27 April 2004

email: oldgrumpy@oldgrumpy.co.uk

Rude awakening

At quarter-to-six, last Friday morning, I was sitting in the kitchen with a cup of tea and an Embassy when I was rudely shocked in to a state of full wakefulness by what sounded like the voice of His Leadership, Cllr Maurice Hughes, coming from the vicinity of the wireless.
After a few seconds, I realised that it was indeed His Master's voice and that he was laying into those awful people from the Council for National Parks (CNP) for applying for Judicial Review of the Bluestone planning consent.
One has to admit that one isn't at one's sharpest at that time in the morning but, from what one could make out, the Leader's main complaint was that these CNP folks aren't elected.
This division of the population into the elected and the unelected is, I think, a false dichotomy.
Every citizen, or group of citizens, whether elected or not, has an inalienable right to go to court if they believe what has been done is illegal.
It may be tiresome; it may be inefficient, but that's how democracies counter the threat of elective dictatorship.
In any case, the members of the National Park Committee are not elected, either.
Ten of them are appointed by the Pembrokeshire County Council and five by the Welsh Assembly.
It is true that the ten County Council members have all been elected to that body, but not directly to the National Park.
But, even if they were all directly elected, on a manifesto promising to make economic development their priority, it would make little difference because National Parks are governed by statute law, which, among other things, sets out their aims and purposes.
Any consent for a development that failed to take full account of those overarching statutory purposes could be struck down by the courts as contrary to law.
Nobody can be certain how the present case will go, but, if I was a betting man, I would be tempted to put one of my older shirts on the CNP.
It will be interesting to see who goes to court to give evidence in support of the National Park Authority.
Are we to enjoy the spectacle of Nic Wheeler and Cathy Milner telling the judge that, in spite of their total opposition to the development throughout the planning process, they now think it is the best thing since sliced bread?
I fancy not!

 

Deputy Dawg

 

Predictably, last Thursday's meeting of the county council; the last before the elections on June 10, was a lively affair.
Early in the piece, Cllr Michael Williams interrupted a speech by the Deputy Leader, John Allen- Mirehouse the Laird of Angle, with a point of order.
This clearly annoyed Squirehouse who said something that I couldn't quite hear in the public gallery.
However, Labour Leader Joyce Watson's antennae picked upon it and she rose on a point of order of her own.
From what I could gather (the acoustics in the public gallery are poor, verging on atrocious) Cllr Watson's complaint concerned Squirehouse's use of what, in another place, is called unparliamentary language.
Fortunately, the Laird owned up and told us, proudly, that he had called Cllr Williams "a silly arse".
"I apologise, I shouldn't have used the word silly", Pembrokeshire's oldest teenager told the meeting.
Not altogether encouraging for those intent on speculating large amounts of the needful on having the boy educated at Eton and up-market cow-college.
Still, what people choose to do with their own money is none of my business.
More worrying, though, is the £1,175 invoice, from an outfit called the Improvement and Development Agency for Local Government (I&DeA), I came across in my shed.
This bill is for tutorial costs and accommodation for one John Allen-Mirehouse at the I&DeA's grandly-titled "Leadership Academy Programme 24".
One dreads to think what "Deputy Dawg", as Michael Williams now refers to him, was like in his unimproved and undeveloped state.



Plumbing the depths

Last week's meeting also debated the current state of play in the authority's social services department, which, some 18 months ago, came in for some serious criticism from the auditors.
In response to the opposition's complaints about bullying and low-morale in the department, the Leader, Cllr Maurice Hughes, read out a letter from a member of staff saying that the service provided was first rate.
Cllr Michael Williams was aware that the Leader had received another, less complimentary, letter from a care manager, and asked if that, too, could be made public.
In the circumstances, Cllr Hughes could hardly refuse.
However, before reading the letter, Cllr Hughes informed members that, during the previous twelve months, the care manager in question had taken more than 70 days sick leave and was, by implication, not someone whose views should be taken too seriously.
These days it has become standard practice for the Leader to smear anyone who dares to criticise the County Council.
I have, myself, been subject to these tactics, but for him to sink to using them on a defenceless member of staff is a new low even by the already debased standards of Pembrokeshire County Council.
Presumably employee sickness records are held on the authority's computer and are, therefore, "sensitive personal information" under the Data Protection Act.
How did this information come into Cllr Hughes' possession?
Are all elected members entitled to access the staff's sickness records?
Was Cllr Hughes given the information for the specific purpose of deflecting the allegations contained in the letter?
It is not as if the council is indifferent to the provisions of the Data Protection Act, and the duties it imposes.
When Old Grumpy requested details of Cllr Brian Hall's rental payments in respect of an industrial unit he leases from the council, the Monitoring Officer and the Director of Finance hid behind the data Protection Act for eight months before finally acceding to my request.
That despite me several times explaining to them that, as the information I was asking for was in the public domain by virtue of the Audit Commission Act 1998, it was exempt from the data protection provisions.
Indeed, they were only persuaded to cough up the information when I threatened to seek a remedy in the High Court.
It is also rather surprising that none of the highly-paid officers present interrupted to point out that what Cllr Hughes was divulging was "exempt information" under S 100 Local Government Act 1972 which the members might wish to discuss in private session.
It is not that the officers are unaware of this legislation.
Old Grumpy well recalls its use about four years ago when the council discussed big increases in Directors' pay.
On that occasion, when it looked as if the members might decide to take the matter in open session, the Chief Executive warned them that there was an implied term in the Directors' contracts that their pay would be discussed in private.
At that point up jumped Cllr John Allen-Mirehouse to demand a recorded vote so that the Directors would know who to sue.
Not surprisingly, that persuaded many of those who had intended to vote for an open debate to change their minds.
One rule for them and one rule for us, is the phrase that springs to mind.


Same old story

Is there no end to the inventiveness of Pembrokeshire County Council?
In early February, I wrote a report on Cllr Maurice Hughes' "open mic" session at Milford Town Hall (see Fantasy finance).
As I pointed out at the time, the figures given for capital spending in Milford Haven were pure Alice in Wonderland because the £38 million claimed by Cllr Hughes was some 65% of the total capital budget of £61 million.
Apparently, members of Milford Haven Town Council were also concerned about the figures and, on 6 February, the Town Clerk wrote to Cllr Hughes asking for a breakdown.
Two further letters followed and on March 26 the County Council wrote back to say the amounts quoted by Cllr Hughes included both revenue and capital spend.
Old Grumpette, who attended Cllr Hughes' "open mic" session, tells me she is in no doubt that what was being discussed was capital spending only.
Indeed, the notes she took bear this out because all the individual items cited by Cllr Hughes to back up his claims involve capital spending.
In any case, if what the county council now say is true, why did it take them six weeks to get round to writing to the town council.
Sadly, this episode follows a familiar pattern.
First the Leader says something that is patently untrue.
If and when challenged the council hunkers down and hopes everyone will get fed up, or forget, and when that doesn't work another improbable story is dreamt up to give credence to the original untruth.
The council would do well to remember my grandmother's little rhyme.

If truth with a lie you try to smother,
Be next prepared to tell its brother,
And after that, call in its mother,
And another, and another, and another.

Even if we take what the council says at face value, they still need to explain the wide differences in capital spending between Milford Haven and other parts of the county.
This year Milford-specific capital projects come to £1.5 million compared to Pembroke Dock £7 million and Haverfordwest £5.2 million.
The corresponding figures for the previous year are: Milford £0.6 million, Pembroke Dock £2.2 million and Haverfordwest £3.1 million.
I will be making a point of collecting the figures for the past five years in order to determine whether this an ongoing problem.



Going green



Old Grumpette has solved the slow-worm problem, for next year at least, by buying one of the council's special-offer composting bins.
These are slow-worm proof so come next spring Old Grumpy will not have to face the heart-rending prospect of making the poor creatures homeless.
According to the literature accompanying the new bin, almost anything from cabbage leaves to hedge clippings can be composted.
I notice that tea bags and cigarette ends are also suitable material for the process, so I now sit down to my early morning cuppa and a fag with an easy conscience.
And the next time the doctor tells me to give up smoking I will answer smugly: "What! and do without the compost?"

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