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Christopher Booker's Notebook
(Filed: 20/06/2004)

Ill disposed
Lead astray
Pesticide platitudes
Foot soldiers

Ill disposed

When even a Government agency warns that the nation is about to be plunged into an unprecedented crisis, a chaos that the Government is powerless to avoid, and opening up new opportunities for "organised crime", we might well sit up and listen. But it is timely that this should coincide with efforts to agree a constitution to sanctify the EU's new system of government, since the crisis due to hit Britain's waste disposal industry next month represents arguably the greatest single debacle that system has ever brought about.

Last week the Environment Agency reported that our waste system is on the verge of breakdown. On July 15, to comply with the EC's landfill directive, 99/31, the vast majority of Britain's 218 landfill sites will be closed to "hazardous waste", leaving only five still open. Vast areas of the country will no longer provide any site licensed to take the two million tons of such waste that we currently bury in ordinary landfill sites - anything from television sets to builders' rubble.

The Environment Agency itself, in the magazine Your Environment, foresees a "nightmare" in the handling of such waste, with "criminals dumping it illegally" in an epidemic of fly-tipping, "lorries crammed full of it clogging the motorways", and even the collapse of the Government's own "brownfield development programme".

Yet this is only a foretaste of the wider crisis that looms as the various elements of the EU's ambitious waste policy begin to impact on each other. In recent years Brussels has produced an avalanche of directives, classifying ever more items as "hazardous waste" - computer screens, asbestos, paints, batteries, old cars, meat products, contaminated soil (see report top right). At the same time it has issued another mass of new laws that make it ever harder to dispose of these things. Next month the two streams of legislation will collide, bringing the system to the point of collapse.

Last summer, as I reported at the time, a committee of MPs warned that this disastrous state of affairs would become even worse when, in the years ahead, most of our remaining landfill sites are forced by the same EU legislation to close down altogether. Theoretically, under EU law, they must be replaced as our chief form of waste disposal by 165 giant incinerators, and many smaller ones. But as the MPs indicated, this would require the installation of at least one new incinerator a week for the next 10 years. There are few signs of this happening.

The chaos that will result next month from the closure of nearly all of our landfill sites to hazardous waste (and according to the Environment Agency, we can soon expect the quantity of such waste to double to four million tons a year) will make the problems created three years ago by the mass-dumping of fridges seem utterly insignificant. It is just a small part of the price we pay for handing over the running of our country to the form of government Mr Blair this weekend seems happy to cement into place.

Lead astray

One of the more startling aspects of Britain's looming waste crisis is that, under new guidelines issued by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, up to a third of the gardens in large parts of urban Britain could be classified as "contaminated", requiring removal of their topsoil before homes can be sold.

This alarming fact has come to light following my recent report on the plight of Diana Dantes and her two sisters, who were told that it would be impossible to arrange a mortgage on their Suffolk home unless they spent 50,000 on removing all 470 tons of topsoil in the garden. This was because new tests required by the Law Society had shown the soil to be "contaminated" with small amounts of lead.

One response to my article came from Professor Brian Davies, an expert on lead contamination, formerly at Bradford University, now working in South Carolina. His studies were the basis for Defra's new guidelines on lead levels in soils.

"It is always flattering to find one's work used as a basis for legislation," he says. But he was astonished to find how Defra had "misapplied" his recommendations.

Prof Davies's own view is that the permissible "trigger" level for garden soil should be 1,000 parts per million (in the USA it is 1,200). The level that was measured in Mrs Dantes's garden was 450 ppm. But Defra's new "default values" come out with a figure of 464. And what makes this truly "ominous", as Prof Davies puts it, is that colleagues of his have published a study of lead levels in London gardens which shows the "median content" as 654 ppm.

If Defra insists on its absurdly low threshold levels, he warns, we could soon find that between a quarter and a third of gardens in Britain's cities are officially "contaminated", requiring them to be carted off at huge cost as "hazardous waste". For millions of home-owners, as Mrs Dantes found, this could become a condition of getting a mortgage, and thus selling or buying a house - except that (as shown in the report to the left) there will soon be nowhere for those millions more tons of "hazardous waste" to go.

Pesticide platitudes

One feature of modern government that shows its condescension reaching the point of self-parody is the charade known as "consultation". The Government pretends to "consult" those affected by its actions, then carries on doing exactly what it intended to do in the first place. Someone who has just discovered this to her cost is Georgina Downs, a 30-year-old singer from Sussex, who for three years has mounted an impressive campaign on the dangers posed by the spraying of toxic chemicals near places where people live and work.

For years Miss Downs and her parents suffered serious health problems following the spraying of fields next to their garden near Chichester. When she discovered that the law gave no protection to the public from toxic sprays, she besieged ministers, officials and the Advisory Committee on Pesticides, calling for a ban on crop spraying near homes, and for people to have the right to know which chemicals they are being exposed to.

Her campaign, supported by Prof Samuel Epstein, a leading American expert on the dangers of pesticides, and Michael Meacher, the former environment minister, was so relentless that the Government announced a "consultation" exercise. This promptly drew a record number of responses from the public. Miss Downs herself spent thousands of pounds on a legal and scientific submission, accompanied by a chilling video.

The trouble is that ministers cannot afford to admit that pesticides can endanger public health. These products have been licensed by the Government as safe to use. Any admission that the system is faulty might expose it to huge compensation claims. Last Wednesday, therefore, Alun Michael, the Minister for Rural Affairs and Local Environment Quality, telephoned Miss Downs to tell her that his ruling on the consultation was about to be released. Later that morning it was handed out to journalists.

Couched in the customary weasel words, it said that Mr Michael wished to announce "a number of measures designed to provide additional reassurance about the pesticide regulatory process". There would be further studies. A "pilot study" would look into the possibility of notifying the public about when poisonous chemicals are about to be sprayed over them. But policy would not change.

In other words, entirely predictably, the "consultation" was a farce. The Government was not remotely interested in looking at the evidence. It had only staged this charade to keep Miss Downs quiet. As can be seen on her website, www.pesticidescampaign., the evidence of dangers in the spraying of agricultural chemicals is indisputable. She now plans legal action in a final bid to force the Government to act.

Foot soldiers

The Estates Gazette, along with Knight Frank, one of the country's leading estate agents, have given a scornful two-fingers to those who, inspired by the EU, want to force Britain to use solely metric measures. Some time back the Gazette reverted to quoting areas of office and other property space in square feet rather than metres, on the grounds that the property world does not think metric. Now it has even left off printing metric equivalents, stating that the square metre has "gone the way of the rod, pole and perch".

Meanwhile a headline on the Brussels-based EU Observer website last week reported "Deal inches closer on Constitution". Surely they meant the deal was "millimetring" closer?