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Christopher Booker's Notebook
(Filed: 06/04/2003)

Prescott endorses plan to kill a community
Nuclear option
FCO delayed its virus alert
No, minister

Prescott endorses plan to kill a community

Prince Charles is personally following a remarkable battle being waged by a happily-integrated English and Asian community in a Lancashire mill town against its destruction by a huge council "renewal plan". This would result in the demolition of 400 terrace houses and their replacement by "yuppie" homes which none of the residents could afford.

Although last year a ministry inspector came down firmly in support of the residents, backed by an impressive phalanx of conservation bodies, including the Prince's Foundation, the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, ordered the inquiry to be re-opened because the inspector had not come up with the findings that he and Pendle council wanted.

The Whitefield development plan proposed by Pendle - a throw-back to the planning ideology that devastated so much of urban Britain in the 1960s - covers 1,700 terrace houses around St Mary's church on the edge of the Pennine town of Nelson. Built in local cream sandstone, on broad streets laid out by an enlightened millowner between 1864 and 1890, they have in recent decades become home to a mixed Asian and English community that can be seen as a model for successful integration. But since Pendle came up with its plan, two years ago, to buy up and demolish 14 streets, to be redeveloped by a private property company, and to "improve" hundreds more homes to a rigid, council-approved model, whole streets have been boarded up. The area has become seriously blighted, prey to crime and vandalism.

The residents' action group, half Asian, half English, has won the support of the Heritage Trust for the North-West, English Heritage, Save and the Prince's Foundation for a much cheaper, more sensitive scheme, under which the area's character could be preserved and its community rebuilt, under the management of a new trust involving the residents themselves.

One campaigner who gave evidence to last year's inquiry was Jamila Khan. Disabled since childhood by polio, shelives with her mother and her brother's family in the house she was left by her father two years ago, to secure her independence for the rest of her life. The family had already been evicted in an earlier council scheme in the 1980s. Jamila is now threatened with compulsory purchase of her home for £28,000, when to buy a similar house elsewhere could cost up to £70,000 - way beyond her reach.

Her friend Sylvia Wilson, a former painter and decorator who has "worked in almost every house in the area" and still lives in the house where she was born, recalls her horror when the council put its plans on show in the town hall. "When I saw one frail old lady in tears as she realised she was going to lose the house where she had lived all her life, I knew we had to fight."

Helped by John Miller, whose Heritage Trust for the North-West has restored thousands of buildings, from mills and churches to the Grade One-listed Lytham Hall, English and Asian residents joined to form the action group. Last year they put such a powerful case to the ministry inspector that he strongly recommended that Pendle should not be given compulsory purchase powers.

Astonishingly, John Prescott asked him to re-open his inquiry. Pendle latched onto Mr Prescott's new "Pathfinder" policy, designed to promote urban renewal in deprived areas. But the council's claim that there was no demand for houses in the Whitefield area was comprehensively demolished by the residents and their expert witnesses, who showed that council officials had no understanding of the area and had not done their homework. As the residents and the conservationist bodies supporting them await the inspector's new report, they still hope that, despite all that has happened, his findings will make it possible for them to work with the council on a scheme the residents want, and which could become a model for Pendle to be proud of. Jamila Khan includes this in her prayers five times a day. She has some impressive supporters.

Nuclear option

It appears that Mr Blair's senior advisers on Europe are now actively considering what is called "the nuclear option": linking a referendum next year on the euro to one on the European Union's new constitution, due to be signed in December. A year ago I suggested that if Mr Blair was clever he would hold such a referendum because the Tory Party and Lord Owen's No-to-the-Euro campaign, while opposing the single currency, are both adamant about Britain remaining in the EU. Linking the two issues would make their message embarrassingly confused.

But this equation has now changed, thanks to the constitution being drafted by the Brussels convention. Chilling reports from David Heathcoat Amory, the Tories' representative, revealed how hard the convention is pushing for political integration (reports echoed by Labour's Gisela Stuart MP). It would now be much easier for the Tories, and even Labour MPs such as Frank Field, to campaign against the constitution, even if this meant Britain no longer being a full "political" member. As Iain Duncan Smith tries to wriggle out of his bafflingly maladroit efforts to keep the explosive issue of "Europe" under wraps, the politics of the next 18 months could be very interesting.

FCO delayed its virus alert

I had an anguished call last Thursday morning from two Somerset neighbours, Anne and David Wood. They had paid £10,000 for a family "holiday of a lifetime", flying to Hong Kong to travel with their sons up the Yangtse. But, due to the Sars virus, the Department of Health had told Britons not to visit Hong Kong. Their insurance company said this meant that the family could not be given health cover, but that unless the advice of the DoH (and the World Health Organisation) were endorsed by the Foreign Office, they would also be unable to claim compensation.

I rang the Tories' health spokesman, Dr Liam Fox, who, with fellow Tory Stephen O'Brien, had raised this issue with Tony Blair in the Commons the previous day. As it happens, Dr Fox used to work at the FCO on advice to travellers. More than once he had battles with colleagues who seemed keener to placate foreign governments than to protect UK citizens. Hence the FCO's reluctance to offend China by instructing UK citizens not to visit Hong Kong.

Shortly before I rang, said Dr Fox, he had been told by the Foreign Office that the advice was now on its website. In fact it did not appear until nearly 30 hours later. Mr and Mrs Woods saved their £10,000, but for two days the FCO's pusillanimity gave them the nightmare of thinking they had lost it.

No, minister

Lord Sainsbury's further gift of £2.5 million to the Labour Party last week, making him easily the party's largest donor, again focuses attention on his record as a junior minister at the Department of Trade and Industry. Three weeks ago he wrote to this newspaper to defend himself after I had reported his curious behaviour towards a deputation from the tiny industry that makes copper boilers for model engines. The boilermakers are threatened with extinction by the DTI's interpretation of an EU directive which makes it impossible for them to comply.

Lord Sainsbury said he had invited the boilermakers to see him. What he didn't say was that he only agreed to meet them thanks to the persistence of a Plaid Cymru MP, Adam Price; that he seemed incapable of understanding their problem; and that he offered them no practical help.

One can understand why Labour might wish to keep such a munificent donor in his job. But if he were to help the boilermakers, he might show that he knew how to do it.