Howard returns to face criticism of DoE inaction: Minister on another overseas trip as concern grows over environment policy

MICHAEL Howard, the Secretary of State for the Environment, last night returned from his fourth overseas visit in less than two months to face rising concern and criticism about environmental policy at home.

Two important commitments on waste and contaminated land have been dropped or indefinitely delayed in the last two months. Opposition politicians and environmental groups are predictably scornful, but the Government's abrupt changes of tack have also left industry, professional organisations and Tory-controlled councils baffled.

'It's all a bit short-sighted,' said David Cope, director of the UK Centre for Environment and Economic Development, a think tank funded by the Government, industry and trusts. 'The Department of the Environment seems to be flying by the seat of their pants, muddling through.'

Mr Howard's recent trips to India, Canada, the United States, Brussels and Switzerland - he flew back from a meeting of European environment ministers in Lucerne yesterday - reflect the fact that protecting the environment depends more and more on international agreements. Next month he is going to Nairobi.

Back home, tough new controls for the waste industry, set out in the 1990 Environmental Protection Act, had been due to start on 1 April. Less than two weeks before then, they were put off until 1 June. Then, on Thursday, David Maclean, the environment minister, announced an indefinite delay.

'We're baffled - we don't know where we stand now,' said Steve Webb, policy director of the National Association of Waste Disposal Contractors.

The new regime, welcomed by environmental groups and much of the waste industry, would have set high standards for companies and individuals handling waste. To obtain a waste licence they would have had to demonstrate a clean record, adequate financial backing and technical competence. The controls would have replaced a much laxer regime which left a legacy of polluting and sometimes hazardous waste tips.

Mr Maclean pleaded 'technical problems' - his department was finding it difficult to reconcile the new regime with an EC framework directive on waste management. The Tory- controlled Association of County Councils, which will enforce the new regime, expressed 'extreme dismay'.

A month ago, Mr Howard withdrew the Government's plan for registers of contaminated, or potentially contaminated, land after a year of uncertainty and delays.

Britain has huge tracts of former industrial sites in prime development locations whose soil contains high concentrations of toxic metals and chemicals. Policies for identifying the sites, then cleaning or containing the pollution before development, are essential parts of the overall strategy for regenerating cities and easing pressure on the countryside.

Yesterday, the Department of the Environment said: 'Ministers spend no more time abroad than is necessary.' They remained committed to introducing the new waste control regime and addressing the contaminated land issue.

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