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Christopher Booker's Notebook
(Filed: 28/09/2003)

HSE outlaws an 800-year-old method of keeping water fresh
The price of nothing
Our aerostat is grounded
A bit late now, Mrs Hewitt

HSE outlaws an 800-year-old method of keeping water fresh

For more than 800 years gardeners and landowners have known that the most efficient way to keep ponds, lakes and rivers free of harmful algae is to chuck in a pile of barley straw. This environmentally-friendly method of keeping fresh water clean, first acclaimed by a 12th-century bishop of Winchester, is today used by the Environment Agency in rivers, by water companies in reservoirs and by hundreds of thousands of gardeners.

Officials of the Health and Safety Executive, however, have ruled that since September 1 this is now illegal, under a European Union directive which requires all "biocidal products" to be registered and tested at a cost of nearly 200,000. In the case of barley straw, this will be impossible because, although it has been confirmed as wholly safe by years of research at the Centre for Aquatic Plant Management at Sonning-on-Thames, no one has been able to identify the "active ingredient" that makes it such an effective antidote to the algae which deprive fish and other creatures of oxygen.

One man on whom the HSE's ruling will weigh especially heavily is Tom Pain, a former naval engineer, whose company Green Ways, near Winchester, supplies 100,000 barley straw mats each year to garden centres all over Britain. Some years back, when Geoff Hamilton, on the programme Gardener's World, recommended that the best answer to pond weed was "to stuff the mother-in-law's old tights with a load of barley straw", Mr Pain sent him samples of his custom-made mats, which Mr Hamilton was happy to recommend on the programme as a neater answer to the problem.

Recently, however, Mr Pain learned that, according to the HSE, barley straw - which is only widely used for this purpose in Britain - would have to be approved under the EU's biocidal products directive 98/8. He was horrified to discover that this would cost 120,000 for two years research, plus up to 65,000 more for the European Commission to evaluate the results. And even then, since the exact nature of the chemical process involved is a mystery, he might well not get the approval required.

Even Mr Pain's Lib Dem MP Mark Oaten describes this threat to a wholly safe, environmentally-friendly product as "bureaucracy gone mad". Mr Pain's local HSE inspector uses barley straw in his own pond. The only possible consequence of banning barley straw would be to force the Environment Agency, water companies and pond owners to replace it with toxic chemicals, to achieve the same purpose less effectively and much more dangerously.

For the time being, Mr Pain continues to sell his mats as a general "pond cleaner", without reference to algae, in the hope that common sense for once will prevail.

The price of nothing

Some of our officials have become so self-important that they not only charge through the nose for imposing their regulations upon us, they even want to charge those who can no longer afford their attentions. Last year I reported on the Scottish care home which, when it was forced to close by the cost of regulations imposed by social services, then received a bill for 510 from the same department for giving the owner permission to go out of business.

A similar problem has been presented to John Swain, whose metal finishing firm Anopol employs 30 people in Birmingham. Some years ago, as a service to other metal finishing companies who used his chemicals, he offered to accept their used chemicals back for storage in holding tanks and safe, environmentally-responsible disposal. Under EC directive 91/156, however, he then had to acquire a waste management licence, for which he had to pay the Environment Agency 3,897 a year.

This helped to make Mr Swain's service uneconomical, so he told the agency that he wished to surrender his licence. He would continue to use the tanks for his own waste chemicals, but could no longer assist his customers. The agency sent him an eight-page questionnaire and a bill for 2,427 as a "surrender fee".

When I asked the Environment Agency last week why Mr Swain should have to pay it for absolutely nothing, I was told that the charge covers the cost of inspection to make sure that when a waste site is closed it is safe to use for other purposes. This does not apply in Mr Swain's case, since he will still be using the tanks to store his own waste. The agency argues that it will still have to make a site visit to see that all the rules have been complied with, so the bill is justified. As Mr Swain comments: "No wonder Britain's metal finishing industry is in such sharp decline."

Our aerostat is grounded

From today, Brussels assumes control of all air safety matters in the EU. As a result, the world's largest manufacturer of aerostats - tethered balloons which cost 500,000 each - can no longer sell his product in Europe, and his only rival, the Franco-German firm Aerophile, has a monopoly.

Last week I reported how the Swedish balloonist Per Lindstrand, whose company in Oswestry, Shropshire, exports aerostats all over the world, has fallen foul of a bizarre legal anomaly, due to the new European Aviation Safety Agency (Easa) taking over the UK's power to license aircraft. Under British law, aerostats were certified by the Health and Safety Executive as "fairground rides", even though when free-flying they were certified as "aircraft" by the Civil Aviation Authority. While Aerophile's products are already registered under German law as "aircraft", and can continue to be sold under the EU rules coming into force today, Mr Lindstrand's identical machines are now illegal, until Easa drafts a new standard to cover them.

Last week, when I asked the head of Easa in Brussels why Mr Lindstrand's aerostats could not be certified as "aircraft", I received a ludicrously patronising reply from Nick de Souza at the London press office which showed no grasp of the problem whatever. The commission clearly does not understand its own legislation.

Mr Lindstrand's MP, Owen Paterson, has also made a last-minute appeal to Tony McNulty, the relevant British minister. His reply last week could only express the hope that the EU certification Mr Lindstrand needs might be ready "early in 2004".

Since Easa's certification system has not yet even gone out to "consultation" - a process that will enable Aerophile to raise all sorts of objections - Mr McNulty is whistling in the wind. Meanwhile it is now illegal for Mr Lindstrand to sell his world-beating product anywhere in the EU. His competitors must be cracking open the champagne.

A bit late now, Mrs Hewitt

Patricia Hewitt, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, has joined in the widespread protest against a directive which threatens to bring Europe's chemical industry to its knees. Even the European Commission admits that its "Reach" directive (requiring the registration and evaluation of more than 170,000 industrial chemicals) will cost the industry 22 billion. Germany's equivalent of the CBI recently warned that it could destroy 1.7 million jobs there, and Britain's 34 billion-a-year chemical sector, Europe's largest, is likely to be hit even harder.

But the new law is due to be approved by the commission next month, and Mrs Hewitt's protests will probably fall on deaf ears since, as I reported a month ago, the directive was put on the EU agenda by Michael Meacher at a meeting of environment ministers when Britain held the EU presidency in 1998. If a large chunk of British industry perishes as a result, we will have only ourselves to blame.