22 April 2003

Secret sales

Last week I promised to outline the changes that have occured in the way the County Council disposes of our property.
Back in 1996, when the County Council was reconstituted, reports on negotiations for the sale of council land were brought before the Property Services Committee.
The reports were along the lines: "Terms have been agreed with Mr Goodguy for the sale of two acres of land known as Fairfield for the sum of £X. Your officers consider this to be fair market value."
Somewhere around 1998-99 it was decided to omit the price from these reports.
The reason for this, as I recall, was that these prices were finding their way into the local press leading other bidders to upset the smooth running of the bureaucracy by putting in offers higher than those already agreed.
After that the prospective selling price was excised from the reports, though a list of completed sales, together with the name of the purchaser and the price obtained, would, periodically, be presented to the members.
However, under the new constitution, which came into effect last May, all this has disappeared from public view.
At its first meeting the Cabinet reserved to itself the right to decide on the disposal of properties valued [by officers] at over £100,000 and the power to determine "the principle and method of disposal of property which becomes surplus by virtue of the discontinuance of points of service delivery [e.g. school closure]."
That means that the Cabinet has the final say over whether or not these two classes of property should be sold but has no input into the price.
For the hundreds of other council-owned properties, that fall into neither of these two categories, the officers have absolute control over the method of sale and the price, subject to consultation with the local member.
And, so far as I can ascertain, there is no requirement to make any of this information public.
What amazes Old Grumpy is that this retreat from the principles of open accountable democracy has brought not a single squeak of protest from our elected representatives, so called.

A cautionary tale.

Old Grumpy never ceases to be amazed at the extent of the information buried in my shed.
On wet days, when gardening is out of the question, I often flick through these files just to remind myself of their contents.
On Sunday I came across a long-forgotten article from the Western Mail, dated May 18 1997, which described the sad situation in the newly formed Denbighshire County Council (DCC), which, according to the Mail, had inherited an unexpected £3.9 million debt from one of its predecessors, Rhuddlan Borough Council (RBC).
This huge black hole in RBC's finances was the result of large capital projects being put in train without first securing the necessary grants.
So, when the grants failed to materialise the council was left with massive bills and no money to pay them
What prompted me to cut out and preserve this article, about a far off country about which I know nothing, was a quote by the former Leader of RBC, Cllr Peter Williams (Independent), who told the Mail "We accepted the advice of our officers. So far as we were concerned nothing was out of order and it's only since Rhuddlan went out of existence that problems have been raised. If you're told something is alright, you go along with it," he concluded.
At the present moment the Council Tax payers of Pembrokeshire are shelling out allowances in excess of £800,000 a year to our 60 elected members, most of who would subscribe to Cllr Williams' doctrine of officer infallibility.
In due course, I obtained a copy of the District Auditor's report on this sorry affair but that will have to wait for another rainy day.

Bucking the trend

Old Grumpy's investigation into the Hall/Ryan connection grinds slowly on.
As the great Spanish writer Cervantes said: "Diligence is the mother of good fortune."
And what a boon to diligence the Internet is proving to be.
I have emailed Dr Ryan, as have other readers of this column, asking for the location of the "successful major project", which, his company's website (www.oriain.ie) boasts, has been completed in Pembrokeshire.
To date he has not replied.
As someone who keeps a pretty close watch on what goes on in the county, I am of the opinion that this major Pembrokeshire project is a figment of his imagination.
And, that being the case, what weight should we give to his website's claims that his company has successfully completed major projects in half the World's major cities.
Rather than swallow this self-promoting puffery it might be wiser to base our judgement of Dr Ryan's company on the accounts lodged with the Irish Companies Registration Office which show that this apparently huge international consulting firm has tangible assets of £14,000 and made a loss of £6,600 in 2000 and a tiny profit of 2,400 in 2001(see Cutting a dash)
Dr Ryan's main function, it seems, is to facilitate the establishment of a Science Park at the Cleddau Bridge site.
The International Association of Science Parks (IASP) website provides some very interesting information on the location of Science Parks.
According to the statistics only 1% of the Science Parks so far established are in rural areas.
Furthermore, only 4% are more than 20 km from a university (nearest university to Cleddau Bridge - Swansea. Distance - 100 km)
So, yet again, it's hats off to Pembrokeshire County Council for trying to buck the trend.(see Questions answered)


New maths

Still no word from the District Audit Service regarding my complaint about Cllr Bill Hitchings' expense claiming practices (see Inflated Bill).
It would seem that getting £39.00 and £13.85 to add up to £94.03 is testing the ingenuity of the pointy heads in County Hall to the limits.
Their attempt to rewrite the laws of arithmetic, when it does eventually arrive, is guaranteed to be a classic to set alongside the Monitoring Officer's reinvention of the Common Law principles of legal personality (see con tract)

Pope alone

The Chinese government has admitted that it made a mistake by failing to come clean over the extent of the SARS outbreak in the People's Republic.
That leaves just the Pope and Pembrokeshire County Council still claiming infallibility.
If things go to plan over the next few weeks I am hoping the Pope will be left with the field to himself.


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