Former Euro-MP Howell dies in air crash

One of Norfolk's most colourful politicians and socialites, Paul Howell, has been killed in a plane crash in South Africa.The long-serving former Euro MP, farmer and adventurer was among at least five other people who were on a Piper Seneca aircraft, which crashed on a beach just short of Beira, the second largest city in Mozambique.

One of Norfolk's most colourful politicians and socialites, Paul Howell, has been killed in a plane crash in South Africa.

The long-serving former Euro MP, farmer and adventurer was among at least five other people who were on a Piper Seneca aircraft, which crashed on a beach just short of Beira, the second largest city in Mozambique.

Mr Howell, the son of the former north Norfolk MP and farmer Sir Ralph Howell who died in February this year, was on a trip to South Africa with his wife Ayesha, who he had married last year.

He had been looking at agricultural business interests in South Africa and Mozambique.


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Tributes were last night paid by family, close friends and political figures to the man who was credited with “championing Norfolk in Europe.”

News reports from South Africa say that about six people were on board the privately registered plane, including five South Africans.

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It is understood there were no survivors. A commission of inquiry had been set up to determine the cause of the crash.

Antonio Tito, director of Beira International Airport has been quoted as saying the pilot had lost contact with the airport tower. It has also been reported that the plane had run out of fuel short of the runway late on Saturday.

Mr Howell's home was at Wendling, near Dereham, where he and his wife lived with their baby son.

The former Tory politician had lost his seat to a Labour MEP in 1994 after serving for 15 years and becoming one of the best known elected figures in Strasburg.

He was in Gaza when the Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated, in Berlin the day the Wall went down and at the Kremlin the night the Soviet Union effectively collapsed.

Mr Howell brawled with Labour Euro MPs, championed the Yarmouth Outer Harbour, befriended Canadian seals, attacked Euro-junketing and helped Mrs Thatcher to her political knees.

In 1981 he crashed his aircraft at Swanton Morley, near Dereham, severing vocal chords and leaving him with a husky voice.

In 1999 he made a political comeback when he attempted to regain his seat in the European Parliament.

He was finally expelled as a Tory and moved to the Liberal Democrats in 2001.

Mr Howell's family last night were still coming to terms with his death.

A statement released on Monday said: “Former Tory MEP for Norfolk Paul Howell was killed in a light aircraft in Mozambique on Saturday 20 September.

“He is survived by his wife Ayesha and three sons, William, Oliver and Zack.”

Friend and joint best man at his wedding to Ayesha last year Paul Whittome, owner of the Hoste Arms at Burnham Market, said: “He was a completely larger than life character and controversial. You couldn't have a more loyal friend, fun friend.

“He was advisor to Edward Heath, had contact with Thatcher, he was an expert of the history of the Middle East and was probably the most brilliant orator I have ever seen.

“He was kind. Holidays with Paul were always great fun. We got arrested scuba diving by a naval frigate once. Everything that went with Paul was an adventure.”

Martin Buckingham, who was his other best man, said: “He was a very special person and a very dear friend. He had an astonishing sense of adventure and fun.

“He was astonishingly intelligent, his knowledge and intellect were extraordinary.

“He was just an inspiration and totally devoted to his three children.”

Chris Gurney who was left paralysed from the waist down after the 1981 Swanton Morley air crash said they had remained friends.

“He was always the life and soul of the party,” said Mr Gurney who operates Northrepps airfield. “But he did not always see eye to eye with his Tory bosses and was known to resolve a dispute with his fists.

“When he got given a task, he was like a Jack Russell, he would not let go until the job was done.”

North West Norfolk MP Henry Bellingham said: “It is a grave loss for Norfolk. Paul was quite an outstanding MEP and Norfolk's champion in Europe.

“He was Mr Norfolk in Brussels and Mr Brussels in Norfolk.”

Mid Norfolk MP Keith Simpson said: “He was a larger than life flamboyant Euro-MP in a world of faceless people. He was a well known Norfolk character, not just through his family. He was always swashbuckling and like a bottle of fizz.

“It is a real tragedy he has gone. Within a year we have lost two Howells.”

Conal O'Donnell, who has been a friend of Paul's from childhood, said: "It is really sad news. He was a boisterous, vivid friend. He was a driven man and was trying to make his fortune in Africa."

Paul was the oldest of three children. He has a sister Deborah, in New Zealand, and brother Robert, who lives near Dereham.

On Monday the Foreign Office confirmed a British National had been on the plane and that it had contacted and offered consular help to next of kin.

For many years Paul Howell, who was steeped in politics from childhood, was never away from the headlines as Norfolk's hard-working and highly controversial MEP.

When his late father, Sir Ralph, decided to concentrate on a Westminster career, his oldest son stood for the European Parliament, in June 1979. And at the age of 28, he became its youngest member, serving three terms at Brussels and Strasbourg.

He had the right political credentials too, having served as secretary to the shadow cabinet and a member of Margaret Thatcher's private office.

Working in London, he was a party researcher, speech writer and adviser; he also worked on the family's farm near Dereham, earning £15 per week as a cowman. He graduated in agriculture and economics in 1973 from St Edmund Hall, Oxford, having spent a gap year working as a “ringer” or cowboy on a 150-acre farm in northern Queensland, Australia.

Mr Howell, regarded by some as a maverick, wore his heart on his sleeve, whether tackling the plight of orphans in war-torn Ethiopia, the fate of the Kurds fleeing from Saddam Hussein in 1991 or campaigning to halt the culling of Canadian harp seals. It was a brilliant success as he brought back the sickening pictures of the cull to the European Parliament within 12 hours and fellow MEPs voted overwhelmingly to ban imports of seal pelts.

In 1992 he was the first MEP to see the horror of Chernobyl - then the world's worst nuclear accident.

He fought equally hard for his beloved Norfolk as its MEP, fighting plans to move Lotus jobs from Hethel to the Netherlands and seeking £2.75m in European grants for the Theatre Royal, Norwich. In 1987, with typical Howell gusto, he said that the original design for Yarmouth's outer harbour project had been “drawn on the back of the proverbial cigarette packet.”

He admitted to being a “true Norfolk peasant.” “I am a solid Norfolkman. To be a true Norfolkman, they say you have to have two great grandparents born in the county. I have eight.”

His great grandfather was a postman in Long Stratton, and his grandfather was a carpenter apprenticed in Norwich before he got the tenancy of a smallholding in Great Moulton. His father, who died aged 84 in February, started on a 90-acre farm at Scarning after the war and it increased almost ten-fold in size over the years.

Paul Howell incurred the wrath of Norfolk National Farmers' Union in 1983 when he was the “star” or “villain” of a 50-minute BBC Panorama programme into the extravagant lifestyle of a farming MEP in the arable eastern counties. The NFU member was filmed on his new combine and then “dragging a burning sack around a field of straw” much to the anger of former county chairman Mike Garrod, of Billingford, near Dereham.

Ironically, seven years later Mr Howell was combining wheat at White House Farm, Scarning, when the machine caught fire and three firefighters narrowly escaped death as the wind suddenly changed and a 10ft wall of fire sped off in a different direction.

Of his schooldays, neighbouring farmer Roger Long recalled that Mr Howell had gone to Broom Hall, Saham Toney, near Watton, and then to Taverham Hall before going to Gresham's, Holt. In July 1983, Mr Howell, who was speaking at the prize-giving at his old preparatory school, said: “I scraped into Gresham's by the skin of my teeth with seven per cent for Latin in the common entrance examination.”

He told pupils that he was privileged to represent Norfolk in Europe and that he spent his time flying to and from Strasbourg - working for an ideal. “My record for flying across the Channel is 12 times in a week”, but his father, who served in the RAF, flew and dropped bombs. “I fly to debate,” he added.

He was a keen pilot and gained his flying licence before his driving test. In April 1981 Mr Howell and a fellow member of the Norfolk Flying Club, Christopher Gurney, were injured when a 35-year-old Tiger Moth, fitted with dual controls, crashed into the RAF field at Swanton Morley.

Mr Howell, who won a blue at Oxford for flying and was known to be keen on aerobatics, crawled from the wreckage. However, Mr Gurney, now of Northrepps, near Cromer, who was trapped for 40 minutes, remains confined to a wheelchair.

After the accident, which required a total of 13 operations to repair the damage, Mr Howell vowed never to fly again. It had left him with damaged vocal chords but at least he still had a voice.

In 1982, Mr Howell, who by then was a member of the parliament's transportation committee, had passed his heavy goods vehicle test - the only MEP to have an HGV licence.

His career, which had always been lively, often saw Mr Howell in the thick of the action. He was involved in a brawl in the parliament chamber in October 1984 and then again in another incident at Strasbourg in mid-December 1985. When socialist members demonstrated on behalf of striking miners, Mr Howell became involved in scuffles as attempts were made to haul down a banner and National Union of Mineworkers posters. Ironically, he was adopted for the mining constituency of Normanton, Yorkshire, in 1976.

He was also often at the heart of the political action. He was in Gaza when Israel's prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated, in Berlin the day the Wall came down and at the Kremlin the night the Soviet Union effectively collapsed. The Norfolk MEP also met world leaders including Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin but his defeat at the polls in 1994 derailed his political career at the age of 43.

When he turned 50, he told the EDP that he would always “remain a political animal from top to toe.” Sadly, his attempts to develop a business career did not enjoy such success, but he was a Norfolk man to the last.

He married Johanna Turnbull in 1987 and they had two sons, William, born in 1988, and Oliver, two years younger.

He married again in September 2007, to Ayesha, and leaves a young son, Zack.

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