Watchdog puts himself in the dock

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IN ONE of the most bizarre confusion of roles ever seen in a British courtroom, the country's chief environmental watchdog is effectively to prosecute himself this week.

John Ailwyn Fellowes, the fourth Baron de Ramsey, is both chairman of the official Environment Agency and director of the family firm, Worlick Farms Ltd, which the EA is prosecuting for taking too much water from a farm ditch. He told the Independent on Sunday yesterday that the firm will be pleading guilty when the case comes up on Wednesday.

The case, which one senior colleague has described as "the final embarrassment", comes as the 57-year-old Winchester-educated hereditary peer, a friend and neighbour of John Major, is about to leave the job early after a controversial tenure. Since Labour came to power, ministers have been determined to squeeze him out of the job for which he is paid pounds 52,000 a year for a two- and-half-day week.

He faced calls for his resignation from MPs and environmental pressure groups after he allowed part of his land to be used to test genetically modified beet, sold another part for housing, and failed to attend the publication of a damming report into the agency's handling of the 1998 Easter floods which hit central England and Wales.

Wednesday's case, which will be heard at Huntingdon Magistrates Court, charges that the firm took too much water to fill three small reservoirs on its land from a farm ditch. Water can be taken only under a licence from the agency, which specifies how much can be abstracted.

It is particularly embarrassing because the agency, under Lord de Ramsey's leadership, has campaigned on the over-abstraction of water which has reduced some rivers to trickles, devastating wildlife.

But Lord de Ramsey says that no damage had been done to the environment by what was a "technical" offence, said to have occurred because of a leak in the pipe filling the reservoirs, which had returned the water to the ditch. But he added that he told his staff: "You must do what you have got to do."

A senior colleague agreed that he had taken the position that if the firm had committed an offence it should be held accountable for it. And he added that the case showed the agency's impartiality in even being prepared to prosecute its leader.

The environment minister Michael Meacher is shortly to announce the new chairman of the agency. The final choice is between Sir John Harman, Leader of Kirklees Council, and the present deputy chairman Bryan Sanderson, chief executive of BP Amoco Chemicals. The choice is expected to give a strong indication of the future direction of the agency, which has been under some pressure, particularly from Downing Street, to be more lenient with industry. Insiders believe that the appointment of Mr Sanderson would give a clear signal that it was going to be so; however, Mr Meacher has been backing Sir John, who is now believed to be the favourite.