August 1 2013
The cruelest cuts
Heavy hints are being dropped that the £8.6 million cuts to council spending over the next three years outlined in this year's budget may not be nearly enough.
It seems the Welsh Government is sending out signals that the upcoming local government settlement is likely to be even tougher than originally thought.
The IPPG is preparing the ground for these unpopular cuts.
A couple of months ago, I was told that former Leader Cllr John Davies had been sounding off about how all members had a responsibility to support these necessary savings and even more recently Cllr Huw George Cabinet member for the environment was heard to echo David Cameron's line about "we're all in this together".
Then we had the now famous Jamie "Late Claims"Adams' interviews with the Western Telegraph in which he accused those members who had reservations about fortnightly bin collections and the closure of public toilets as engaging in yah-boo politics (Cutting remarks).
This is all designed to soften up opposition members when the Cabinet eventually rubber stamps the Chief Officers Management Board's savings plan.
However, I would remind Cllr Adams that were are not all in this together.
Shortly after last year's elections the IPPG arranged a meeting of new members (See Quick off the mark) for the purpose of seizing power by what amounted to a post-election coup d'etat.
At this recruitment meeting Cllr Adams made a long speech (Through the looking-glass) in which he told members that, if the Independent Political Group didn't take responsibility for running the council, Labour as the biggest party with nine seats would take over the administration.
Either Cllr Adams believed this, in which case he is seriously arithmetically challenged, or he didn't, in which case he was seeking to mislead.
It is hardly reassuring that the members whose block vote now controls the council were unable to see through this piece of specious nonsense.
However, though they may not be brilliant at arithmetic, they are all perfectly capable when it come to electoral calculation and I suspect these various pep talks about acting responsibly with regard to these future cuts is as much aimed at the IPPG foot soldiers as the opposition.
It didn't escape Old Grumpy's notice that the two members who spoke out against the proposed closure of the regeneration unit at scrutiny committee were IPPG stalwarts Cllrs Michael John and Wynne Evans.
A few years ago the council decided, against fierce local opposition, to close the swimming pool at St Davids.
The three local members, all IPG loyalists, had no option but to speak out against this move.
With a 39 -21 majority the ruling party could easily shrug off this mini-rebellion.
Now it is rumoured that St Davids comprehensive school is in the firing line.
If that comes to pass, the row over the swimming pool will seem like a minor skirmish.
Two of the local councillors are IPPG members - Cllr Adams has a 32-28 majority.
You can do the sums for yourselves.
According to "Information Daily", a website that sends me regular updates on what is going on in local government, the think tank "London Council's" has concluded that: "The capital has almost 7,000 vacant shops which are costing the London economy £350 million in lost trade and earnings a year."
And you thought Haverfordwest, Milford Haven and Pembroke Dock had problems.
As the mathematicians among you will already have worked out, £350 million / 7,000 = £50,000.
And you might think that if it was possible to make 50 grand a year from one of these shops there would be no shortage of bustling young entrepreneurs ready to open them up.
Unfortunately, back-of -the-envelope calculations like this are all too common in the public sector.
As Adam Smith might have pointed out, unless Londoners are hiding £350 million under their beds each year, the money spent in these newly opened shops would be at the expense of existing shops.
The fact is that the level of retail activity is ultimately a function of consumer spending power, not the number of retail. outlets.
Another example is the £10 million boost that the "Ironman" contest is said to give to the Pembrokeshire economy.
I have no idea where this figure comes from, but I suspect it is based on the idea that, if you repeat something often enough, people will come to believe it - at least that was Dr Goebbels' theory.
What this £10 million might be spent on is anyone's guess ,but it amounts to 3.3 million pints of beer at £3; 166,000 double-room B&B at £60 a time; or a cool one million restaurant meals at a tenner.
When you unpack these figures they begin to look a bit dubious.
Ditto the £1.5 million benefits that Fish Week is reputed to provide.
One activity that comes with some reasonably credible figures is the cruise liners that are occasionally seen on the Haven.
And what a magnificent sight they are - but do they have any discernible effect on the county's economy?
Well, according to Milford Haven Port Authority, passengers spend on average £80 per day when on shore.
Typically, the ships carry about 1,000 passengers, so that makes £80,000 per visit.
Now £80,000 is a lot of money to carry about in your back pocket, but in the context of the county's economy it is chickenfeed.
It amounts to some £6 per head of Milford Haven's 13,000 population, or about 75p per person when spread across the county.
And what must also be remembered is that this claimed increase in economic activity is the gross figure.
At a rough estimate when someone buys a pint of beer in a Tenby pub, one pound goes to the exchequer in tax, another pound goes to the brewers up the line, leaving a pound for the landlord.
So, when you read about these supposed increases in economic activity, it is wise to divide by three and then take what's left with a large pinch of salt.
Last week I referred to the proposed model constitution for local authorities which I said was so illiberal that it might have been written by Vladimir Putin.
I have now had time to read it in more detail and this week I will deal with members' rights to submit written questions.
At present, there is no limit to the number of questions a member may ask, nor on the time allowed for dealing with them at meetings of full council.
The member asking the question has the right to ask one supplementary question and, at the discretion of the chairman make ask more.
Also at the discretion of the chairman, other members may ask supplementary questions arising from the answer to the original question.
Under the proposed model constitution "A member may ask only one question . . . except with the consent of the chair."
There will be a maximum number of questions allowed at any single meeting [number to be agreed] and if the number of questions exceeds that number the questions to be asked will be drawn out of a hat.
The order in which questions appear on the agenda to be decided by the chair and as the proposals provide for a time limit on questions the order will be important.
Questions not answered within the specified time will receive a written answer which will mean that the member asking the question will have no right to ask a supplementary question.
In any case, supplementary questions are to restricted to a single question by the original questioner.
And, to cap it all, under the heading "Content of questions" we read:
Questions under rule 4.19.2 or 4.19.3 must, in the opinion of the chair:
(a) contain no expressions of opinion;
(b) relate to matters on which the council has or may determine a policy;
(c) not relate to questions of fact.
So no questions allowed of the form "Does the Leader agree with me that the recent inspection reports on the authority's education service are a poor reflection on the ruling group's management of the council's affairs?" [opinion] or "Can the Leader give an estimate of the current value of the authority's investment in Bluestone? [fact]"
During our briefings with the Ministerial Board much emphasis was put on the duty of back bench members to hold the Cabinet and senior officers to account.
Curtailing our right to ask questions seems a strange way to go about it.
It is not as if time is of the essence.
The council only meets five times a year and meetings, which start at 10 am rarely run beyond 1pm.
For example, the last meeting ended before 12.30 and had it not been for the chairman's phone interrupting proceedings (In the hot seat) together with questions and Notices of Motion submitted by Labour and unaffiliated members it would have been all over by twenty-past-ten.
There were four NoMs - three of which were submitted by Labour Leader Cllr Paul Miller
Under the proposed new rules, NoMs will also restricted to one per member per meeting, so two of Cllr Miller's contributions would have been disallowed.
There were 23 questions of which Cllr Paul Miller submitted 10, Cllr Viv Stoddart 3, Cllr Jon Nutting 4 and Cllr Jacob Williams 3.
If my calculations are correct, they would have been cut down to seven under the proposed new rules.
The problem is that the ruling group which stands to benefit from these restrictive rules has a majority on both the corporate governance committee and full council.
As democratic constitutions are in large part designed to keep a check on the activities of those in power, it doesn't strike me as a good idea to have their content controlled by the majority.
There could be some interesting battles ahead.
Much will depend on which way some of the less obsequious members of the IPPG jump.
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