From 1 January, EU legislation will come in to force essentially making the UK measurement the “acre” forbidden in all official literature. Henceforth it is to be replaced with the standardised EU measurement of the “hectare”.
Back in the summer when the ruling was passed, grumbles came from traditionalists through the land: once again Brussels was interfering with our pints, miles and pennies. “We don’t think it’s necessary. We’re talking about the measurement of land, not a product that passes borders,” says John Gardner, director of the British Weights & Measures Association.
Would, critics worried, Winnie the Pooh be banished from Hundred Acre Wood and sent on a ferry across the Channel to Forty Point Five Hectare Wood? “After repeated attempts to rid us of our other imperial measurements, European bureaucrats finally got one over on us,” exclaimed Conservative MEP Neil Parish.
In all this commotion, what difference will the elimination of the acre as a measurement actually mean? What will farmers and estate agents do without it? To the dismay of the imperialists, they’ll cope. In fact, the acre (a 14th-century term defined by the amount of land one ox could plough in a day) was discreetly sidelined by the EU in most land registers from 1995 onwards. “This change will have little impact on farming business as transactions already take place in hectares,” says Martin Haworth, director of policy at the National Farmers’ Union, “but this new rule will not stop farmers from describing their own land verbally in terms of acres if they so choose.”
But is the snail-pace introduction of the hectare in Britain a sign of the EU’s increasing deftness at dealing with its stroppy friend across la Manche?
In the same directive that announced the banning of the acre, it was expected the pint and the mile would go the way of the yard and the furlong and exit stage left. Instead, the EU published a reprieve allowing the continuing use of these imperial measurements in the UK. A statement released by an EU commissioner made Europe’s pacifying capabilities with British tantrums clear, asserting that the UK can keep its pints and miles “until Kingdom come!”. Robin Paice, chair of the UK Metric Association, admits, “Every time we’ve asked the EU to make a derogation, they’ve agreed. The idea that the EU is imposing an alien system on an unwilling country is wrong.”
Yet still the UK drags its feet. Europe’s Council Directive 80/181/EEC was set out 30 years ago, outlining the standard units of measurement that European member states should follow, based on the metric system. The UK is famously one of the last to fully metricate (Burma, Liberia and the US still haven’t), despite the idea of a standardised system being a Brit’s idea in the first place, back in 1668.
Does next week’s sad adieu of the acre signal that perhaps Britain will one day finally fully embrace the metric world? Probably not. “At the moment the whole thing is stuck, and the government has no plans to resolve it,” says Paice.