April 23 2009

Best value?


As predicted, the Cabinet has gone ahead with the plan to award the St Davids sports hall contract to Cotton Ltd without the need to go out to tender (No contest).
According to the Western Telegraph, deputy leader Cllr Jamie Adams praised the decision to use a local building contractor. "Given the economic climate the need to support local firms should not be underestimated", he said.
Cabinet member for Culture, Rob (not Mark, as reported in the WT) Lewis also expressed his delight at proposals to appoint Cotton.
I wonder if the other local firms that have been denied the chance to bid for this work will be similarly delighted.
Nor am I sure that making such an appointment in order to favour local companies is entirely in keeping with the spirit, if not the letter, of current competition law.
Another consideration is the the requirement that councillors should always seek to ensure that the taxpayer gets value for money.
As I said last week, it is not clear that using boom-time prices as the basis for negotiating a contract during a recession fulfils this requirement.
My son, a project manager with a large construction company in Canada, tells me that a large part of his job is to negotiate major design and construct projects and that prices are currently coming in some 10-20% lower than they were 18 months ago.

Alright for some

I also read in the WT that PCC has successfully defended an appeal against its decision to have an unauthorised caravan removed from a site near St Davids.
The paper reports that "Deputy county council leader, Cllr Jamie Adams, said that the case proved that authorities were committed to protecting Pembrokeshire's unique environment".
It is a pity this commitment doesn't stretch to applying Welsh Assembly guidelines to planning applications by cabinet members intent on building agricultural dwellings in the open countryside (Cottage industry) (Herd instinct).

Hard at work

News of my inquiries into the trip to Qatar (No Qatar given) reached South Hook's PR wallahs even before I posted my findings on my website and the following e-mail arrived in my inbox

Just wondered why you were interested in the small group we invite to Doha?

I replied

"Small group" ?
The Mercury described it as "a large contingent of local dignitaries and officials".
To clear up any confusion, perhaps you could provide me with a full list of those invited and those who chose to attend.
The reason I am interested is that, generally speaking, I think it is wise for both journalists and politicians to avoid the perception of conflict of interest that can arise from the acceptance of lavish hospitality from those they either report on, or may be called upon to control.

And back came

It was a working trip and there was no lavish hospitality the media attended were from the WT, MM and ITV Wales. They were a part of the global representation of media at the event. Remember please that the State of Qatar is ‘dry’.

Now, if business class travel; a couple of nights in the Doha Ritz; and a huge gala dinner isn't lavish hospitality, what is?
And although a critic of the trip was quoted using the words "sipping champagne" in one newspaper report, I was careful not to inflame religious sensibilities by any to reference to wining and dining.
However, I am told on good authority that it is permissible to partake of alcohol in certain hotels.
Whether the Ritz is one such, I simply don't know.
I also know that Qatar is an absolute monarchy ruled by the Al Thani family and that political parties are banned
And that its record on human rights, especially those of the migrant workers who built the new gas liquification plant, leaves much to be desired http://www.solidaritycenter.org/content.asp?contentid=632.
So it was something of a surprise to find the Mercury reporting, without comment, that the manager of South Hook, Mr Al-Naimi, has said “there were many similarities between Doha and Pembrokeshire”.
Not too many, I hope.

Closed minds

Another corporate governance committee and another recommendation that "This notice of motion be not adopted".
This was in response to a modest suggestion by Cllr Bob Kilmister that proposers of NoMs that are remitted to Cabinet should have the right to address that august body on the merits of their proposal.
A similar right already exists in respect of NoMs remitted to the corporate governance committee (CGC).
The distinction that Cllr Kilmister's opponents - the eight IPG members on the 12-member CGC - used to justify this different treatment is that each member has a cabinet mentor who they can ask to put their case.
Cllr Jamie Adams (he again!) said that whenever he had received such a request from a mentee he had always done his best to put the point.
But that hardly disposes of the matter because it is possible that the mentor may not agree with the NoM in which case he is hardly likely to advocate it with the same enthusiasm as the proposer.
My mentor is Cllr David Wildman and I am at a loss to think of any reason why he would put my case any better than I could.
I suspect that the real reason for this resistance is that cabinet members fear a loss of mystique if they allow the hoi polloi to invade their precious space.
The Leader argued that any decision made by cabinet was subject to review by full council and that on several occasions full council had overturned the cabinet decision.
That is contrary to my recollection, though, as the leader said it twice, I suppose it must be true.

Chain stitch

At this time of year, Old Grumpy's thoughts usually turn to the forthcoming county council AGM, particularly the identity of the latest recruit to the authority's chain gang i.e vice-chairman.
We used to have elections for this post but nowadays it is all stitched up in advance by the IPG.
There was a time when I had some reliable moles in the ruling party but they have almost all retired, or been promoted to positions where their loyalty to their Special Responsibility Allowances makes omerta the order of the day.
So, I have no alternative but to resort to some inspired guesswork.
My hunch is that Cllr John George(St Davids) could be the front runner to succeed Cllr Anne Hughes (See Party animals) if only because he seemed to have it in the bag in 2003 only to have the cup dashed from his lips by a late run on the rails by Cllr Glyn Rees (see About turn)
.The point is that the vice-chairman automatically becomes chairman the following year, though in Cllr Rees' case he was chosen in an election year and after the ballot box had spoken his dreams of glory disappeared in a puff of electoral smoke.


Unaccountable quango

"Government ideas for port enhancement criticised" ran the Mercury headline over an article about Milford Haven Port Authority's response to transport department's recently published document Modernising Trust Ports (2) (MTP(2)).
Trust ports like Milford Haven Port Authority (MHPA) are constitutional misfits - part public sector, part commercial enterprise - over which the government has no effective control.
I remember getting into an argument with a former communications director of MHPA after I wrote an article in the Mercury in which I described as a quango.
He claimed that it couldn't be a quango because it received no money from the government.
I countered that the government had given it monopoly powers to collect shipping dues in Milford Haven, which amounted to the same thing.
What influence the government does have is exercised through its power to appoint members of the board, but as this amounts to little more than rubber stamping MHPA's recommendations, this has little effect.
In an attempt to prevent these boards from evolving into cosy cronies clubs, the Department of Transport published Modernising Trust Ports (1) (MTP(1)) which set out guidance on corporate governance, including the appointment of board members.
MHPA pays lip service to this document while blithely ignoring its provisions (see Self-selecting).
In addition to its primary role of ensuring the safety of shipping in the Haven, MHPA also has duties towards what are known as stakeholders [port users and the local community], towards whose benefit its activities are to be directed.
MTP(2) seeks to lay down the ground rules needed "to enhance the efficiency, transparency and delivery of stakeholder benefits".
But the bit that caught Old Grumpy's eye was the proposal that the two board seats reserved for Pembrokeshire county councillors should be abolished.
The Mercury records that the Cabinet is set to oppose this change which the officers report says: "could prevent Pembrokshire county council from nominating two councillors to MHPA as it currently does".
I'm afraid this is not, strictly speaking, accurate because the county council doesn't nominate members to fill these positions - or should I say it's not supposed to.
The situation is that notices of vacancies are circulated to all elected members, any of of whom can apply.
The appointment is then supposed to be made "on merit" after a short listing and interview process.
However, the Leader of the county council is part of the selection panel and the bit about the county council "nominating" the board members is true in fact if not in law.
That is why the successful candidate has invariably been a member of the ruling Independent Political Group ( IPG.)
Of course, the reason given for this opposition is not that two members of the ruling clique will be deprived of board membership and the £6,500 a year to which that entitles them, but that it will reduce "local democratic accountability".
Now, whenever you hear the words "democratic accountability" fall from the lips of those in power, it is time to count your spoons.
When it comes from those who hold the reins in county hall, you would be wise to check the knives and forks as well.
The fact is that there is no democratic accountability whatsoever in the present situation.
Our two "representatives" [Cllrs Anne Hughes and John Allen-Mirehouse, as you ask] do not report back to the council and as MHPA board meetings are held in secret and MHPA is not subject to the Freedom of Information Act, we have no idea what they say, or do, as board members.
Indeed, their terms of engagement make it abundantly clear that a board member's first duty is to the MHPA: "An acceptance that as a Member [of the MHPA board] they will be working in the best interests of the Authority [MHPA] and not in any other capacity e.g. on behalf of a nominating or representative body, or as a defender of functional or sectional interests." (see Divided loyalties) (Split affinities).
So, for instance, what stance does a board member take when, because of the extra shipping dues it will generate, MHPA supports a proposal to site a biodeisel refinery at Blackbridge right under the noses of their constituents, who are vehemently opposed?
Sit on the fence with both ears to the ground?
PS I should mention that, until the rules were changed by MTP(1), PCC did nominate board members.
So it came to pass that it nominated Eric Harries even though he had recently been given the boot by the voters of Hakin in the 1999 election.
Where's the "democratic accountability" in that?

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