August 13 2009

 

Cliches unlimited

 

It seems that the conspiracy theorists who suggested that Cllr Arwyn Williams was acting as front man for the Independent Political Group when he proposed the amalgamation of the county council and national park planning functions were right on the button.
An article in the summer edition of the Friends of the National Park newsletter written by his party leader, Cllr John Davies, makes exactly the same case as that Cllr Williams almost managed to articulate at the county council meeting (Put up job).
The Leader makes all the usual arguments about avoidance of duplication and efficiency savings though these should be used with caution lest some keen civil servant in Cardiff gets the idea that the same considerations might apply to the separate authorities in Carmarthenshire, Ceredigion and Pembrokeshire.
Actually, I agree that amalgamating PCC and PCNPA makes sound economic sense, and if that is the view of the county council's ruling Independent Political Group it should come out and say so rather than using Cllr Williams as a Trojan Horse.
In his article the Leader says: "Whilst human nature commands an individual to fight to the death to retain what is loved and cherished, the wind of change is a reality that cannot be avoided in this present climate." and "I openly acknowledge the foregoing would be totally unpalatable to many especially those with a personal interest, but I would respectfully remind all of us that we are entering uncharted financial territories, with the wish for efficiency savings having to be replaced with genuine deed and intent."
In all, there is a page-and-a-half of this stuff mostly in the same vein.
Sounds like he's raided Peter Stock's cliche bank.

Risk unlimited

A few weeks ago, I made an FoI request to Pembrokeshire County Council (PCC) for a copy of the lease agreement with Milford Haven Port Authority (MHPA) for the new library premises at Cedar Court, Havens Head.
Back came the information with all the interesting details - rental, term - blacked out (redacted) on grounds of commercial confidentiality (Black out).
I didn't bother to appeal (a) because in my experience, PCC's appeal process invariably upholds the original decision and (b) I knew that, in few weeks' time, the council's books would be open for inspection during the public audit.
The unredacted document is now to hand and the annual rental is £26,000 rising to £30,000 in 2011 for a 25-year lease.
It would seem that the council is getting the 8,000 sq ft premises at a knock down price because according to MHPA's earlier projections the going rate for Cedar Court was to have been £10 per sq ft.
Old Grumpy was also interested in para 33.2 of the lease which provides that: "The Tenant shall keep the landlord indemnified against all expenses, costs, claims damage and loss in connection with any clawback of the grant provided to the Landlord by WEFO [Wales European Funding Office] as a result of the of the Tenant's occupation of the Property or the grant of this Lease."
The Objective 1 grant was provided by WEFO on condition that the building was used to create jobs in the private sector and MHPA has already paid back grants in respect of other public sector users such as Steve Crabb MP, Pembrokeshire Community Health Council and Defra.
According to my calculations, on a pro rata basis, any clawback in respect of the use of Cedar Court by PCC would be in excess of £350,000.
So I put down a question at the last meeting of full council asking the Leader what assurances the council had sought from WEFO regarding any possible clawback.
His reply is printed below.

 




As a supplementary question, I asked the Leader why, if there was no possibility of clawback, a term had been inserted into the lease indemnifying MHPA from the the effects of such an [impossible] event.
He replied that it was to give MHPA comfort in case WEFO changed its mind.
Now you might ask, if MHPA has fulfilled all the conditions of legally binding grant allocation agreement, how can WEFO possibly change its mind?
And is it right that the county council should put at risk a large amount of public money in order to give comfort to MHPA?
Surely, it should have been the other way around.
If PCC was unable to directly seek an assurance from WEFO because of the reasons given by the Leader, it should have insisted that MHPA provide it with comfort by producing a letter from WEFO stating that there would be no clawback.
When I put in an FoI request to WEFO asking for copies of correspondence between themselves and MHPA regarding Cedar Court they sent me copies of letters concerning the clawback of grants regarding the three cases referred to above.
There was not a word about the lease of part of the building for the non-qualifying purpose of housing a public library, so how can the Leader state with certainty that "All of these conditions have now been met".
I suspect that the fly in the ointment is the third of the conditions listed above: "that all outputs have been achieved".
My recollection is that one of the key outputs was that Cedar Court would create 80 private sector jobs.
A large proportion of these jobs were to be provided by Friday Ad who were to have set up a call centre in what is now the library.
However, at the last minute, Friday Ad accepted the extremely favourable terms offered by PCC/WDA to purchase part of the Cleddau Bridge Business Park recently vacated by ITV Digital and MHPA was left high and dry.
Old Grumpy has a feeling there has been some nodding and winking going on, with WEFO hinting that it would turn a blind eye to the job creation shortfall but unable to give a categorical assurance in case the EU's auditors took a different view.
My understanding is that councillors stand in a position akin to trustees i.e their conduct must stand up to the standards of what are described by the courts as those of "a prudent man of business".
I would suggest that a prudent man of business, who had been aware of the clawback provisions "from an early stage of its discussions with the Port Authority", would have taken steps to ensure that those he represented were fully protected against any possible adverse outcomes.

Outflanked

One evening last week, Grumpette and I were left in charge of our two grandsons; aged nine and six.
As the sun dipped behind the trees, the subject of bedtime became the main topic of conversation.
Grumpette said it was 8 o'clock, but the boys claimed that, during the holidays, their mother allowed them to stay up until nine.
I interceded to say that we would put the matter to the vote, when, unsurprisingly, the division was along party lines.
I explained the democratic convention that, in the event of a dead heat, the chairman could use his casting vote to break the deadlock and, as chairman, I was voting for 8 o'clock.
"But who decided you would be chairman?" asked the elder boy.
"It's not fair" interjected the younger.
Secretly, I had to agree that my unilateral power-grab had many similarities to the sort of thing I object to in county hall, so I raised no objections when the older boy suggested it would be fairer to draw lots.
He picked up two forks from the kitchen table, one of which had a blue plastic handle, and held them behind his back.
"Whoever chooses the blue fork wins" he ruled.
I pointed to his left hand.
"That one", I said.
No! He's going to pick" he said, nodding towards his younger brother.
Sure enough, the blue fork was waved in triumph and nine o'clock it was.
However, I wouldn't want either of them to run away with the idea that I didn't notice the quick wink and the slight tilt of the head that, I suspect, may have had some influence on the little one's choice of hands.

In the soup

Now that Norman Tebbitt has written a cookery book I feel it is safe to come out of the closet and admit to my own culinary talents.
This week, I offer a recipe for what is known in family circles as grandad's soup.
There are several versions (same ingredients but different stock) but my favourite is the one based on the cheap packs of cooking bacon available in some grocers' shops.
Method.
Cut the bacon into small pieces and put in five or six pints of water and simmer for an hour.
Allow to cool and skim off any fat.
Season with a generous dose of black pepper, add four medium sized onions and a couple leeks, and bring back to the boil.
Simmer for half an hour and then add half a pack of red lentils and a pound or so of mixed vegetables (almost anything will do) before returning to the heat and simmering for 40 minutes.
If you can't face up to all that peeling, slicing and dicing, half a pack of those frozen mixed veg found in most supermarkets will do nicely.
When the grandchildren are with us, we whiz it up with that propeller thing so that they eat the hated vegetables without knowing it.
Otherwise, we have it as it comes.
This will be one of the feature recipes in my forthcoming book "How to feed a family of five on less than a tenner a week".
Next week. A hundred ways with mince.

O Lord

Thank goodness for the spell checker.
Was I grateful a couple of weeks ago when it pointed out that I had omitted a letter from Viscount?

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