Cabinet puddings

For the past few months, Grumpette has been on a mission over the amount PCC charges owners of former council houses when they wish to buy the piece of grass in front of their properties with a view to providing themselves with off-street parking.

This was brought to her attention by one of her constituents who had been asked to pay almost £6,000 for the conveyance of approximately 80 sq metres of frontage.

On making enquiries with the council, she discovered that there was a fixed charge of £60 per sq metre, which, as the mathematicians among you will already worked out, comes up just short of £250,000 per acre.

I will be interested to find out how all this expensive land is valued in the council’s asset register.

When this came before cabinet on Monday we were told that this represented “open market value” as assessed by the District Valuer.

Like me, you might wonder how you can arrive at “open-market value” in a situation where there is a monopoly seller and a single, captive buyer.

If the council really wanted to find out the market value of these pieces of land it might consider putting them up for auction.

Then it would find that, with only one potential buyer, the land is virtually worthless.

Back in the day, the council had a duty under the Local Government Act 1972 to get the best consideration reasonably obtainable for any land it sold.

Best consideration is just another way of saying highest price.

All that changed when the Welsh Government passed the General Disposal Consent (Wales) Order 2003 which allowed councils to sell land at less than best consideration if:

The authority considers that the purpose for which the interest in the land is to be disposed is likely to contribute to the achievement of any one or more of the following objects in respect of the whole or any part of its area, or of all or any persons resident or present in its area:

i. the promotion or improvement of economic well-being;

ii. the promotion or improvement of social well-being;

iii. the promotion or improvement of environmental well-being.

It is not difficult to make the case that encouraging residents to provide their own off-street parking might fall into one or more of these categories.

In addition the Welsh Government has recently passed the Well-being and Future Generations Act which, as the name suggests, places a duty on local authorities to improve the lives of their residents.

Facilitating the free movement of traffic by promoting off-road parking would seem to fit the bill.

In any case, what is a local authority for if not to enhance the lives of those living in its area.

Grumpette’s notice of motion calling for the council to use the provisions of the General Disposal Consent when selling these pieces of land came before Monday’s cabinet.

To put it kindly, the debate was somewhat less than edifying.

First up was the Leader who intoned: “If there was an appetite for a few along the street to engage we’d be creating a disjointed and odd-looking environment if we were to accede to requests”.

Clearly he hasn’t spent much time on the council’s housing estates during his term of office or he would know that over the years many owner-occupiers have converted their frontages into parking spaces to create just the street scene he describes.

And it’s not a question of acceding to requests because the council has already offered to sell the frontage to Grumpette’s constituent and the only issue is the price.

Next on parade was Cllr Sue Perkins who seemed to have some expertise in the provision of off-street parking.

Accompanied by some vigorous arm-waving, she waxed lyrical about potential problems with underground services and pavement crossings and concluded “it’s very, very expensive.”

I daresay she’s right, but it’s also irrelevant because the entire cost of any engineering works is borne by the householder.

Indeed, it is this outlay when added to the price of the land that makes the cost prohibitive.

Meanwhile, Cllr Rob Lewis had been on a trip round Hubberston on Google street view and had come across a property on a council estate in Grumpette’s ward with “an attractive brick-paved” parking bay to the front.

According to Cllr Lewis, this feature would have increased the value of the property by more than five to six thousand pounds.

As explained above, the five to six thousand pounds is just for the land – the attractive (and expensive) brick pavings come as an extra.

In any case, why would it matter, except to a dog in a manger, if the house-owner turned a profit on the development of a piece of land for which the council has no earthly use.

And I don’t recall any complaints from Cllr Lewis when the former leader Cllr John Davies and the present incumbent enriched themselves by tens of thousands of pounds by gaming the planning system to fit themselves up with agricultural consents.

The other Cllr Lewis, deputy leader Keith, had half a point when he said that there was a long-standing pricing structure and dropping the price would introduce an element of unfairness to those who had bought at the previous higher price.

Unfortunately, as Cllr Rev Huw George had left the meeting by then, we were spared a sermon on the parable of the toilers in the vineyard.

And of course, to adopt Cllr Keith’s principle would mean that nothing could ever be changed.

Interestingly a not dissimilar situation arose at a recent scrutiny committee meeting to discuss the development, or lack thereof, at the old Narberth school site.

In order to move things along, the Council was now offering the preferred bidder a £250,000 drop in the price of the site plus a substantial loan on easy terms.

At that scrutiny committee, Cllr Jacob Williams – who called-in cabinet’s decision – suggested that, as a matter of fairness, the site should be re-tendered because this improved deal might encourage bids from developers who found the original terms unattractive.

I recall that the deputy leader, who was present at the meeting in his role as cabinet member with responsibility for economic development, was dead against this suggestion.

Perhaps he has taken a leaf out of the book of Groucho Marx who is supposed to have said: “These are my principles. If you don’t like them, I have others.”