Obituary: Andrew Lees

Richard D. North
Sunday 18 September 2011 06:45

Andrew Lees, environmentalist: born Norfolk 8 June 1949; countryside and pesticides campaigner, Friends of the Earth 1985-87, waterwastes and toxics campaigner 1987-90, Campaigns Director 1990-94; died Madagascar c31 December 1994.

Andrew Lees was an environmental campaigner of a kind we will not have again.

Just as environmentalism was becoming professionalised, he brought to it a messianic ardour which reminded everyone that it was a love of nature that mattered. Just as the media was falling in love with the headlines which greenery and scare stories could generate, he displayed a fascination with hard data and a professionalism which kept him free of the charge of sensationalism. It is unlikely that anyone quite so naturally combative, but also innocently so, will be required or produced.

Born in Norfolk, and loving its lowland traditions, Lees had a passion for the waterland: bogs, fens and especially rivers were his natural habitat. He was never happier than when extolling the virtues of soggy country. Wellington boots were required when you were with him, and he is said to have amused people in Madagascar - where aged 46 he has been found dead, apparently of a heart attack, while filming - by persisting with them even in the tropics.

His focus did not so much shift as widen when, in the late Seventies, he began to be interested in the way waste could spill into groundwater. It was hardly surprising that many of us first heard of him in 1980 when he was campaigning against what he thought was a supine Nature Conservancy Council response to a plan by Swansea City Council to tip waste on Crymlyn Bog.

In the early Eighties, Lees was well placed to harry the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the EC's Common Agricultural Policy as they poured grant money into cereals farming, and especially into draining wet meadowland so that it could be converted for the plough. He had started a Friends of the Earth group devoted to Broadland conservation, and was already famous for knowing how to get publicity for his cause. Freelancing for the Observer, I once went with him for a long train-ride across Halvergate Marshes, one of his favourite Norfolk battlegrounds, and he was an exhaustingly enthusiastic guide as we strode, hung over but smoking manfully, to see the scenes where the right of cows to graze might soon be ended. The walk had followed a night spent in part gazing at a vast aquarium, his prize possession, in which examples of British pondlife were given free range.

In 1985, Lees achieved his greatest ambition: to work for FoE nationally. He was appointed to run the countryside and pesticides campaign. There he bloodied the nose of a Norfolk chemicals manufacturer. Lees had scrupulously searched the official recordsfor what the firm should and should not have been discharging. He had long ago realised that often it was the feebleness of a regulatory regime which could be attacked, as much as any supposed wickedness on the part of capitalists. He never lost his appetite for investigating the kind of official documents few journalists could be bothered with.

Even when the environment was on the national agenda, and much cleaning-up had been achieved, he knew where the weak spots were. He campaigned for the abandonment of the last legally permitted 'drins, notorious organochlorine pesticides, and as water privatisation became inevitable he exposed the convenient weakening of sewage treatment standards the new firms would inherit. In this sort of work his natural allies were Geoffrey Lean at the Observer (now at the Indepenndent on Sunday) and Mar ek Mayer atENDS, the environment bulletin: journalists of a very different stamp who both worked closely with him.

Andrew Lees was quite possibly some sort of secular saint, and he had a saint's faults. He was obsessive - at times to the point of tedium. But his attention to detail meant that no one - journalist, minister or industrialist - could afford to ignore him. Lees knew his stuff, and though he was always prepared to milk his story - and he was never short of them - he never indulged in the kind of simple scare story which made the outside world wary of many other campaigners.

Lees's father, at one time a hotelkeeper in Yarmouth, describes himself as a "Turquoise", a deep-blue green, and always admired Andrew's work, though the son showed no Tory tendencies himself. Andrew, one of four brothers, went to a co-educational schoolin Harpenden and then to Cardiff University, where he studied botany and zoology.

Though Lees loved the wildlife of the British Isles, he was equally effective abroad. It was his work in Nigeria in 1988 which traced a consignment of very mixed toxic waste, mostly Italian, which had ended up in loose drums in a rural village. He then tracked the waste as it was re-shipped in the notorious Karin B, which finally ended up, that August, seeking a berth in Britain. Virginia Bottomley was the hapless junior minister in charge of the Department of the Environment during that holiday season, and her officials were able to remind her of an emerging policy, agreed at OECD level, that in principle countries should look after their own waste. The argument was deployed, the Karin B was moved on, and what had been a slow-moving policy began to lo ok politically exciting.

Lees's mission in Madagascar is still unclear, though it is hardly likely that he was there solely to get a tan and to undertake a photo-safari. He was far too committed a campaigner to take an ordinary holiday.

He was not ordinarily ambitious, though he was clearly disappointed when he was not made director of Friends of the Earth after Jonathon Porritt's departure in 1990. In truth, though as FoE's campaigns director he was devoted to his colleagues and liked as much as admired by them, it is hard to see Lees as an administrator. In recent years he became adept at the soundbite, which must have cost a man who so loved detail a deal of self-discipline. But he was never likely to have become a master of statesmanlike compromise and would always have taken the battle to wherever he thought the natural world was being damaged most.

Richard D. North

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