Aug 15 2004
Christopher Booker's notebook
Prescott oversees Britain's silent metamorphosis British Standards no longer fit Mandelson joins the real government
One of the best kept secrets of British politics is the extraordinary power wielded by Mr John Prescott, through his "Office of the Deputy Prime Minister" (ODPM). When Mr Blair trots off on his August round of freebies, it is customary to treat the man he leaves minding the store as something of a joke. What gets overlooked is the extent to which Mr Prescott is transforming how Britain is governed, mainly by arbitrary fiat.
A symbolic instance last week was Mr Prescott's issuing of his Policy Planning Statement (PPS) 22, the edict giving central government the power to override the wishes of local councils in ramming through proposals to cover hundreds of square miles of countryside in wind turbines. The Government can only hope to meet its EU-agreed target of generating 20 per cent of our energy from "renewable" sources by 2020 by building some 20,000 more turbines. This can only happen, as Mr Prescott realises, by ditching our existing planning rules and allowing the Government to brush aside the views of local communities. Mr Prescott is using similar methods to push through his plans to see 1,400,000 new homes built in the south-east of England over the next 20 years. This is equivalent to nearly 30 new cities the size of Oxford or Cambridge. Again Mr Prescott can only get his way by scrapping existing planning rules wholesale, notably those designed to protect the green belt. This in turn relates to the way that Mr Prescott is railroading through the greatest revolution in local government that Britain has ever seen. Its centrepiece is his plan to divide the UK under 12 regional governments, as part of the creation of a "Europe of the regions".
He has already given four regions their governments: Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London. He hopes to embark on the final stages of the process in November, when the first referendum on creating similar governments for the eight remaining English "Euro regions" is held in the North East.
Prescott's further plan to create "sub-regions", which willoverride much of the existing county and borough council structure, is still largely under wraps. The starting point is four "sub-regional" bodies for London. It is a condition of the new regional governments that county councils be abolished, to be replaced by "unitary authorities". Contrary to their name, these will be subordinate to two tiers of regional government above them.
The masterstroke in the engineering of Mr Prescott's revolution has been to make sure that he never explains clearly what he is up to. His hope has been that, by setting about it piecemeal, no one will cotton on to his grand plan. His error, however, may have been to include "the people" in the equation, by allowing referendums on his regional governments. Until now, by a combination of stealth and chutzpah, he has got his way. But if he loses that referendum in the North-East, which looks possible, his bluff will at last be called, That is why November's vote should be viewed not just as a local issue but as an event of national significance.
There is nother revolution in British life for which Mr Prescott is responsible - albeit as enforcer of a diktat from Brussels. This is about to turn upside down the world of our structural engineers, the people who make sure our buildings and bridges don't fall down.
Until now, construction has been governed by a mass of British Standards and codes of practice, refined over decades. Soon, in the name of EU "harmonisation", these standards will be replaced by a new system known as "Eurocodes": 57 incredibly complex technical manuals which by 2010 will radically change the way in which Britain's buildings are designed and constructed. Switching over to this new system will impose huge costs on Britain's engineers, many of whom fear that the new codes - patched together after years of argument between the 15 countries responsible for drawing them up - may result in structures considerably less safe and efficient than at present.
Earlier this year, the Institute of Structural Engineers was commissioned by Mr Prescott's ODPM to produce, in just three months, a report on the practical implications of the new system. In financial terms alone, the report estimated an initial cost to a small-to-medium size practice of £250,000, including £20,000 for new software, £72,500 on familiarising people with the new system and a staggering £128,000 on "loss of productivity during the first year of change".
Brian Smith, a consultant to Flint and Neill, the firm that designed the Millennium Bridge, says this £250,000 estimate represents "a very high proportion of the annual income of a small practice - it could be the entire profit margin".
A further chilling item in the report points out that unless insurers can be convinced that "the change of codes will not lead to increased risk", this will also inevitably bring a rise in premiums.
The ODPM's response to the report, just published, is almost a parody of what happens when our new technocratic rulers attempt to impose "integrated solutions" on our national ways of doing things. Here is a typical passage: " . . . it is a Country's right not to recognise an Informative Annexe as being acceptable in that country; in such a case the relevant National Annex must state that the Informative Annex is not accepted. If the contents of the rejected Informative Annex are covered in a suitable National document, a reference to such a document is permitted in the National Annex under the item 'non-contradictory complementary information'.
From a Eurocode user's point of view, it will be somewhat inconvenient to jump back and forth from the body of the document to the National Annex. Unfortunately an NSB is not permitted to publish a National version of the Code with the parameters from the National Annex incorporated into the EN text. Users of the Codes may, of course, mark up their own copies of the Code with the values of NDPs etc.
The Eurocode recognises that alternative application rules, from those given in the Code, may be used, but they should not be contradictory. However, it is not permitted for National alternatives to be included in the BS-EN publication, either in the text or the National Annex. Indeed Guidance Paper L and EN 190 contain a warning that, if an alternative application rule is substituted for one in the Code, the resulting design cannot be claimed to be in accordance with the Eurocode, even if it meets the principle [sic] rules given in the Code."
Thank you, Mr Prescott. I just hope our buildings stay up.
Coverage of the newly-named European Commissioners predictably focused on Peter Mandelson; although not even the BBC could work out whether this was good news for Britain, on the grounds that the trade commissioner wields great power, or bad news, on the grounds that, since he is frequently away from Brussels, this means that for much of the time Britain will not have a commissioner at all.
The real point, however, is that these new commissioners will be in many respects our government. Since even the Cabinet Office now admits that half our laws are made in Brussels, and since only the Commission has the right to initiate those laws, the new Commission President, Mr Barroso, and his colleagues will arguably have more power over how we are governed than anyone around Mr Blair in London. For instance, Joe Borg, the Maltese who is to run the EU's Fisheries Policy, will have infinitely more say in what happens to UK fishing waters than our own ministers, who have little more power than office boys.
Dennis McShane, our "Europe minister", was rightly excoriated last week for wheeling out, yet again, the tired old claim that anyone who dares criticise the EU is a "xenophobe". The point is that we are faced with a new system of government, like nothing the world has seen before. To suggest that this system is inefficient, corrupt, undemocratic and doomed ultimately to collapse, is not a matter of xenophobia. To those of us who observe its workings in detail, alas, it is simply common sense.