Christopher Booker's notebook(Filed: 12/12/2004)
Luxury buses will be treated as public service vehicles
From the end of this month, hundreds of coaches used on school runs will become illegal thanks to a red tape bombshell just announced by the Department for Transport. Coach operators were open-mouthed at a recent seminar when they were told by Donald Macdonald, of the DfT's Mobility and Inclusion Unit, that many would now have to comply with the Public Service Vehicle (Accessibility) Regulations 2000, implementing the Disability Discrimination Act. Not only will it be years before any fully-compliant vehicles are available, but to fit existing vehicles with wheelchair loading lifts and other required changes would be enormously expensive.
But this is only the beginning of the legal gauntlet that the coach operators will now be forced to run. So far the rules only apply to coaches built since 2000 and used on school runs where parents make some contribution to their children's travel costs. Coaches contracted to local councils are exempt. But coaches used by private schools, or by parents outside a school catchment area, are now deemed to be "public service vehicles".
As a result, even if these coaches are only operated privately, they will have to carry illuminated destination boards and be reconstructed to comply with the complex requirements of a series of EC bus directives covering such things as wheelchair lifts, seating, spacing and stair heights. Handrails, for instance, must "have a circular cross section with a diameter of not less than 30mm and not more than 35mm, or when fitted at either side of an entrance or exit, an oval cross section the maximum section of which is not more than 35mm and not less than 30mm, and the minimum section of which is not less than 20mm".
Peter Osborne, a coach operator from Southampton, who was referred to me by his MP, Julian Lewis, says: "I have six new coaches on school runs. Four are under local authority contract and therefore exempt. The other two are used by children whose parents club together to pay the fares because they are out of area. As from January 1 these become illegal".
As Mr Lewis puts it: "If Mr Osborne goes out and buys two old bangers built before 2000, they are legal. If he continues to use his new coaches, he is guilty of a criminal offence".
But this is only the preamble to the much greater shambles that will confront the entire industry as the new rules are gradually phased in to include all coaches. As Mark Williams, editor of Coach And Bus Week, pointed out in an excoriatory editorial, from January 2005 at least until 2007, no operator will buy a new coach for express services because there will be no compliant coach on the market.
When National Express spent £140,000 converting three coaches on its Bath-London run, its cumbersome wheelchair lifts, which can take 10 minutes to operate, were only used seven times in two years. This equated to £7,000 for each time the lifts were used. As a senior company executive observed: "It would have been much cheaper for us to hire a limousine".
As another operator put it: "When you read through the pages of requirements, such as installing yellow handrails throughout, you realise you will be turning the luxury coach into a welfare vehicle.
"In the end we shall all have to be fully compliant, at a cost of billions of pounds. But all this will have to be paid for in higher fares, and I am not sure all the passengers who looked forward to a luxury holiday will be too pleased".
Tide turns against the turbines
Is the tide turning on what I have called "the Great Wind Scam"? In recent months I have been chairman of a campaign to stop a developer erecting a giant wind turbine on top of the Mendip Hills near where I live in Somerset. Local feeling has been so strong that, last Thursday, Mendip district council's planning board staged a special meeting to consider the plan.
Before a council chamber packed with our supporters, my colleagues and I were allowed 20 minutes to put our case: that if this 325-foot high "industrial installation" were anything other than a wind turbine, it would so clearly contravene the planning rules for an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty that there could be no argument.
Yet councillors were being asked to ignore all the normal regulations, to allow a machine that would generate only insignificant amounts of electricity, while making no saving on greenhouse gas emissions whatever. This is because conventional power stations must be kept permanently running to make up for that 75 per cent of the time when, due to varying wind speeds, a turbine produces no power.
The councillors' speeches were thoughtful, allowing for the importance of "renewable energy", but not one of them voted in favour. One made the point that central government grandly dictates that 10 per cent of our energy must come from renewables within six years (currently less than 1 per cent comes from wind turbines), but then expects councils to railroad this through, regardless of local conditions or opinion.
In recent weeks similar proposals have been thrown out by councillors from Lincolnshire to mid-Wales. Yet for larger wind farm schemes the Government has now rigged the rules so that the Department for Trade and Industry can stage its own public enquiries under its own inspectors, then allow the Secretary of State to take the final decision.
The first of these enquiries, into a proposal to build 27 giant turbines on Romney Marsh in Kent, was held last October. Every parish, district and county council in the area opposed the plan. If the outcome goes against them, this will pitch an overweening Government against democracy as surely as any issue of our time.
Another nasty shock for Boris
In The Daily Telegraph last week Boris Johnson had fun mocking the Labour Government for its regulations which will make it a criminal offence, from January 1, for householders to carry out most electrical work in their homes without asking permission of the local council, then paying to have it inspected.
The new Part P building regulation is so ludicrous, as I reported a month ago, that Mr Johnson is quite entitled to cry "Cripes" and "Blimey". But if he had looked rather deeper into the story – or read my column – he might have discovered that, under EC directive 98/34 and the European standard HD 384, our Government had no choice.
A Tory Government supported by Mr Johnson would have been just as bound to introduce these new rules as Mr Prescott has been.
Ministers overlook the rules
Two weeks ago I reported that Tony Blair, John Prescott and Gordon Brown had apparently broken the law when they all visited the North-East to speak in the recent referendum campaign. The Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 clearly states that ministers must not take part in such a campaign in their ministerial capacity during the 28 days before the poll is held.
Lord Stoddart of Swindon pursued this point in the House of Lords, asking who was responsible for enforcing this law. He was told by a government spokesperson that it was up to anyone who thought the law had been broken to seek a judicial review. In other words, it is not the duty of any official body to uphold the law, but a private individual can risk £20,000 on asking a judge to confirm that it has been broken. What happens then?
Worse still, Lord Rooker, for the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, stated categorically that when these ministers were in the North-East they had "made their role clear when acting or speaking in a personal or political capacity".
I spoke to local observers, including a senior reporter who had covered each of these visits. None could recall a single occasion when the ministers had made it clear that they were not speaking in a ministerial capacity.
When I asked the ODPM for evidence to confirm Lord Rooker's claim, I was told that "as far as we are aware, he told the truth". In other words, there was no evidence that ministers had not broken the law, and Parliament was thus assured that they hadn't.
Thinking of all the people I report here who face criminal prosecution for failing to obey so many footling laws for which these same politicians are responsible, does not the phrase "one law for them, another for the rest of us" come to mind?