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Christopher Booker's Notebook
(Filed: 31/10/2004)


HSE not 'expert' enough to test the safety of a winch
Crowning glory - or final nail
Continents clash in outer space
Caution, bats at work

HSE not 'expert' enough to test the safety of a winch

A world-beating British firm owned by the famous Swedish balloonist Per Lindstrand has lost millions of pounds' worth of orders because, for more than a year, thanks to blunders by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), it has been prohibited from selling its most successful creation anywhere in the European Union. Meanwhile a similar device made by a Franco-German firm, which is Lindstrand Balloons' only rival in this field, has been a tourist attraction in the city of Bristol since last spring.

More than a year ago I reported on the bizarre difficulties that Mr Lindstrand's company - which employs 90 people in Oswestry, Shropshire - encountered when the power to certify aircraft was handed over to the new European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) based in Cologne. Mr Lindstrand's leading products since 1996 have been his HiFlyer "aerostats" - huge helium balloons, tethered to a winch on the ground and rising 500 feet into the air, which have been enjoyed by millions of people all over the world.

Under British law - until last year - aerostats were not certified by the CAA as "aircraft" but were licensed by the Health and Safety Executive as "fairground rides". The aerostats made by Mr Lindstrand's Franco-German competitor, Aerophile, were classified under their national laws as "aircraft". So when aircraft certification was taken over by EASA, the new agency ruled that Aerophiles could continue to be sold, but the sale of HiFlyers could not be permitted anywhere in the EU.

Over the past year, having missed an initial chance to reclassify the HiFlyers as aircraft in time to meet the new legal requirements, the CAA has put endless obstacles in the way of giving Mr Lindstrand's machines the certification now required under EU law, although they can still be sold anywhere else in the world.

The latest problem has arisen over the aerostat's massive winch, made to the highest safety specifications by a Huddersfield firm. Under EU rules, this can be certified as safe by an "expert body", and Mr Lindstrand's winch is accordingly licensed by the HSE under fairground safety rules. But the CAA is now refusing to recognise the HSE as an "expert body", insisting that it will carry out the technical studies itself, a task for which it appears to have no qualifications. It seems there is no way that Mr Lindstrand's winch can be certified. When I asked the CAA to explain this they said they could not reply until next week.

Oddly, an Aerophile balloon that flew as a tourist attraction in Bristol this year uses a winch which has a chequered safety record. Similar winches, made by a now defunct company, have jammed, on one occasion necessitating the intervention of the army. But because Aerophile was able to include this winch in the "type approval" of its aerostats, its use in Britain must be allowed under EU law.

At present, then, Mr Lindstrand's HiFlyers are licensed to fly freely as aircraft, but they cannot be operated in a tethered position. Meanwhile Aerophile's devices, which have failed US tests to be certified as free-flying aircraft, can legally be operated in a tethered position, despite using a winch with a dubious safety record. When this extraordinary muddle was first questioned in September 2003, assurances were given by the CAA and by Tony McNulty, as transport minister, both to me and to Owen Paterson, Mr Lindstrand's MP, that handing over power to the EU would pose "no obstacle to the continued conduct of Mr Lindstrand's business". And yet 13 months later, Mr Lindstrand's problems are as bad as ever.

Crowning glory - or final nail

What no one pointed out last Friday, when 25 heads of government signed the new EU constitution, was that this was the moment predicted 63 years ago by one of the founding fathers of the EU as the crucial symbolic event in establishing a politically united Europe.

In 1941, when Altiero Spinelli, an Italian Communist, drafted his "Ventotene Manifesto", he realised that the way to build a "United States of Europe" would be gradually to assemble its institutions over decades, giving them ever more powers. Only then, as the project's "crowning dream", could a "convention" be called to draw up a constitution. This would be ratified by the peoples of Europe in grateful recognition of what had been done in their name.

If it is tempting to dismiss this as merely a historical irrelevance, it should be recalled (as Richard North and I showed in our exhaustively researched history of the "European project", The Great Deception) that Spinelli's draft "Treaty on European Union" 40 years later led directly to two European treaties, the Single European Act and Maastricht.

On Friday Jack Straw confirmed, on the BBC Today programme, the main arguments which will be used to persuade the British people to vote for the constitution in a referendum early in 2006. He and Mr Blair will tell us that the constitution is "very positive for the UK" because it gives "greater power to national parliaments", allows for "powers to be handed back to national parliaments", and "strengthens the role of the nation states within the EU".

Informed commentary on each of these points would only demonstrate the terrifying extent to which Mr Straw is playing with words.

In no meaningful way does the constitution do any of these things. In every significant respect the constitution extends the powers of the new "government of Europe" - as in foreign policy, defence and justice - in ways which make a complete nonsense of Mr Straw's claims. The last thing he and Mr Blair want is a proper, open debate that might allow the British people to grasp what is really at stake. The only consequence of that would be to make their defeat in the referendum even more likely than it looks today.

Continents clash in outer space

A fascinating row has erupted between the US and the EU over their rival satellite positioning systems. The Americans' GPS and the Europeans' Galileo (based on the 30 satellites that the EU plans to have in space by 2008) are the source of an increasingly bitter hostility. Last week a storm of denials greeted a front-page report in The Business that the US is developing "killer satellites", to blow the EU's Galileo system out of the sky if necessary (as reported in this column last July).

The British Government has persistently denied that Galileo, in which China this month took a 20 per cent share, is intended for anything other than civil purposes. But on every side evidence accumulates that part of its purpose is to provide a system for military use, to prevent the US denying its enemies access to satellite-positioning in time of war.

On October 11, a private debate between senior US, NATO and EU officials at the Royal United Services Institute in Whitehall centred on whether, in the event of armed conflict, the EU would be prepared to deny military use of Galileo to America's enemies. When the answer was no, the Americans replied that they would be forced either to jam Galileo or, if necessary, to take "irreversible action" and destroy its satellites.

On Monday the Chinese government denied the press report, claiming that it had only joined Galileo for "civil navigation purposes". It was time "certain people abandoned the Cold War mentality". By Thursday, however, the China Daily, under the headline "Earth Must Resist US Monopoly of Space", was claiming that any US attempt to threaten the access of users to Galileo, "both civil and military", must be resisted. This week, during Thursday's debate on defence, Gerald Howarth MP, the Tory spokesman, will attempt to get our own Government at last to come clean as to what Galileo is really about.

Caution, bats at work

Gwynedd council in North Wales bought a house near Pwllheli 10 years ago so that it could eventually be demolished to make way for a 10 million road scheme. The empty house has now become home to 22 lesser horseshoe bats. Because these are protected under UK and EU law, the council now plans to spend 60,000 on providing the bats with a 60-foot-long permanent bat roost. This works out at 2,700 per bat. It may also be impossible to proceed with the road scheme.

Fond as I am of these creatures, I also know from experience that, if the house was demolished, they are ingenious enough to find a new home nearby. It is a general rule that those officials who regulate to conserve our fellow-species usually know nothing whatever about them.