22 August 2006

 

Recovered memory

I can now bring you up to date with my enquiries into sale of the Mine Depot at Blackbridge Milford Haven.
On 28 June pembrokeshiretv.com carried a story on the sale in which Milford Haven Port Authority chief executive Ted Sangster was quoted as saying: "We [MHPA] were not passed any confidential information by anyone inside the County Council.".
Pembrokeshiretv's story was based on what had appeared on this website that week (see Panto mine) which included copies of documents Old Grumpy had obtained (MHPA docs) that seemed to indicate an unacceptable degree of collusion between Pembrokeshire County Council and MHPA during this supposedly fair bidding process.
When pembrokeshiretv.com emailed copies of these documents to Mr Sangster he changed his tune; not surprising considering that he had told the MHPA board that the draft cabinet papers were "confidential within the council procedure" and that they should be treated in "strictest confidence".
Old Grumpy e-mailed Mr Sangster asking how he could reconcile this lack of candour with the requirement in the document "Modernising Trust Ports - a guide to good governance" that chief executives of Trust Ports should "conduct themselves with integrity, impartiality and honesty" (see Spurious safeguards), in their dealings with the public and, by extension, the press.
Last week I recorded how Mr Sangster had written back saying he "didn't think" he had denied receiving confidential Cabinet papers when he spoke to pembrokeshiretv. (see Matter of trust).
I asked pembrokeshiretv if it could substantiate its story and I have now received a copy Mr Sangster's e-mail of 28 June in which he says "We were not passed any confidential information by anyone inside the county council" exactly the same words as reported and the ones Mr Sangster "didn't think" he had said.
In the meantime, I wrote to Mr Sangster pointing out that he either made these remarks, or he didn't, and asking him if he could be a bit more categoric than don't think.
This has inspired him, as he puts it in his most recent letter, "to delve further" whereupon he now admits that he did use the words that, just a week earlier, he didn't think he'd used.
However, he has now gone of on a new tack - two new tacks to be precise.
Firstly, he says that, when he said MHPA hadn't been given any confidential information, what he meant was that they hadn't been told the value of any other party's bid.
Why, then, did he describe it as "confidential" in his report to the board (see MHPA Board)?
And, while it is true that there is no evidence that anyone in county hall informed him that Cleddau Enterprises Ltd had bid £550,000 for the site, it clear from what Mr Sangster said to the Mercury that he was told that MHPA's bid of £600,000 - submitted after the tender process was complete - was the highest in strict monetary terms, but that, taking into account the loss of interest because it was to be paid in two instalments (half up front and the balance after two years) it was not the highest in terms of value.
Armed with those two pieces of information, it wouldn't be too much of a challenge to work out a rough estimate of the value of CEL's offer.
In any case, it is clear from Mr Sangster's letter to head of asset management Neville Henstredge (see MHPA letter) that it was the county council which suggested that £20,000 needed to be added to MHPA's bid in order to make it the acceptable.
For myself, I can't see any real difference between telling someone the value of a competitor's bid and telling them how much they need to uplift their own bid in order to beat it.
Mr Sangster's other argument is that, as the Cabinet report contained only information on the terms of the deal, to which the council and MHPA were both privy, then it couldn't be 'confidential' in any meaningful senses of the word.
This is the same argument peddled by the Leader in answer to questions at the July meeting of council (See A likely tale).
And it is just as specious because, apart from setting out the duration of the lease (999 years), the confidential Cabinet document is absolutely silent on other conditions of the deal.
In any case, if the purpose was to clarify the terms of the contract, the proper way to do that was by way of letter.
In fact, as Mr Sangster's letter of 11 January 2006 (see MHPA letter) clearly shows (first and last paragraphs) the release of the confidential report to Cabinet was to reassure the MHPA board that if they agreed to cough up the extra £20,000, Mr Barrett-Evans would recommend its offer to the Cabinet.
And, as the Cabinet has never, in its more than four years of existence, gone against an officer's recommendation, that was tantamount to saying the Mine Depot was in the bag.
As an added inducement, the Cabinet report also recommended that MHPA be offered that part of the site excluded following the first tender process (see Panto mine) on terms "satisfactory to the Director of Development" without having to bother with any of that distasteful competitive bidding caper.
Nobody knows how much they were proposing to pay for this part of the site because none of the dummies who make up the Cabinet thought to ask.
Finally, had this been a fair bidding process, CEL would have been informed that its bid was no longer the highest, and that the previously excluded piece of land at the western end of the site was back on the market.

Tyranny of the majority

At a recent meeting of the county council's corporate governance committee Cllr Bill Philpin (Lib Dem) complained that there was a lack of democracy because everything was stitched up by Leader and his henchmen in the Independent Political Group (IPG)
In response the Leader said that the majority view prevailed "that's what democracy is all about".
This rather simplistic view might gain support in the typical saloon bar around closing time, but on any rational analysis it is plainly wrong.
While it is difficult to quantify these things, I would suggest that so-called majority rule amounts to less than 50% of what democracy "is all about".
To begin with, we don't actually have majority rule, but largest minority rule.
At the last General Election, Labour collected 36% of the votes cast (22% of the total electorate), which, as the mathematicians will already have worked out, means that, of those who voted, 64% would have preferred someone else.
The truth is that Mr Blair's majority in Parliament owes more to our electoral arrangements and the proceedings of the Boundary Commission than the will of the people.
And, in a three-party system with a first-past-the-post electoral system, the same arithmetic applies whichever party is in power.
At least with Mr Blair the 36% of the vote was obtained on the basis of a published manifesto.
With regard to Cllr Davies' own party - the Independent Political Group - not only did they not have a manifesto but at least two of its members told the electorate that they wouldn't be part of it.
How many people were taken in by this deception is anyone's guess but it is unlikely that Cllr Jim Codd would have told the electorate that he had no "affiliations or leanings to any party or group" (see Party animals) nor Cllr Anne Hughes that " "I am standing as a true Independent with no political allegiance to any party. I WILL NOT abide or be controlled by party policy" (see No free lunch) unless they thought it might influence the way people voted.
The estimable Mr John Hudson has calculated that, even with the help of that sort of jiggery-pokery, the IPG holds its two-thirds majority on the county council with the positive support of only 15% of the electorate.
Clearly, with such a huge imbalance between the votes and seats, some serious safeguards need to be in place if what former Tory Chancellor Lord Hailsham referred to as "elective dictatorship" is to be avoided.
These include what might be classed as democratic institutions: an independent judiciary, non-politicised police and civil service, strong opposition and a free press.
Clearly, if, as in Zimbabwe, the judges are under the control of the ruling party, no amount of majority voting will deliver democracy.
In addition, there are the rules of Parliamentary procedure - first reading, second reading, report stage etc in both houses - designed to ensure that the temporary majority [largest minority] can't rule by decree.
And, finally, there are what I would call the democratic decencies - meetings presided over by unbiased chairmen and that sort of thing.
But just to consider the machinery of democracy, without regard for its purpose, is to look through the wrong end of the telescope.
There are certain unalienable principles without which no political system can be said to be truly democratic.
First of these is that everyone is equal before the law.
Any system that allows a privileged class of individuals to obtain planning permissions which are contrary to policy (law); or to break the law with impunity; or to receive favourable treatment when purchasing public assets cannot be said to be democratic because these are examples of the abuse of power, the prevention of which democracy is really "all about".
And, what some constitutional thinkers refer to as the tyranny of the majority is all well and good as long as you are not part of a minority group.
For instance, while it would be democratic, in the crude sense, for the majority to pass laws banning the use of a minority language in state school playgrounds, in the wider, more subtle meaning of term, it would be classed as illiberal authoritarianism.

Potentially libellous

According to www.pembrokeshiretv.com, Pembrokeshire County Council is considering legal action against the author of the website www.pccsucks.co.uk
On first reading this story, I tried to log on to pccsucks but was met with the message "This site is currently unavailable" and I feared it had been removed at the request of the county council as has happened to Old Grumpy on more than one occasion (See Private and confidential).
However, the site is now back online and Old Grumpy is told that its disappearance was due solely to a malfunction in the ISP's server.
Having read the contents, I can see why the county council might be concerned because, on the face of it, much of the published material is libellous.
I say "on the face of it" because, of course, the courts are the final arbiters of what is defamatory and what is not.
There are various defences to libel actions including that what is written is "fair comment on a matter of public interest" and, most importantly, that it is true.
These have stood Old Grumpy in good stead over the years, particularly in my dealings with Cllr Brian Hall and Dr Michael Ryan.
That is why it is always more accurate to describe offensive remarks as potentially defamatory, because while they may hold up someone to "ridicule and contempt" they are safe from attack if they can be substantiated.
For instance, the statement "Geoffrey Archer is a perjurer", while no doubt injurious to Lord Archer's reputation, is not libellous by virtue of its truth.

Spin and swing

At the risk of offending my Pakistani readership, I would like to say a word or two about the science of swing bowling.
I claim no special expertise in this subject beyond some small knowledge of basic physics.
As I understand it, when the ball is new it can be made to swing in the air by polishing one side and not the other.
This produces different aerodynamic properties on one side of the ball to the other - so, when the ball is bowled with the seam upright, it deviates from straight line.
The new ball, or so I gather from listening to Test Match special, produces outswing i.e the ball swings away from the right-handed batsmen.
According to the theory, when the ball gets old, and scuffed on one side; a process that is said to take about forty overs without human assistance, it can be made to produce reverse swing.
Just how, in the normal course of events, the ball, which is after all round and inanimate, gets roughened up on only one side is a mystery.
However, what seems to be accepted is that, by bowling it with the seam upright, it can be made to swing in to the right-handed batsman.
Surely, if this is due to the aerodynamic properties of the ball, it should also be possible to make the old ball outswing by simply holding it the other way round.
Similarly, with the new ball.
Mind you, cricket was always something of a mystery to me, which is why I can't understand how some bowlers are said to put more weight behind the ball and "hit the pitch hard" while others get the ball to pick up pace off the wicket.
To my simple mind, unless the bowler is able to exert some sort of influence on the ball while it is in the air (anti-gravity, perhaps), the force with which it hits the pitch is entirely dependent on the speed at which it leaves the bowler's hand.
As for the ball picking up speed after it bounces, that seems to open up the possibility of a perpetual motion machine.
If there are any cricket buffs out there who can offer an explanation for these strange phenomena, I'd be pleased to hear from them.

oldgrumpy.mike@virgin.net

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