The Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) has launched a major overhaul of its travel policy with the aim of cutting flights within mainland Britain by half within a year.
According to Sepa's chief executive, Campbell Gemmell, some staff have an "alarming dependency" on expensive and polluting flights to London. "This needs to change," he said in an internal email.
The green watchdog's dramatic shift follows a Sunday Herald exposé in November. We revealed that Sepa officials had taken 1,500 flights between Scotland and England in the last year, more per member of staff than most other public sector agencies.
At the time Sepa was accused of being a "serial polluter" by environmentalists, who condemned the high number of flights as "utterly unacceptable". But now the agency has accepted that its behaviour must improve.
Sepa management has approved plans for a 50% reduction in UK mainland flights between 2006-07 and 2007-08. Air travel must have written permission from managers, and staff have been told only to fly as a last resort.
"We recognise that we haven't got the overall balance right yet but we are striving to do so," said Sepa's Director of Environmental Protection, Colin Bayes.
An insight into the thinking behind the change comes in the email from Gemmell to colleagues within Sepa, released in response to a request under freedom of information legislation.
"I am concerned that we are not walking the talk," Gemmell wrote in November. "Although I have personally tried to lead by example, many staff are not following."
Sepa had "a leadership role" and needed to reflect that fact that it was spending public money, he said. "That, to some extent, leaves us vulnerable to criticism, especially where we can't clearly articulate our use justification and improvement plans."
Sepa's air travel shake-up was welcomed by environmental groups yesterday. "I am very pleased that the Sunday Herald's exposure of Sepa's poor record has prompted a major rethink," said Richard Dixon, director of WWF Scotland.
"The 50% reduction target over the next year shows admirable ambition and I look forward to a much improved report next time."
Information released last week by the Scottish Parliament shows that its 500 staff took over 260 flights with mainland Britain in 2005-06. At more than 0.5 flights per member of staff, that is lower than Sepa or the Scottish Executive, but higher than Historic Scotland, Scottish Water or the Forestry Commission.