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Christopher Booker's Notebook
(Filed: 18/04/2004)

Devon villagers to fight them on the beaches
MEPs' rebellion threatens vote
The 10cm of God
The train to absurdity

Devon villagers to fight them on the beaches

More than 1,000 south Devon villagers are up in arms over a plan by English Nature to close the road which runs along the beach at Slapton Sands, a famous beauty spot, and eventually to allow the sea to break through the shingle bank, turning the largest freshwater lake in the south west, which is on the other side of the road, into a saltmarsh.

Many of the villagers of Torcross and Stokenham use the A379 road along the top of the bank to drive eight miles to their work in Dartmouth, the nearest big town. But under English Nature's plans, to meet the requirements of EC conservation policy, they would have to drive 21 miles via an inland route, and see the gradual destruction of the lake which for 20 years has been designated a National Nature Reserve for its exceptional combination of freshwater fauna and flora.

Following severe damage caused by a storm in January 2001, which closed the road along the shingle bank for many weeks, English Nature seemed happy for the road to be reinstated, and for boulders to be used to reinforce the bank which preserves the lake behind it.

But following an EU-sponsored study, and in response to the EU's "living with the sea" programme, this policy has been reversed.

Tucked away in English Nature's recent statements (available on are clear indications that it would now like to see the road closed ("with stakeholder involvement, removal of the road would be the most appropriate outcome") and the sea allowed to break through to the lake behind. Already some sea-defences have been removed, and English Nature welcomes the prospect that eventually the bank will be breached.

Socially and financially this would be a serious blow, not just to the local community but to the thousands of tourists who flock to Slapton Sands each summer to make the spectacular drive along the beach. Many come to see the memorial to one of the longest-hushed-up disasters of the Second World War, when, just before D-Day, 639 US soldiers and sailors died in a night attack by German E-boats.

Villagers fear that, with the road closed, many local businesses would close.

In conservation terms, it may seem strange that English Nature is so happy to see the destruction of the lake, which was only made a National Nature Reserve because of its unique freshwater ecology, home to many rare birds (including bitterns), flowers, lichens and fungi.

But the European Commisson, under its "EUrosion" or "LIFE" programme, is keen to see "managed retreat" of shorelines giving way to saltmarsh ("decisions at Slapton" says English Nature, "will need to reflect European drivers").

And under the EU's Biodiversity Action Plan, as part of its Natura 2000 framework strategy, the UK is committed to coming up with 100 projects that enhance "biodiversity", of which Slapton is one.

The "managed retreat" policy also accords with that of the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in wishing to save money on coastal defences, and to spend smaller sums on EU-approved conservation schemes.

If the sea is allowed to break through Slapton beach to turn the lake into a marsh everyone, from Brussels to Defra and English Nature, will be happy: everyone, that is, except the 1,200 residents of Torcross and Stokenham, and, of course, the bitterns.

MEPs' rebellion threatens vote

Readers of this column may not have been surprised by last week's eruption of press speculation that Tony Blair is contemplating a referendum on the EU constitution, which he could turn into a Yes or No vote on Britain staying in the EU.

Three times last year I reported that Downing Street was contemplating such a "nuclear option", with the idea of wrongfooting a Tory leadership so determined that Britain must remain in the EU that it would be forced shamefacedly to line up alongside Mr Blair and the Lib Dems, in opposing all those who wish Britain to leave.

Meanwhile Michael Howard is facing fresh embarrassment, as the Euro-elections approach, over his decision that Tory members of the European Parliament must remain part of the ultra-federalist European People's Party.

In 1999 the present Tory MEPs were elected on a manifesto pledge that they would fight against the fraud which had just forced the resignation of the entire European Commission.

No one took this more seriously than Chris Heaton-Harris, an East Midlands MEP, whose battle to expose the succession of corruption scandals eventually led him - although he was now the Tories' chief whip - to put down a motion of censure on the present Commission for its failure to act over the fraud scandal engulfing Eurostat, the EU's statistical office.

Thirty-two other Tories, including their leader Jonathan Evans, also signed Mr Heaton-Harris's motion, which went a long way towards the 63 MEPs needed to get the motion on the order paper.

But recently Hans-Gerd Pottering, the German leader of the EPP, told Mr Evans that for the motion to go ahead would not be helpful to the EU's reputation.

Making nonsense of the claim that Tory MEPs do not have to comply with the EPP's policies, Mr Evans asked his MEPs to remove their names.

Most caved in and withdrew, although Mr Heaton-Harris not only stood his ground but resigned as chief whip.

When the censure motion was handed in on Thursday by Jens-Peter Bonde, the Danish leader of the Europe of Democracies and Diversities group (which also includes the three UK Independence Party MEPs), only nine Tory names remained. By Friday two more had withdrawn.

The seven who, despite intense pressure, have stood firm are thus the only Tory MEPs who have stayed true to the central pledge on which they were all elected in 1999.

In due course this may pale besides the embarrassment of Mr Howard if Mr Blair does opt for his "in or out" referendum gamble.

But as a measure of the mess the Tories get into when they try to play weasel games over Europe, thus showing contempt for the views of most of their grass-roots membership, this shabby episode deserves more publicity than it has received.

The 10cm of God

I am grateful to those readers who have pointed out the fascinating way in which the English version of The Good News Bible has been brought into line with the EU's compulsory metrication policy.

When God told Noah to build his ark, he ordered him to construct "a boat 133 metres long, 22 metres wide and 13 metres high", with a space between the roof and the sides (presumably for the animals to breathe) "of 44 centimetres". These were apparently God's exact words.

Goliath, we then learn, "was nearly 3 metres tall and wore bronze armour that weighed about 57 kilogrammes".

When Solomon came to build his temple, this was "27 metres long, 9 metres wide and 13.5 metres high".

What makes this po-faced "modernisation" so incongruous is that it is based, of course, on a very crude, mathematically inconsistent translation from the original "cubits": a cubit being 18 inches, or the length from elbow to the tip of middle finger (cubitum is the Latin for "elbow").

In cubits, the temple measured 60 by 20 by 30, or 90 feet by 30 feet by 45 feet (as in the American version), which in round numbers gives the sense of an exactly-proportioned structure. Similarly, the ark built by Noah was 450 feet by 75 by 45.

No doubt the European Commission will be delighted at the idea that God Himself spoke in metric, but I doubt whether it will be too pleased by the idea of fitting two creatures of every species into such a space. I fear that, under the Welfare of Animals in Transport directive, Noah would have soon been taken off the job to face criminal charges.

The train to absurdity

I am delighted to report that, as new members of the EU, Malta and Cyprus have won the right to nominate lavishly-paid members of the EU's new Railways Agency, set up to oversee the running of all the EU's railways, even though neither of these small countries actually has any railways.

This is no more absurd than the fact that UK fisheries ministers must sign "designation orders" permitting Luxembourg and Austria access to Britain's fishing waters, containing four-fifths of all Europe's fish, and that the ministers of these two landlocked countries help to decide the Common Fisheries Policy, even though between them they do not have a single fishing boat.