Pensioner as prophet in his own wetland: Nick Cohen on a visionary bureaucrats dismissed as an old bore

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The Independent Online
A GLAZED look comes across the eyes of bureaucrats and something close to a sigh slips from their lips when the name of Leslie J Munro is mentioned. For 10 years he has harried them, phoned them, bombarded with them with thousands of letters - often at a rate of three or four a day - and never once wavered in his belief that they had to drop everything and listen to him.

Mr Munro is not a politician or an academic. He is 78 years old. He lives in a bungalow on a dull, modern housing estate in Swindon. He is a self-taught expert on drainage. He takes the subject and himself very seriously indeed.

'Copernicus showed that the earth revolved around the sun, not the other way round as people had believed for thousands of years,' he said, unself-consciously comparing himself to the founder of modern astronomy last week. 'They just did not believe him. But he was right. I have been in the same position.'

Now, there are snide ways of describing Mr Munro: peculiar, obsessive, pompous, nuts. All of them, and worse, have been used when his theory that people living in waterlogged river valleys are more likely to under-achieve at school and die early has been insistently presented to civil servants from the Cabinet Office to Thamesdown district council, via the departments of Health, Education, Transport, Environment, Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

David Glaholm, a Wiltshire county councillor, who has dealt with him over the years, said: 'Officials' eyeballs start to roll when he comes around and they start saying 'oh no, not him again'.' The antipathy is mutual. 'Most times when I phone a government department all I get is some girl who knows nothing but is good at giving you a polite brush off,' Mr Munro said in his slow drawl. 'They take our money but don't deliver the goods.'

Many would have sympathised with the bureaucrats' standard response that original research from a prickly pensioner with no academic qualifications in geology need not be taken seriously when not a single expert had noticed a link between waterlogged soils and ill health.

But last week the Flood Hazard Research Centre at Middlesex University - the only body to listen to Mr Munro since 1984 - released a study based on the former mining engineer's work which showed he was what he had always claimed to be, absolutely right.

The centre's report is remarkable and worrying. It took 504 local authority wards in the Thames Valley region and looked at the rate of infant mortality in each between 1981 and 1990. Its analysis, based on the Soil Survey Of England and Wales and Department of Health infant mortality statistics, showed that there were more child deaths in 'wet' areas - waterlogged valleys with clay soils - than on the dry limestone uplands. Overall infant mortality in the wet soil areas was 31.9 per cent higher than on the dry soils.

Social class (poor children are more likely to be unhealthy) could not explain what Professor Edmund Penning-Rowsell, the head of the Flood Hazard Centre, described as the 'massive' discrepancy. There were 18 council wards in wet areas with an average of 15 deaths per thousand births (nearly twice the national average). By contrast, 51 wards on dry soils had no deaths in 10 years.

'It's quite extraordinary that no one apart from Mr Munro looked at this before,' said the professor. 'We cannot explain what is happening. It may be waterlogging, or clay particles causing breathing difficulties or changes in temperature. But it is obviously a phenomenon which doctors and officials have to take seriously.'

The centre said that government departments must take the research into account when planning new housing estates, drain the worst areas and encourage GPs to pay greater attention to the care of babies in districts where the risks were greatest.

Disturbing evidence about the effects of waterlogging does not stop with cot deaths and infant mortality. Mr Munro has collected GCSE pass rates from comprehensive schools across southern England and found much the same story.

In Hertfordshire, for example, schools in wet areas had a 34.7 per cent pass rate in 1993 while schools in neighbouring dry areas had a 48.2 per cent pass rate. No one knows why and the Department of Education has refused to investigate.

Mr Munro's preoccupation with waterlogging began when he and his Russian wife, Zofia, retired from a life spent working in Africa and returned to his native Swindon. With characteristic attention to the quality of the climate, he installed triple glazing and an electronic air filter.

He thought that Swindon was a 'healthy, wealthy area with a good benign climate', until he started to dig up his back garden and hit water three feet down. His conviction that waterlogging was dangerous took root.

First, he demanded detailed information from his local authority on what happened to the rates money designated to land drainage. Then, he moved up to the Ministry of Agriculture, which is responsible for land drainage.

All his calls for better drains were ignored and he rapidly came to the conclusion that civil servants 'were an evil lot of bastards'. Finally, he started collecting as many statistics as he could which would show a link between waterlogged environments and health.

As the bungalow living room filled with reports and soil surveys, his wife became exasperated. 'I think she thought I was being a bit foolish,' he said. 'She used to have a moan about leaving all my papers on the table.'

But despite receiving the officials' cold shoulder and his wife's complaints, he never gave up. 'The more I looked at it the more amazed I became at how right I was,' he said.

In retrospect, it's easy to see why so many local and national authorities did not take him seriously. But Prof Penning- Rowsell said that officials should not be let off the hook. 'The only reason that these astounding results have been found is that Mr Munro has been extraordinarily tenacious and stubborn.

'Yes, you can see why he was ignored. But our willingness to dismiss people with original ideas as cranks diminishes us as a country.'

(Photograph omitted)

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