The Government is to be called to account by a powerful parliamentary committee if it goes ahead with plans for deep financial cuts in the programme to clean up Britain's rivers.
The Commons Environmental Audit Committee plans to launch an urgent inquiry into the proposals, which will slash spending on the improvements by almost half over the next five years. As revealed in The Independent on Sunday last week, the cuts are being pushed through by Tony Blair in an attempt to keep down rises in water bills.
Margaret Beckett, the Secretary of State for the Environment, however, last week refused to give way to the Prime Minister and insisted that the programme remain intact. She and her ministers argue that the clean-up programme is the absolute minimum required - not least if Britain is to avoid a string of prosecutions by the European Union.
Peter Ainsworth MP, chairman of the committee - one of only two with the power to summon ministers from across the Government - has written to both Mr Blair and Mrs Beckett, warning them of his intention to hold an inquiry if the cuts go through. He has warned Mrs Beckett that he wants her to explain her decision to the MPs.
"Reductions of this kind would have a devastating impact on habitats and the quality of rivers as a whole," he said last night. "They would also be likely to lead to prosecution by the European Commission."
Mrs Beckett and her ministers point out that the cuts, which would end action to stop raw sewage spilling into rivers, clean up polluted water for shellfish farming and save key wildlife sites, will save £2 a year at most on the average £234 water bill.
Heavy cuts to bills were originally demanded by Ofwat, the official regulator, which has long targeted spending on the environment. But Mr Blair has offered Ofwat even more than it asked for - a 40 per cent reduction.
To Downing Street's irritation, the deadlock between the Prime Minister and Mrs Beckett now threatens the timetable for setting water prices for the next five years. Mrs Beckett was due to make an official announcement on the size of the clean-up programme this week, but because of the row it has not yet been possible to set a date.
Environmental groups, including the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), WWF-UK and the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, will tomorrow write a joint protest letter to Mr Blair. Graham Wynne, the executive director of the RSPB, said he was "delighted" at the committee's plans to investigate.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies