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Notebook
(Filed: 13/11/2004)


HSE has second thoughts on asbestos rip-off
The British aerostat will rise again - soon
Struck without an ounce of justification
China is all for the EU

HSE has second thoughts on asbestos rip-off

When Andrew Evans set out to revamp his seaside hotel at Saundersfoot in west Wales, he wanted to play it by the book. Aware that there were new laws about asbestos, he commissioned a survey from an asbestos removal contractor licensed by the Health and Safety Executive. The contractor reported that an analysis by an officially-accredited laboratory showed that artex paint in the bedrooms contained asbestos. To remove the artex would cost 24,000, with similar costs for redecoration.

Happily for Mr Evans, his architect recommended a second opinion. An independent survey and analysis showed that the artex contained not a trace of asbestos, and that removal was wholly unnecessary.

In thus saving 50,000, Mr Evans has proved more fortunate than many other people who own properties containing artex - the total number of which runs into millions. Artex, a paint-like coating very widely used between the 1950s and 1970s, often but not always contains minute traces of white asbestos. This was why in 1999, on the advice of the Asbestos Removal Contractors Association (ARCA), the HSE ruled that it could be handled only by licensed contractors - though independent tests have consistently shown that no asbestos fibres can be released from artex and that it poses no risk to health.

As a result of the HSE's decision, contractors can now make hundreds of millions of pounds a year by charging exorbitant sums to remove an entirely harmless substance. Another consequence of the HSE's policy is that countless homeowners are being told by surveyors, estate agents and building societies that their homes have lost up to a fifth of their value, or even that they are unsaleable, unless the artex is removed by a licensed contractor, at huge cost.

One of the few voices raised in protest against this shameless exploitation is that of Asbestos Watchdog. This expert body was set up a year ago to advise members of the public, following this column's exposure of the confusion and hysteria that has been spread by the HSE - partly through its ignorant persistence in portraying all forms of asbestos as potential killers, and especially through its extraordinary blunder of including artex in the regulations.

It was Asbestos Watchdog that Mr Evans's architect called in, and that ended up saving him 50,000. Of the 5,000 enquiries it has received this year (through its website, www.asbestoswatchdog.co.uk), a third related to artex, and many came from people who had been told that its presence would knock up to 50,000 off the value of their homes.

Those who are most afflicted by the HSE regulations, however, are the managers of the seven million properties in Britain's social housing stock - for example, Sian Howells of the Merthyr Tydfil housing association. "We were told," she says, "we must survey each of our 1,000 properties, taking five samples from each room, at a cost of up to 48 for each sample. With laboratory tests and the costs of removal, the total bill would be absolutely prohibitive."

As I reported last year, the bill just for surveying and sampling Britain's social housing stock has been estimated at 2 billion. And all this arises from a blunder that the HSE was steered into, at least in part, by ARCA, which had much to gain by it, and which is heavily represented on the Asbestos Liaison Group that advised the HSE on its policy.

Privately, senior officials of the HSE concede that they may have made a mistake. In 2003 Bill McDonald, the head of asbestos policy, promised that the HSE would consider removing artex from the regulations. In May this year I was assured that its laboratory was carrying out tests, and that "later this year" it would be "consulting". Last week the HSE told me that its tests, with the aid of ARCA members, are still continuing. Meanwhile one of the greatest scams of our time continues.

The British aerostat will rise again - soon

Two weeks ago I reported on the bizarre crisis facing a firm in Oswestry, Shropshire, run by the celebrated Swedish balloonist Per Lindstrand. Until last year he and his 90 employees were the world leaders in making aerostats, giant tethered balloons, costing 500,000 each, which can carry 30 people 500 feet up into the air.

Since September 2003 Mr Lindstrand has lost millions of pounds' worth of orders thanks to a ludicrous red-tape anomaly which arose when the power to certify aircraft was taken over from national governments by the new European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA). Under UK law, Mr Lindstrand's aerostats had not been certified as "aircraft" but, because they are tethered to the ground, as "fairground rides". Because the almost identical machines made by his only rival, Aerophile, a Franco-German company, were designated under national law as "aircraft", EASA was happy for them to continue to be sold under their existing certification.

But because Mr Lindstrand's products now required to be re-certified from scratch, and EASA as yet had no standard for aerostats, they could no longer be legally sold in Britain or anywhere in the EU, even though they had previously been successfully sold all over the world. This left Aerophile with a monopoly of the market.

Although in September 2003 Mr Lindstrand's MP, Owen Paterson, raised the matter in the Commons and with ministers, and both he and I received solemn assurance that the matter would very soon be resolved, nothing happened. Mr Lindstrand lost three orders worth 1.5 million, and otentially several more, and had to start laying off his workforce.

Thirteen months later, despite interminable frustrating exchanges with the CAA, he was still no further forward. Matters were not helped by the sight of his rival being free to sell its aerostats in Britain, even though they use a type of winch, certified in France, which has several times caused safety problems.

Last week, after I had again reported on this crazy situation, and Mr Paterson had simultaneously put down a barrage of parliamentary questions and implored the minister, Charlotte Atkins, to intervene, two senior CAA officials arrived in Oswestry, seemingly determined to resolve the impasse after months of inaction.

They asked for all the information Mr Lindstrand had previously provided to be submitted again, in a new format. They were confident that, within weeks, a solution could be found, enabling Lindstrand Balloons to resume its original position as the world's leading maker of aerostats. Mr Paterson and I will continue to follow this story closely.

Struck without an ounce of justification

One day last year, Mr James, a trading standards official of Torbay council in Devon walked into Dennis Webb's fruit shop. When he saw that, despite a previous warning, Mr Webb was still using scales that measured only in pounds and ounces, Mr James produced a hammer and a metal punch with which, according to Mr Webb, he struck the scales so hard as to render them unusable.

In May this year, when John Gardner of the British Weights and Measures Association heard about this, he wrote to the council asking what Mr James's legal authority was for sabotaging the scales. Torbay promised to look into it. Having heard no more, despite two further letters, Mr Gardner lodged an official complaint in September. Again he was promised that the matter would be looked into. The only further response was a form sent to Mr Webb asking him to make a complaint under the Data Protection Act.

Last week when I also asked Torbay what its legal authority was for wrecking Mr Webb's scales, I was told that, although the council's officer had "taken action to take the scales out of use", "this action did not damage the scales".

However, the council added, the failure to give an earlier response was "now the subject of a formal internal investigation" and "where deficiencies in our procedures are identified corrective action will be taken to ensure that such matters do not recur".

China is all for the EU

There is encouraging news for Tony Blair in his efforts to sell the EU constitution to the British people - efforts that will face their final test in a referendum likely to be held in March 2006. The Chinese foreign ministry has issued a statement praising the part the constitution will play in bringing about a "unified and integrated European Union". China fully supports the EU's "political unification", giving "new opportunities for the further development of China-EU relations". How cheered Mr Blair and his EU friends must be to win as an ally such a stalwart champion of democracy as the People's Republic of China.