Rivers boss on mission to clean up Britain

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The Independent Online
BRITAIN'S first pollution supremo will launch himself into office in the next few weeks with a piece of rare good news. Ed Gallagher, the newly-appointed chief executive of the new Environment Agency, will announce that rivers in England and Wales are getting cleaner at a record rate.

The National Rivers Authority (NRA), which Gallagher has headed for the past three years, is to release figures next month showing the biggest- ever improvement in the quality of rivers over a single year. It will report that in 1994 the rivers were 26 per cent cleaner than in 1990: figures for 1993 and 1992 showed 15 per cent and 10 per cent improvements.

Much of the credit for the clean-up goes to Gallagher, a guitar-playing businessman who has overcome early suspicions towards becoming an unlikely environmental hero. He provides a rare vindication of the Thatcherite penchant of recruiting businessmen into public service. Even Friends of the Earth confess that they find him "not unimpressive".

Some time this month the Queen is expected to give the Royal Assent to an Environment Bill that has been winding its way, almost unnoticed, through Parliament over the past seven months. This will set up the long- delayed Environment Agency more than 10 years after it was proposed by the then Junior Environment Minister William Waldegrave. He believed there was a need for a single agency to co-ordinate Britain's traditionally fragmented pollution control.

It was finally announced by John Major in the summer of 1991 as a last- minute addition to give substance to his first important Green speech. But despite the Prime Minister's undertaking, the Bill was dropped from successive Queen's speeches, only making it into the Parliamentary programme last autumn.

The agency will bring together the control of river and beach pollution, air pollution from the most dangerous factories, waste disposal, contaminated land, flood prevention and the recycling of packaging in England and Wales.

Scotland, which has always had separate arrangements, will have its own agency.

The 50-year-old Gallagher - who was chosen for the job ahead of the Director of the HM Inspectorate of Pollution, Dr David Slater, and the Environment Department's Deputy Secretary in charge of Environmental Protection, Derek Osborn - comes from an unlikely background.

A prize-winning engineering student at Sheffield University, he worked for Black & Decker for 15 years, centralising and downsizing its operation at its US headquarters, before becoming manufacturing director of Amersham International.

He applied for the job of chief executive of the NRA after seeing a newspaper advertisement along with 579 others, though he adds: "I knew the headhunters so tried to make sure I was not lost among all the people.''

He was recruited as a manager: the NRA, after rapidly building up its Green credentials by prosecuting Shell in its first weeks of existence, had become beset with administrative problems.

His appointment surprised and alarmed environmentalists, who were at first sceptical of his background and scornful of his lack of knowledge of the more arcane corners of pollution control. But he has won a grudging respect not least by campaigning with them against deficiencies in the Environment Bill.

"He has done a reasonable job," says Charles Secrett, executive director of Friends of the Earth. "He has not been a paper tiger: indeed, like John Gummer, the Environment Secretary, he has turned out better than we expected. We will keep our fingers crossed for his performance in the new job."

Mr Gallagher himself says his position is "towards the greener end of the spectrum between Greenpeace and the Institute of Directors". He adds: "You have always got to go faster than industry wants and perhaps slower than the more aggressive environment groups would like."

He is, however, somewhat beleaguered by Government, even before he starts. Ministers have been squeezing the NRA's funds and the HMIP's staff and Gallagher will be expected to make further cuts in the agency's 9,000 employees.

He hopes to offset some of the squeeze through "innovative" ways of financing the agency, particularly by "incentive charges" on polluters.

He says: "The polluters should pay rather than the beneficiaries of pollution control, the taxpayers." He would like to levy charges according to the scale of the pollution so that the dirtiest firms pay most. "This has a seductive appeal," he says.

He cites as another example of innovative financing talks that the NRA and the Department of Environment are having about setting up a market in "tradeable permits" for pollution in a yet undecided estuary.

All firms discharging into the estuary would have a share of an overall quota of pollution and would be able to trade them so that companies that were cleaning up could sell part of their share to dirtier firms.