Monday’s meeting of PCC’s audit committee was an all day affair with a routine meeting in the morning and an extraordinary meeting in the afternoon.
The afternoon session was to discuss the latest developments in the controversial matter of “irregularities” in the the Commercial Property Grants Scheme in Pembroke Dock, so I had always intended to be on parade for that.
The morning meeting, the agenda for which included such show stoppers as “Business Risk Management Strategy Update and Risk Management Improvement Plan 2014-2015”, wouldn’t normally be my cup of tea, but I went along to see the newly appointed lay member installed as chairman.
For the past few weeks, I have been in correspondence with the council’s Monitoring Officer about the lawfulness of the procedure adopted in making this appointment, but here was Peter Jones, semi-retired, senior partner in Morgan Cole solicitors, as proof that either I am wrong, or, more likely, that the council had decided to ignore my concerns.
As well as the lawfulness of the procedure there were other reasons for my interest in Mr Jones’ appointment, not the least of which was that the deadline for applications had been extended for a week to allow him to apply.
It is not quite clear to me how this works because, unless the post was readvertised (which it wasn’t) how was anyone to know that the deadline has been extended.
After the formalities had been completed, the members introduced themselves to their new chairman – starting with “Jacob Williams, unaffiliated member for East Williamston” and proceeding round the table to the last in line, “Johnny Allen-Mirehouse, Hundleton”.
This information was surplus to requirements because Mr Peter Jones and Johnny were well known to each other already, and it was surprising that neither of them acknowledged the fact, and nor did the member for Hundleton declare a personal interest during Mr Jones’ election to the chair.
You see Morgan Cole are, or were, Milford Haven Port Authority’s solicitors and Johnny had been a long time member of the port authority’s board.
But, thanks to Old Grumpy’s excellent memory, I knew there was an even more interesting relationship between the two of them dating back to 2007.
The reason I knew this was that in 2009 Johnny put in a claim to the National Park Authority for the reimbursement of the £40,000 worth of legal costs he ran up defending himself against an Ombudsman’s finding that he had breached the Code of Conduct when he failed to declare an interest during a debate on the Park’s controversial “homes for locals” policy. Broadly, this policy was intended to restrict new residential planning permissions in the National Park to houses for occupation by local people. The aim of this policy was to make houses more affordable by reducing the price of building land.
In support of the £40,000 claim, he submitted legal bills from Morgan Cole amounting to £22,000 (the balance was made up of the fees of the QC he engaged and Angle estate’s land agents).
And there at the top of the shop was the following:
The minutes of the National Park Committee can be found here. I particularly recommend the section on correspondence.
Incidentally, the National Park Committee agreed to pay £8,000 of the claim including the charge above which you might think was rather generous of them considering that £1,600 of the total was accrued while Mr Robin Havard and Mr Peter Jones were sitting in the car on the journey from Cardiff to Angle and back. You can see how your representatives voted on this at Money for JAM
You might wonder why Johnny should be so profligate when he could have popped up to Cardiff in the Land Rover for the price of a tank of diesel.
Anyway, apart from clocking up fees of £1,600 apiece, the two legal eagles seem to have had a nice time because the following day Mr Havard wrote a letter thanking Johnny for his hospitality.
So not only what would be a month’s wages for most of us, but a slap-up lunch as well.
I should explain the presence of Viscount St Davids and Mr Anthony Owen at this meeting.
Viscount St Davids was Johnny’s neighbour and fellow board member at MHPA, while Mr Owen is a principle of Owen and Owen; land agents to Cllr Allen-Mirehouse’s Angle estate.
As I said earlier, these bills were run up in Johnny’s defence against an Ombudsman’s finding that he had breached the Code of Conduct by failing to declare an interest in the National park’s “homes for locals” policy.
I was the complainant, so I had an interest in the matter.
Briefly, after I complained, the Ombudsman referred the matter to the police – failing to declare a pecuniary interest being a criminal offence at that time.
After about 18 months I received a letter from the Ombudsman informing me that he was discontinuing his investigation because Cllr Allen-Mirehouse had told the police that he had no land that could be affected by the policy.
That prompted me to visit the National Park offices at Llanion where I asked to see the JUDP file for Angle.
Within the hour, I left clutching photocopies of two letters from agents acting for Cllr Allen-Mirehouse requesting that land he owned be included in the development limits of Angle village.
You might wonder why the police didn’t think of that.
After I forwarded these to the Ombudsman he reopened his investigation during which he discovered a third letter in the same vein.
That led to the adverse Ombudsman’s report and Johnny’s appearance before the Adjudication Panel for Wales meeting in the grand surroundings of Lamphey Court.
However, before the tribunal proper there was a preliminary hearing at the Halliwell Centre in Carmarthen where the Ombudsman and Johnny’s legal team decided on which facts were agreed and which were disputed.
This is common practice and is designed to save time at the tribunal. At this preliminary hearing the disputed facts were narrowed down to two:
1. Did Councillor Allen-Mirehouse own any land that was capable of being developed when he participated in the relevant meetings of Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority?
2. What was the likely impact of the introduction of Policy 47 on land values in the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park?
It is not recorded who was disputing these facts, but as the case against Cllr Allen-Mirehouse was predicated on the ownership of such land it certainly wasn’t the Ombudsman.
Sometime after this hearing, Mr Robin Tolson QC was engaged and he seems to have decided that this denial of land ownership wouldn’t stand up in face of the evidence because, soon after the tribunal opened for business, there was an admission that Johnny did own such land.
Indeed the tribunal report records: “5.1.2 Mr Tolson said that it had never [my emphasis] been disputed that Councillor Allen-Mirehouse owned land that was capable of being developed when he participated in the relevant meetings of the National Park Authority.”
4.3 The Case Tribunal found the following in respect of the disputed facts:
4.3.1 Councillor Allen-Mirehouse did own land that was capable of being developed when he participated in meetings of the Authority.
Of course you might ask why, if it “had never been disputed that Cllr Allen-Mirehouse owned land etc” the tribunal needed to find in respect of the disputed facts that he did, or why it had been included in the list of disputed facts following the pre-hearing.
From the witness stand, the Ombudsman’s investigator said that this admission of ownership was conclusive of the matter. If Cllr Allen Mirehouse owned land that could be affected by the policy, he had, by definition, a declarable interest, and had therefore breached the code.
But the tribunal concluded:
5.3.2 The Case Tribunal found:
1. Councillor Allen-Mirehouse did consider whether he had a personal interest in the matter of the Authority’s consideration of Policy 47 on local and essential needs housing.
2. There was no such interest to disclose.
The full report can be read here.
However, what was most disturbing was the efforts made by Cllr Allen-Mirehouse’s defence team, led by Mr Peter Jones as instructing solicitor, to turn this hearing into an attack on my credibility.
Much was made of the fact that the Ombudsman had reopened the case following my provision of new evidence.
Tolson QC asked: “There is no explanation as to why, the police having completed their investigation, the Ombudsman reopened the case without considering what was in Cllr Stoddart’s mind.”
Of course it was the contents of the National Park files, not my mind, that was important (Simple explanation) and the question that needed to be asked was why the matter wasn’t referred back to the police after I discovered that what Cllr Allen-Mirehouse had told them about land in his ownership wasn’t true.
Even the chairman of the tribunal, Cardiff solicitor Peter Davies, seemed to have joined the defence team (see here)
During Cllr Allen-Mirehouse’s turn in the witness box the Mr Davies asked him:
“Do you you know Robert Stoddart?”
J A-M: “Distantly”.
Chairman: “Do you know of any reason why he would make this complaint?”
J A-M: “Cllr Stoddart has been a constant critic of my conduct since 1995”.
Chairman: “Can you tell me whether you have any views on the way the complainant has conducted this complaint?”
After generously conceding that I had every right to complain, Cllr Allen-Mirehouse added: “Whether he should have complained quite so often is another matter.”
Of course, the reason I made the complaint was that I was of the opinion that Cllr Allen-Mirehouse had breached the code. And, what’s more, the Ombudsman agreed.
And, the highly-paid chairman of a tribunal specifically set up to deal with Code of Conduct matters might have been expected to have read S 6 (1) (c) of the Code which informs elected members: “You must: report to the Public Services Ombudsman for Wales and to your authority’s monitoring officer any conduct by another member which you reasonably believe breaches this code of conduct.”
So, once I had come to the conclusion that Cllr Allen-Mirehouse had breached the Code, I was obliged to report it to the Ombudsman.
Not that I needed any encouragement from the Code, I might add.
I am unlikely ever to pass up the chance to strike a blow at the anti-democratic IPG, of which he was at that time chairman.
In any case, why I complained, or how I conducted myself, had no relevance whatsoever. The Ombudsman wrote the report, I only provided the evidence.
Following the case, Mr Peter Jones’ colleague Robin Havard had a meeting with Cllr Allen-Mirehouse during which they discussed whether he had any grounds for suing me for whatever I was supposed to have done wrong:
Unfortunately they decided to bank their winnings because there was nothing I would have liked better than to see the proceedings of this kangaroo court exposed to full judicial scrutiny.
Given his previous relationship with Cllr Allen-Mirehouse, and the attempt to attack my credibility during the Adjudication Panel hearing, you will understand why I have reservations about these “irregular” grant claims, which I have been instrumental in uncovering, being examined by a committee chaired by Mr Peter Jones.
And the eagerness with which he accepted the explanation offered by Director of Development Dr Stephen Jones: that these serial failings were all down to manpower shortages caused by maternity leave, austerity cuts and retirement of key staff; a poorly drafted procedure manual; clean audits by the Wales European Funding Office (WEFO) that led to his department dropping its guard: and a particular developer “exploiting loopholes” in the system, was hardly reassuring.
P.S. Johnny still seems to be having trouble grasping the idea that you can’t argue from the particular to the general because at Monday’s audit committee he was again peddling his ridiculous theory that a photograph of part of the inside of the roof at Coronation School proves that the whole roof had been reslated.
Let me give an example that may help his understanding:
One of his tenants arrives at Angle Hall to pay his rent. He is an old-fashioned type who doesn’t believe in banks and cheque books, so he always pays in cash.
“There’s a thousand pounds in here Mr Johnny” he tells his landlord, waving a brown envelope.
“Let me count it” Johnny says.
“No need!” says the old retainer pulling five crisp £20 notes from the envelope and fanning them out for all to see.
Slipping the notes back into the envelope he asks: “Can you now please give me a receipt for a £1,000?”