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Barbara Young - How to save the planet?

Cover story - As the Environment Agency prepares to celebrate its 10th anniversary next month, chief executive Baroness Young tells Antony Oliver about tackling the planet's biggest issues.

At the end of last year Barbara Young was reappointed as Environment Agency chief executive after her first five year term of office.

This vote of confidence gives her a secure mandate to talk candidly and often critically about the environmental needs of the nation. It is refreshing to hear.

'Ministers call [me a] loose cannon, ' she muses, half joking but clearly also half relishing the label. 'I did seriously think that ministers wouldn't reappoint me.' Baroness Young of Old Scone she may be, but Barbara, she assures, is her preference.

Her conversation is serious, thoughtful and politically astute but down to earth.

And when it comes to the big issues of balancing the needs of the environment with the needs of society, serious, thoughtful and political she has to be.

Young plays down her influence on policy, but she is clear about the breadth of the Agency's reach.

Providing it is given ministerial clearance, the Agency's new strategy is due out next month, coinciding with its 10th anniversary celebrations. In the last decade there has been a radical change in the Agency's priorities. While it remains the delivery arm of the Department of the Environment, Food & Rural Affairs and enforcer of policy, the increase in public, political and business interest in the environment has ramped up its sphere of influence.

'If you look at what we do there are very few walks of life that we don't have a role in, ' Young explains. 'We girdle the whole of human life.' Perhaps as never before, the work of the Agency has taken on a vital role for the future of the nation. Whether it be energy policy, water resources, coastal and inland flood control, or waste management, the Agency has thousands of experts on hand to advise and solve problems.

Tackling climate change has rocketed to the top of the agenda. This includes the need to identify its causes, bring forward solutions and influence debate, but also the critical need to manage the growing number of secondary effects.

'Quite a lot of the things that need to be resolved in the environmental field are politically hot, ' says Young. 'But ultimately they will be resolved - the important thing is that they do not take too long.' Political manoeuvring over environmental issues has a track record of being frustratingly slow. Yet Young manages to be upbeat. For example, she describes last summer's G8 Gleneagles meeting as 'better than it might have been'.

'It kept the ball in play and has certainly influenced President Bush, ' she says. 'America is at last saying that there is such a thing as climate change.' A crucial signal was also sent last November, she says, with publication of the Prague Statement by all the environment departments of Europe. This underlined the business case for imposing high environmental standards.

Yet despite these straws in the wind, Young is highly realistic about the scale of the challenge faced by her team. And equally clear about who has the ultimate power to act. Only government, she states, can set policy. She explains that the Agency, like many other expert groups, can draw on its technical expertise to influence. But only ministers can take the decisions.

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