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No turning back now

After eight, often controversial years as chief executive of the Environment Agency Barbara Young stepped down last week. Antony Oliver quizzed her on her exit.

For the next couple of weeks, the BBC’s annual Springwatch series will beam evidence of the nation’s environmental health into living rooms with live commentary from nature-guru Bill Oddie.

Environment Agency chief executive Barbara Young is leaving office to head a new healthcare super-quango.

So does she think the Springwatch team would conclude she had done a good job?

"I think Bill Oddie would say that we have been pretty good at delivering for biodiversity," she says reflecting on her eight years in the job.

"The environment has got better. It has improved and that is the only really important thing." She points to cleaner air, cleaner water courses and beaches, fewer pollution incidents as examples.

She also highlights the fact that waste is now dealt with in more sustainable ways with less going to landfill as evidence of the Environment Agency's success.

"We took a very strong focus on environmental outcomes when I arrived and said that the only way to judge our success is if the environment gets better," Young explains.

"We asked: 'what are we going to do to get the environment better?' Everything that we have been doing since has been focused on getting the environment better."

Young has been involved in the environmental world for nearly 20 years, previously serving as chief executive of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds from 1990 to 1998 and as chair of English Nature. She now describes herself as something of an "eco-bore" and vows to remain active in the many environmental charities she now supports.

She adds that she will also be keeping an eye on "one or two bits of unfinished business" in the House of Lords.

Over the years, Young has never been one to shy away from controversy and has in the past used the media spotlight effectively to her advantage. However, last summer's catastrophic flooding across the North and Midlands thrust her and the work of the Environment Agency to centre stage.

The huge economic impact of the floods – some £3bn in direct costs – must, she insists, serve as a reminder of the need for us not to lose sight of climate change and the need to tackle it.

Young dismisses the view that if climate change is inevitable, there is little we can do. "If we are doomed I’m not going down without a fight," she says.

High on her list of successes is the forthcoming Climate Change Bill which she describes as the first time that government has committed itself to carbon budgets, regular reports and an independent committee that will scrutinise them.

"(Government) has given itself a 60 to 80 year set of hooks and it will not be able to get off of them," Young promises. She adds that lobbying by her team has also given the Bill much greater emphasis on adaptation.

"The Bill was very strong on carbon reduction but not strong on adaptation. We got that changed," she says.

"Local government will now have to provide adaptation plans and they are going to be required to report on what they are doing about adaptation." So even though the credit crunch has recently knocked climate change down the mainstream media agenda, Young remains positive.

She points to the Climate Change Bill plus the flooding legislation announced in the pre-Queen's speech as evidence that climate change remains firmly on the all important political radar.

And there is, she adds, good planning policy in place with PPS25 giving the Agency real teeth to prevent inappropriate planning approvals by local authorities.

But funding is never sufficient, despite the amount available for flood defence being raised to £800M between now and 2010. It is highly likely the Agency will miss Young’s forthright manner when it comes to making the case for more cash in the future.

"We are focused on where our money can make the biggest difference," she explains. "As part of our long-term investment strategy we will be laying on the table a set of choices that ministers will need to make about policy for the future on levels of protection, robustness and all of that will have an impact on the levels of investment required."

BARBARA YOUNG: IN HER OWN WORDS:

Coastal defence "It is going to be a very difficult issue because there are some communities that it is just not going to be sensible to defend in the future. We need to flag that well in advance and work with them to move gently back from the coast."

Renewable energy "No technology is enough on its own. Carbon sequestrations, wind, photovoltaics – we will need them all plus a massive efficiency campaign. We are going to have to throw everything that we have got at it."

The Severn Barrage "Let’s have more renewables but not barking mad ones like the Severn Barrage. If we are distinctive for anything, it is for our estuarine systems. Here we are with the most distinctive [estuarine system] and we are going to destroy it for the amount of energy that you can get from two nuclear power stations. If we are going to build 12 nuclear power stations then we may as well build 14."

Surface water flooding "We have said since 1998 that there needs to be stronger national coordination. We are still waiting to get this clarified -that we (the Environment Agency) will take this national overview role."

Flood warning "We are still struggling with getting access to data that would allows us to have an “opt out” flood warning system rather than the current 'opt-in'."

20-year procurement strategy "How do we want to organise to get work done in the most effective ways. Current (long-term) deals lack flexibility – our needs will change but it is quite hard to break long term contracts."

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