Christopher Booker's notebook
Overturning the law According to Morley National interest
At a press conference tomorrow morning at Conservative Central Office, standing alongside the conservationist Professor David Bellamy, Michael Howard will announce a dramatic policy shift by his party on the increasingly contentious issue of wind energy. Triggered by a huge windfarm proposal for Romney Marsh in his own Kent constituency, the Tory leader will come out with all guns blazing against the Government's plans to cover vast areas of Britain in giant wind turbines.
The plan by npower, a subsidiary of the German energy giant RWE, to erect a "wind factory" on Romney Marsh is the first test of a new Government policy, which, for windfarms above 50 megawatts, allows the Department of Trade and Industry to override normal planning procedures. The DTI will hold its own public inquiry, under its own inspector, then decide whether a wind farm can be built, regardless of the views of residents or local councils.
Last Wednesday the DTI launched its review npower's plans to erect 27 giant turbines covering 1,000 acres of Romney Marsh. Each turbine would be 370 ft tall, nearly the height of Centre Point (385 ft), with concrete foundations sunk 110 ft into the earth. Six and a half miles of new roads would be built across the marshland, requiring 50,000 tons of roadstone.
This development, which will change the character of one of the most unspoiled and romantic landscapes in southern England, has been bitterly opposed by an array of wildlife and conservation groups, led by Philip Merricks, a local farmer who runs the famous Cheyne Court bird reserve. It has been unanimously opposed by every elected authority in the area, including 12 parish councils, two district councils (one controlled by the Lib Dems) and two county councils, including Kent. The leader of Kent council, Sir Sandy Bruce-Lockhart, says: "We are not prepared to see the evocative landscape and wildlife of Romney Marsh destroyed by this development."
The Government is, however, so determined to drive forward its wind policy that, on Romney Marsh, the DTI is for the first time claiming the power to override normal planning rules by using Section 36 of the 1989 Electricity Act - which the objectors claim was never intended for this purpose.
In addition, the recent Planning Policy Statement (PPS) 22 says that Britain's need for a huge expansion of windpower to comply with EU renewable energy targets must now become an overriding factor in planning decisions. If the Government is to achieve these targets, by meeting 20 per cent of Britain's energy needs from "renewable" sources by 2020, up to 20,000 more wind turbines must be built in the next 15 years - 20 times the number already installed.
There is increasingly vocal opposition to this policy, led by such eminent conservationists as Professor Bellamy and Professor James Lovelock, the father of the "Gaia thesis". They argue that wind power is a ludicrously expensive, inefficient and inadequate answer to Britain's fast-approaching energy crisis, as we face increasing dependence on imported natural gas and the phasing out of the nuclear power stations that currently supply nearly a quarter of our electricity.
The Government's "wind gamble" works only because of the huge hidden subsidy - currently £1.5 billion a year - that goes to a handful of companies making electricity at two and a half times the cost of that from conventional sources. The Romney Marsh scheme alone would generate an estimated £90 million for its developers, paid by consumers through higher electricity bills.
For months senior Tories have been urging their leadership to expose the confidence trick of wind power. Mr Howard's statement tomorrow, backed by Professor Bellamy, could be the turning point in Britain's gullible acceptance of what has been described as "the greatest scam since the South Sea Bubble".
For the umpteenth time, the environment minister Elliott Morley last week in the Commons answered criticism from this column by claiming that I had got something "completely wrong". In response to a sycophantic Labour MP colleague, he went on to say "there is a great deal of inaccuracy in most things that gentleman says in his column".
Mr Morley's outburst came in the course of a debate, initiated by Alistair Burt MP, on the story I reported last week of Ross Donovan, the Bedfordshire engineer who has developed an ingenious solution to the problem posed by the 9 million tons of cardboard and paper that we generate each year, which cannot be recycled, and is therefore dumped in landfill.
At every stage Mr Donovan consulted the Environment Agency to ensure that his system for using cardboard as fuel to provide cheap heating complied with EC rules. Only after he and his backers had spent several hundred thousand pounds was he told that, because this cardboard was "waste", his system had to comply with the EC's waste incineration directive. This made his invention unworkable.
Where Mr Morley claimed I was "completely wrong" was in pointing out that the European Court of Justice has recently changed its interpretation of the rules, allowing something that is a "net contributor of energy" to be considered not as "waste" but as a "fuel". What he did not explain was that I had actually been quoting one of his own officials at the Environment Agency, Keith Brierley (who helpfully supplied the three judgments in question).
When, after my article, Mr Burt tried to contact the same official for confirmation, he was told Mr Brierley was "on holiday" and had been "misquoted" - although, if this were true, Mr Brierley would have pointed it out in our exchanges. In other words, Mr Morley accuses me of getting it wrong, when I was merely quoting his own official, who, it was then claimed, had not said what he actually said.
All this bluster and duplicity is adopted to defend a crazy decision, sabotaging an invention that could save this country many millions of pounds a year (and a decision that, it seems, does not even now have the backing of EC law) - leaving Mr Donovan destitute. Even Mr Morley admits that Mr Donovan"s system would be perfectly acceptable if it used "virgin cardboard" as a fuel. It becomes unviable only because it burns cardboard used first for another purpose, millions of tons of which Mr Morley would therefore prefer to see chucked away uselessly into landfill.
If Mr Morley thinks he has done anything but defend the indefensible, I recommend that he reads this column next week, when I plan to reveal even more absurd examples of the chaos he and his colleagues are creating through their ruthless misapplicaion of EU rules on using "waste" to produce energy. Having come to light following my report on the sad story of Ross Donovan, who has been forced to take employment as a baker's roundsman to survive, these will show what depths of insanity British policy on this issue is beginning to plumb.
It is always fascinating how little those who claim to admire our EU system of government actually know in practice about the object of their infatuation. On Friday Keith Vaz, our former Europe minister, was burbling on the BBC about how Peter Mandelson, as an EU Commissioner, would be in a good position to "protect this country's interests".
Clearly Mr Vaz has never read the article in the Treaty of Rome, amplified in the commissioners' code of conduct, that lays down that commissioners must act "in the general interests of the Community". If Mr Mandelson were to act as Mr Vaz hopes he will, in protecting Britain's national interest, he would be in breach of a central principle of the Treaty.
Admittedly, this has not prevented commissioners acting in such a manner in the past (one thinks of the Spanish commissioner who arranged for the Danish head of the fisheries directorate to be sacked for failing to bow to Spanish wishes on the future of the fisheries policy). It is still a trifle odd to hear one disgraced former Labour minister exhorting another so blatantly to break the law.