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Christopher Booker's notebook


(Filed: 23/04/2006)


How the Deputy Prime Minister pulled off his silent revolution
Defra up the swanee
The blights on the British landscape that our new 'green' Tories opt to remain silent about

How the Deputy Prime Minister pulled off his silent revolution

It was 1999 when I first observed in this column that people were misjudging John Prescott, in viewing him as little more than a comic turn.

What they miss is that he is one of the most powerful members of this Government, ruthlessly pursuing an immensely ambitious agenda. Indeed, seven years down the line we can see that he has pulled off one of the most far-reaching coups d'etat in our history.

A centrepiece of the Prescott agenda has been the destruction of our local democracy. Behind this lies a plan to divide the United Kingdom under 12 regional governments - beginning with Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London - which he unveiled through six Acts of Parliament in 1998.

Although his scheme to impose eight more regional governments on England was given a serious rebuff by the North-East referendum in 2004, his regional restructuring proceeds as ruthlessly as ever. The regionalising of our fire and ambulance services is already well under way; the police and the NHS are soon to follow.

Since devolution Mr Prescott has reinforced his position, through his vast new ministry, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (ODPM), as the most powerful man in England. By taking over the funding of councils from the Treasury, he exercises unprecedented control over local government.

He has pushed through an extraordinary revolution in how local authorities operate, so that almost all their power rests with the handful of councillors making up each council's "Cabinet", and with senior officials, on vastly inflated salaries, acting essentially as agents for the policies of the ODPM.

The effect of this reform, which leaves most councillors marginalised, has been reinforced by Mr Prescott's Code of Conduct, enforced by the Standards Board for England. This has demoralised councillors and dealt a further hammer blow to their right to speak for those who elect them.

As planning supremo, Mr Prescott has used his unelected regional bodies to push forward his plans to impose more than a million new homes on southern England.

This is counterbalanced by his bizarre Pathfinder programme, under which 160,000 houses in the North will be demolished, to the horror of many of their occupants, who cannot understand how he has the power to destroy their homes and their communities.

In those parts of the countryside which Mr Prescott is not planning to cover with new towns, there is the scandal of "PPS22".

This is a "planning policy statement" introduced to force through the Government's wind power programme, letting the "need" for giant turbines overturn normal planning procedures, and thus reducing the power of councils and communities to oppose them.

Further disasters loom in all directions. Next year there will be the disruption of the property market when Mr Prescott makes it illegal to offer a house or flat for sale without a costly Home Information Pack from a certified "home inspector".

Since it seems that less than half of the 8,000 inspectors required will be trained in time, homeowners can look forward to months if not years of delays, thanks to another of the Deputy Prime Minister's half-baked schemes.

He has created further chaos through his stream of new building regulations, introduced to align Britain with "European standards", such as the notorious "Part P" rules which have introduced all sorts of costly complications into electrical work.

These have deprived countless electricians of their jobs; made it illegal for DIY enthusiasts to carry out simple wiring operations in their homes; and, in the name of "safety", introduced a new "European" system of colour coding, so that a black electric wire can now be either live or neutral, while a blue wire may be live, neutral or earth, according to when it was installed.

If one example could typify what Mr Prescott has been doing to England, it might be the extraordinary events I recently reported in south Cambridgeshire, where Mr Prescott is proposing a new town for 25,000 people on a former airfield at Northstowe - the largest planning application ever submitted in this country.

Mr Prescott's department, through English Partnerships, owns the land. And it will be he who, after a public inquiry conducted by one of his inspectors, decides whether permission should be given.

Yet Alex Riley, the councillor who represents the village next door and was elected to oppose the scheme, has now been forbidden even to discuss it, because under Mr Prescott 's Code of Conduct it has been ruled that living nearby gives him a "personal interest".

What John Prescott has done to England's democracy is no joke.

Defra up the swanee

Anyone who thinks we are in safe hands in the unlikely event of an epidemic of bird flu should perhaps be directed to a recent report on the website of OIE (originally the Office International des Epizooties), the world organisation responsible for animal diseases.

This gave a map reference for the place where the H5N1 strain was first identified in Britain last month, in a dead swan floating in the harbour of Cellardyke, Fife.

The body, according to our Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, was found at 5313'29"N and 240'55"W. This pinpoints a field near Tarporley, Cheshire - only 285 miles out. Only when a sharp-eyed reader whizzed this round the internet did Defra's officials rush to amend it.

The blights on the British landscape that our new 'green' Tories opt to remain silent about

Two days before David Cameron showered the Arctic with CO2 on his way to be photographed next to a Norwegian glacier, The Daily Telegraph ran a story under the heading "Farmland must go back to the Middle Ages".

This reported a stark warning from a professor working for Adas, the agricultural advisory service, about the consequences of an EC environmental directive on water quality.

Within six years, it will entail such strict limits on the use of agricultural fertiliser that millions of acres of farmland in the east of England will have to be taken out of crop production and returned to grassland or planted for forestry.

The implications of this directive are so huge, not just for Britain but for other countries in northern Europe which rely on the intensive use of nitrate fertiliser, that the report's author, Prof Roger Sylvester-Bradley, Adas's head of fertiliser research, is calling for an urgent public debate - since the first steps towards complying with the directive will have to be taken next year.

Conspicuously excluded from this debate, however, will be Mr Cameron's "Not the Conservative Party" since, despite his obsession with the "environment", he seems unaware that all powers to decide environmental policy have been ceded to Brussels.

His party spokesmen have been told to stay firmly clear of all issues that have a "European dimension".

This is particularly unfortunate since, as has been trenchantly analysed by my co-author Dr Richard North on his blog (www.eureferendum. blogspot.com), the threat to arable farming is only one of a range of environmental problems crying out for serious discussion.

Why is the heavy-handed intervention of the public sector reducing our recycling efforts to chaos?

Do we really need a nationwide network of giant incinerators, which are proving so unpopular wherever they are proposed?

Are we wise to be ramming through plans for thousands of wind turbines, which will make such an insignificant contribution to our energy needs at such ludicrous financial and environmental cost?

Since all these policies are dictated by Brussels, it might not seem entirely helpful for Mr Cameron to debar Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition from discussing them.

His obsession with the "environment" thus seems to be limited to no more than puerile and futile gestures. Nothing better exemplified this than his statement last week on the recent epidemic of fly tipping, which has soared by 43 per cent, including dramatic rises in the dumping of vehicles, builders' rubble, asbestos and electrical goods.

Instead of honestly explaining that this has been caused by a swathe of EC directives which make it much more difficult and expensive to dispose legally of rubbish, all the Tory leader can offer is a pledge to spend even more taxpayers' money on hiring even more officials to track down and prosecute the offenders.

As I have observed before, how green can you