January 31 2006

 

Playing for laughs

I read in the Mercury that Cllr Brian Hall claims he was only joking when he told a senior BBC executive and a Welsh Assembly member of his intention to get his friends from the Manchester ganglands to deal with a BBC journalist who had made a programme investigating his relationship with economic consultant Dr Michael Ryan.
Sadly, for the fun-loving Cabinet member with responsibility for the environment, he had come across two people in need of a sense of humour transplant.
Worse was to follow because, when the matter was reported to the Ombudsman, he couldn't see the funny side, either.
The result is that the matter has now been referred to the county council's standards committee for adjudication.
Of course, those of us who keep a close watch on these things remember that this is not Cllr Hall's first excursion into stand-up comedy.
Back in 1997, he was hauled before the council on a charge of threatening violence to the Labour leader David Edwards and Plaid Cymru leader Aled ap Gwynneth after they had the temerity to disagree with his point of view during a council debate.
Whilst most people would have been quick to apologise for losing their rag in such a situation, an unabashed Cllr Hall turned up to the meeting, where the motion of censure was to be debated, armed with a whip, a pair of pistols, a pantomime axe and various other props, and challenged Cllr Edwards to "come outside" if he "was man enough".
As Edwards' mass is about half that of the burly Hall, he wisely declined this less than generous offer.
The, then, leader of the council Eric Harries told the meeting that he had tried to persuade Cllr Hall to apologise "but as you can see I have not been successful".
In the end the council passed a resolution, proposed by Cllr John Allen-Mirehouse, that Cllr Hall's conduct was unacceptable.
You might think that this should have signalled the end of Hall's political career, but somebody evidently decided that such a man; free of any sense of democratic decency or scruple, would be a useful asset to the project.
So it is that his rise and rise through the county council's hierarchy has come about.

No quick answers

I remember, perfectly, the words of council chief Bryn Parry-Jones when he introduced the members of Pembrokeshire County Council to the delights of the Local Government Act 2000 which ushered in the unloved, and unlovely, Cabinet system of local government.
The new arrangements, he told them, had been designed "to streamline decision-making".
For anyone with experience of the slowly grinding wheels of bureaucracy, streamlined decision-making may seem like a boon, but, to those who really understand the meaning of democracy, it is an extremely dangerous notion.
That is because democracy requires that the views of all sides of the argument are considered before decisions are reached; not easily reconciled with streamlined decision-making.
Also, as the philosopher Karl Popper has pointed out, democracy proceeds on the basis that two (or more) heads are better than one and streamlined decision-making almost invariably involves the imposition of the views of a single person, or, at best, a small clique.
As George Grey; a former member of the Independent Political (sic(k)) Group, once remarked in a letter to the Western Telegraph, the county council is an autocracy, although it should be pointed out that once the issue that was bothering him (Arnolds Yard, Johnston) was out of the way he quickly resorted to lending his support to the same autocratic project.
However, the reason democracies outstrip their totalitarian rivals is that their populations, while not always happy with the decisions taken in their names, most of the time, at least, believe that their point of view has had a fair crack of the whip.
That in turn leads to a satisfied population and the conditions necessary for economic prosperity and, above all, freedom.
It is also worth noting in this context that, according to Michael Burleigh in his book The Third Reich, one of Hitler's great motivations was to prove that the centrally organised state, with its streamlined decision-making (See Wannsee conference) was more efficient than the free-market Anglo Saxon economies favoured by the English-speaking world.
Fortunately for all of us, he was proved to be wrong about that.

Quick sale

Nowhere has streamlined decision making been taken to greater lengths that in the sale of council [taxpayer owned] property.
Pre-Cabinet, before property could be disposed of it had to be declared surplus to requirements by the Property sub-committee, the decisions of which had to be endorsed by the Policy and Resources (P and R) committee and full Council.
The Property sub-committee also had to agree the method of sale: tender, auction or private treaty etc.
And, before the sale could be concluded, the price and the purchasor had to be approved by the Property sub-committee, P and R and full Council.
It could well be argued that this process was too long-winded, but nobody could say it lacked transparency.
Contrast that with the present system which, in most cases, gives the Director of Development complete say over the sales of property valued at less than £100,000.
At its very first meeting, the Cabinet passed the following resolution governing the sale of council-owned land.
(a) (i) That the procedure be adopted whereby Cabinet in determining proposals to discontinue points of service delivery will determine the principle and method of disposal of any surplus property involved.
(ii) That with regard to other property disposals, the threshold requiring authority from Cabinet for disposal be set at £100,000.

So, except in the rare cases where points of service delivery are discontinued (closure of a school or office, say) the Director of Development has no need to report to Cabinet any intention to dispose of surplus property worth less than £100,000.
In respect of these properties the Director has a completely free hand.
For the disposal (my emphasis) of properties over £100,000 the director has to seek the authority of the Cabinet.
However, the Director is under no obligation to seek Cabinet's approval for the terms of any sale.
Having agreed to the disposal, the Cabinet passes a resolution along the following lines:

That negotiations continue with the Developer on the basis set out in the report of the Director of Development to conclude a disposal by the Council of this industrial site on a long leasehold basis on terms acceptable to the Director of Development.

Note that the disposal is not on terms acceptable to the Cabinet.
As I pointed out last week (see Tender goodbye), usually the first the Cabinet know about the identity of the purchasor, and the price, is when the matter is reported to them some time after the sale is completed.
Indeed, at £160,000 a year in special responsibility allowances, Pembrokeshire County Council's Cabinet must be one of the most expensive rubber stamps in the whole of creation.

A matter of timing

As they say, all good things come to an end, and, as if to prove the point I have recently received a letter from the Royal Courts of Justice informing me that my request for leave to have the council Leader's company's planning consent for a herdman's cottage at Cwmbetws Farm Eglwyswrw subject to Judicial Review has been turned down.
The High Court Judge who made this decision informs me that: "Although the defendants [PCC] take no point on delay, it is important that [the three-month] time limits be obeyed. This is particularly the case where challenges are made to grants of planning permission upon which third parties are entitled to rely. The challenge is to the committee decision of 24 May 2005; the claim was not lodged until 2 September 2005. That would in itself be sufficient to refuse permission."
It is difficult to believe that a High Court Judge could get it so wrong.
In almost all planning decisions there is a a period between the committee's resolution to grant permission and the issuing of the consent.
Students of these matters will recall the planning committee's decision to grant permission for a supermarket at Maes Gwynne on the outskirts of Fishguard back in about 1997.
But, before the consent was actually issued, another supermarket group threatened legal action on the grounds that their alternative proposals for a store in Goodwick had not been properly considered.
Much to the annoyance of Cllr Alwyn Luke, who had been a vociferous supporter of the "successful" Maes Gwynne application, planning officers delayed issuing consent and at the next meeting the decision of the previous committee was overridden.
The point being that a planning decision does not become effective until the consent is actually issued.
On the question of the three-month time limit for Judicial Review in planning cases, the law is absolutely clear: time runs from the date the consent is issued; in the case of Cwmbetws 6 June 2005, and not the date of the committee meeting.
For that proposition we have the authority of Lord Steyn; delivering the judgment on behalf of all five Law Lords in the 2002 House of Lords' case R v Hammersmith and Fulham BC ex parte Burkett:
That case hung on the single question of when the clock starts for the purposes of the time limit imposed on applications for Judicial Review.
Lord Steyn couldn't have been clearer when he ruled: "For all these reasons I am satisfied that the words "from the date when the grounds for the application first arose" refer to the date when the planning permission was granted. In the case before the House time did not run therefore from the resolution [of the planning committee] of 15 September 1999 but only from the grant of planning permission on 12 May 2000. It follows that in my view the decisions of Richards J and the Court of Appeal were not correct."
So the reason why the county council made "no point on delay" is that there was no point to make.***
If that was the only issue in question, I would appeal.
But that there are other more complex issues such as whether the council made an error of law, which could lead to the decision being quashed.
I am currently seeking legal advice on these and other matters.
However, whatever the legal niceties, the fact remains that, when the planning committee sat down to determine this application, it had before it a report which was factually inaccurate.
The evaluation section of the report reads: "The agricultural holding is a mixed farming unit with approximately 142 hectares (350 acres). Of the land 280 acres (113 hectares) is given over to grassland supporting a dairy herd of 165 dairy cattle, 162 other cattle and over 350 tack sheep."
And later: "Based on the size of the holding and the farming regime (my emphasis) there is considered to be a functional need for an additional dwelling to accommodate a full time worker . . ."
Unknown to the committee, by the time of their meeting the dairy herd had been sold off.
The formula used by the council to calculate a farm's labour requirements rates a dairy animal at 36 hrs per annum and a beef animal at 16.
So, even if the dairy cattle had been replaced by beef cattle at the rate of 2:1 (the council suggests 1.7:1) there would be a reduction in the farm's labour needs under this new "farming regime".
The council did try to wriggle out of this problem by claiming that even without the dairy cows the farm still qualified for an extra dwelling.
As I have already demonstrated (see Fantasy figures) arithmetic is not the council's strong suit.
It is not easy to see by what process of logic a reduction in manpower requirements translates into the need for extra workers' accommodation.
And, of course, the one person who knew that the report before the planning committee was factually inaccurate was the Leader of the council, who, in common with all members, would have received a copy of the agenda three clear days before the meeting.
Putting aside what m'learned friends think about it, what proportion of the Pembrokeshire electorate believe that the Leader of the council, of all people, had a duty to inform his fellow members that the report in front of them contained manifestly false information?
From my own, admittedly unscientific, polls I would put the figure at well north of 90%.
M'lud, I rest my case.
*** I did explain this point to the reporter from the Western Telegraph who rang me for a quotation. If you have read this week's edition of Wales' biggest selling weekly snoozepaper, you will notice there is no mention of this in its totally one-sided report. Still, having your integrity attacked by Cllr Bill Hitchings, who I once caught claiming a first class rail fare for a journey to an Association of Port Health Authorities' conference in Hull, when he had actually travelled by car, plumbs the depths of hypocrisy almost as much a as being accused of being a liar by ex-Cllr Maurice Hughes (see Smear-Leader).
It is also interesting to read, on page 12 of the county council's house magazine, that, with regard to Cllr Brian Hall's recent brush with the Ombudsman, Cllr John Davies feels "It would be improper for me to prejudge the outcome [of] a continuing legal process" while, on Page 5, Hitchings, another member of the Independent Group mafia, feels perfectly able to comment on the "continuing legal process" (I have a right of appeal) of my Judicial Review application.
What people must try to realise is that the only word that adequately describes a political system, where those in power operate under different rules to the rest of us, is Fascism.
I will deal with this subject at much greater length next week.



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