In an unprecedented rolling-back of environmental legislation, the European Commission agreed to replace tough water pollution laws with weaker directives allowing individual countries to set many of their own controls. A senior British official last night predicted that Britain would 'reduce standards'.
The moves, which Opposition spokesmen denounced as a 'disaster' and as beginning the dismantling of EC environment policy, are a striking success for a five-month campaign by Britain and France to weaken EU laws on air and water pollution. Britain has been successfully prosecuted in the European Court for breaching both drinking and bathing water laws in the past 13 months. It faces further legal action over contaminated drinking water. A fifth of Britian's beaches still fail EC health standards.
As part of yesterday's agreement the beaches and drinking water directives are among 16 measures that will be weakened when more power is given to individual member states. The Commission is to bring forward four new 'framework directives' on water pollution, which will be less detailed and prescriptive.
British officials in Brussels said this would give the UK greater power to determine standards and the timescale over which targets are reached. The Commission's announcement is the biggest-ever revision of its environmental legislation, and directives covering pollution of groundwater and water quality for fish in rivers and lakes are also likely to be replaced.
The changes agreed were on a secret 'hit-list' drawn up by the British and French governments at a closed meeting in London in July.
As reported in the Independent on Sunday in October, the list also targets the laws controlling nitrogen dioxide, which doctors believe exacerbates the asthma epidemic affecting one child in every seven in Britain. The drive to weaken the legislation has been led within the Government by John Major himself and Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
They have overridden protests from John Gummer, Secretary of State for the Environment, that it would be politically unpopular to be seen to be dismantling EC pollution laws.
Chris Smith, Labour's spokesman on environmental protection, said: 'This is a disaster for Britain's environment. The Prime Minister appears to think that the British people are perfectly happy with dirty beaches and unclean drinking water. They are not. The Government should be insisting on improving standards, not reducing them.'