Skill shortages

A mole tells me that the Neyland Labour Party has selected a candidate to run against its former(?) branch chairman Simon Hancock, who, shortly after being elected under the party’s colours in 2012, defected from the Labour group on Pembrokeshire County Council to join Jamie Adams’ cabinet.

Little is known about the new man – Simon Churchill – but in a strong Labour area like Neyland he must have a chance of causing an upset, especially as I understand that Cllr Hancock’s decision to abandon the party shortly after the last election has caused some resentment in the town.

I only hope that his surname doesn’t raise suspicions that he might be a Tory plant.

There is some mystery surrounding Cllr Hancock’s present status within the party because the rules say that any member joining another political group is automatically expelled.

However, the last I heard he was still a member thanks to a protracted appeal process.

Labour insiders claim that Cllr Hancock has said in the past that he would never stand against an official Labour party candidate, so it will be interesting to see what happens next.

All I would say is that they shouldn’t put too much store on his promises because he also said he would never join the Independent Political Group.

Technically, of course, he didn’t because before he signed up for Jamie’s crew he persuaded the Leader to change the group’s name to Independent Plus Political Group.

With that sort of capacity for creative thinking it is little wonder that he recently became a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD).

Loss of his seat and the perks that go with it (basic allowance £13,000; cabinet SRA £15,000; local government rep on Hywel Dda health board £13,000) would leave the Hancock family to scrape by on whatever he gets paid as part-time curator by Haverfordwest Museum.

However, inspection of his register of interests, which lists 35 bodies/organisations with which he is associated, indicates he won’t be short of things to do.

On top of that he runs a website which is a masterclass in shameless self-promotion.

And to cap it all he is Mayor of Neyland (stipend, if any, unknown) for the umpteenth time.

Indeed I am told the joke in the town goes: “It’s an even-numbered year, so Simon Hancock must be Mayor”.

Looking at that lot you have to wonder if they have 48-hour days in Neyland.

It rather reminds me of a friend of mine who spent so much time at the golf course (and its environs) that, when he did occasionally turn up at home before bedtime, the kids used to call him mister.

There has been a bit of activity in the comments section of the WT’s website report on the appointment of a Head of Transformation (Salary circa £100,000 + car, pension support staff etc).

But of equal interest to me is the establishment by the Leader of a Transformation Board including three elected members Cllrs David Simpson, Pat Davies and Keith Lewis.

A couple of weeks ago, when I first became aware of this board, I emailed the chief executive asking what authority the Leader was acting under when he set it up.

I was told these powers arose from his position as Leader.

However, when I asked for the specific section of the constitution on which these powers rested, silence descended.

Being the Leader is not sufficient of itself because, as Lord Denning famously said: “Be you never so high, the law is above you”.

My own view is that the Leader already has far more power than is healthy in a democracy and his attempts to extend his tentacles into extra-constitutional territory should be resisted.

As regular readers will recall, Cllr Adams has “previous” in this area, for example, when he exceeded his authority by agreeing the deal which saw the previous chief executive sent home on paid “gardening leave”.

The Leader was quick to defend the establishment of this board at last Thursday’s council meeting.

“You can imagine the furore if no one outside cabinet was involved in this process.” He said. “I reflected on that and recognised that cabinet does not possess the only skills on this council.”

I’m afraid the thought that it had required reflection for Cllr Adams to recognise that the bunch of yes-persons who make up the cabinet didn’t possess the “only skills on the council” prompted me to call out: “Or any skills!”.

The Leader put on one of those displays of injured innocence that are his trademark.

“That’s an unfortunate comment Mike and I think that’s a good example of why I haven’t considered you for a seat on this board.”

Can this be the nice, sensitive Jamie Adams who attempted to pour scorn on my allegations about irregularities in the grant allocation process by conspiring with Cllr David Pugh to lie about what they had seen when they visited the attic at Coronation School Pembroke Dock?

And, while his antipathy to me is well documented, it doesn’t explain why he didn’t consider several other members – almost all from the opposition benches – who, unlike Keith Lewis and Pat Davies, have some experience of managing large, complex organisations.

Deputy Leader Lewis’ “skills” were on show at last week’s planning committee when members debated a One Planet application in his north county ward.

These One Planet developments are tied up with sustainable development and are a sop to those from the wilder shores of environmentalism whose vision sees us all eking out a living with ten acres and a cow.

Cllr Lewis had spotted something called Technical Advice Note (TAN) 20 which called for land use policies to “contribute to the future well-being of the Welsh language”.

With that in mind he asked that, if the application was approved, it should be subject to a condition that: “the applicants in this instance show evidence of learning Welsh and contributing to the established culture of the area.”

The case officer assured him that the applicants had close links with the Glandwr area and that “They are intending to learn Welsh and be part of the Welsh community”.

That seemed to mollify Cllr Lewis who said that when he saw an application from an address outside Pembrokeshire he was concerned that it might “dilute the Welsh language further in this area.”

Planning committee members often propose all sorts of strange conditions on planning applications, but they are usually put firmly in their place by the senior planning officers present.

Indeed, earlier in the meeting Cllr Jacob Williams had called for a condition restricting the weekend opening hours at a caravan sales park in his ward, but was told by the senior officer that: “The applicant hasn’t indicated on their application form what their intended hours of use are. So that makes it a little difficult to impose a condition without knowing what their intended hours of use are.”

The logic of that defeats me, especially as the Welsh Government’s guidance on planning conditions states: “5.71 Conditions limiting hours of operation can restrict deliveries, use of a premises by customers, as well as the operation of the main use to which the permission relates. The aim of such conditions is to reduce the impact of the use on the amenity of the users of the neighbouring buildings, which can often be residential.”

Strangely, none of the senior officers present raised any objections in principle to Cllr Lewis’ suggestion, so anyone observing the proceedings could easily have come away with the impression that, had the applicant not had local connections and a willingness to learn Welsh, such a condition could have been imposed.

There is extensive case law surrounding planning conditions and the the Welsh Government has issued guidelines on the subject (here) which indicate that such a condition would almost certainly be struck down by the courts.

As can be seen from the guidelines, there are several reasons why a condition of the kind proposed by Cllr Lewis might be unlawful, not the least of which is lack of precision and enforceability.

What standard of Welsh will satisfy the condition?

Who will monitor the applicant’s efforts to widen their linguistic range?

And as the guidelines say: “Since planning controls are concerned with the use of land rather than the identity of the user, the question of who is to occupy the premises for which permission is to be granted will normally be irrelevant.”

So, while Cllr Lewis’ passion for promoting the language is perfectly understandable, making planning consents conditional on learning to speak Welsh is not the way to go about it.

And that’s before we venture into the legal minefield of the Human Rights Act, or equality legislation.

PS I have emailed the director of development asking whether a condition such as that proposed by Cllr Lewis would be lawful, but have not yet had a reply.

There was also a One Planet application in Martletwy which seems to have attracted some local opposition.

Local member Rob Lewis (another of those cabinet members who don’t quite have all the skills) had been doing some research and had come across TAN 6 which stated that such developments should be located near public transport links.

Martletwy is beyond the back of beyond and, as Cllr Lewis was quick to point out, they have nothing so advanced as buses in that part of the world.

Readers will recall that, back in 2004, the then leader of the then IPG, Cllr John Davies, was granted planning consent for a herdsman’s cottage which was required by TAN 6 to serve a “present, not a future need”.

I don’t recall Cllr Lewis making a fuss, when, ten years later, this urgently needed dwelling still hadn’t been built.

Nor about the fact that the dwelling for which consent was given was twice as large as recommended by TAN 6.

And his enthusiasm for a strict interpretation of the rules doesn’t sit well with his wholesale and unlawful use of the county council’s computer system in an attempt to influence the outcome of the 2008 and 2012 local elections.