23 August 2005

Heal thyself


Over the past few weeks, Old Grumpy has had the benefit of the advice of two of Johnston's finest:, county councillor Ken Rowlands and community councillor John Davies.
Cllrs Ken and John believe I am making too much fuss about the Leader's agricultural planning consent and, in the words of Cllr Davies, having lost a vote in full council by a two-thirds majority, I and my fellow protesters "should accept defeat with honour".
The other leg of their argument is that this row is distracting the council's attention from the things that really matter: education, social services, etc.
Fortunately, Old Grumpy has a good memory; an effective, if somewhat chaotic, filing system: and a shed full of past council minutes.
So it didn't take me long to find the minutes of the Highways and Transport committee held on 13 September 2001 where it was agreed that the former Arnolds Yard in Johnston should be the council's preferred option for a "Materials Reclamation Employment Park".
It was also resolved that officers be authorised to enter into negotiations to buy the site and, failing agreement, that the site should be compulsory purchased.
That decision was ratified by full council on 18 October 2001 without, so far as I can see from the minutes, any opposition.
So did the good folks of Johnston accept this unanimous decision?
Not on your Nellie!
With Cllrs Rowlands and Davies to the fore, they kicked up one hell of a fuss and eventually had this perfectly democratic decision overturned in October 2003 by way of a notice of motion submitted by their local member Cllr George Grey.
And well done them, I say.
But it is the "distraction" argument that bothers me most because it is a subtle form of moral blackmail designed to cow opponents into silence.
The subtext is that my concerns about the leader's planning consent mean that I am neglecting "the things that really matter to the people", though there is nothing remotely inconsistent in being concerned about both.
Nor, to take two rather more important examples, is there any inconsistency between supporting our troops in Iraq and having grave misgivings about the way the intelligence material was finessed by the Prime Minister in the run up to the war, or giving the police full backing in the fight against terrorism while at the same time being deeply concerned about both the shooting of an innocent man in Stockwell tube station and the subsequent attempts to spin the story in a way favourable to the police.


Onwards and upwards



Increase in Retail Price Index since 1996



Increase in salary of Pembrokeshire County Council's Chief Executive over the same period

(With apologies to Private Eye)

Old Grumpy has fond memories of the wonderful days when Pembrokeshire County Council still bore at least some resemblance to a democratic institution.
One particular, not-to-be-missed highlight was the annual debate on the salaries of the chief executive and directors.
This usually led to a fine old argument as to whether the matter should be discussed in public.
What was different in those days was that there were still some members of the Independent Political Group who had taken the trouble to look up the meaning of 'independent' in the dictionary and took the view that, as these salaries were coming out of the taxpayers' pockets, the taxpayers had a right to know how much it was costing.
During one of these debates the then Leader Eric Harries was heard to complain that it was all rather pointless because the figures were already in that morning's Mercury; the confidential reports having dropped through Old Grumpy's letter box in the customary plain brown envelope.
On another occasion, proposals to increase the directors' salaries had to be deferred when Maurice Hughes concluded that the rebels on his own benches, together with the opposition, were enough to force an open debate.
When the meeting reconvened a few weeks later, Mr Parry-Jones told members that he had obtained advice from leading counsel that any public discussion of the directors' terms of employment would be a breach of contract.
On cue, Cllr John Allen-Mirehouse was on his feet calling for a recorded vote so that "the directors will know who to sue".
Not surprisingly, the appetite for open government evaporated, though nobody thought to ask about the nature of the loss on which the directors might base their action.
These days, such matters are decided by a six-member Senior Staff Committee made up of the Leader, three of his Cabinet colleagues and two members of the opposition.
As the Cabinet members' positions (and special responsibility allowances) are in the sole gift of the Leader it is hardly surprising that rebelliousness is at a premium.
In fact, the Senior Staff Committee met just recently to determine the remuneration of directors and other senior personnel.
Being a member of the council, Old Grumpy knows what was decided but, being a member of the council, the Code of Conduct forbids me to tell you.
However, all is not lost because the council's published statement of accounts contains information about top people's pay and, although the figures are somewhat lacking in precision, the information is sufficient to provide a flavour of what goes on.

The table below shows the number of employees in various pay bands during the specified years.


 Band  1996/97 2002/03  2003/04  2004/05
 £40,000 - £49,999  8  30  55  84
 £50,000 - £59,999  7  20  23  19
 £60,000 - £69,999

 1  5  12
 £70,000 - £79,999  -  6  -  1
 £80,000 - £89,999  -  -  5  5
 £90,000 - £99,999  -  -  -
 £100,000 - £109,999  -  1  -  -
 £110,000 - £119,999  -  -  1  -
 £120,000 - £129,999  -  -  -  -
 £130,000 - £139,999  -  -  1

What is interesting to a mathematician is the steepness of the slope of a line drawn through the ones at the bottom of each column (thought to represent the salary of the Chief Executive) compared to that of the numbers immediately above.
Much of this lead has been established over the last couple of years, when Mr Parry Jones' salary has moved up three divisions.
Even on the most conservative reading of the figures (that he was on £109,999 in 2002/03 and is now on a smidgen over £130,000) would mean an increase of 15% in two years.
Putting him in the middle of the two bands (£105,000 to £135,000) gives an increase of 28%.
The people who nodded through these increases must be the stuff of a double glazing salesman's dream.
Mind you, it could be that they are a little more careful when their own money is at stake.



Winged porkers

Last week I spent a couple of productive hours at the County Show.
I know August is the silly season, but some of the gossip I heard was so silly that I thought I'd passed through the looking glass..
I had hardly got through the gate when I bumped into someone with connections with the Labour party who greeted me with the words: "What do you think about the three defections."
When I looked puzzled, this Labour person explained that there were rumours that three members of the county council's Labour Group were thinking of jumping ship to join the Independent Political Group.
It is well known that the Labour Group is a disorganised shambles, prone to backbiting and internal wrangling, but the idea that any of them would be foolish enough to join the motley collection of farmers, Freemasons and the far-right on the Independent benches is a bit too much to swallow.
The advice to my informant would be to spend less time in the beer tent and always wear a hat when out in the sun.
It would seem that it is not only Labour that is affected by midsummer madness because within the hour I encountered a leading Tory who informed me that the party intended to field a large slate of candidates at the next county council elections in 2008.
This is all of a piece with the party's policy of "new localism" designed to demonstrate that the Tories are just ordinary people like the rest of us.
I asked if that meant that party members like Peter Stock, David Wildman and David Bryan would be be expected to part company with the Independent Political Group (and their special responsibility allowances) and run under the party's colours.
When that was answered with a firm "yes", I made my excuses and left.
Didn't want to be late for the three little pigs' aerobatics display!

Losing streak

With the Aussies fluking a draw in the Test Match, and my crushing defeat in the long-running sofa wars, it has not been a good week.
The conflict over the new settee has been a drawn out, bruising affair with Grumpette's main weapon being the fact that the old model, bought second-hand for £100 just over twenty years ago, is worn out.
My eminently sensible counter-arguments, based on the evils of materialism; the environmental damage caused by the throw-away society; and the obvious incompatibility between three energetic grandchildren, aged 2-6, and new furniture, have been contemptuously brushed aside.
Nor did the prospects of a spillage of cheap red wine on the pristine beige (pewter according to Old Grumpette) surface cut any ice.
It seems that opposition had already thought of that and the fabric has been treated with something called "Guardsman".
We shall see how well this new thing stands up to the game of "larva".
This modern equivalent of not stepping on the cracks in the pavement involves imagining that the carpet is made of molten larva.
So, in order to avoid getting your feet scorched, you have to traverse the living room via settee, coffee table, armchair and any other bit of furniture within jumping distance.
I have a feeling the little darlings might not be as welcome as hitherto.
My other fear is that, emboldened by this success, Old Grumpette will soon be looking for fresh fields to conquer.
I have already noticed a series of holiday brochures casually left lying about on the kitchen table.
Must try to keep my wits about me.
The price of freedom is eternal vigilance, and all that.

Age concern

Some weeks ago, I ruminated on the extent to which our perceptions of the world are coloured by outside influences.
The example I used was road maps, some of which create the impression that half the land mass is covered in tarmac, giving force to environmentalists' claims that the countryside is being concreted over.
Age is another distorter of our perceptions.
In my thirties, when I made a stupid mistake at the bridge table, I would say something like: "You idiot - why didn't you draw the last trump before trying to cash your diamond tricks".
This was best said out loud before your partner uttered similar sentiments with disastrous results for partnership relationships.
Now, when I make a similar mistake, my first thought is that I might be losing my marbles.
And, to make matters worse, partner, no doubt thinking along the same lines, but too polite to say so, mummers a patronising "Bad luck".

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