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Wednesday, 22 November, 2000, 18:27 GMT
Prescott skips climate talks

By environment correspondent Alex Kirby in The Hague

With the UN climate conference in The Hague just 48 hours from its scheduled end, the UK's Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, spent much of the day elsewhere.

The conference has still not bridged several deep divides over how to implement the Kyoto Protocol, the international climate treaty.

But Mr Prescott left the conference hall to spend Wednesday afternoon learning about flood defences.

UK environment groups expressed dismay at his decision.

'Not helpful'

Cherry Farrow of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) told BBC News Online: "There's been some consternation that, at this stage of the negotiations, Mr Prescott should go off on a four-hour press trip.

"It won't have done anything to move the process along, and it's not helpful."

Two days ago Mr Prescott said he would do what he could to help the conference to a successful conclusion.

He said: "Three years ago at Kyoto, the UK secured for itself the trust and understanding of people involved, and I hope we can use that here to help to produce a result."

In the event, though, he left the negotiating to his deputy, the Environment Minister Michael Meacher.

Mr Prescott chose instead to attend a briefing by a German company, IBS, which makes portable flood defence systems - aluminium walls which can be put in place quickly when a flood threatens, up to a height of four metres, and able to stretch for more than 1.5 kms.

He said the town of Shrewsbury, which was hit hard by the recent floods, had rejected a proposed permanent flood defence scheme, and was now looking at the IBS system instead.

The snag with the system is its cost: 1,600 Deutschmarks (about 500) per square metre, or 25-30% more than a permanent structure would cost.

Asked how he could help Shrewsbury and similar towns, Mr Prescott said: "I'm just going to go and ask for more money."

After briefings by Dutch officials on their flood defence approach, he headed off to see the problem for himself by the side of a canal near the town of Delft, proclaiming the Netherlands "the home of flood defences".

'We can learn from the Dutch'

Part of the Dutch strategy is a sophisticated system of water management, pumping water from one level to another to make sure it does not often overwhelm the land, much of which lies below sea-level.

Mr Prescott said: "We can learn an awful lot from the Dutch about the management of water flows.

"When people in the UK see flooded fields, they get worried. But that is part of water management."

He told BBC News Online: "We have to learn to say in the UK that floods in the right place don't matter. They're part of managing the water.

"We're going to have to look at acquiring powers to forbid development in floodplains. The Netherlands is one big floodplain, and they have those powers."

A Dutch official described the banning of development along the country's main rivers as "not very popular but quite successful".

Asked how he thought the climate conference was going, Mr Prescott said: "There are signs of agreement. I'm still optimistic."

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