Christopher Booker's notebook
The year that Prescott saw his dream become a nightmare
Judge rejects the ingenious recycling of Scots sewage ingenious use for sewage is ruled out
Yorks police respond to their critics
A happy Euro-free New Year
With the possible exception of David Blunkett, no minister suffered a greater personal humiliation in 2004 than John Prescott, with the overwhelming rejection of his plan for an elected regional assembly in the North-East.
It was intended to be the forerunner of similar assemblies in seven other English regions, thus completing the greatest project of Mr Prescott's career: his personal crusade to complete the "Balkanisation" of the United Kingdom by dividing it into 12 "Euro-regions", each with its own elected parliament.
Generally missed in the wake of Mr Prescott's defeat, however, is the extraordinary shambles that has been left behind, which now threatens to blow up into a political scandal. When he set up his eight unelected regional assemblies in 1999, the legal standing of these bodies was remarkably inconsistent and unclear. Their members were nominated by local authorities or local organisations, such as trade unions. The money to pay for their offices and hundreds of employees was given on an ad hoc basis by local councils and central government, with the idea that this would in due course be regularised by elected assemblies.
The collapse of Mr Prescott's dream has raised a hefty question mark over this chaotic system. Who is legally responsible for employing all those officials, paying their salaries and providing for their pensions? Many of the local authorities that have helped to foot the bill of £30 million a year are becoming restive.
Yorkshire East Riding council has already pulled out of the Yorkshire and Humberside Assembly, saying that it is no more than a "money-wasting talking shop". The leader of Medway council in Kent wants his council to withdraw support from the South-East assembly. Other councils in the South-West and the North-West may follow suit. This will leave several hundred employees – many of them in Brussels, where each assembly has its own office – dependent for their salaries and pensions on bodies that are either limited companies or have no legal status.
Neil Herron, the tireless director of Neara (the North-East Against a Regional Assembly), has established that several of these bodies are "unincorporated associations", which are strongly advised under statute not to incur financial obligations because their members are "likely to be personally liable" for the association's debts. In some instances, the councillors or "stakeholders" nominated to these bodies may find they are personally liable for contracts and pension rights worth tens of millions of pounds.
In November, Mr Herron raised these potentially embarrassing points with Stephen Barber, the director of the North-East Assembly – itself an unincorporated association. Mr Barber's response was that the assembly had deferred considering its legal status until next summer.
For the sake of the assembly's employees, it might be desirable to move these issues to the top of the agenda – before Mr Prescott finds himself at the centre of another nasty political mess.
In August I reported a bizarre case brought by Scottish Power before the highest court in Scotland, over its use of sewage to generate electricity. In 2000, at a cost of £65million, Scottish Water had built a plant at Daldowie, near Glasgow, to process half of Scotland's sewage into fuel pellets. These are used as a coal substitute by the giant Longannet power station in Fife to produce enough "carbon-neutral" electricity to power 30,000 homes.
The Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (Sepa) had approved this scheme as an ingenious and environmentally beneficial way to deal with the problem of Scotland's sewage. But this year, to general astonishment, Sepa decided that, as from December, it would become illegal under new EC rules. Sewage could no longer be recycled as fuel, but could only be disposed of as "waste".
This would naturally create huge problems, not least for Scottish Water. Its £65million Daldowie plant would have to close. And finding any other means to dispose of the sewage would now be extremely difficult, since, under a different set of EC rules, it can no longer be landfilled, used as fertiliser or dumped at sea, where it used to provide food for fish.
Scottish Power therefore sought judicial review of what appeared to be an insane decision, pleading that the European Commission now emphasises that it wants to see waste recycled to produce energy. A judgment had been expected in September, but in fact it was only last Wednesday that the judge, Lord Reed, finally came up with his ruling.
Lord Reed fully upheld Sepa's interpretation of EC law. However, he went further, pointing out that burning sewage could create pollution from heavy metals (an argument that not even Sepa's lawyers had thought to make).
There are, at least, grounds for appeal. If that should fail, almost the only means left to Scottish Water to dispose of sewage will be to have it incinerated, at a cost of hundreds of millions of pounds. In other words, it is all right to burn it, but only in a way which produces nothing useful.
Well done, Sepa and Lord Reed. And well done Brussels, for bringing us yet another of those "envronmental benefits" which Margaret Beckett likes to argue are the chief reason why we should all vote for the new EU constitution.
West Yorkshire police certainly have a clear sense of priorities. At 25 minutes to midnight last Saturday, two policemen arrived at the door of my friend (and co-author) Dr Richard North in Bradford, threatening to kick it in. Instead, they entered his home through a window, scattering china ornaments, and arrested him. They took him to Bradford's main police station, where he was thrown into a freezing cell for the night without bedding.
North's offence was that, for the second time in a few months, he had withheld his council tax. This is his continuing protest against the ever-rising payments that are demanded for what he and his neighbours regard as the lack of any proper service from their local police. Their street has suffered from a long succession of burglaries, without attracting much interest from the police, until two years ago.
North was in dispute with the police over a minor traffic offence. When bailiffs came to his door demanding the keys to his £12,000 car in payment of a £60 fine, he pointed out that this was illegal, since the car was "tools of trade". The baililffs called the police. Within minutes, five policemen arrived and frogmarched Dr North to the cells, where he remained for several hours until his long-suffering wife Mary arrived with the money.
Only later were North's solicitors allowed to see the court warrant. It had specifically prohibited the bailiffs from removing his car.
Act Two of this drama came last summer when North paid his council tax, but withheld the "police precept". Ordered to pay by the court, he offered to make his payment by credit card. This was not allowed, nor was he permitted to leave the court to obtain the cash. He was sentenced to 14 days in Armley prison. It was only that evening, when a friendly journalist arrived with the cash, that the prisoner was allowed to go free.
Last weekend came Act Three, when North was again arrested for not paying council tax. Normally, with a bailiff, he could have paid by credit card. But when the two policemen arrived just before midnight, having been seen reconnoitring the premises that afternoon, they would only take cash. Since this was not easy to obtain at such an hour, he was thrown into solitary confinement for 36 hours, to await Monday morning when Mary could arrive with cash to release him.
Asked why it had been necessary to arrest him at this hour, West Yorkshire police explained: "It so happened that resources were available at that time on Saturday night" (even though, elsewhere, Bradford was undergoing its usual weekend mayhem). A source inside the police said, rather more plausibly: "It was to teach him a lesson."
Once again I thank all those readers who, through the year, have drawn my attention to examples of how sensibly our country is now run, by our strange new hybrid form of government divided between Brussels and London. Your help is much appreciated.
I apologise that it is not possible for me to answer all your letters. But I wish you, and all of my readers, a very happy, Euro-free New Year.