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Christopher Booker's notebook
(Filed: 29/10/2005)


Europe's satellite system is wobbling perilously off course

The European Union's most ambitious single project to date, its Galileo space programme, is in crisis. Unless an additional 400 million can be put on the table very soon by the member states, including Britain, the EU's plan to put 30 satellites into space as a rival to the US Global Positioning System will miss an April 2006 deadline, thus losing its frequency allocations under international agreement and putting the entire project in jeopardy.

The Galileo project is critical to the EU's plans in two respects. First, by providing a means of control over Europe's air, road and rail transport, and by the charges that will be levied for its use, it is designed to provide the EU with a revenue stream of billions of euros a year, independent of national governments. The money will be raised in various ways, from the administration of tolls on motorways and congestion charges in cities, to fees paid by all aircraft using EU air space under the "Single European Sky" scheme.

Galileo's second purpose is military, which is why 20 per cent of it has already been sold to the People's Republic of China. A global positioning system, independent of the US, is at the heart of plans to give the EU its own "defence identity". It is also intended to boost the global sales of EU arms manufacturers, whose equipment will be Galileo-dependent.

Until now the Galileo programme has been managed by the European Space Agency - which is not part of the EU - and is funded partly by national governments, through the agency, partly by the European Commission through its research budget. Because of its transport implications, Galileo is regarded as part of the vast "Trans European Network" programme, under the Transport Commissioner, the Frenchman Jacques Barrot.

The military aspects of Galileo have had to be kept under wraps because the European Space Agency is not permited by its rules to engage in military activity. Only with the EU Constitution in force, giving the EU the right to run its own space programme, would it be possible to come clean about Galileo's military uses, and to hand over ultimate control to the EU's "High Representative" (currently Javier Solana), in charge of the EU's common foreign and security policy.

In the meantime, the Galileo project will need another 1 billion to tide it over until it is ready to generate its own revenues in eight years' time. With the project moving from the research to the development stage, however, the Commission and the agency have only put forward 600 million and several member states, led by Germany, are proving very reluctant to foot the rest of the bill.

In June, unhappy about the way that the main Galileo contracts seemed to be awarded to French and Italian firms, the Germans refused to pay unless this was changed. The original July date for agreement to pay (which requires unanimity by member states) had to be deferred: first until September, then until December's "Space Council". (Strictly speaking, the latter is illegal because, without the Constitution in force, the EU has no authorisation for a space programme.)

Last week, the president of the Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, appointed a former commissioner, Karel van Miert, as "mediator", in a last-ditch attempt to save the project. Unless payment is agreed, the first two satellites, to be launched on Russian Soyuz rockets, will not be in orbit by April, to meet the deadline set by the International Telecommunications Union. The Galileo project will be doomed. For the EU and a whole range of its most prized projects, the repercussions would be incalculable.

Defra's 'experts' are in cloud-cuckoo-land

Nothing more clearly revealed the surreal nature of the great "Asian bird flu" scare last week than a scene that unfolded on Tuesday in the headquarters of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. This was in the wake of Defra's announcement that a dead parrot had been found infected with the "lethal H5N1 virus", having caught it while in quarantine with mynah birds imported from Taiwan.

The Tory front-bench agriculture team were invited in for a "technical briefing" from Defra's chief vet, Debbie Reynolds, and her deputy, along with the ministry's chief scientific adviser, Prof Howard Dalton, and its top civil servant, permanent secretary Mark Addison. After a Janet and John-type lecture on bird flu from Ms Reynolds, the Tories' livestock spokesman, Owen Paterson MP, tried to establish a few basic facts.

For a start Defra had now admitted that not one but two parrots had died. But, since their samples had been muddled up, it was not clear whether both had been infected, or only one - and if so, which? As for Defra's claim that the disease came from Taiwan, this turned out to be "a working hypothesis". The Taiwanese authorities were outraged, because they had checked out the farm which exported the mynah birds and not a trace of infection was found.

The "dead parrot sketch" became even more absurd when Mr Paterson tried to ask the vital question: which "clade", or sub-type of the H5N1 family of viruses, had been found in the parrots? This was crucial, because only three clades have so far been linked to human deaths (all in east Asia, but not Taiwan). Mr Paterson tried to put his question three times, but Defra's experts went out of their way to ignore him. They were unfamiliar with the scientific term clade, and had not the slightest idea which had been found in the parrots.

So, the people who are supposed to be in charge of a situation that is spiralling into a health scare of historic proportions couldn't tell which bird had been infected. Their statement that it might have come from Taiwan was pure guesswork (and is to be the basis of a strong complaint from the Taiwanese government). And, when it came to the most crucial evidence of all - identifying the clade - it seemed they could not even grasp why this was relevant.

On the scare itself, all the evidence so far suggests that it has been hysterically overblown, and that there is almost certainly nothing to worry about. One thing that is certain, however, is that, when it comes to those responsible for dealing with it, one might not be wise to allow them anywhere near a whelk stall.

Westminster council tramples on the spirit of Dolphin Square

More than a thousand tenants in one of London's best-known block of flats are in a state of shock, having discovered they are the victims of a deal by Westminster City Council which threatens to leave many of them homeless - even though the council claims that part of the huge profit it will make on the sale will set up a charity to provide "affordable housing" elsewhere in the borough.

Dolphin Square, beside the Thames in Pimlico, was the largest block of flats in Europe when it was built in the 1930s, to provide housing at "reasonable rents" for people who worked in central London, often in unsocial hours, and needed to have homes nearby. The block has its own shops, a swimming pool, restaurants and a hotel. Over the years, hundreds of MPs have been among the tenants, including Harold Wilson and William Hague; many musicians and show business names, including most of the Crazy Gang; spies, teachers and nurses; Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies; Princess Anne; and, during the war, General de Gaulle.

In 1963, thanks to the intervention of the Tory housing minister, Keith Joseph, an arrangement was made with Westminster council that it would buy the head-lease of the flats (due to expire in 2034), and that they would be run on behalf of the tenants by a trust. But recently, in direct contradiction to the spirit of this agreement, the council has come to see Dolphin Square as a disposable asset. It has now exchanged contracts on its lease with Westbrook, a property company registered in Jersey.

The tenants were shocked to discover that Westbrook was at the centre of a major row in Paris last year. It bought up apartment blocks in fashionable areas, got rid of the tenants and sold the properties on at a large profit. In preparation for the Dolphin Square sale, Westminster has now given its residents an ultimatum that they must either pay "market rents" or take a modest lump sum to leave.

Lord Belhaven and Stenton, who drew my attention to this crisis, is 78 and has lived in Dolphin Square with his wife for decades. His retirement income is 12,000 a year. He has been told their new rent will be 22,000 a year; or they can leave with 52,000 - hardly enough for a home elsewhere. Many other tenants are in a similar plight: 10 per cent of them are on housing benefit and a further 20 per cent on tiny pensions.

Westminster will not say how much Westbrook is paying for the block, on grounds of "commercial confidence", but it is believed to be some 65-70 million: of which 10-15 million will be spent on housing for "key workers" elsewhere in central London.

In other words (to the anger of Labour councillors, led by Paul Dimoldenberg) the Tory council is prepared to see hundreds of tenants evicted from the "affordable homes" where they are part of a long-established community, and justifies this by claiming that a small part of the proceeds will go towards "affordable homes" for other people somewhere else. Most of the profits the council will then keep. This was not what Keith Joseph and his colleages had in mind when, 40 years ago, Westminster stepped in to preserve the Square for its original purpose.