A sorry business

Sorry was not the hardest word at last week’s meeting of full council as the chief executive and leader both apologised to members for failures of one sort or another.

First to don the sackcloth was Mr Westley who apologised to Cllr Paul Miller for the council’s failure to produce a report on 3G pitches.

This goes back to May last year when Cllr Miller put down a notice of motion calling for a officers to investigate the possibility of having an all-weather facility in each of the six main centres of population.

Council resolved that officers would carry out a feasibility study and produce a report to the first meeting in 2017 which just happened to be last Thursday’s bash.

As students of constitutional law will appreciate, when the council passes such a resolution it is an instruction not a request and Cllr Miller wanted to know why the report wasn’t on the agenda.

Mr Westley explained that there had been distractions such as the proposal to pass the sports centres and libraries over to a trust though he was keen to stress this wasn’t an excuse and offered Cllr Miller an apology and an assurance that the matter would be dealt with asap.

A little later the meeting moved on to a notice of motion on the rights of members to have planning applications referred to the planning committee rather than being determined by officers under delegated powers.

The IPPG’s tactics on this was to delay any changes because the Welsh Government is currently looking into the subject with a view to legislating for a uniform system across the country.

It was all a bit vague, but, according to Cllr Tom Richards, a White Paper was expected in April or May.

That led to the interesting question as to who had been consulted on the matter and whether this was yet another case where the council had responded to a consultation without involving elected members.

The leader explained that chairs and vice chairs of planning committees had been asked for their views but that the wider consultation was yet to come.

As I pointed out, if a White Paper is to be published next month it seemed rather late to be launching a consultation.

Cllr Adams had a ready explanation:

“The first port of call was chairs and vice chairs and professional officers and that will inform the way the questions are framed as part of the consultation process. That was not the element of us giving a formal response to the consultation and I don’t believe we have been asked to do so at this juncture.
That’s my understanding”

But when Cllr Jacob Williams asked the director Dr Steven Jones about this process he was told that the consultation document was issued in October 2014 and the deadline for responses was January 2015 and poor old Jamie had to get to his feet and apologise for misleading the council.

Cllr Adams’ statement followed a pattern that is familiar to experienced Kremlin watchers.

When in a tight spot he responds by making statements with such confidence that it is easy to fall into the trap of believing he knows what he is talking about.

Unfortunately, on this occasion Dr Jones had anticipated the question asked by Jacob Williams and had been on his iPad checking the facts.

When directly challenged he had no hesitation in throwing the leader under the proverbial bus.

The ubiquitous iPad also played a leading role in another episode.

It all started quietly when Cllr Tom Tudor asked if he could read out the question that he had placed on the agenda regarding the doomed attempt to transfer the authority’s sports centres/libraries to a trust.

The chairman responded that there was nothing in the constitution that would allow him to do so.

Cllr Jacob Williams, who had also submitted a question on the leisure services trust, disputed this and the matter was referred to the council’s legal eagles.

After consulting the constitution the head of legal services advised that: “There is nothing in the constitution that specifically deals with this point”.

Meanwhile Cllr Williams’ iPad had been pressed into service and on accessing that section of the constitution dealing with members’ questions he discovered:

“4.10.4. Each Member asking a question may speak for a maximum of three minutes to ask his/her question.”

Not unreasonably, he thought this contradicted the claims that the constitution was silent on the matter, though when he suggested that the council was due an apology over this “misleading” advice he was firmly rebuffed.

Indeed I understand that Jacob’s interpretation of 4.10.4 is even now disputed by m’learned friends which just goes to show how difficult it is to draft watertight legal documents!

We discovered, in response to the tabled questions, that the council’s doomed cultural and leisure services enterprise had cost £20,000 in consultancy fees; another £2,800 for external legal advice; plus an undisclosed sum for officer time and other in-house costs.

According to deputy leader Keith Lewis this was not the “disaster” that Cllrs Tudor and Williams suggested because some valuable lessons had been learned.

Whether £22,800 to educate Cllr Lewis and Co in the finer points of commercial law was value for money is a question to which I will return in a later post.

What needs to be established is the extent to which the various snags and legal obstacles that eventually scuppered this plan could and should have been considered before the council embarked on this futile and costly exercise.