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Christopher Booker's notebook
(Filed: 28/03/2004)

'Conservation' entails felling 100,000 trees
Kava kava is not a danger
A keen eye for rubbish
Burning buses built for 'safety'

'Conservation' entails felling 100,000 trees

People on the south Lancashire coast are up in arms over a plan by English Nature, part-funded by the European Commission, to complete the felling of 100,000 pine trees - which provide one of the last refuges in England of the red squirrel - to comply with EC conservation policy.

Although red squirrels have long been in retreat in Britain, they are common on the continent. Brussels would therefore prefer to see the removal of a large part of the pine forest making up the Ainsdale National Nature Reserve, a beauty spot between Formby and Southport, so that the resulting sand dunes can provide habitat for sand lizards and natterjack toads.

The initial phases of this "Dune Restoration Project" aroused such opposition in the 1990s that felling of the pines, planted a century ago to keep the dunes in check, was halted. But now, despite almost unanimous opposition from residents and the local council, English Nature insists that it must proceed with the destruction of 60,000 more trees, to fulfil its obligations under the EC's Habitats directive.

Last month a meeting of local residents in Formby voted by 98 per cent against further felling, and Sefton district councillors almost unanimously oppose a scheme which, as Major Jim Hersey, the chairman of Sefton Coast Watch, points out, will remove "a vital habitat not just for red squirrels, but for many other birds, bats, invertebrates and other woodland creatures". But Robbie Bridson, a spokesman for English Nature, said last year that "conservationists throughout Europe acclaim the work going on here".

Part of the project, costing more than 1 million, to which the European Commission is contributing 300,000, involves "translocating" a colony of great crested newts to a new pond in what remains of the forest, although naturalists point out that this has an "almost 100 per cent certainty of failure". Not long ago a Suffolk farmer, Norman Jay, was prosecuted by English Nature and fined 600 for removing vegetation round a pond, because this allegedly interfered with the habitat of great crested newts.

Even before Brussels and English Nature intervened, only 4 per cent of Sefton was tree-covered, as against 36 per cent across the EU and 12 per cent in Britain as a whole, giving Sefton the lowest percentage of woodland cover in the country.

Kava kava is not a danger

Doubtless the Food Standards Agency, the Medicines Control Agency and the European Commission will have applauded this newspaper's leading article last week defending their regulatory onslaught on firms making and selling vitamin supplements and health foods. Under the heading, "The real health scare", this singled out the banned kava kava, described as a "South American herbal remedy", as demonstrating the need for tighter regulation.

I am not sure how closely the editorial was based on examining the evidence, but for a start kava kava is not South American but a herb of Polynesian origin, now drunk as a relaxing infusion by millions of people all over the world. Despite the claim that it can cause "severe liver damage", the case adduced for banning it, as I wrote here last year, is "so flimsy as to be a parody of science".

Our regulators cited 70 "possible" or "probable" cases of adverse reaction associated with kava kava worldwide, four supposedly fatal. One of these involved an 86-year-old American who died in his sleep after drinking a cocktail of herbs, one of which was kava kava. It then turned out that he was a diabetic with severe heart problems and under heavy medication. The other claimed "fatalities" were similarly dubious. None was in the UK.

Yet on these grounds the MCA bizarrely claims that the ban will prevent "one UK-based death per annum", saving "1.4 million" a year. What makes this even odder is that the same MCA that wishes to ban kava kava happily permits the continued sale of many pharmaceutical products which cause genuine health damage, such as the non-prescription painkillers which account for 2,000 deaths a year.

In the name of consistency, this newspaper should call for a ban on products which are infinitely more dangerous, such as paracetamol, alcohol, tobacco and peanuts (which kill six people every year). Alas, it is easier for the media to join in promoting health scares than to see through the woolly thinking that usually lies behind them.

A keen eye for rubbish

Peter Corby, the inventor of the famous trouser press, lives in retirement on the Isle of Wight, where at the age of 79 he assists his son John, one of our leading designers of racing yachts. Unsurprisingly, Mr Corby sometimes takes home letters connected with his son's business and, when he has finished with them, chucks them in his wastepaper basket.

In January, when he put out his rubbish, council employees discovered one or two letters addressed to the business. As a result, the Isle of Wight council's environment services department informed him that he had committed a serious criminal offence, risking "heavy penalties".

He was warned that all "business waste" must be taken away by a registered waste carrier, accompanied by a "Waste Transfer Note", describing the contents of each transaction, and that the council would be sending an official to inspect his transfer notes at three-monthly intervals as required by the Waste Management Regulations 1994, implementing the EC waste directive 91/156).

Mr Corby replied that, although one solution might be for him to buy a shredder, he would not wish to put the council to the trouble of piecing the strips back together to see which letters were business-related, so instead he would, quite legitimately, burn them.

This month he had a letter from the council's environmental health department to say he had created a nuisance with smoke from his bonfire. If this continued he would face fines of up to 20,000 for each offence. Mr Corby replied that he had no wish to cause a nuisance and that, if the council could supply the dates and times when his fire had given trouble, he would ensure there was no repetition. The council has so far failed to provide any further details.

Burning buses built for 'safety'

There was much excitement last weekend when yet another of Ken Livingstone's favourite "bendy buses" burst spectacularly into flames in Park Lane, in central London. This was the fourth of Ken's 130-strong fleet to go up in smoke in their first 18 months in service. The cause of the fire was reported to be a design fault in pipes that carry hot air round the vehicles to work the doors.

The media reports did not point out, however, that the cumbersome "bendies" made by Mercedes Benz, with which Ken hopes to replace London's much-loved Routemasters (only three fires since the 1950s), are a first-fruit of one of Brussels's longest-running sagas.

This is a campaign, strongly supported by German bus manufacturers, to replace double-deckers with a continental-style "Euro-bus" conforming with the most detailed safety rules. This self-parodying 55-page bus directive, as I have reported before, is full of requirements such as that "the free space between the gangway and the emergency door aperture shall permit the free passage of a vertical cylinder 300 mm in diameter and 700 mm high from the floor and supporting a second vertical cylinder 550 mm in diameter, the aggregate height of the assembly being 1400 mm".

Yet the result of this supposed obsession with safety by the Brussels experts is a bus so dangerous that it is a miracle it has not yet killed anyone. Interestingly, this triumph for the "single market" coincided with last week's ruling by Mario Monti, the Brussels competition commissioner, that Microsoft should be fined a record 331 million for the heinous crime of including a media player with its Windows operating system.

There is nothing to prevent any customer installing a rival media player, to listen again to Alistair Cooke or The Marriage of Figaro (as I do myself). Yet the power-crazed Monti sees nothing odd in demanding that an American firm must be fined this astronomic sum for doing something which under US law is perfectly legal.

In other words, competition is fine when it forces everyone to use the same kind of bus which, in the name of safety, turns out to be potentially lethal. But when it allows people to use whichever product they want, it must be punished as a criminal offence. What a wonderful form of government it is that our MPs are happy for us now to be ruled by.