Rent relief

 

The fate of Brian Hall, following his allegedly injudicious remarks in front of some rather credible witnesses is causing quite a stir in County Hall.
But Hall's future is not the most important issue; he is merely the carbuncle that is a symptom of the corruption of the underlying flesh..
The really serious question is why senior officers of the council, and the district audit service, have bent over backwards to protect him.
I have documentary evidence of several of these cover-ups but for purposes of illustration I relate the saga of the rent payments.
During the public audit inspection of October 2002, acting on a tip off from someone in the know, I asked for details of Cllr Hall’s payment record for 75 Stockwell Road, Pembroke Dock; the industrial unit that he leases from the council.
In reply, I was told that the council had no such agreement with Cllr Brian Hall.
So I amended my request to read Mr Brian Hall whereupon I received a note from the Finance department informing me: "Disclosure of Personal Data not permissible (Data Protection Act 1998)."
On 5 November 2002, I wrote to the Director of Finance pointing out that that my rights to inspect Cllr Hall’s rent payments under S15 Audit Commission Act 1998 was protected by the express terms of S 35(1) of the Data Protection Act 1998 itself:
"Personal data are exempt from the non-disclosure provisions where the disclosure is required by or under any enactment, by any rule of law or by order of a court."
The Audit Commission Act being the "any enactment" which ousted the Data Protection Act.
Not having received a reply from the Director of Finance, I wrote to the council’s Monitoring Officer on 28 November 2002 reiterating my interpretation of how the two statutes interacted.
On 14 December 2002, the Monitoring Officer informed me that "I have not concluded my research yet [into the relevant legislation] but will let you know as soon as I do."
Following a further exchange of letters, the Monitoring Officer replied on 4 March 2003 (five months after my initial request) that he had concluded his enquiries into the legal position "…and am satisfied that you are entitled to the information requested."
That was progress of a sort and three days later the Director of Finance sent me a list of Cllr Hall’s payments and the dates they had been received.
Unfortunately, what he didn't tell me was the dates on which the payments fell due, so it was impossible to ascertain whether Cllr Hall’s account was in compliance.
There was a further complication in that the terms of the lease, dated 20 September 2000, allowed for a six-months rent free period in lieu of certain works to be carried out by Cllr Hall, at his own expense, within three months of the date of the lease.
Two-and-a-half years on, these works had not even been started - and remain unfinished to this day.
I was, therefore, anxious to find out whether, in view of this non-performance, the six-months rent - amounting to £4,500 - had been clawed back.
So, on 10 March 2003, I wrote to Mr Lewis pointing out that S15 of the Audit Commission Act provided:
"At each audit [the three week period when the books are open for inspection] under this Act … any persons interested may:-
(a) inspect the accounts to be audited and all books, deeds, contracts, bills, vouchers and receipts relating to them, and

(b) make copies of all or any part of the accounts and those other documents."

and that the bare list he had sent me didn't fulfill the statutory requirements as this was a right I should have been able to exercise in during the audit inspection in October 2002.

I also asked when it would be convenient for me to attend County Hall to inspect the relevant documents.
The following day I wrote to the Monitoring Officer drawing his attention to his obligations under the Local Government and Housing Act 1989 S5(2) which states that: "It shall be the duty of a relevant authority’s monitoring officer, if it at any time appears to him that any proposal decision or omission by the authority, by any of committee, sub-committee or officer … has given rise to or is likely to or would give rise to - (a) a contravention by the authority, by any committee, sub-committee or officer of the authority … of any enactment, rule of law or any code of practice …" and suggesting that the Director of Finance’s refusal to afford me the rights given by the Audit Commission Act was a contravention of an enactment such as to place on him as Monitoring Officer a "duty" to, as the Act puts it "prepare a report to the authority with respect to that proposal, decision or omission."
The Monitoring Officer’s reply, dated 20 March 2003 displays all the hallmarks of the council’s modus operandi.
Completely ignoring my request that he should instigate an inquiry into the Director of Finance’s failure to comply with the law, he replied: "The Director of Finance and Leisure has been awaiting my advice on this matter. I have now provided him that advice and he has provided the relevant information."
And the following day, the Director of Finance wrote to tell me: "From my perspective, the information provided has dealt with, in full, your specific request for information … as raised during the inspection period related to the 2001/2002 accounts."
I wrote to both the Monitoring Officer and the Director of Finance expressing my dissatisfaction with their responses to my requests to actually inspect the documents and all I received in reply were more evasions.
So on 16 June 2003 I sent the Monitoring Officer an ultimatum.
My letter concluded "… the Council has failed to fulfill the obligations placed upon it by S 15 of the Audit Commission Act 1998 and, unless I receive a satisfactory response from you within the next 14 days, it is my intention, without further notice, to instruct counsel to initiate proceedings in the High Court."
Ten days later, which is return post compared to the council’s usual letter-answering performance, the Monitoring Officer informed me: "I will send you this information within the next couple of days."
In due course, the information which I had been entitled to in October 2002 arrived through the letter box, eight months late.
After a cursory inspection, the reason for the council’s reluctance to provide the information became abundantly clear because, at one point, Cllr Hall had been eight months in arrears with his rent payments, though the lease required payment monthly in advance.
Furthermore, he was 10 months behind with half the rates and four months behind with the rest.
In addition, there was no evidence that any effort had been made to claw back the £4,500 in forgiven rent despite the fact that the works on which it was based had not been carried out.
When that was taken into account, he was actually 14 months in arrears.
As you might imagine, the Code of Conduct has some strong words to say on the subject of elected members being given preferential treatment.
So, I wrote to the District Auditor drawing his attention to these matters.
With respect to the late payment of rates the District Auditor assured me, in a letter dated 18 November 2003 that, following his inspection of the council’s records, "the standard recovery procedures were followed for this account" and, so far as the rent was concerned: "I am satisfied that the normal arrears follow up procedures have been followed for Mr Hall’s rent account."
Not being able to check these facts myself, I had no alternative but to accept what the auditor said as true, though I did wonder how, if Cllr Hall’s rent account was typical, Pembrokeshire County Council manages to be one of the best performing authorities in Wales in the area of debt collection.
However, it was not everything in the auditor’s letter that I had to take on trust. For instance, the auditor told me that the reason Cllr Hall had failed to erect a fence around the property; the main element in the works he had to complete in order to qualify for the six-month rent holiday, was that this work required planning permission.
As this letter was written more that three years after the date of the lease, which made the rent holiday conditional on the works being completed within three-months, you might ask what kept him?
The auditor’s letter also provides an example of a well-worn technique: reporting what other people have said, rather than the facts that you yourself have discovered.
So, he told me that: "The Property Services department informs me that planning permission is currently being sought."
As far as I am aware, the only known method of seeking planning permission is to submit an application.
So, after a decent interval, in early January 2004 I popped into the planning department and asked to see the planning application.
I must admit it came as no great surprise when to be told that no such application existed.
I informed the auditor of this development on 8 January 2004 when I was also able to tell him that, planning permission, or no, part of the fence had been erected the previous September.
Furthermore, the fence that Cllr Hall had put up was of a cheap wire mesh construction rather than the galvanised palisade specified in the lease.
Not surprisingly, it took the auditor more than two months to collect his thoughts.
When he did get round to replying on 15 March 2004 he was able to tell me that Cllr Hall's retrospective planning application was due to go before the council the following day and, as regards the quality of the fence: "While the fence is not 2.4 m high palisade fencing [as required under the terms of the lease] the council's view is the fencing already installed is of a higher specification than required by the lease."
Really!
The other difficulty was the retrospective nature of the planning application.
Members of the planning committee can get quite het up about people who have the cheek to start work without their permission.
Cllr Hall knew this and was ready with his explanation which is contained in an undated note on the file.
It reads:

"To whom it may concern
The fencing in position was erected by the contractor without my knowledge. On return from business in Ireland I stopped the work from progressing and informed the planning department of a pending application.
The remainder of the fencing and the security gates will only be erected if formal consent is given. Signed Brian Hall."
Planning consent was given on the 16 March 2004 and almost a year later the fence still hasn't been completed.
Time he took another trip to Ireland, perhaps?

Oh! and another thing I notice is that the minutes of the property services committee, where it was originally decided to lease the industrial unit to Mr Brian Hall, record that the building was to be used for "A new business venture incorporating the provision of Certificated Bailiff services, a security firm, minibus hire and the provision of portacabin office suites..." which is "...projected to generate a minimum of 4 new jobs and 20 direct and indirect jobs within the next twelve months."
No happy ending here, either, I'm afraid, because, like the rent, the rates and the fence, the jobs, too, are way overdue.
PS I visited the site recently and the final one-third of the fence still hasn't put in an appearence.