August 19 2008

Democracy inaction

I am indebted to John Hudson for drawing my attention to the Welsh Assembly's statutory guidance on the workings of local democracy.
Now you may think that "statutory guidance" is an oxymoron to rank alongside "Independent Political Group" - something is either guidance or a statutory requirement, it is difficult to see how it can be both.
Presumably, the guidance is described as statutory in order to invest it with more authority than ordinary guidance; compliance with which is entirely voluntary.
But I am nitpicking because this guidance, statutory or not, is an object lesson in democracy as it ought to be.
For instance, the Welsh Assembly recommends that Scrutiny Committees, which, as the name suggests, are designed to scrutinise the activities of the Cabinet,should be wholly independent of the ruling clique.
To quote: " 4.113 Local authorities are encouraged to allocate chairs of overview and scrutiny committees in such a way as to include groups who are not part of the council administration, at least to reflect party balance on the authority. This would serve to assure the public that the overview and scrutiny function is not in any way under the control of the council leadership."
At present, none of the four scrutiny committees of Pembrokeshire County Council is chaired by a member of the opposition, though the opposition hold more than a third of the seats and would be entitled to at least one chairmanship under the political balance rules.
And, in view of the final sentence, what would the Welsh Assembly make of a system where the Leader stands up at the council's AGM and tells us who he has decided will chair these supposedly important committees (see Pick your own)?
I will be putting down a Notice of Motion calling for changes to the council's constitution to reflect this guidance.
Not that I expect much success because the ability to distribute committee chairmanships, and the special responsibility allowances that go with them - £8,000 a year in the case of scrutiny committees - is what sustains the Leader in power.
And with 20 of his party's 38 members on his payroll , and with a further 12 paid positions on the National Park, Police Authority and Fire Authority under his control, the Leader has no fear of a revolt - turkeys and Christmas, and all that.
In all, I calculate that the Leader has some £250,000-worth of patronage at his disposal, which amounts to roughly six quid on the average council tax bill.

Tax facts

Talking of council tax, the Independent Political Group's main claim to fame is that Pembrokeshire has the lowest council tax in Wales.
This is only true if you use the band D rate as the standard.
But, as I have pointed out before, the band D rate is more an indicator of property values rather than council efficiency.
The way the system works is that all properties are converted to band D for the purpose of establishing the council's tax base - band A is 6/9 band D, band B is 7/9 and so on all the way up to band H which is twice band D.
There is also a new band I which is higher again, but as it complicates the arithmetic, it will be ignored.
So, taking two hypothetical authorities XCC and YCC each with 90 properties, we can see that their tax bases will depend on the value of houses in their areas.
Suppose X has 90 band A properties and Y 90 band H, then their tax bases will be 60 (band D equivalents) and 180 respectively.
Assuming the people in the two counties make the same demand on services - say £90,000 a year for ease of reckoning - then X will have to set a band rate of £1,500 while Y will need to "charge" a mere £500.
However, looked at another way, each household in both districts will pay precisely the same £1,000 (6/9 of £1,500 and 2x £500).
Clearly, if X and Y both have the same population, the charge per head will also be identical.
Moving away from the hypothetical we find that, according to figures published by the Welsh Assembly, Pembrokeshire's council tax at £345 per head of population is the fifth highest in Wales, while the lowest is Blaenau Gwent at £230.
Not that I am suggesting that cost per head is a reliable indicator of council efficiency, merely that this is a complex subject and concentrating on the headline band D rate can be quite misleading.
The problem with both the band D rate and the charge per head is that they take no account of the council's charging regime.
Clearly, an authority that charges for a service that others provide for free will, all other things being equal, make less of a demand on the council tax payer.
And a charge is but a tax by another name.
Unfortunately, because of the opaqueness of council accounts, it is extremely difficult to make comparisons between one council and another.
So, when you hear our beloved Leader boasts about the lowest council tax in Wales, get busy counting the spoons.

Couch potatoes


I was going to suggest that our record haul of Olympic gold medals would do nothing to dispel the image of Britons as a nation of couch potatoes.
That is because they had all been won in sports that are conducted either sitting down (rowing, cycling and sailing) or lying down (swimming).
Then I switched on the five-o'clock news and heard that Christine Ohuruogu had won the women's 400 metres.
Michael Phelps has won eight medals in the pool and it is being suggested that this makes him the greatest Olympian ever.
I think not!
Swimmers have the advantage of being able to compete in three styles + medleys.
Could I suggest that if athletics had 100 and 200 metres in freestyle, hands above head, arms in aeroplane fashion and arms by the side, together with relays, young Mr Bolt would have won enough gold to pay off Jamaica's national debt.
I must admit to a bias against swimming, which I hated at school.
The result is that the last time I went to the baths - about 20 years ago - I just about managed to swim a whole width.
I remember being put in detention after telling the games master that if God had intended us to swim he would have given us webbed feet.
The distribution of swimming medals also gives credence to Darwin's theory of evolution because so far as I am aware nobody who who evolved in those parts of the world which have crocodiles or piranha has won a gold.
I have to be a bit careful what I say about this because Grumpette is an excellent swimmer who glides through the water with effortless ease.
Indeed, she tells me she was once able to claim to be the youngest woman to swim Douglas Bay.
So nothing I have said should be taken to imply criticism of swimming or swimmers.


It gels

My plea for help regarding the purpose of shower gel (Last week) brought a response from a reader who shall remain nameless.
He writes: "I use gel instead of soap as I can put it on a sponge and get a good lather. However the real reason is because I shower and drop the soap and can't bend down to pick it up. XXX [name of wife deleted] was fed up with me calling her to pick it up."
I'm not sure readers want to know what he and his wife get up in the shower.
He concludes: "As for your liver, my boys and their families have been down this weekend and on Saturday we consumed 5 bottles of red wine + brandies and liqueurs. This went to the brain."
I suppose an attack of the DTs does make it rather difficult to keep a grip on the soap.

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