April 16 2009


No Qatar given


Old Grumpy was mildly amused by last week's Mercury editorial which dealt with the all-expenses-paid visit to Qatar by two reporters from the Mercury and Western Telegraph.
As the leader writer said: "That may well excite some cynics who will no doubt suggest that the ability to report honestly and accurately on the LNG project will somehow be distorted by the business-class travel and air-conditioned hotels."
It seems to me that the same thought must have crossed the mind of the writer which is why they felt it necessary to assure readers that "[We} will continue to report on LNG, whether the stories are positive or negative, as we have always done".
Note the use of the word "cynics" which is a piece of spin designed to put potential critics on the back foot.
Though I would argue that you don't need to be a cynic to wonder if a business-class return ticket to Qatar (Cost £2,000+) and a couple of nights in the Doha Ritz might not have some affect on the impartiality of the recipient.
In any case, as with the councillor's Code of Conduct, the issue is not whether someone claims not to be biased but whether a reasonable member of the public might perceive them so to be.
Also along for the trip was what the Mercury, in an accompanying report described as "a large Pembrokeshire contingent of dignitaries and officials".
Old Grumpy has been trying, without much success, to compile a complete list of this large contingent.
So far I can positively identify from press reports: The mayor of Milford Haven, Cllr John Roberts; the chairman of Herbrandston Community Council, Henry Lloyd; Cllr John Davies, leader Pembrokeshire County Council; PCC chief executive Bryn Parry-Jones; and Ted Sangster of MHPA.
This is all dressed up by the Mercury as an exercise "to see for ourselves the technology that will heat millions of British homes" and elsewhere there is stuff about the newly forged bonds between Qatar and Pembrokeshire and that old line about "putting Milford Haven on the map".
I have been a consistent supporter of LNG, though I do have reservations about the failure, refusal even, to publish the risk assessment for a spill on water.
However, this talk of bonding and Milford Haven being the UK's energy capital is pure eyewash.
The South Hook LNG plant is purely a business proposition from which Qatar and Exxon Mobile hope to make a lot of money.
The development is supported by the British government because it improves the security of our energy supply.
But none of that is of any interest to the people of Pembrokeshire unless the economic benefits outweigh the associated risks.
Talk of being the "energy capital" is just empty rhetoric, if the people aren't better off as a result.
So far, with the jobs created during construction phase and the permanent staff on the site, I would say we are in credit.
The gas fired power station on the southern shore of the Haven is another positive spin-off and there may be other industries attracted to the area by the prospect of a readily available source of cheap energy.
We must hope so.
But let us not delude ourselves that the Qataris are here for our benefit.


Controlled independents



Plaid Cymru have put out a press release criticising the Independent Political Group on Carmarthenshire County Council.
It is so close to my own views on these so-called IPGs that I have overcome my aversion to printing other people's press releases that it is reproduced, in full, below:

In Carmarthenshire County Council’s meeting of April 8th, the Council's Leader declared that the Independent Group had a 'free vote' on the issue of an increase in members' allowances. After the meeting Plaid Cllr Gwyn Hopkins said: “This was an unmistakable admission that normally there is no ‘free vote’, but that the so-called Independent members are – just like a disciplined political party - expected to ‘toe the party line’ and vote en-block in one particular manner, as the leadership dictates.

“During the past year there have been four ‘recorded’ votes at Council meetings and in each case (except for three abstentions in the second vote) all the Independent members present have voted together en-bloc. This fact proves conclusively that these members are anything but ‘Independent’ – given the dictionary definition of independence as ‘free from the influence or control of others’ (Collins English Dictionary 2007). The only time that they are allowed any freedom is when the leader tells them so. As such, the electorate should be wary of being misled by anyone describing himself/herself as ‘Independent’ and ‘Non-political’ for, on past evidence, it is all too often a bogus description.”

However, Old Grumpy seems to remember that, at one time, Plaid ruled Carmarthenshire in coalition with these misleaders of the electorate - a role now taken up by Labour, who hold three of the ten Cabinet posts.
There are no Conservative members on CCC so we must assume that, like in Pembrokeshire, the Tories prefer to masquerade as Independents.
That Labour and these closet Tories can find common cause just goes to show the unifying force of the prospect of power, never forgetting the Special Responsibility Allowances that go with it.

No contest


Next Monday's Cabinet meeting is to discuss the new sports hall in St Davids.
This is set to replace the existing swimming pool, which, it is said, will cost too much to repair.
There are no plans for a swimming pool in the new facility.
A campaign group in St Davids is trying to save the pool and it looks as if they should get their skates on because the Cabinet seems set to do a deal for the construction of the sports hall at next week's meeting.
And the Cabinet appears to be in a hurry because it is all set to circumvent the usual tender process by invoking Para 4 (c) (ii) of Standing Orders.
This would allow it to reach an agreement with Cottons Ltd who have recently completed the Haverfordwest Leisure Centre.
As the report to cabinet puts it: "To expedite the delivery of the new Sports Hall at St Davids, it is proposed to appoint the contractor for the Haverfordwest Leisure Centre to deliver the design and construction of the new scheme. The appointment would represent the best value and would delivered at rates extracted from the Haverfordwest Leisure Centre Contract."
Now, Cottons are highly regarded contractors but I can't think this is good reason for abandoning the tendering process.
And it should be remembered that the rates for the Haverfordwest contract were negotiated during a construction boom and I know from my own experience of the industry that when work is scarce, as it is in the present downturn, contractors sharpen their pencils.
I have even known occasions when the pencils were so sharp that contractors bought jobs in order to retain their work force.
To get a contract at boom-time rates in the midst of a recession was the stuff of dreams.
Now you might expect a Cabinet dominated by Tories and closet-Tories to turn their faces against this attempt to bypass competitive market forces.
But don't hold your breath because they're all corporatists at heart..




By all accounts, local newspapers are in difficulty with readers turning to the Internet and businesses cutting back on advertising due to the recession.
Indeed, if you put on your strongest glasses and look at page two of the WT you will see that circulation is down to 24,808 compared to nearly 30,000 not that many years ago.
And with their main business advertisers - estate agents and car dealerships - reporting sales falling off the cliff things are bad even for monopolies like the WT.
Just as well they have the £200,000+ from the county council to keep them afloat.
Newspapers have tried to counter the threat of the Internet by launching their own websites but, in effect, they are simply competing with themselves.
The better the website the fewer papers they sell.
And needing to service the tens of millions invested in increasing underworked printing presses, they are no match for more lightweight pure Internet-based organisations.
Writing in the Sunday Telegraph Mary Riddell says: "At their best, they [local newspapers] are the heartbeat of democracy, staffed by those ideally placed to sleuth out corruption, blight and heartbreak. The world does not begin and end at Westminster. Babies are not tortured or pensioners left to rot in the marbled atriums of Whitehall. The scandals of modern Britain often take place in council offices, sink estates and courtrooms far from London. Bloggers and the internet may rule the world, but without a vibrant local press citizens will forfeit their only whistleblower and communities will lose a vital bond."
Ms Riddell should get out more when she will find that most local papers specialise in what the Guardian journalist Nick Davies dismisses as "churnalism" i.e. regurgitated PR handouts and pictures of people having their heads shaved for charity, and unusually shaped vegetables.
Harold Evans, the former Sunday Times editor, told Ms Riddell that "A good independent newspaper is the best watchdog in the public interest – better than Parliament, the law courts and all the vested-interest lobbies, because of its capacity to gather facts others would prefer to suppress and bring them into the public focus."
In an ideal world that would be the case, but, in reality, Nick Davies is spot on.
The trouble is that modern local newspapers are dominated by accountants and investigative journalism is expensive, time-consuming and often unproductive.
It is also risky because if you don't get your facts right you are likely to hear from m'learned friends.

Work and wealth


The government and the conservatives are conducting a bidding war over green jobs.
According to George Osborne, the Tories aim to put Britain at the forefront of the the technological revolution that will lead to powering our homes, industry and transport with eco-friendly new forms of energy.
This is supposed to be good thing, but I'm not so sure.
Firstly, our economic growth over past few decades has been based on cheap energy and easy credit.
And we all know what easy credit led to - an unsustainable boom in asset prices, particularly houses.
So, once the present crisis is over, easy credit will no longer be available to drive the engine of economic growth.
Similarly with cheap fossil fuel energy, the use of which, if environmentalists are to be believed, is also unsustainable.
Unless we can come up with some equally cheap sustainable alternative we will all be worse off no matter how many new jobs are created.
Too often, job creation is treated as the equivalent of economic progress, but this simply can't be the case.
Otherwise we could solve all our economic problems by banning the JCB, milking machine and other labour-saving devices.
As Adam Smith taught us, the purpose of an economic system is to produce goods and services for consumption by the people and the jobs created are merely incidental.
There is no better creator of jobs in the building industry than a severe earthquake, but it damages the victims' economic prospects by destroying their accumulated capital.
And nobody would argue that ill health is a good thing because of the number of jobs it sustains in the NHS.
Nor that someone who inherits a large amount of money is badly off because thay don't have a job.
Deprived of cheap energy and easy credit we will have to look for other forms of economic satisfaction.
Growing your own vegetables, for instance.

Home Guard on the march


I had hoped this week to publish a picture of my garden where the Home Guard are already meeting across the rows, or stitches as we call them in my native Cumberland.
It wouldn't surprise me if they were in flower by the end of April.
Unfortunately, Grumpette forgot to buy new batteries for the digital camera.
By the time she gets round to replacing the batteries she will have forgotten how to upload the images onto the computer, so I can't promise pics for next week, either.
Never mind, by the middle of May, at the latest, I will be able to make you all green-eyed with jealousy by telling you how delicious they are served up with a dollop of Welsh butter and some freshly picked broad beans.
Yes! they are also taking advantage of the mild weather.
So, provided we don't have a late frost, it looks like my decision to plant early will have paid off.
Of course, it is always a gamble, but, as my old granddad used to say: "I've never seen seeds that would grow in the packet."
If things continue like this, you may have to put up with a considerable amount of bragging before the summer is out.

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