April 10 2007

Traveller's tales


Picasso had his Blue Period and, though it doesn't roll off the tongue in quite the same way, it would seem that Cllr Brian Hall - formerly Minister for roads and environment - had his Civic Amenity Centre phase - hereafter referred to as CAC.
The beginning of his fascination with CACs can be dated precisely to 27 September 2005, when, my researches reveal, Cllr Hall drove to Pyle to inspect a CAC belonging to Bridgend County Borough Council (150 miles at 50p).
Now you might think that when you've seen one bottle-bank you've seen 'em all, but, after spending a month digesting the lessons of Pyle, Cllr Hall embarked on what can only be described as a CAC blitz.
On 24 October he was off to Rhondda Cynon Taff (150 miles) and the next day he headed up to Llandrindod Wells for another inspection (180 miles).
On 26 October he took a change of direction and pointed the Black Maria north to Ceredigion to visit CACs at New Quay and Llanarth (126 miles), and the day after that he journeyed to Cardiff to take a look at the city council's CAC at Wedel Road (206 miles) - 662 miles (£331) in just four days.
Then, on Monday 31st, after a weekend with his feet up, our inveterate traveller was off again to have a dekko at CACs in Brecon and Hay on Wye (another 192 miles).
He then seems to have turned his attention to the capital city with trips to Cardiff on 15 and 29 November and 2 December (608 miles in all) before casting an eye over the facilities in Swansea on 8 and 21 December (244 miles).
Of course, the beauty of this from an expense claiming perspective is that it can be connected to his role as cabinet member for the environment.
And, if the Leader can find a way to skate around Cllr Hall's claim for 20 miles for driving to Pembroke to meet his solicitor, and back to Haverfordwest for an interview with the Ombudsman's investigator, justifying this must be child's play (Duty bound).
In all, this adds up to 1,860 miles (£930) so it is to be hoped that he has left his written reports on these taxpayer-funded, fact-finding visits to his successor Cllr Rev Huw George.

Poacher turned gamekeeper?

Old Grumpy was surprised to hear from my moles inside the Independent Political Group that Cllr Bill Hitchings was the first to speak out against Cllr Hall at the secret meeting of the IPG where the former Cabinet member's fate was determined (Hall's resignation).
It seems that Cllr Hitchings was concerned about Hall's unorthodox expense claiming practices, though whether this three times winner of my Marco Polo award for taxpayer-funded travel is the most appropriate person to take a stand on this issue I will leave for you to judge (Sleeping rough).
If you are not convinced by that, I would remind you of the case when my researches revealed that he and Mr David Rye (former director of the Milford Port Health authority) had claimed for first class rail tickets for a jaunt to Hull when neither of them had been anywhere near a railway station.
Then there was his long-standing practice, discontinued after I drew attention to it, of claiming 24 miles for the 12 mile return journey from Ashdale Lane to Haverfordwest station.
Still, as they say, the Lord rejoicest more over one sinner that repenteth etc.
And, it would seem, Cllr Hitchings is a reformed character in more ways than one.
Once one of Preseli Pembrokeshire District Council's premier division bungalow farmers, he has recently been heard to urge his fellow members of the planning committee to follow the officers' advice and stick to policy.
Despite what certain members of the IPG think about me - of which more next week - Old Grumpy has an excellent memory; certainly good enough to vividly remember one of the most dramatic rows ever seen in the council chamber.
This involved an attempt by Cllr Bill to push through a planning application for a bungalow in the open countryside near Freystrop.
Faced with the fact that this was clearly contrary to policy, he tried to justify his support for the application with a story about the family's circumstances.
Now, as any fule no, planning decisions are supposed to be taken on land use grounds, and personal circumstances don't come into it.
After all, our personal circumstances end up in the graveyard, but the bungalows live on.
Worse, having done some research into Cllr Hitchings' sob story, planning officer Cathy Milner was able to inform the planning committee that it was false, anyway.
As you can imagine, this allegation, that Cllr Hitchings was being less than truthful, led to one of the most spectacular, and enjoyable, shouting matches it has been my pleasure to witness.
Events were to prove Mrs Milner right because, while it was claimed that the bungalow was required urgently so that a son of the family could live next door to his mother, it was another five years before it was actually built.
In Hayek's book The Road to Serfdom, which charts the rise of fascism in 1930s Europe, there is a chapter entitled: "Why the worst always rise to the top".
Cllr Hitchings is chairman of the county council's planning committee.

PR disaster

In yet another triumph for the Freedom of Information Act (FoI), the Commissioner has upheld Safe Haven's complaint against Milford Haven Port Authority (MHPA) which has now been ordered to cough up information on the environmental impacts of LNG.
MHPA is an interesting case because, while it is not a public body for the purposes of the general provisions of the act, it is within the act where the more stringent environmental regulations are concerned.
No doubt this fine legal distinction accounts for some of the delay in resolving this case but, as the original request was made on 7 January 2005, the port authority's foot dragging has also played a major part.
Suffice it to say that the Commissioner has found against MHPA on almost every count.
If you feel up to the task of wading through the whole of the decision notice, e-mail me and I'll forward a copy.
Of course, having the information dragged out of it is a PR disaster for MHPA because people are bound to ask why, if it has nothing to hide, it has fought to the last ditch.
What this episode highlights is the curious constitutional position of MHPA which is both player and referee in matters concerning shipping on the Haven.
As the decision notice says: "The Commissioner recognises that the Port Authority, whilst it is a public authority for the purposes of the regulations and does undertake functions of public administration, operates in a largely commercial environment. The Port Authority has developed and continues to develop close working relationships with private sector partners to take forward economic development in the area. "
Clearly, the more shipping that uses the Haven the better it is, commercially, for MHPA.
Equally clearly, there must come a point when the density of the traffic begins to impinge on safety.
Old Grumpy is not alone in thinking that this gives rise to a conflict of interest.
Unfortunately, Parliament has given MHPA control over what is undoubtedly a public asset (the Haven waterway) but has failed to put in place the mechanisms that would ensure public accountability.
The nearest we have is the Dept for Transport document Modernising Trust Ports (MTP) which sets down guidelines for how the port should operate.
However, as we have seen with the recent reappointment of Cllr John Allen-Mirehouse to the MHPA board, when it suits its purposes, the Port Authority treats MTP as mere guidelines which can be disregarded at will (Self selecting) (Class apart).
Nor can it be said that MHPA always displays the candour that we have a right to expect from a public body (see Recovered memory) (Last Hurrah).

Des res

Reading through the reports for next Tuesday's planning committee, Old Grumpy's eye alighted on an application by Messrs J Adams and Son for an agricultural dwelling at Keeston Hill farm.
This is the sort of application that is usually determined by officers acting under delegated powers but, although the report is silent on the matter, it has, I suspect, been reserved for committee because J Adams and Son has connections with Cllr Jamie Adams; Cllr Brian Hall's successor as Cabinet member for Highways.
There are several interesting features to this application not the least of which is the size of the dwelling - 2,400 sq ft + 260 sq ft double garage.
This is almost treble the size of a typical three-bed council house and Old Grumpy had that feeling of deja vu all over again (see Bungalow farmers ride again).
While agricultural workers are one of the worst paid sections of the labour force, it would seem that, if you can land a job with a Cabinet member, you can at least live in well-appointed poverty.

Playing catch-up


Unfortunately, with the Easter hols and all that, I am running a bit late this week.
I would like to report that the reason for falling behind schedule is the quality time spent with my grandchildren down on Little Haven beach.
However, truth to tell, last week, I had the clearest wake-up call when I visited the home of my Socialist Friend and found his vegetable garden way in advance of my own.
I know you don't want to listen to my excuses for this sad state of affairs but, in my defence, I would say that the rotavator refuses to start and, to make matters worse, Grumpette hasn't been able to hand dig the garden this spring because of a bad shoulder; caused, she claims, by sawing logs for the woodburner with a blunt bow saw.
Must remember to buy her a new blade for Christmas!
If my alarm at finding things flourishing in SF's vegetable patch was just down to pride, I wouldn't expect much sympathy, but this is a challenge to the very foundations of my political philosophy.
After all, who can forget what a mess the likes of him made of Soviet agriculture with their collective farming theories.
You can imagine how seriously I took the prospect of free market capitalism being bested by old fashioned socialist dogma.
So, for the past week, I've been out there digging from dawn to dusk - well nearly - and the garden is now set.
Fortunately, thanks to my practice of never throwing things away, I am fairly confident that I'll be back on level terms by the middle of May.
The broad beans are nestling snugly under a pair of old perspex shower doors and am I glad that I didn't let Grumpette take the plastic cover that came with the new mattress to Winsel tip.
That's four rows of early potatoes taken care of.
And there was another stroke of good fortune when Grumpette bought six new cushions for the patio chairs and they arrived in large individual plastic bags.
Half of these have been put to work bringing on the strawberries and the rest are providing comfort for the peas, carrots and beetroot.
The only drawback is that the garden resembles a rubbish tip.
But, when you're locked in an ideological struggle of this importance, victory is all that matters.

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