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Christopher Booker's Notebook
(Filed: 25/04/2004)

Here the pavement is '5mm too narrow'
Who knows if these are GMOs?
Gates's billions are safe
The bent banana bounces back

Here the pavement is '5mm too narrow'

As a case study in the decay of Britain's local government, it would be hard to beat the strange affair of the Cross Keys pub in Usk, Monmouthshire, where it seems council officials are happy to deface a 600-year-old Grade I listed building, all because a pavement just down the street is, they say, 5 millimetres (a fifth of an inch) too narrow to accommodate a new pedestrian crossing.

Last year Monmouthshire county council decided that a zebra crossing outside the post office in Usk high street was no longer adequate. Instead they proposed a "puffin crossing", complete with traffic lights, beepers and bulky equipment, right outside the Cross Keys, a historic pub dating from 1368, run by Geraldine Griffiths.

Mrs Griffiths was astonished. The "puffin" would disfigure the frontage of her listed building, replacing the flower tubs and seat on the pavement she owns outside her front door. Zig-zag "no stopping" lines either side of the new crossing would mean that the people delivering her beer would have to roll the full barrels 45 feet down the street. According to the brewery, it would be impossible under health and safety rules (namely, the EC's manual handling directive) for them to continue deliveries. The flashing lights and sounds made by the "puffin", right next to her pub's bedroom windows, would discourage guests.

All this was to be imposed on her because, the council told her, the pavement outside the modern post office and bank was "5 millimetres too narrow" for the existing zebra crossing to be "upgraded", even though the pavement outside the pub is actually narrower. It also turned out that the council had not carried out the feasibility and safety surveys required for such a scheme, and Mrs Griffiths's professional advisers showed how, due to the road's steep camber, heavy lorries would hit the top of the 14 ft 6 in traffic lights.

When Mrs Griffiths enlisted the help of David Davies, her Welsh Assembly Member (who put me onto this story) and obtained 1,400 signatures to a petition deploring the scheme, the council dug in its heels.

In a letter riddled with mis-spellings and grammatical solecisms, D J Harris, head of highways, last week gave Mrs Griffiths a new list of justifications for his scheme, including the astonishing claim that his crossing would have "less impact on the historic buildings" down the street (the 20th century bank and post office) than on her 14th-century pub.

Mr Harris could produce no evidence why the zebra crossing was no longer adequate other than that, last year, "a driver turned their car over" in another part of town (this was in fact a van which crashed because its driver had a heart attack). Mr Harris criticised "the drawing you have sent" as being inaccurate, even though this was the official plan issued by his own department.

Mr Harris ends by stating that the decision to instal the puffin crossing will be made, on his advice, not by the planning committee but by "the Cabined [sic] Member" for the Environment. The oddest thing about our officials is that they seem almost universally to have forgotten that we are still meant to live in a democracy.

Who knows if these are GMOs?

Last week new regulations came into force, in accordance with EC directive 2000/13, making it a criminal offence to sell any human or animal food containing more than 0.9 per cent of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) without making this clear on the label. I have reported before how Josie MacDonald, a Carmarthenshire farmer, noticed that the imported seed she had put out for wild birds grew up into maize and oilseed rape. As a farmer with scientific training and a longstanding concern about GMOs, she wanted to know whether these were GM plants which could spread across the countryside.

In light of the new law, she rang her local trading standards officials. They said they did not have the facilities to test whether her seeds met legal requirements, and told her to ring the Food Standards Agency. The FSA told her to ring Acas, the advisory committee on animal feed. Acas told her to ring the relevant department of the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, who told her that testing the seeds was the responsibility of her local trading standards office, who would definitely have the necessary facilities.

Last week, therefore, in accordance with an edict from Brussels, the Government put into force a new law, on a not-unimportant issue, which it seems the Government has no way of enforcing. Yet if a fisherman is found using a wood-and-rope ladder, instead of the slippery, all-plastic, unsafe version required by EC regulations, our officials have no hesitation in threatening him with a 5,000 fine.

Gates's billions are safe

A month ago, to some fanfare, the Brussels competition commissioner, Mario Monti, announced he was imposing a 331 million fine on Microsoft, the giant US computer corporation, for the crime of giving away a "media player" as part of its Windows operating system. Even though there is nothing to stop customers installing a free rival media player, Mr Monti and his officials had decided that this constituted "unfair competition".

Lord Pearson of Rannoch then asked in the House of Lords how the European Commission proposed to collect the fine. Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean, a Foreign Office minister, explained that, under Article 256 of the Treaty, fines on commercial organisations must be collected by member states. Since Microsoft sells its products in every EU country, I therefore asked the Foreign Office to explain who decides how much of the fine must be collected by the British Government, and who is responsible.

The Foreign Office suggested that responsibility for taking the money off Microsoft would probably fall to the Office of Fair Trading. When I asked the OFT, they said it was nothing to do with them and suggested I should ring the European Commission.

The Commission's London office said it was nothing to do with them and that responsibility probably lay with the Competition Commission. They also said it was nothing to do with them, and that I should go back to the European Commission. I suspect Bill Gates of Microsoft can be confident of holding onto his money for quite a while.

The bent banana bounces back

Nothing better revealed the surreal nature of Mr Blair's statement last week announcing his U-turn on a referendum than his sudden, mad rant about "Euro-myths". A referendum campaign was necessary, he suggested, to counter all the lies peddled about the EU in certain sections of the press - ranging from the claim that, under the constitution, the EU would have a "common foreign policy" (true), to nonsense about "bent bananas".

Blair's outburst was a new twist in one of the longest farces in modern politics. In 1994 Douglas Hurd, as Foreign Secretary, first published a list of "Euro-myths", not least to counter stories in this column about European Commission legislation, and this was subsequently repeated, ad nauseam, by the EC.

Most of these "myths" fall into certain well-defined categories. Some are indeed silly scare stories published by our more excitable newspapers. Others, including several repeated by Mr Blair last week, are so fanciful that no one could ever have seriously put them forward.

But the most comical category, first invented by the Commission in a glossy pamphlet called "So You Still Believe What You Read in the Newspapers?" (nearly half of which was devoted to this column), is what they shamelessly call "True Myths", listing stories which they then have to admit are actually true.

One of these, repeated yet again by Blair, is that hoary favourite about "bent bananas". Why do the Europhiles persist in denying, year after year, that there is any EC regulation laying down "quality standards" for bananas, including a ban on those of "abnormal curvature", when anyone with access to the internet can look up Commission Regulation 2257/94 in less than a minute.

Compared with most of the horrors I report, such as the ecological catastrophe created by the Common Fisheries Policy, this may seem trivial. But if Mr Blair plans to fight his campaign on such flimsy irrelevances, we shall be ready for him - since, on the evidence of his outburst last Tuesday, some of us are considerably better briefed on the curious form of government he favours than he is himself.