their heads above the parapet" (though no one knew of a case where anyone had been shot at).

"People who would happily punt pounds 100m on derivatives are terrified about investing a single million on the environment," one senior City figure told me in the royal loo.

Which is odd. For the environment industry is growing astonishingly fast: it is already as big as aerospace worldwide and is about to reach $400bn a year.

There's plenty of evidence that adopting green technologies and practices boosts profits and increases jobs. And one hard-headed investment fund has found that environmentally conscious companies outperform their rivals financially, partly because they are better run.

Speaker after speaker at the reunion called for tougher environmental regulations. These, they said, were the only way of getting industry to take notice - and see the opportunities - as they directly affect the bottom line. Market forces would not do it.

This, of course, runs directly counter to the last government's insistence that industry was screaming for it to "lift the burden" of regulations . But it is borne out by experience in Germany, where ministers deliberately tightened regulations to encourage innovative new processes and a strong home market for green technologies.

As a result Germany has 29 per cent of the booming world environmental market: Britain has only 6 per cent - although some of the most successful technologies were invented here.

Incidentally, the deregulation drive used to be spearheaded by a junior Trade and Industry minister called Neil Hamilton. Three and a half years ago he told the Conservative Party Conference how John Major had told him "to behave like an absolute bastard" in preventing legislation. "When the Prime Minister appointed me," he boasted, "he told me to make myself the most unpopular member of the government." Maybe he achieved that, if not in the way he intended.

Talking of ex-ministers, wasn't it touching to see the concern for aid and the Third World poor shown by Liam Fox, Michael Jack and even "Bunter" Soames (formerly from the Foreign Office, Agriculture and Defence) as they grilled Clare Short in her first question time as International Development Secretary last week?

Who would have thought that they had all served in a government which, over 18 years, cut the proportion of Britain's national wealth spent on aid in half? But, no doubt, the election result - not to speak of the loss of those ministerial Rovers - will have given them new insight into the plight of the marginalised and deprived.

Alas, Dr Fox's finer feelings have got him into trouble with Oxfam. The charity's director, David Bryer, has written to him protesting against an "inappropriate" use of its name when he charged that "Oxfam's figures show that 19 water tanks, providing 28,500 people with 10 litres of clean water a day, could have been provided through our aid budget" for the "absurd cost" of the Robin Cook's "glitzy presentation" of the Foreign Office's new mission statement the other day.

At the risk of provoking another letter from Mr Bryer, I have done some similar sums. By my calculator, the aid budget could have provided more than 16,800 water tanks, serving more than 25 million people with the pounds 24m it spent on the notorious Pergau Dam project under Conservative rule (and just short of 150,000 tanks for 225 million people for the pounds 214m ministers wanted to spend before the courts stopped them).

Even Dr Fox's recent pounds 9,000 salary rise would provide more than six tanks - and no doubt, in one way or another, Mr Soames could also spare a few pounds. Oxfam is "eagerly awaiting" their donations.

But at least they did better than the bewildered junior Environment minister shown around the magnificent organically grown gardens at Highgrove a few years ago. He managed to keep his end up, more or less, until he got to the apple trees in the walled garden, where, growing in confidence, he enthusiastically congratulated the heir to the throne on his "unusual way of growing gooseberries".

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