Cold showers: just what the DoE needs

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Venturing into the Department of the Environment's new eco-friendly headquarters last week for an office-warming party with John Gummer, I ran into Big Brother instead.

"You will wish to be aware," said a note thrust into my hand, "that this is a no-smoking building." "Invisible beams" and other "detection devices" would be scanning the room to see if anyone lit up. Any offence "could lead to an evacuation".

I gave up fags at the age of 12, after my very first puff, and believe all that evidence on passive smoking, so I'm always glad not to have to breathe the stuff. But I couldn't help wondering how the late Environment Secretary, Sir Nicholas Ridley, would have reacted.

Old Nick was a heroic chain smoker. It was said that his desktop sported just an in-tray and an ashtray. And nobody bridled more violently at the merest hint of regulation (unless, of course, he had brought it in himself).

What, I asked, if the next Environment Secretary smoked? Consternation. He or she, I was told first, would have to use the two special smoking rooms like everyone else. But then the dreadful prospect of a Privy Councillor mixing with junior officials - and perhaps being nobbled by them - sank in: modifications might, after all, be made for ministers' offices. As things stand, they would be drenched by fire sprinklers the moment they lit up, courtesy of the "invisible beams" - a happy thought that sent me cheerfully on my way.

! The point of the no-smoking policy may be to keep out Greens. A disconcerting number of anti-pollution campaigners emit their own carcinogen clouds. But otherwise they should give the new building, near Victoria Station, at least a single cheer.

All sorts of energy-saving devices have been built in. Lights switch off when they detect no movement, making particularly pensive (or comatose) officials leap up and wave their arms on being plunged into darkness. Window shutters drop automatically to stop heat escaping, reminding John Gummer (he's that generation, I'm afraid) of "Dick Barton being crushed in a cider press". And, as the handout puts it, "shower facilities have been provided to encourage the use of bicycles".

All this is revolutionary here, if not much by US standards. There, a programme of "greening" the White House is already saving energy worth $200,000 a year. The Audubon Society building in New York boasts floors made from old newspapers and crushed glass, and lavatories moulded from recycled plastic bottles. And energy expert Amory Lovins - who once judged 10 Downing Street the second most wasteful government building he had ever visited - grows bananas in his home high in the Rocky Mountains, without burning a single unit of fuel.

But at least the building is much better than the three-towered Westminster monstrosity it replaces. The view from the top of the old Department is one of the best in London, but only because it's the only one with a view that it isn't in (if you follow me). It is now going to be pulled down and replaced with homes, shops and offices.

But the old monster was built on a disused gasworks site, contaminated land which is likely to give off cyanide and other nasties. The Department was about to bring in new rules forcing landowners to clean up such sites at vast expense. Oddly, these have just been postponed. Surely there's no connection?

! Meanwhile, the Labour leadership has made an abrupt and dishonourable U-turn. By a strange anomaly, twice as much VAT is charged on insulation materials as on fuel. Bringing it down to the same level would save energy , kick-start the conservation industry, and create an estimated 10,000 jobs.

Last year shadow Treasury minister, Dawn Primarolo, said the VAT cut was a matter of "justice, jobs, democracy and energy efficiency". But this year Labour MPs were ordered not to support it in an amendment to the Finance Bill: had they done so, it would have been carried. And Labour has still not produced a long-promised policy to help the elderly insulate their homes, saving many lives. Both seem to be casualties of Gordon Brown's paranoia over public spending .

! Back at the Department, a touch of cynicism has survived the environmental correctness. Visitors to the Secretary of State pass through the division responsible for making recommendations for the Honours List - a subtle reminder that they will have to mind their Ps and Qs if they want their Ks and CBEs.

Geoffrey Lean was last week voted "the most impressive environmental journalist in Britain", for the fifth year in succession, by his peers, polled by MORI.