April 18 2006

 

Two-jobs

Old Grumpy notices that the chief executive's pay has made into the columns of Private Eye's "Rotten Boroughs" page.
This must be the work of yet another leaker, because the figures quoted are different from those in the other four (different) accounts I have read.
In order to cast a little illumination on this subject, I would offer the following observations.
Prior to the recent pay rise, the chief executive was receiving approximately £120,000 per year (see Fools and our money).
This latest pay review, initiated by the leader of council under goodness knows what authority, concluded that the median salary for the post of chief executive in Pembrokeshire County Council should be considerably higher than that.
To save myself an appearance before the standards committee, I will not comment on the accuracy of the newspaper reports except to say there is no smoke without fire.
To make sense of all this we have to go back to 1995 when the minutes of the county council reveal that Mr Parry Jones was offered the post at a salary of £63,000 per annum.
Since then, compound inflation has been less than 30% - say 50% to allow local authority pay to outstrip inflation.
That gets us to £94,500, leaving the rest of his pay increase to be accounted for by a change in his role.
If reports in the press are to be believed, this means that the job itself has roughly doubled in value in the past 10 years.
Those of a mathematical bent may wonder how this can be so, when the size of both Pembrokeshire and its population have remained almost constant during the period in question.

Lifting the veil

Just before Christmas, I received a letter from the Information Commissioner regarding my complaint about the county council's decision to redact (blackout) the names of the senders and recipients of a series of internal emails regarding the case of Mrs Stephanie Lawrence.
You may remember that, following an investigation of Mrs Lawrence's complaint against the county council's social services department, the Ombudsman suggested that the authority should attempt to reach a settlement.
That led to a discussion between council officers, conducted via email, as to whether she should be offered monetary compensation (See Ombudsman's report para 129) in the course of which one of them suggested they should keep that card up their sleeve so they could " pull the proverbial rabbit out of the hat" should the issue come up.
For reasons which I will reveal at some future date, I believed that identities of these emailers might cast some light on other matters so I applied to the council for copies under FoI.
As I said above, the emails arrived but with the identities blacked out.
So I appealed.
It seems as if my hunch about the importance of these identitities might have some substance because the Commissioner informs me:
"My conclusion is that Pembrokeshire County Council applied the Freedom of Information Act inappropriately in redacting the names of the senders and recipients of the emails referred to in your request. I had hoped to persuade the Council to release the unredacted information to you, but my efforts have proved unsuccessful. I am therefore drafting a formal Decision Notice, ordering the Council to release the information."
You have to wonder at the sheer arrogance of those in charge in County Hall that they should take this matter right up to the wire despite being told by the Commissioner's office that they are in the wrong.
The good news is that the Commission tells me that the correspondence between themselves and the Council on this issue is information that is covered by the Act.
So this is a story that could run and run.

Stealth taxes

 

Last week I drew attention to the taxpayer-funded propaganda booklet that accompanied your latest council tax demand.
This document carries the banner headline: "Value for your money" underneath which is "More for less"; a reference to the fact that "Pembrokeshire County Council has set the lowest council tax in Wales for the fourth year running."
Now, it is a fact that PCC has the lowest council tax in Wales but that doesn't amount to the proof of the other two claims.
There are three main sources of local authority income: Government grants, council tax and charges of one sort or another.
Government grants are allocated in accordance with an exceedingly complex (and imprecise) formula based on need which is supposed to ensure fairness across the 22 local authorities in Wales.
Unfortunately, because of the effect of gearing, even a small degree of bias can have dire consequences for the council tax.
For instance, PCC's total net spending for next year is set at £173.4 million of which £144 million (83%) is financed by the Welsh Assembly, leaving council tax payers to make up the £29.4 million (17%) shortfall.
Because of the effect of gearing, a 1% reduction in the Government's contribution (£1.4 million) would mean council tax would have to rise by 5% to plug the gap.
This "gearing effect" is more often talked about by those local authorities with high rates of council tax.
Hence this from Neath Port Talbot's website:
This means that our council tax bills are higher than other authorities - but this higher level of council tax is disproportionate to the difference in spend levels: -
Neath Port Talbot spends 6.5% more per head than Pembrokeshire but council tax is 74% higher
Neath Port Talbot spends 2.9% more per head than Powys but council tax is 35% higher
Interestingly, "the gearing effect" was given a run out during a recent council seminar (see All geared up) which leads Old Grumpy to believe that the outcome of the ongoing review of the "funding formula" may not be as favourable to Pembrokeshire as the present set up.
And that brings us to another imponderable: the council's income from other sources, especially the £9 million in "discretionary fees and charges" detailed in the accounts.
It is, of course, perfectly possible that some of those authorities with high levels of council tax use their discretion to provide these services free at the point of use.
That being the case, it could be argued that these charges are merely a surrogate for higher taxes, or as official members of the Tory party like to call them: stealth taxes.
For instance, I notice that I am soon to be charged £2 to park at three of my favourite beaches: Dale, Newgale and Broadhaven whereas last year it was free and, presumably, funded out of council tax.
On past form, I will make about thirty such trips over the coming summer, at a cost of £60.
Am I alone in being unable to see any real distinction between that imposition and an increase in council tax?
In fact parking charges are an especially interesting case because, according to the council's most recent budget report, £700,000 was raised by this method in the last financial year.
The rub is that this income was offset by expenditure of £550,000 (not including resurfacing works etc which is included in the capital expenditure budget) leaving a surplus of £150,000.
As the council has a tax base of roughly 50,000, this surplus equates to just £3 on the band D rate.
Would you be prepared to pay an extra three quid in exchange for free parking?
Before answering you should bear in mind that car parking is currently costing the equivalent of £14 per band D property; £11 of which goes towards running the system.


Power of suppress

In vain did Old Grumpy scan the pages of the Western Telegraph for a report on the recent standards committee meeting where the Ombudsman's report into Cllr Brian Hall's alleged threats of violence against a BBC journalist was discussed.
This was rather curious because the story was the front page lead in the previous week's Mercury.
And curiouser still is the fact that the Western Telegraph and the Mercury share the same editor, so Wales biggest selling weekly snoozepaper can't have been unaware of what was going on.
It seems to Old Grumpy that, just like markets for goods and services, democracy relies on the free flow of information.
How are people to decide how to vote if they don't know what their elected representatives are getting up to?
Unfortunately, modern local newspapers are run by accountants who are much more interested in the number of pages of advertising (which is paid for) than the amount of news (which costs money to collect and print).
This is especially so when the newspaper has a a captive readership by virtue of its monopoly circulation over large parts of the county.
Perhaps Lord Northcliffe was right when he said: "The power of the press is very great, but not so great as the power of suppress."
Perhaps things will change when the Internet news service pembrokeshiretv.com gets fully airbourne.

Placemen

The time is fast approaching when we elected members congregate together for the farce that is known as the council's AGM.
It is at this solemn gathering that we elect next year's vice-chairman of council and the chairmen and vice-chairmen of the various committees.
At least that is what appears to happen, but the reality is that these matters are all cut and dried, having been decided beforehand by the Independent Political (sic(k)) Group.
Easily the most distasteful part of the charade is when the leader, in the spirit of inclusivity of which he makes much play, nominates members of the opposition parties to three of the top scrutiny committee positions.
The problem is that he decides which members of the opposition (two Labour, one Plaid Cymru) should be given the palm.
And you can bet your life they are not selected for their propensity to cause his Cabinet grief by calling in too many decisions.
It is to be hoped that, this year, these two great constitutional parties get off their knees and tell the Leader that, while they welcome the opportunity to participate in the higher reaches of government, it is they, not him who will decide who should fill the posts.
If he won't accept that, they should refuse to co-operate.
I am not holding my breath.

False dichotomy

With regard to my previous scribblings on the inadequacy of the left-right divide as a method of analysing the political scene, I would point out that the recent panic over the increase in support for the "ultra right wing" BNP involves potential defectors from "left wing" labour and not the Tories.
This is all of a piece with previous similar incarnations.
Mussolini was a communist before founding the first fascist party and Sir Oswald Moseley moved from being a Labour MP to the leadership British Union of Fascists.
And, according to Michael Burleigh in his book The Third Reich, Hitler's crowd flirted with communism before hoisting the flag of German Nationalism and the doctrines of racial purity.
The real divide in politics is between liberals and authoritarians, and what confuses the issue is that both main parties have their share of each.

 

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