Sunday, August 15, 2004

Where does it all stop?

Booker is on form today, with his column, mounting a full-frontal attack on John Prescott – one of the most powerful – and most under-rated politicians on the contemporary scene.

From an EU perspective, he raises an interesting and disturbing account about how British Standard structural codes from buildings are being replaced by new, Europe-wide codes, predictably known as "Eurocodes".

The story is well worth reading, not least for Booker's quotation of some of the impenetrable jargon in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister’s response to the report produced by the Institute of Structural Engineers on the practical implications of the new system.

But there are two issues relating to the imposition of Eurocodes which lack of space prevents Booker rehearsing, and which have far broader implications than the simple fact of the issuance of new standards.

The first of these issues related to the costs. According to the Institute of Structural Engineers, the initial cost to a small-to-medium size practice of £250,000, including £20,000 for new software, £72,500 on familiarising people with the new system and a staggering £128,000 on "loss of productivity during the first year of change".

The "benefit" of that expenditure is that there will be henceforth a standard code throughout the EU, which means it will be easier for practitioners in any one member state to bid for business in any other - and failure to work to local codes cannot be used as a reason for rejecting a bid.

In theory, that is fine – although one suspects that there are many more handicaps which make it difficult to bid for contracts in another member state – but the point is that there are and will continue to be many consultant engineers and building designers who have sound practices in the UK and which have no ambitions whatsoever of bidding for overseas work.

The reality of the situation, therefore, is that these businesses gain no benefit from the Eurocodes and, in fact, are paying to make it easier for overseas competitors to bid against them for work in their own country.

This may in the longer term drive down prices for the consumer – although that is unlikely because the costs of doing business are that much higher – but the way the changes are being introduced means that some service providers who gain no benefit are having to pay in exactly the same way as those who stand to benefit. This is intrinsically unfair

The second of the issues has even broader implications, relating – oddly enough – to our very national identity. Although not something we think of every day, British Standards contribute in a very small way to who we are and our perception of ourselves.

The first standards in fact, were developed in 1901 by the Institutions of Civil Engineers, Mechanical Engineers, Naval Architects and the Iron and Steel Institute. These three institutions created a committee, to standardise iron and steel sections for bridges, railways and shipping, amongst other things cutting the production of different tram rails from 75 down to five. This alone saved the industry about £1 million a year.

By 1929, the committee became the British Engineering Standards Association and was granted a Royal Charter, which defined the Association's objectives. A year later the Association became the British Standards Institution (BSI).

Now, more than a 100 years after the British Engineering Standards Association first met, BSI has 5,500 employees world-wide and operates in over 100 countries. There are over 20,000 current British Standards, and the mark is accepted world-wide as a trusted symbol of excellence.

For thirty years, however, the EU, through its Comité Européen de Normalisation (CEN), has been gradually replacing British Standards, and the Eurocode introduction is another step in this direction.

For sure, we will not suddenly become "Europeans" just because we work to CEN rather than British Standards. But another little bit of Britain has become eroded, to add to all the others. We now have metric measurement instead of Imperial, we no longer have the imposing, dark blue passport, but have had to exchange it for the European standard model. Instead of the Crown on the driving license, it now sports the ring of stars, and even the word "water" is prohibited on the ingredients label of a bottle of shampoo – the mandatory word being "aqua".

All these are minor in the grander scheme of things, but these and the many, many other things add up. The question is, how much can we take of this, before our national identity is seriously threatened? And where does it all stop?

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