Conservatives will take the axe to cash for environmental protection

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The biggest-ever assault on environmental protection in Britain will be carried out by the Conservatives if they win the general election.

The biggest-ever assault on environmental protection in Britain will be carried out by the Conservatives if they win the general election.

Massive cuts will be made to the budgets and staff of Britain's main pollution and wildlife watchdog bodies, in a programme of which no mention at all is made in the Tory election manifesto.

The shadow Environment Secretary, Tim Yeo, is preparing to take the axe to the Environment Agency, which controls pollution from industry, and flood risk, and English Nature, which is responsible for protecting wildlife from increasing threats.

He has asked the Permanent Secretary at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Sir Brian Bender, to have contingency plans drawn up so he can chop more than 1,500 staff and more than £60m in annual funding from the two bodies.

The savings would be spent by a Tory government on investment in other areas without increasing public borrowing, and on reducing taxes. But senior officials in both the Environment Agency and English Nature said at the weekend the Tory proposals would be disastrous.

Green groups similarly lambasted the idea. "The people the Tories are planning to fire are the green equivalent of bobbies on the beat," said Stephen Tindale, executive director of Greenpeace. "The Conservatives claim to be the party of law and order, but when it comes to environmental crime they seem happy for the polluters and despoilers to go unpunished."

Tony Juniper, director of Friends of the Earth, said: "Environmental challenges are rapidly increasing and it is madness to cut back our capacity to react. Climate change, the loss of wildlife, pollution and resource depletion all need to be addressed by properly funded official agencies. Cutting back on those agencies is cutting back on our children's future."

The proposals have been met in both green bodies with surprise verging on incredulity.

Lady Young of Old Scone, the Environment Agency's chief executive, said they would force the agency to "choose between abandoning vulnerable homes to flooding, allowing streets to become dumping grounds for fly-tipping cowboys and leaving people's health to the goodwill or otherwise of polluting industry, without effective check".

A senior source in English Nature, which looks after Britain's mammals, birds, flowers, insects and other invertebrates, said: "These cuts would have huge consequences in terms of what this organisation might be expected to deliver. They would be disastrous."

However, Mr Yeo strongly defended his plans last night and said the idea that they meant "the end of the world" was "absolutely barmy". He said: "I think to react in this kind of way looks like what you would expect from a lobby that's concerned to protect itself rather than see whether some jobs could be done more efficiently."

News of the Tory proposals is likely to provide the first major green clash between the parties in the election debate, where hitherto the environment has been the forgotten issue.

Margaret Beckett, the Environment Secretary, said that Mr Yeo's planned cuts were "potentially catastrophic". She said: "This is a good example of the devastation that the Tory economic proposals would cause right across the board."

The cuts were first suggested by the James Review, the Tory party's internal report into Whitehall efficiency which has claimed to identify £35bn of potential savings - a sum which has become the basis of the Tory tax-and-spend plans for the election.

The James proposals were first put forward last year and published in full in January, but the environmental details have virtually escaped public scrutiny, with attention focused on proposed cuts in other areas, such as the sweeping away of quangos associated with the Department of Trade and Industry.

The James Report suggested cutting 1,286 jobs - nearly 10 per cent of the workforce - from the Environment Agency, and lopping £47m from its annual funding, and cutting a further 291 jobs from English Nature (which has about 1,000 staff) and its UK-wide supervisory body, the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, with an accompanying annual funding cut of £15m.

This would represent the largest organised assault ever carried out on Britain's environmental protection network.

Mr Yeo contended that the scale of the cuts was not in fact large. He said: "The numbers might sound quite a lot but the Environment Agency has over 10,000 employees. These are organisations that operate in non-competitive environments and it would be very surprising if bodies employing that number of people didn't automatically accumulate a certain amount of fat, couldn't be slimmed down."

Public concern just waiting to be tapped

There are some issues that are almost always at the front of the public's mind. Improving the health service is one such perennial issue. Other issues most of the time appear to lie dormant, but just need their touch paper to be lit. The environment is one.

When asked what are the issues on which they will decide how to vote, the environment comes low on people's lists. Only 4 per cent recently told Mori it was an important issue, even though only 27 per cent think the environment is going to get better over the next 12 months and 40 per cent think it will get worse.

But on occasion the issue rises to the surface. In autumn 2000, after severe floods that appeared to be linked to global warming, the proportion saying it was the most important issue rose to 14 per cent. In summer 1989, soon after Margaret Thatcher had unexpectedly expressed concern about environmental damage, the figure reached 35 per cent.

However none of the three main parties seems to want to follow the former prime minister's example, so even if voters are concerned about the environment they are not sure what they can do about it. According to Mori nearly half of us do not know which party has the best policy on the environment.

Among those who feel they do have some idea of which party has the best policy it is the Liberal Democrats who come out narrowly ahead. This may explain why it is the Liberal Democrats that appear to lose out most when the Green Party does well.

John Curtice is professor of politics at Strathclyde University.