19 April 2005

 

Easy money

Thanks to the wonders of the Freedom of Information Act, Old Grumpy can bring you further news on the controversial £30,000 marketing grant awarded to Oakwood Leisure Ltd by the county council's Cabinet at its meeting on 7 March.
This morning, in response to my FoI request, a bundle of emails and letters arrived on the doormat which show just what a cosy relationship exists between the council and the company.
But my main concern is for the inner workings of the county council.
Unfortunately, some of what I suspect are the more interesting parts of these emails have been redacted - a horrible word meaning blacked out.
Enough remains, however, to give a flavour of how things operate.
The reason the grant was needed was that a tragic accident on the Hydro had led to a marked fall in the number of visitors with serious consequences for the company's profitability.
It seems that negotiations over this grant had been in train since about November 2004, when Mr P J McNamara of Oakwood emailed the council informing them that following his "two conversations with Brian" he had now sent the grant application form to be stamped by his bank.
On 7 February 2005 an officer in the economic development department emailed Mr McNamara with the following good news.
"Dear Paddy, I have just emerged from a Directors meeting ref grant applications. Your application is to be heard this Weds am at Chief Officers Management Board [COMB]. From there it will go to Cabinet on 8th March [7th actually] for approval."
Note. Not for consideration; for "approval".
Then there is the email from the Director of Finance Mark Lewis dated 2 March 2005 which reads:"Dave, a recommendation will be made to Cabinet on 7/3/05 to award a marketing grant of £30,000. To progress consideration of other financial support [my emphasis] i will need to see audited financial statements for the period ending 26/12/04."
As the marketing grant was being awarded to help counteract a downturn in business during the period ending 26/12/04 it is rather surprising that "audited financial statements" were not sought prior to approval.
Indeed it was not until the 8 March 2005 - the day after the cabinet rubber-stamped COMB's decision to give the £30,000 - that the the economic development section emailed the company asking for the information.
Yesterday the Cabinet approved a £10,000 marketing grant for another company.
Given the secrecy surrounding these grant applications, I have to be careful what I say lest I find myself in front of the Standards Committee.
However, what I can reveal is that, recommending approval , David Simpson, the Cabinet member for small business said the company involved was "well-established."
Old Grumpy's researches on Companies House website reveal that it was incorporated in January 2003.
The Leader, Cllr John Davies asked whether the company was occupying new or old premises.
These questions are often planted to provide opportunities for cabinet members to demonstrate mastery of their briefs.
Not this time.
"I'm not too sure about that", Cllr Simpson muttered.
So, on the recommendation of COMB, ten grand of our money was handed over to a company that none of the Cabinet appeared to know the first thing about.
Puppets or poodles?
Take your pick.
Of course, as a humble back bench member, I do not have sufficient information to determine whether these grants are justified, or not.
What I am sure about, though, is that Cabinet members have a duty to make themselves fully aware of all the facts before they spend our money.

 

Back-door Tories

"Where have all the Tories gone?" asked Mr John Hudson in a letter to the Mercury last week.
He was of course referring to the complete absence of official Conservative representatives on Pembrokeshire County Council.
The rest of Mr Hudson's letter showed he was working to Mark Twain's principle - never ask a question unless you already know the answer.
And the answer, to continue with the Pete Seager theme: "Gone to the Indies every one."
Old Grumpy has been doing some historical research into this subject and what I find is that, in the 1999 elections, the Tories fielded 15 candidates of whom three: Phil Llewellyn, David Wildman and Mary Megarry, were successful.
In 2000 this trio were joined by Mark Edwards who won a bye election under the party's colours in, of all places, Prendergast.
Four members is hardly the heady stuff of political power but it was a promising start.
So where did it all go wrong?
Fast forward to the implementation of the Local Government Act 2000 which was due to come into effect in May 2002.
There were four options for the council to consider: A Mayor, elected on a county-wide franchise; two variations on the Leader with Cabinet model; and a modified form of the status quo.
The Tories, then led by Phil Llewellyn, decided to join forces with Labour to campaign for a referendum referendum on the question of an elected Mayor.
I am told that Cllr Llewellyn even managed to persuade the local Tory party to write out a sizeable cheque to help fund the campaign.
The ruling Independent Political (sic) Group in County Hall was not well pleased with this development; claiming that an elected Mayor would place too much power in the hands of a single person, though the true reason for their objections was that they knew full well that if such an election took place it would not be one of them.
Indeed, when they drew up the constitution for the present set-up, they ensured that the Leader - elected at a secret group meeting - had exactly the same powers as an elected Mayor.
I am told that, when news of Cllr Llewellyn's support for an elected Mayor reached County Hall, the then Leader of the IPG, Maurice Hughes called in two senior Tories, Huw Luke and Steven Cole, for a friendly chat during which Hughes pointed out that, given Pembrokeshire's recent electoral history, it was more than likely that the elected Mayor would be from the Labour party.
Why rock the boat and let Labour into power in County Hall, he argued, when, to all intents and purposes, the Tories were already in control through Hughes and his confederates.
This convinced the two leading Tory thinkers who swiftly torpedoed Philip Llewellyn's referendum plans.
Even before that, I am told, all was not well on the good ship Tory because certain member(s) had cottoned on to the fact that being part of a four-person opposition group was not the smoothest route to a position of power and glory - not to mention a lucrative special responsibility allowance.
So it was that Phil Llewellyn's position was undermined, leading to the break up of the group, with himself, Wildman and Edwards joining the IPG and Megarry defecting to the Lib Dems.
Cllr Wildman has since become Cabinet member for the aged, while Cllr Edwards, who was once accused of lying by Maurice Hughes (see Oh, yes he was), is now vice-Chairman of the planning committee with, no doubt, better things to come.
That episode put paid to the Tories' ambitions to gain power in County Hall by the democratic route and at the last election they fielded a solitary candidate: Frank Elliott in Johnston.
Even then, the Tories couldn't present a united front because also in the field was the above mentioned Steve Cole running for the IPG.

Gone to ground

As you may have noticed, this columnar space has been rather short recently of well-sourced stories from inside the Independent Political (sic) Group.
I, myself, became aware of this interruption in the flow of reliable intelligence towards the end of February and I concluded that my moles had gone to ground because of something they might have seen on TV.
As all intelligence services know, penetrating the organisation under surveillance is by far the best way of knowing what is afoot.
Failing that, even the CIA has to resort to inferior methods such as spy satellites, telephone intercepts and pilotless planes.
Lacking those sort of resources, I have to rely on a modified form of Kremlinology based on scanning the Western Telegraph for county council press releases containing Cabinet members' photos. .
For those too young to remember, Kremlinology was the name given to the activities of cold war Russian-watchers who would study closely the photographs of the politburo standing on top of Lenin's mausoleum during the May Day parade and would then, on the basis of who was standing next to whom, write long articles in the Daily Telegraph telling us whose star was on the rise and who was due for a spell in the gulag.
This was all entertaining stuff, though, whether it was of any real value, I am not so sure.
Please take that as a health warning for what follows.
Before the curtain came down, Old Grumpy was hearing rumours the the Leader was planning a quite radical reshuffle of his Cabinet at the Council AGM.
Which brings me back to the Western Telegraph.
You will no doubt have noticed that Wales' biggest selling weekly newspaper frequently carries "news stories" accompanied by a photograph, about this or that councillor; almost invariably the Chairman or a Cabinet member, handing out certificates/opening a new school/dishing out a business grant/etc.
These photo-ops are organised by the council's marketing and communications department [press office] and are a form of propaganda on the rates. .
I have a long-held theory that there are patterns to be detected in the frequency with which certain Cabinet members appear in these press releases.
This first came to me following my revelations about Cllr Brian Hall's high speed dash from the Severn Bridge to Pembroke Dock (125 miles in 52 minutes) on 1 February 2001 (See The Time Lord) which was followed by a rash of council-sponsored photos in the Western Telegraph; designed to rehabilitate his reputation, including one of him standing in front of a poster reading "SPEED KILLS" as part of a road safety campaign.
Irony lives!
So, I have been trawling through the Telegraph's back numbers for clues to the shape of the forthcoming reshuffle.
Before I go any further, I have to admit that, because of time constraints, this piece of empirical research has not been conducted with the rigour I would have wished and, no doubt, some member, on consulting his scrap book, will be able to point to inaccuracies in my figures.
However, I believe that the table below gives a reasonably fair indication of the more significant trends.

 Name  No. of appearances in W T
 David Simpson*  12
 Islwyn Howells  9
 Brian Hall  9
 John Davies  6
 Sian James*  6
 Robert Lewis*  6
 Jamie Adams**  6
 Michael Evans**  3
 David Wildman  3
 John Allen-Mirehouse  2
 Peter Stock  2
 Jim Codd**  1
 Bill Roberts*  nil
 Anne Hughes**  nil

* Denotes Cabinet member with assistant

** Denotes assistant cabinet member

As so often, the raw figures do not provide a wholly accurate picture and they would need to be given various degrees of weighting before they could be said to be completely reliable.
For instance, most of Brian Hall's appearances pre-date late February 2005, while Jamie Adams has made a late run on the rails with two pictures in last week's edition alone.
And David Simpson's high score owes much to his participation in a rash of Duke of Edinbrough award ceremonies.
However, despite the unreliability of the data, if I was a betting man, I would put one of my older shirts on Cllr Jamie Adams being promoted to Cabinet status.
The only problem is that the last time matters agricultural were discussed in Cabinet four members declared an interest.
The elevation of farmer Adams would make it look like a branch of the NFU.
The other difficulty is that the present Cabinet already has an anti-town bias being divided 7:3 in favour of rural members in spite of the fact that most of the county's population live in urban areas.
Whatever happens, I can't see that Cllr Michael Williams' description of the Cabinet being made up of farmers, Freemasons and the far-right will need much modification.
PS With the exception of Sian James, to who I must apologise for imposing a sex change by calling her Sion.
She tells me that Sion and Sian are Welsh for John and Jane.
We English can't play rugby so how do you expect us to understand anything as complex as that.
I've worked out a mnemonic and it won't happen again.