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Christopher Booker's notebook
(Filed: 08/02/2004)

A perfectly good fuel is going to waste
Air France keeps competition out of the skies
'Cutting red tape' just makes more
We subsidise the ruin of our fishery
Do your cows eat much bamboo?

A perfectly good fuel is going to waste

Ross Donovan of Kempston, Bedfordshire, is a clever engineer who saw, some years back, that the advancing onslaught of EU legislation was presenting countless firms with a growing problem: how to dispose economically of cardboard packaging generated by their business.

He therefore devised an ingenious system whereby, instead of cardboard being considered just as waste requiring costly disposal, it could be used as a source of energy to provide cheap heating.

For four years a prototype built by his Asgard Systems (named after the home of the gods in Norse mythology) has been heating the offices of Silver Spoon in Suffolk, using old sugar bags as fuel. He then developed an even more efficient system, using a shredder and baler to turn cardboard into compact fuel, which has been saving a local plant nursery thousands of pounds a year in heating bills.

Mr Donovan had not only discovered how to turn cardboard into heat so neatly that it causes less pollution than a domestic woodburning stove - thus providing a solution to the waste problem that could be used on every industrial estate in the country - he had also been careful at every point to consult the Environment Agency, to ensure that his system conformed with all relevant EC directives on waste and pollution.

Repeatedly between 2001 and last July he was advised that his system was fully compliant, which was why Mr Donovan's backers advanced £250,000 and why he himself was prepared to sink all his savings in the project and even to remortgage his house.

Then on August 15 came the bombshell. A letter from the agency told him that, under the waste incineration directive, 2000/76, his system might come under EC pollution laws after all, because what he was doing was burning "waste".

If his cardboard came direct from the manufacturers, it would be legally acceptable. But because it had first been used for another purpose, it was "waste". Under pollution regulations, each of his devices would thus have to be authorised to operate, requiring a "site survey" costing up to £40,000 and sophisticated monitoring equipment costing a further £50,000. His modest heating devices would be wholly unviable.

Faced with disaster, Mr Donovan approached his MP, Alistair Burt, who recently took him to meet Elliott Morley, the environment minister. He had already submitted a paper suggesting that his system could not be classified as waste incineration, since it accorded with EC law that "energy recovery" and recycling are regarded as desirable alternatives to mere incineration or landfill.

Neither the officials nor the minister, it seemed, had had time to take this argument on board, so what followed was a conversation straight out of Alice In Wonderland. Mr Morley argued that, since the cardboard was printed with ink, it was only right that emissions from the process should be strictly monitored (the same should apply to burning newspaper in any domestic woodburner).

When Mr Donovan pointed out that straw is exempted from the regulations, even when covered in toxic pesticides, Mr Morley's reply was that agricultural chemicals are strictly regulated.

When I asked Mr Morley's department last week if it would be checking with Brussels to discover whether Mr Donovan's heating process was exempted from the waste rules, I was told there are "no exemptions", and that the workings of the directive are due to be "reviewed in 2008".

Alas, this will be too late for Mr Donovan, whose backers have given him until the end of this month to discover whether he can surmount this regulatory brick wall.

Perhaps in these three weeks Mr Morley can come up with an explanation as to why such a useful, environmentally-friendly device should be kept off the market, just because his officials cannot draw a distinction between a "waste" that nobody wants and a fuel that could save the country millions of pounds a year.

Air France keeps competition out of the skies

For years one of the most familiar answers from EU grandees when asked to name the benefits of the EU was that it has drastically cut Europe's air fares.

On February 3, 2002, for instance, the EU transport commissioner, Loyola de Palacio, boasted to a World Economic Forum in New York that, thanks to EU intervention, "dynamic and entrepreneurial airlines" such as Ryanair were "shaking up the industry and bringing prices down".

Last week the future of low-cost air travel across much of Europe was thrown in doubt by Mrs de Palacio's ruling that local subsidies which enabled Ryanair to run cheap flights into Charleroi airport near Brussels were "illegal state aid". She was responding to a complaint by one of Ryanair's competitors, a subsidiary of Air France, the airline which more than any other in Europe has used its monopoly powers to keep fares high.

In 1994, after the European Court of Justice ruled that a £2.4 billion state subsidy to Air France was illegal, the commission changed the rules so that the subsidy became "legal" after all.

In 1999 when Air France still enjoyed a monopoly of flights between London and Strasbourg, I was charged £540 for a ticket. Two years later, thanks to Ryanair, it was possible to make the same flight for £10. Following a French court ruling, Air France's monopoly on this route has now been restored.

Next time Mrs de Palacio addresses the World Economic Forum she might care to set the record straight.

'Cutting red tape' just makes more

On page 8 of Monday's Telegraph, it was reported that most circuses may be forced to close by April 2005 because a new Licensing Act will require them to pay for an expensive licence in every town in which they appear. On page 19 another article reported that hundreds of riding schools may be forced to close because of the EU rule requiring each horse to have a £50 passport.

Yet on page 29, next to the headline "Regulation being made to work in the real world", was a large photograph of two bright young members of the Cabinet Office "regulation team", claiming that the Government was making real progress with its "promises to cut red tape".

For 12 years I have been reporting on the tidal wave of new regulations that has become one of the most remarkable features of government in our time. For almost as long I have been reporting on claims by successive governments, beginning with John Major's, that they were going to "slash red tape".

Under Mr Blair the yearly output of new regulations has soared way past even the records set by Mr Major. When will the penny drop that, when governments claim they are going to "cut red tape", what they actually mean is that they are going to increase it?

We subsidise the ruin of our fishery

A double-page spread in Fishing News, under the headline "Fleet slashed - 260 whitefish boats go", lists some of the hundreds of British fishing vessels scrapped in the past four years thanks to the Common Fisheries Policy.

The Scottish whitefish fleet alone has been cut from 351 boats to 100. Pictures show that many were sizeable modern vessels, built in the past 15 years, worth millions of pounds each.

Meanwhile a reader sends me a Spanish newspaper report that the Junta de Andalucia has given 3.5 million to local fishermen "for the construction of 12 new fishing boats" and the modernising of others. "Up to 400 families," says the report, "are expected to benefit."

In recent years UK taxpayers have contributed more than £100 million for the building and modernising of Spanish fishing boats, and £50 million towards the scrapping of a large part of the UK fleet, to make more room for Spanish boats to fish in the waters round Britain's shores. Again we record our gratitude to Sir Edward Heath for making such benefits possible.

Do your cows eat much bamboo?

When Trevor and Alison Grooms, whose farm in Dyfed makes the well-known Penbryn cheese, recently received an EU subsidy cheque, they were surprised it was so small. It seemed they had not been granted a £2,500 subsidy for their barley.

A day or two later a Defra official rang to explain that the computer had misread BA1 (for barley) on their application form as BA2 (for bamboo). Mr and Mrs Grooms wonder whether their black-and-white cows are now to be reclassified as pandas.