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Christopher Booker's notebook
(Filed: 18/07/2004)

Minister's ignorance put paid to 'waste into energy' device
From FMD to WMD
Geoffrey's metric muddle
One almighty job creation scheme

Minister's ignorance put paid to 'waste into energy' device

An extraordinary blunder by the environment minister Elliott Morley has come to light which, thanks to his misreading of EC law, could cost this country hundreds of millions of pounds a year. At a meeting last January, Mr Morley endorsed a ruling by his officials which consigned to the scrapheap an invention by a Bedfordshire engineer, Ross Donovan, which could have provided an ingenious solution to part of Britain's ever-growing waste problem - by using surplus cardboard as fuel to provide cheap heating for tens of thousands of businesses.

As a result, Mr Donovan's backers pulled out, his company went into liquidation and he is unemployed. But it now emerges that Mr Morley and his advisers were wrong. They had overlooked a fundamental change in the interpretation of EC law which could have made Mr Donovan's "waste into energy" system perfectly viable, and potentially a huge commercial success.

In February I reported how Mr Donovan had spent seven years developing a way in which the vast quantities of cardboard thrown away each year to be placed in landfill sites could instead be baled and used to fuel a highly efficient, low-cost, environmentally-friendly heating system. At every stage he consulted the Environment Agency to ensure that his system complied with EC law, and he was so confident of its success that he sank all his savings into the project, remortgaged his house and raised 250,000 from commercial backers.

Only at the last moment, when two prototypes of his system were already proving that they could save businesses thousands of pounds a year in heating bills, did the agency suddenly change its tune. Its officials ruled that Mr Donovan's devices must comply with complex EC waste incineration regulations, making his heating system so costly that it would no longer be viable.

In January Mr Morley met Mr Donovan and his MP, Alistair Burt. But he has still failed to explain, despite repeated requests, why his officials maintained for so long that Mr Donovan's system was not covered by the incinerator directive, before they suddenly and disastrously changed their mind.

Last month, however, a senior agency official, Keith Brierley, told the magazine New Civil Engineer that the European Court of Justice had ruled that a material "which is a net contributor of energy and is largely consumed by the burning process" should no longer be considered as "waste" but as "fuel". This is precisely what Mr Donovan had argued in his meeting with Mr Morley last January.

In fact the relevant ECJ rulings, which make it quite clear that Mr Donovan's system should be excluded from the directive, were issued in 2003, months before Mr Morley and his officials were advising otherwise. There should never have been any obstacle to the system being manufactured, and there is scarcely an industrial estate in the country to which it would not be a godsend.

As it happens, Mr Donovan was married last Monday, to a woman who stood by him as his promising scheme turned into a horrendous personal nightmare. The finest wedding present Mr Morley could give the couple would be to admit that he was wrong, and to make every effort to ensure that Mr Donovan's invention is goes into production - to the benefit of countless businesses, and Britain as a whole.

From FMD to WMD

The Prime Minister, it seems, is not the only Houdini who has a miraculous knack of emerging unscathed from any fiasco for which he was responsible. Tony Blair has appointed as "Chief Scientist" to the Ministry of Defence none other than Prof Roy Anderson of Imperial College, in succession to Prof Sir Keith O'Nions (a name which seems to have escaped from Private Eye).

It seems that Prof Anderson's chief qualification for his new post (at "Permanent Secretary grade", worth between 118,000 and 250,000 a year) was the help he gave Mr Blair in 2001 as his chief scientific adviser on the foot and mouth epidemic. The professor - who had left Oxford University under a cloud the previous year - had no experience of animal disease, being a specialist in the mathematical modelling of human diseases such as Aids. But this did not prevent him becoming chief architect of the "pre-emptive cull" policy, under which some nine million healthy animals were slaughtered (illegally - since the 1981 Animal Health Act gave the Government no powers to kill animals unless they had been directly exposed to infection).

Quite how the ability to simulate Aids epidemics on a computer, or to mastermind the slaughter of millions of healthy animals, will qualify Prof Anderson to advise the Ministry of Defence on weapons of mass destruction is not immediately clear.

Mr Blair, of course, was careful to ensure, after the foot and mouth crisis, that none of the three enquiries he set up would find anyone responsible for all those catastrophic blunders. Since the two men most to blame for the handling of the epidemic were the Prime Minister and his chief scientific adviser, Mr Blair obviously recognises in the professor a fellow survivor. I am sure he will be well worth his 250,000 a year.

Geoffrey's metric muddle

One of the odder features of the 40-year-long campaign to enforce metrication in Britain is the way its supporters have again and again had to embroider the truth to make their case. This tradition was recently maintained by Lord Howe of Aberavon, the famous "dead sheep", who for some reason acts as front-man for a tiny band of zealots calling themselves the UK Metrication Association.

As he called for a renewed effort to stamp out every vestige of the hated pounds and ounces from British life, Lord Howe said that he regretted axing the Metrican Board as a "cost-cutting exercise" when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer in the 1980s. The trouble is, he did nothing of the kind.

The Metrication Board was not a responsibility of the Treasury but of the Department of Trade and Industry. It was closed down in 1980, not as a cost-cutting exercise, but because, in 1978, it had become Conservative Party policy to end any further moves to compulsory metrication. This remained the Tories' policy throughout the 1980s, despite an EC directive in 1980 which sought to make the metric system universal. But in 1989 - without consulting Parliament - three of Mrs Thatcher's ministers, led by Douglas Hurd, agreed to a new directive, 89/617, that laid down a timetable for the previous directive to be enforced. Hence it was their fellow-Tory Michael Heseltine, at the DTI, who issued the edicts under which the late Steven Thoburn was found guilty in 2001 of the criminal offence of selling a pound of bananas.

Last March, when Mr Thoburn's legal battle at last ended, the Labour-dominated Local Government Association called on councils to launch a fresh campaign against the 40,000 traders who persist in selling in the illegal weights and measures that their customers prefer. But following Tory successes in the June local elections, the LGA now has a Tory chairman and there are signs that some party members are seeking to make amends.

The Tory group leader on the LGA, Peter Chalke, last week called on councils to "resist Government pressure to crack down on traders who fail to comply with EU metric rules. Local authorities have to obey the law, but you really have to question whether this law is just another example of the stupid and irrelevant regulations coming out of the EU."

I hope that Lord Howe is not so angry that this leads him to resign from the party in protest.

One almighty job creation scheme

Gordon Brown's plan to axe up to 100,000 civil servants has inevitably again focused attention on all those weird and wonderful official posts advertised in The Guardian, for which we taxpayers are expected to foot the bill. One of my own favourites earlier this year was the offer of 39,000 a year to meet the needs of the Sustainable Development Commission by providing the Government Office of Yorkshire and Humberside with a "Climate Change Co-Ordinator".

Preference would be given to candidates who were "disabled, black and ethnic minority people, and women". It might be thought the only "Climate Change Co-Ordinator" worthy of the name was the Almighty. But whether He is disabled, black and a woman is obviously a matter still open to learned debate.