Blair backs down over cuts in water clean-up plan

Downing Street has abandoned plans for drastic cuts in cleaning up Britain's rivers and drinking water, following a campaign in The Independent on Sunday.

Last week, Margaret Beckett, the Secretary of State for the Environment, announced that a five-year anti-pollution drive - which Tony Blair had wanted to cut by 40 per cent - would remain virtually intact.

As a result, the Government will be able to force water companies to stop sewer outflows spilling raw sewage into streams and rivers in wet weather; to cut pollution that is threatening Lake Windermere and other waters; to research ways of stopping gender-bender chemicals getting into drinking water; and to protect the country's most important wetlands from pollution and over-exploitation.

Ofwat, the official water regulator, had wanted to slash the programme to keep down water prices, even though it would only save families £2 a year over the next five years on an average £234 water bill. Mr Blair wanted even greater cuts because he was nervous about rising water bills in an election year, following the row over soaring council tax.

The Prime Minister's retreat is a triumph for Mrs Beckett and for environmental groups led by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

The IoS coverage also led to an emergency investigation by the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee, which called ministers and the water industry to account. Last night, Peter Ainsworth MP, the committee chairman, said the IoS campaign had been "timely and effective''. Dr Mark Avery, the RSPB's deputy director, said it had made "a huge difference".

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