March 22 2012

Party time

As regular readers will know, I am not great fan of the Independent Political Group which rules Pembrokeshire County Council with 39 of the 60 seats.
So, back in 2008, you would not have been surprised to read on this website this description of the IPG."... a farcical 'independent' cabal or a cabinet of puppets presiding over the last supper of democracy".
And, on Pembrokeshire democracy in general: "What a sad state local government has slumped into: polarised by party politics and overshadowed by the 'independent' umbrella of the ruling oxymoron party".
I should hasten to add, before someone reports me to the Ombudsman for bringing the office of councillor into disrepute by failing to show respect for my fellow members, that these were not my words but those of a Western Telegraph editorial that was published, with impeccable timing, six weeks after the 2008 local elections. (Let's pretend)
Well, better late than never!
But it would have been more helpful to the democratic cause if it had been published a couple of months earlier.
This time round, perhaps!
Not that the WT was totally in Old Grumpy's camp because the editorial was headed "Labour hoist by its own petard" which began by asserting that, by forming itself into a political group in 1995, Labour "polarised the council, inevitably leading to the formation of opposition groups".
As I said at the time, it was not easy to see what else Labour was supposed to do.
"Having stood under the Labour banner, were the party's elected councillors then supposed to pretend they were independents?" I asked.
And, in any case, forming "opposition groups" presupposes there is a ruling group to oppose and with just 14 of the sixty seats Labour couldn't possibly fit that description.
This echoes the Independent Political Group's own members' attempts to rationalise their position.
Back in the 1990s, when I was still working for the Mercury, they used to answer my questions on this topic by asserting that they were "forced" to form a group to stop Labour dominating the council.
When I enquired how, under a system of one-member-one-vote, a group of 14 could dominate a council of sixty members they used to go quiet.
Eventually, once it dawned on them that an explanation which advertised their shaky grasp of numbers wouldn't pass muster so they went off on a different tack.
They would counter my claims that they had "signed up to the IPG" by denying that they had ever signed anything.
Then I published the form (Party Animals) which carries the words "We, the undersigned, being members of Pembrokeshire County Council, HEREBY GIVE YOU NOTICE that we wish to be treated as a political group for the purposes of the Local Government and Housing Act 1989"., together with the signatures.
Faced with the overwhelming evidence, they changed tack again by claiming that no one instructed them how to vote.
Disproving this is a rather more difficult matter because I have never been privy to the IPG's conversations but I would suggest the circumstantial evidence - that, almost invariably, they all vote the same way - is persuasive, though I can't entirely rule out coincidence.
More difficult to explain is their attendance at the private group get-togethers held on the day before meetings of full council.
What is the purpose of these meetings, if not to inform members of the party line?
Suggestions anyone?
During council meetings I never miss the chance to refer to them as the party on my far right (that's where they sit) because I know it annoys them.
Afterwards they come up to me and insist:
"We are a group, not a party".
Up to a point, this is true, because, unlike the Tories, Plaid, Labour and the Lib Dems, they are not registered with the Electoral Commission as a political party.
However, my dictionary is quite clear on the issue.
It defines 'party' as "A group of people united in a cause, opinion, etc, especially a political group."
On that definition, a group of people who sign up to join a political group; have secret group meetings; and invariably vote as a block, look uncannily like a political party to me.
Though, as someone once said: if it walks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck it could be a dragon doing a duck impersonation.
If they did register as a political party; fought elections on a party manifesto and won 39 of the 60 seats there would be no complaints from me.
But they know that, if they followed that course, they would be wiped out.

With respect

Pembrokeshire County Council's Leader, Cllr John Davies, has dismissed Haverfordwest Town Council's objections to the sale of the castle as a "rant".
If I were to use such terms to describe something said by a member of the Independent Political Group, I would likely find myself up in front of the Ombudsman for bringing the office of councillor into disrepute by showing contempt for my fellow members.(Once more into the breach).
What actually saved me was the Ombudsman's acceptance that this column is written in my private capacity and is not part of my duties as a councillor.
Speaking as Leader, Cllr Davies can claim no such immunity.
Then again I suppose that those who are born to rule operate under different conditions than the rest of us.
What the Leadership of the IPG can't seem to understand is that it not necessarily the decision to sell the castle that is the issue - it is the way the decision was made.
People are in no position to criticise the decision itself because apart from the fact that there is a proposal is to convert the castle into a boutique hotel (whatever that is) they have no idea what is involved.
For all I know it might be the best thing since sliced bread. On the other hand . . .
But the way the decision was made - without any consultation with the people of the town - we can all take a view about.
To recap, the first anyone knew about this was when the cabinet papers were published on the Wednesday before the following Monday's Cabinet meeting.
And the number of people who knew was limited by the fact that the information was confidential i.e restricted to council members who would have been in breach of the Code of Conduct if they disclosed it to anyone else.
According to Cllr Rob Lewis, the Cabinet member with responsibility, consultation with interested parties was not possible because the contents of these confidential papers was leaked to the press.
I can't quite get my head around the logic of this so I have tabled a question to Cllr Lewis at today's meeting of full council.
His explanation is eagerly awaited.
P S Cllr Lewis did offer an explanation at yesterday's council meeting but it was so convoluted and unconvincing that, rather than rely on my notes, I will wait to see it in writing before commenting further.
One of my other questions to yesterday's council meeting asked if the sale particulars for the Haverfordwest Castle site made it clear to prospective purchasers that the Governor's House and castle grounds would also be available if required.
The answer was no, but it was explained that only one party, the current purchasers, expressed any interest in the site.
The logic of this is hardly compelling.
If someone advertises their house for sale with a clear indication that a five-acre field is also available, it is likely to generate more interest than if they simply market the house on its own.

Backscratchers

If you type "Pembrokeshire partnership management board" into Google, you will come across a document entitled "What has Objective 1 done for me?"
which contains glowing reports on progress in such matters as "Developing vibrant communities" "Delivering economic growth based on local need" and "Encouraging people to reach their potential".
Elsewhere you will find PPMB's annual reports with the slogan "Creating jobs and wealth for all with Objective 1".
Unfortunately, despite all the fine words, the answer to the question at the top of this piece is "not very much" because a recent report indicates that, compared to the EU average, incomes in the West Wales and the Valleys area covered by Objective 1 are now lower than when the scheme kicked off.
In fairness, it should be pointed out that for the past three or four years the UK has been in near recession, so any comparisons should be treated with caution, though, as the EU has experienced a similar downturn, it is arguable that these effects cancel each other out.
However, what can be said with some confidence is that Objective 1 has not led to the land of milk and honey that we were promised when it was launched in 2001.
I must admit that I have a jaundiced view of schemes that use taxpayers' money as a tool of economic growth on the grounds that the same money will generate as much if not more economic growth if left in the taxpayers' pocket.
But, enough of my prejudices!
Old Grumpy has been collecting data from the PPMB's annual reports for 2001-2002 and 2003-2004.
These are the only two on PCC's website but I will try to get the others and produce some more comprehensive figures.
What my researches show is that, in the two years in question, the vast majority of the money went to schemes administered by public or semi-public bodies; what I prefer to call the grantrepreneurs.
Pembrokeshire County Council £2.6 million
Pembrokeshire College £4.0 million
Pembrokeshire Business Initiative £923,000
PLANED £643,000
Milford Haven Port Authority £655,000
National Trust £309,000
Another £6.7 million was directed to other schemes, but when you consider that £6.0 million of that went to Dragon LNG (£5.0 million) and Slebech Park (£1.0 million), and now in administration, you will realise that the SMEs that we are told are the engines of economic growth didn't get much of a look in.
It is also noticeable that most of these public sector grant recipients are represented on the PPMB.
I know from reading minutes in the past that they were scrupulous in withdrawing from meetings when their grant applications were discussed.
But can you imagine a situation where they returned to the room to be told by their fellow board members: "Sorry old chap (or chapette) but your application didn't meet the criteria"?
Me, neither!

Misspent youth

While doing some research into my past political career I had cause to look up the results of the 1951 General Election.
It was during that campaign that I was paid sixpence by William Brownrigg (IND) to deliver leaflets around the neighbourhood where I lived.
Though billing himself as an independent, Mr Brownrigg's main policy was home rule for Cumberland (as it was then known) with hound trailing and Cumberland and Westmorland wrestling as the national sports.
I mention this because, as I like to tell Plaid's leader on PCC, Cllr Michael Williams, I was actively involved in nationalist politics before he was out of short pants.
For the record, Mr Brownrigg received just 187 votes, so my campaigning was not a success and I have no way of telling whether he declared my tanner on his election expenses.
While on the website I also had a look at the results for Pembroke - it's next but one to Penrith and the Border - and saw that in 1950 Desmond Donnelly (Lab) scraped in by just 129 votes ahead of one G Lloyd George (Liberal and conservative)
By the time the 1951 election came round the Conservatives and Liberals had abandoned their electoral alliance and Mr Donnelly sailed home with a 9,000 majority, though the Lib/cons had enough votes between them to beat him by about 1,500.
And in 1955, Donnelly again took Pembroke this time with a majority of 1,600 over the only other candidate W L Davies (Ind).
The turnout in these three elections was also interesting 83%, 86% and 84% compared to 59%, 61% and 65% for the latest three.
Another fascinating discovery was that, in 1951, the Tories and Labour were neck and neck in Scotland with 35 seats each (+ 1 Lib).
In 2010 the party's standings in Scotland were Lab 41, Lib Dem 11, SNP 6 and Con 1.
In contrast, since the war, Wales has consistently been a Labour stronghold with 1951 yielding 27 seats (Con 6, Lib 3) with little change in 2010 when Labour won 26 seats (Con 8, Lib Dem 3, and Plaid 3).


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