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Christopher Booker's notebook
(Filed: 20/07/2003)

This is not an open space in the eyes of the county council
Banned 'asbestos' paint is in 7m homes'
The mark of Italy's precious reputation
Your £30m is in safe hands

This is not an open space in the eyes of the county council

Several hundred residents on the edge of Weymouth, Dorset, have been told that the fields they use for walks and recreation cannot qualify as an open space for recreational purposes because they were closed under foot and mouth restrictions in 2001.

The law says that any land that has been used freely and continuously for "sports and pastimes" over 20 years can be registered as a "town green". But lawyers for Dorset county council have told the Southill and Radipole Open Space Society that the area they are concerned with, which has been used in this way for at least 70 years, does not qualify. Because access was barred for five months during the foot and mouth epidemic two years ago, the recreational use has not been "continuous". The council also claims that the land cannot be considered as "open space" because it is crossed by footpaths.

Scores of groups across Britain are fighting to register long-established tracts of recreational land as "town greens", since the High Court confirmed the 20-year "continuous use" rule in 1999. Residents on the western edge of Weymouth therefore thought they had a good case for registering the pastures in which for decades they have walked their dogs, flown kites, picked blackberries and enjoyed the sight of bee orchids.

The fields have long been owned and largely neglected by an absentee landlord. The residents' fear is that, as Weymouth and its neighbouring village of Chickerell expand, the land may one day be sold for development.

Initially they were told by the county council that "in isolation" their case met the criteria. But in May it was rejected by a council committee, on the advice of its legal services department, on the grounds that the area had been barred to the public - by the council itself - between February and July 2001.

The legal department informed Geraldine Furk, the society's secretary, that, "irrespective of whether the site had been used for lawful sports and pastimes" since 1935, "the foot and mouth crisis caused an interruption in use of the site which was sufficient for the application to fail". Further, the application must also be rejected because there are public footpaths running across the site and "footpath use and town green use are mutually exclusive".

The council lawyers ended by advising the society, which has already paid out £5,000 in legal fees, that the only way to appeal against the council's decision would be to seek judicial review (possible cost - a further £20,000 in legal expenses).

Banned 'asbestos' paint is in 7m homes'

Housing associations and local authorities all over Britain are just waking up to the fact that, thanks to an astonishing blunder by the Health and Safety Executive, they are facing bills which will run into billions of pounds. The HSE's mistake, when it was drafting new regulations on asbestos, was to include as a high-risk material a paint-like substance known as Artex, used to coat walls and ceilings in over half of Britain's entire social housing stock of seven million properties.

Artex contains only minute quantities of white asbestos, so firmly bonded to paint and plaster that it is virtually impossible to separate out a single fibre. But the HSE's misreading of its risk potential means not only that every property will have to be surveyed, but that any removal work involving Artex can only legally be carried out by HSE-licensed contractors, at costs so astronomic that the housing associations could face bankruptcy.

What makes the HSE's error even more reprehensible is that it left it to the specialist asbestos contractors themselves to choose whether or not Artex should be designated as a high-risk material. At an asbestos conference at Aston University on November 1, 2001, Terry Jago, chairman of the Asbestos Removal Contractors Association, told delegates how he had pointed out to the HSE that it was a mistake to classify Artex as a high-risk material. He then described how the HSE had asked whether ARCA nevertheless wanted to see Artex retained on the high-risk list, to which ARCA's reply, since Artex was their most profitable source of income, was that they would be grateful.

Only now, with the HSE's new Control of Asbestos at Work regulations due to come into force next year, are the owners of social housing beginning to discover just what a nightmare they have been presented with. Enquiries last week to housing associations and councils across the country showed that the average cost of surveying their seven million properties is around £100. This alone could generate a bill of £700 million.

Spring Grove Property Maintenance, which manages 250,000 homes for housing associations, says that around 65 per cent of its properties contain Artex. Peter Brownsea, chairman of the Building Research Establishment's housing group, confirms that most properties built between the 1950s and the 1980s are likely to be affected.

Wherever any asbestos-containing material including Artex is identified by a survey, the rules require laboratory testing at a cost of around £250 per dwelling. Even though the quantities of asbestos are often so small they cannot be identified, this could total a further £1.3 billion.

Worst of all, however, considering the readiness of surveyors to recommend the removal of Artex, will be the cost of calling in ARCA contractors to eliminate the "problem", averaging £7,500 a dwelling. Thanks to the hysteria over asbestos whipped up by the HSE and the Royal Chartered Institute of Surveyors, many tenants may insist on removal as soon as they learn there is Artex in their homes. Even if only 10 per cent of properties are affected, this could generate a further bill of £5 billion.

But it is not only the owners of social housing who are affected by this blunder. When last year I began exposing the consequences of the HSE's asbestos scare, giving the email address of a genuine expert willing to give advice (jbridle@whiteasbestos.fsnet.co.uk), more than 200 of 1,000 replies came from private householders relating to Artex. Either they had been absurdly overcharged by contractors for its unnecessary removal, or they had been misinformed by surveyors that its presence had knocked thousands of pounds off the value of their homes.

Most shocking of all is that this scare has been set in train by government officials who have repeatedly demonstrated that they do not know what they are talking about. The latest word from the HSE is that it may be prepared to "reconsider" the inclusion of Artex when "reviewing" its regulations in 18 months' time. That could be 18 months and several billion pounds too late.

The mark of Italy's precious reputation
The Italian presidency of the European Union is pulling out all the stops to rush through a directive that will finally destroy the hallmarking system which guarantees the quality of precious metals. Under the existing system, dating back to the Middle Ages, all gold, silver and platinum sold in Britain, which has the largest precious metals market in Europe, must be sent for independent testing to the four assay offices in London, Birmingham, Sheffield and Edinburgh. Under the proposed new system, jewellers will be allowed to "self-certify" their own products.

The reason for Italy's interest in this matter is that she produces more gold, silver and platinum jewellery than the rest of Europe put together. Some of her gold and silversmiths enjoy a high reputation. But she also has the biggest black market in sub-standard and fraudulent items, in which the Mafia is heavily involved. Is it not convenient that the EU's control over "consumer protection" can be used to "deregulate" the market in this way?

Your £30m is in safe hands

Life in our Welsh Euro-region is a cosy affair these days. Finance Wales, a subsidiary of the Welsh Development Agency, has caused a stir locally by awarding a contract to manage a £30 million investment fund, much of it provided by the EU, to a consortium of which it is itself a member.

Under EU procurement rules, the contract had to be put out to tender. It was advertised only in the Official Journal of the European Communities. There were three bidders. The seven members of the assessment panel which awarded the contract to the Finance Wales consortium included four representatives of Finance Wales, including David Williams. Finance Wales insists that "we are completely satisfied that we followed European procurement procedures to the letter".

It is reassuring to know, however, that the whole affair is to be scrutinised by the WDA audit committee, which also audits the activities of Finance Wales. Its chairman is David Williams, of Finance Wales.