Bigger, richer, duller: Friends of the Earth at 25

Geoffrey Lean asks whether the environmental pressure group has lost its youthful vigour
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The Independent Online
Friends of the Earth is 25 today - but nobody seems to be celebrating much. The quarter- centenary of the environmental pressure group is passing so quietly that even one of its founders and first directors was unaware of it, until he was reminded by the Independent on Sunday last week.

"On Sunday? Is it really?" asked a surprised Richard Sandbrook, one of the small group of friends who started the organisation "as a bit of a joke" on 5 May, 1971. "I suppose I'd better have a drink."

The pressure group has decided not to make too much of the anniversary. There will be a private party for present and former staff next to London's Highbury and Islington tube station three weeks today, and the international parent body of Friends of the Earth will hold its annual meeting in Britain later this year. But that's just about it.

The official reason for the lack of festivities is that the best way to celebrate would be "to gear up our campaigning". But it symbolises the crisis in confidence gripping the organisation.

Its support - measured in members, donors, and volunteers - has slipped by 22 per cent over the last four years. It is still recovering from a crisis that left it without a leader for 15 months, an episode it describes as "chaos". And it appears to have lost most of its effectiveness, at times not so much losing its edge, as seeming to bury the hatchet.

As it grew from a staff of five in 1971 to 96 today, with an income that has soared from pounds 12,751 in its first year to pounds 5.3m in 1994/5, it has become increasingly bureaucratic and slower on its feet, taking endless meetings to reach decisions.

Pete Wilkinson, another founder who ran its first ever campaigning stunt - a witty and popular dumping of hundreds of "non-returnable" bottles on the doorstep of Schweppes - says: "When I was walking down the Edgware Road dressed as a bottle, I never dreamed that it would grow into an organisation with such a vast income and such enormous support. But, dollar for dollar, it is achieving less change now than in the early days.

"In those days we used to say that if we had a quarter of a million supporters, an income of pounds 1m a year and a high profile we would revolutionise the country. All these benchmarks have been met or exceeded - and great credibility built up - and yet the new world is as far away as it was in 1971. I do not think Friends of the Earth has achieved as much as it should have done."

The first years were indeed the organisation's best. Crowded into two rooms - which were provided free by the Rowntree Foundation - in Soho's Poland Street, a small group of campaigners vigorously established most of Britain's environmental agenda.

The organisation, virtually single-handedly, started Britain's nuclear debate, defeating an attempt to build 32 new reactors and laying out the arguments on the safety and cost of nuclear energy that have led to today's effective abandonment of the atom. It did the same for transport policy, pioneering the thinking that has only now resulted in the scaling-down of the road programme. It was much the same for many other issues from whaling to recycling.

But the group's effectiveness was already beginning to fade by the end of the 1970s. On the brink of winning its campaign against non-returnable bottles, it was beguiled on to a Government working party and outmanoeuvred. And it comprehensively lost a 1977 planning inquiry into the controversial Thorp reprocessing plant at Sellafield (Windscale as it then was), despite - as events later proved - winning the argument. Both events led to disillusionment and the rise of Greenpeace and other direct action groups.

A long decline in effectiveness was masked by two dominant characters. Jonathon Porritt, leader from 1984 to 1990, greatly increased its profile: the number of supporters shot up from 12,700 to 226,300 during his tenure. Meanwhile Andrew Lees - probably its greatest ever campaigner - was successfully harrying the Government on many fronts, almost succeeding, for example, in preventing water privatisation.

But Porritt left and Lees was promoted into administration - not his forte - and then died campaigning in Madagascar 16 months ago, of heatstroke in a threatened coastal forest.

After 15 months between 1991 and 1993 without a leader, the organisation eventually settled on Charles Secrett, one of its long-time campaigners, who has so far failed to restore its former impact.

Running Friends of the Earth these days, says Richard Sandbrook - its second executive director, who now runs the International Institute for Environment and Development - is a much harder task. "It was very easy to be inventive and brave when we were starting out and we felt in a minority," he says. "But it is much more difficult when your message has become mainline and Government and industry are asking you for your solutions. It is hard to maintain originality and guts in an organisation with a budget of pounds 5.3m."

Charles Secrett says: "Looking back, the first 25 years have been an incredible success." But a spare, quarter-page list of 12 achievements issued by the organisation to mark the anniversary does not seem much of a tally for a quarter of a century of campaigning. Many of the most significant are at least 10 years old, and some of those listed for the 1990s probably owe most of their success to other organisations.

Secrett says that the group is making "fantastic progress" with a private member's Bill to introduce long-overdue changes into wildlife protection legislation and is getting "incredible support" around the country for proposed legislation to reduce traffic. But this shows little progress from the kind of relatively marginal parliamentary activity it was undertaking 20 years ago - partly because of the long period of usually unsympathetic Conservative rule.

Friends of the Earth has also co-ordinated much of the battle against the Newbury bypass, successfully forging links with radical anti-roads groups, even though it did not manage to attract the overwhelming national support that could have brought success. And it has fought a long, little-publicised campaign against the proposed radioactive-waste disposal site at Sellafield, which might yet translate into a victory.

Secrett can also point to several important changes of direction under his leadership. Friends of the Earth has become increasingly concerned with identifying solutions, rather than just raising problems.

It has latterly concentrated on the potential of environmental measures to create some 700,000 jobs, a point recently taken up by the Labour leadership. And it has just opened an Internet site allowing anyone to get details of pollution from any factory in the country. But it has yet to redefine itself for its second quarter of a century and, until it does, it is hard to believe that the old vigour and effectiveness will return.