The Tories in Bournemouth: Gummer unveils plan for 'green' agency

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The Independent Online
PLANS to create a new environment agency with 9,000 staff were belatedly announced by John Gummer, Secretary of State for the Environment, yesterday.

He published a draft Bill for setting up the agency which the Government intends to push through in the next parliamentary session. This will also include new laws to boost recycling of waste packaging. By 2000, eight out of every ten British homes should be within a few minutes' walk of recycling bins or have glass, paper, cans and plastic collected separately from their doorstep.

The new agency will merge the National Rivers Authority, Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Pollution and local authority waste regulation officers. First promised four years ago, it should be ready to begin work in April 1996.

Some environmental groups fear key phrases in the draft Bill give the agency less power to conserve wildlife and landscapes than the rivers authority was granted.

Lately the Treasury and the Department of Trade and Industry have fought to reduce the burden of 'green' regulation on industry and commerce. A clause has been inserted in the draft Bill saying the agency has to weigh costs against benefits in exercising its powers.

'They're worried that we are creating a monster,' said a Department of the Environment source. 'In these deregulatory times, to have got the go-ahead for the agency has been a significant achievement.'

Mr Gummer told the conference: 'There will be no places for environmental busybodies.' The agency will be responsible for licensing to discharge wastes into the river and sea and for licensing to move, store and dump solid waste, ranging from domestic rubbish to toxic residues. It will take over the National Rivers Authority's functions in land drainage and flood defence, fisheries and inland navigation.

It will also cover the pollution inspectorate's roles of licensing discharges of radioactive waste and regulating all the emissions to land, air and water from the 4,500 most polluting industrial plants in England and Wales. Scotland is to have its own separate agency.

A 'shadow board' for the new agency will be appointed in the next few months with a chairman who will head the agency working three days a week and earning more than pounds 70,000 a year.

Lord Crickhowell, a former Secretary of State for Wales and chairman of the National Rivers Authority, is not in the running. Nor is another name mooted, Sir David Trippier, a former environment minister, who lost his parliamentary seat at the last election. It is understood that he has been vetoed by Robert Atkins, the present environment minister.

The agency will enforce environmental standards but will not have the power to set them - that will remain for ministers and the European Union. It will answer to the Secretary of State for the Environment, not Parliament. On packaging, Mr Gummer said legislation was needed to ensure that no companies welshed on their obligation to curb the wastage of material which wraps goods and food.

A group of 28 leading companies, including Boots, Sainsbury, ICI, Unilever and Marks & Spencer, have come up with a scheme to re-use more than half of packaging waste by 2000. It will cost pounds 40m a year to run at first. The money will be raised by a levy on packaging material, which, initially, will add about pounds 2 a year to each household's shopping bills.