April 3 2007

Differing accounts

Some confusion seems to have arisen over the finances of the Cleddau Bridge.
A couple of weeks ago, under the headline "A nice little earner" the Western Telegraph ran a front page story in which it was claimed that Pembrokeshire CC was trousering in excess of £2 million pounds a year in tolls.
Last week the county council struck back with a claim by Cllr Jamie Adams, cabinet member for highways, that the bridge is in the red.
According to Cllr Adams, the figures in the newspaper were for gross takings but, in fact, when running costs, maintenance and loan charges are taken into account, there is a £600,000 deficit.
As £600,000 is equivalent to £30 on a band D council Tax, this is no small matter.
Or, put another way, if Cllr Adams is right, every band D council tax payer is forking out for 120 bridge crossings that they never make.
There is something in what the council says, but exactly how how far it is true I can't to be sure.
In the current financial year (2007-2008) bridge tolls are estimated to be £3 million, while running costs are set at £1 million.
Where a large structure such as the Cleddau Bridge is concerned, prudence demands that the council set aside monies each year to cover future maintenance costs.
This year's budget contains a sum of £250,000 for this purpose.
As the mathematicians among you will have already worked out, that leaves £1.75 million - £2.35 million to get to the £600,000 deficit claimed by Cllr Adams.
That £2.35 million must be accounted for by loan and other charges.
Just how this sum is arrived at is not immediately obvious, though I suspect that part of it is made up of asset rental - the notional amount the council charges itself for the use of its own assets
A query has been sent to the treasurer's department and, with luck, I will be in a position to provide a clearer picture next week.

Bridging the gap


The bridge also seems to be the subject of a difference of opinion between Cllr Adams and Christine Gwyther AM.
In last week's edition of the Western Telegraph, Cllr Adams is quoted as saying that the county council had asked the Trunk Road Agency to take over the Cleddau Bridge but "they came down and took a look but in terms of the obligation that goes with the bridge and such an important structure, as well as the EU directive coming in they didn't take kindly to taking it on."
In a separate article at the bottom of the same page, Christine Gwyther AM is reported as saying: "The council has resisted a Trunk Road Agency takeover of the bridge. Its public reason is that it says it is doing the best possible job of maintaining it, and that it needs the toll revenue to carry out repairs. The real reason, of course, is that the bridge is a nice little earner for the county council."
As Aristotle taught us, not both of these contrary statements can be true.
Though, as the old Greek was also keen to point out, they might both be false.

'tis an ill wind

The third set of elections for the Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament are promising to be the most interesting so far.
In Scotland the Nationalists start the campaign with huge lead in polls over Labour and barring some dramatic setback are almost certain to be the biggest party.
Proportional representation means they won't have an overall majority so, if they are to form a government, they will need to find a coalition partner.
The Lib Dems seem the most likely candidates but it has been suggested that the Tories (formerly the Conservative and Unionist party) could fulfill the role.
If that were to happen, it would almost be as bizarre as Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness serving in the same Northern Ireland government.
Here in Wales, the Nationalists are unlikely to make the same sort of gains as their counterparts in Scotland but the chances are that Labour will find itself losing seats to all three main parties.
In Pembrokeshire, there are Labour pessimists who fear the party might lose both its county AMs.
If that were to happen, given the parallel voting system, it could have dramatic consequences because the fewer seats a party wins in first past the post the better its chances of taking seats off the list.
You may recall that, in the first Assembly elections, Tony Blair parachuted in Alun Michael to lead the Welsh Labour party.
This happened too late for Mr Michael to fight a seat, so he was slipped in at the top of the west Wales list.
There was drama on the night of the count because Labour were winning too many first-past-the-post seats to guarantee Mr Michael a list seat.
I am told that the First Minister in-waiting spent the evening in his official car parked in the lay-bye near Haverfordwest Golf Club ready to make a quick dash to the Withybush show ground when, as eventually came to pass, Plaid Cymru took Carmarthen East, and his list seat was in the bag.
In the present situation, if Labour was to lose both its Pembrokeshire seats, and one other in the west Wales region, there is a better that 50:50 chance that Cllr Joyce Watson - handily paced at second on the list - could be the beneficiary.
As they say: 'tis an ill wind . . .


Unseen evidence


You will recall that, back in November, during the standards committee's first hearing into the Ombudsman's findings that Cllr Brian Hall had brought the office of councillor into disrepute, Cllr Hall's solicitor argued that his client had not been acting in an official capacity during the BBC reception in St Davids and, therefore, applying the principles established by the High Court in the Ken Livingstone case, he could not be guilty.
Asked for his opinion of this argument, the Ombudsman said that, whether or not Cllr Hall claimed travelling expenses for the trip to St Davids would have a bearing on the question.
The chairman put this to Cllr Hall and after a short retirement his solicitor told the committee "My client is unable to help on expenses."
A copy of Cllr Hall's expense claim, showing that he had indeed claimed expenses on the occasion of the BBC reception, appeared on this website the following week.(Memory lapse).
Fast forward to the final hearing when Cllr Hall's solicitor told the standards committee that the fact that his client had claimed expenses was not proof that he attended in his official capacity.
And, as there was no other evidence to show that he attended as Cllr Hall rather than Mr Hall, he should be cleared.
Relying, with every justification, on the ancient principle that a man is innocent until proved guilty, his solicitor said: it was not up to Cllr Hall to prove anything, that burden fell upon his accusers (And with a bound. . .).
However, it is not correct to say there was no evidence that Cllr Hall had attended the BBC function in his official capacity, merely that there was no evidence before the committee.
I have now received written confirmation of the the answers to my questions to the most recent meeting of council and what they reveal is that the Leader nominated Cllr Hall to be his representative at the reception and that the Chief Executive certified that his attendance was "for the proper discharge of the Council's functions."
Had the committee known that it might have come to a different conclusion.
Naturally, it occurred to most people that, if Cllr Hall was indeed there in his private capacity, then he must have claimed travelling expenses to which he was not entitled.
SF wrote to district auditor along these lines and was told: "The Chief Executive has confirmed that Cllr Hall was attending an approved duty in St Davids and he was therefore entitled to claim travel & subsistence expenses."!
Yet again we have the council occupying parallel universes: Cllr Hall was not on official duty for the purposes of the standards committee, but he was on official duty when it came to countering an accusation of expense fraud.
For a similar situation see Cllr Hall's letter to the Leader/Maurice Hughes at (Whitewash).
I have added a quote by Lord Denning to those on my home page (index) which is a classic statement of what should be the case in a properly functioning democracy.
Sadly, the words of Hannah Arendt immediately above, paint a much more accurate picture of the situation here in Pembrokeshire.

Kirkaldy boys

Writing in the Daily Telegraph, the political commentator Julia Langdon claimed that Gordon Brown was gradually moving towards the free market economic philosophy of Adam Smith.
Smith and Brown certainly have one thing in common - they were both born in Kirkcaldy in Fife - and just as the children of Neyland can be expected to be steeped in the life and works of Brunel, so the young Gordon would have been familiar with the writings of his home town's most famous son.
What is not altogether clear is how anyone who has read and understood Smith's books could ever become a socialist.
Unfortunately for Smith's reputation, the embrace of his economic theories by Margaret Thatcher, has led to the belief that he was a Tory.
Nothing could be further from the truth!
Smith was an old-fashioned liberal as is shown by his opposition to the Combination Acts, which outlawed trades unions, and his support for the Truck Acts, which forced employers to pay their workers in cash rather than goods.
And the statement: "Consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production; and the interest of the producer ought to be attended to, only so far as it may be necessary for promoting that of the consumer", shows he was no friend of business.
However, he was implacably opposed to the sort of big government and state planning beloved of socialists like Gordon Brown.
As Smith wrote: "It is the highest impertinence and presumption… in kings and ministers, to pretend to watch over the economy of private people, and to restrain their expense… They are themselves always, and without any exception, the greatest spendthrifts in the society. Let them look well after their own expense, and they may safely trust private people with theirs. If their own extravagance does not ruin the state, that of their subjects never will."
Writing almost two hundred years later, Smith's disciple Friedrich Hayek pointed out that the planned state was inimical to individual freedom because state planning brought with it the necessity for state direction.
What is the point of planning to build a certain number of houses, say, unless you can direct the required number of people to become bricklayers, or compel manufacturers to divert resources towards the production of the required number of bricks.
And, as can be seen from the failed economies of the Soviet bloc, even when the state takes such powers to itself, the system can't be made to operate efficiently.
As the worker in the Soviet tractor factory remarked: "We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us."
However, Brown would probably find common cause with Smith in other areas of economic thinking.
For instance, his support for progressive taxation: "The subjects of every state ought to contribute towards the support of the government, as nearly as possible, in proportion to their respective abilities" and his definition of poverty: "By necessaries I understand, not only the commodities which are indispensably necessary for the support of life, but whatever the custom of the country renders it indecent for creditable people, even of the lowest order, to be without."
Though the great stealth taxer probably wouldn't appreciate Smith's observation that: "There is no art which one government sooner learns of another than that of draining money from the pockets of the people."
However, given New Labour's recently acquired enthusiasm for globalisation, Mr Brown would probably agree with Smith on the desirability of free international trade.
Free market economists counter the protectionist case by deploying the "bananas on Ben Nevis argument" which proceeds along the lines: With modern technology the UK could become self-sufficient in bananas by constructing glass houses on the country's mountain peaks - but, because they are cheaper, we prefer Jamaican imports
Smith was ahead of the game on that one, too, when he wrote: "By means of glasses, hotbeds, and hotwalls, very good grapes can be raised in Scotland, and very good wine too can be made of them at about thirty times the expense for which at least equally good can be brought from foreign countries. Would it be a reasonable law to prohibit the importation of all foreign wines, merely to encourage the making of claret and burgundy in Scotland?"
I had always credited Smith with the saying that: Nothing is ever so bad that it can't be made worse by government interference", but the nearest I can find to this sentiment in his writings is the thought that: "Though the profusion of government must, undoubtedly, have retarded the natural progress of England towards wealth and improvement, it has not be able to stop it."
Whatever Ms Langdon may say, it would seem that Mr Brown has some way to go before he is offered honorary life-membership of the Adam Smith Institute.

email: oldgrumpy.mike@virgin.net

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