December 10 2009

Empty vessels . . .

Last week I promised to investigate the statement on parking charges attributed to county council chairman Anne Hughes by the Western Telegraph that: "As chairman I will ensure there is a recorded vote".
In reply to my enquiry Cllr Hughes sent me the following email:
"I confirm my comments made at MHTC which would apply in the event of the item being placed as an item of business on the Council's Agenda. However, as you well know, my role is to preside at Council meetings. The Agenda is set by officers in accordance with the Constitution."
As the prospect of the officers who promoted this charging regime putting the issue on the council's agenda, so that all members, as opposed to the Cabinet poodles, can have a say, is somewhere between zero and vanishing point, this assurance is nothing more than empty words.
Not surprising, really, considering that this is the same Cllr Hughes whose 2004 election election address promised the voters of Milford Central 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." (Cllr Hughes' emphasis throughout) .
Three days after the votes were counted, she signed up for the Independent Political (sic) Group and has voted the party ticket on every issue since (Party animals)

Funny business

Last week's piece Bankrolling Bluestone generated a record number of emails, almost all of which, unusually, agreed with my take on the subject.
Several correspondents thought the decision should be "called in" for examination by the relevant scrutiny committee, in this case economic development.
There seems to be a widespread view that calling in Cabinet decisions is a routine business.
This is a serious misconception - only four cabinet decisions have been called in since the system was introduced in 2002.
There are two methods whereby call in can be effected: at the request of the chairman, or four members of the relevant committee.
Reflecting the political balance on the council, the economic development committee is comprised of eight members of the IPG and four from the opposition.: Cllrs Sue Perkins (Lab), Moira Lewis (Plaid) Malcolm Calver (Unaligned) and Aden Brinn (Con), who also serves as vice chairman (Special Responsibility Allowance (SRA) £5,000 pa) .
Cllr Calver, who is in the holiday cottage business, has a declarable interest in the issue, so any call in by that route would require the recruitment of one of the IPG members.
In addition, opposition members are wary of being accused of being anti-jobs if they give any indication of opposition to Bluestone.
Having created more jobs in Pembrokeshire than all the Cabinet members put together, Old Grumpy has no such inhibitions.
In any case, my concerns have nothing to do with Bluestone itself, but with the undemocratic and secretive way in which this decision was reached.
The other method of call in rests with the committee chairmen but, as they they hold their positions and £9,000 SRAs by virtue of IPG, or, more accurately the Leader's, support it is not surprising that no decision has ever been called in using this route.
My fellow unaligned member Cllr Tony Brinsden did write to the chairman (Cllr Arwyn Williams) suggesting that he should exercise his powers in this case and received the following reply: "Having taken up the opportunity open to all members to be present at the Cabinet meeting when the matter was thoroughly discussed I am reassured with the reasons explained by the Chief Executive to all present, why PCC had to make this decision. It supports the WAG investment of £15 million (also taxpayers money) and at the same time secures the jobs of many hundreds of employees and the financial interest of business suppliers. Whether you agree with the concept of Bluestone or not, I am sure you would agree with me that the sustaining of jobs and economic contribution is vitally important in these current challenging times. It is on the foregoing basis I see no reason to call the item in for further scrutiny given that all members had the opportunity to be present at the Cabinet meeting.
As "all members" are entitled to attend all cabinet meetings, including those held in private session, logic would suggest that Cllr Williams will never see the need to call in a Cabinet decision.
And only this week I learned that he has been appointed as the council's "scrutiny champion".
However "thoroughly discussed" Cllr Williams thought the issue was and however reassuring the reasons given by the Chief Executive, as I said last week , there remain many unanswered questions (Bankrolling Bluestone).
And subsequent developments would seem to indicate that the case for calling in this decision for further examination is even more compelling than I thought.
According to the Western Mail's business section, this so-called "restructuring" took place in mid November when accountants Grant Thornton were appointed administrators to the former Bluestone companies and engineered what is known as "a prepack administration".
According to the Western Mail: "Unlike a normal administration, where administers run the business in a bid to either find a new buyer or to sell assets to recoup money owed to creditors, a pre-pack is a quick turnaround where an element of debt is written off and a new company created – following agreement of the main creditors."
The Western Mail claims "Immediately following their appointment they sold the business and assets of the companies to newly-formed business Bluestone Resorts.
Under the pre-pack it is understood that among the biggest casualties was a joint venture vehicle between property company Mansford Holdings and hedge fund Polygon – which was the biggest shareholder in the old company. It is believed that around £12m has been written off."
As one of the "main creditors" of Bluestone it must be assumed that Pembrokeshire County Council participated in these restructuring negotiations and the suspicion in some quarters is that the council's decision to swap its loan for shares in the new company was taken well in advance of the Cabinet meeting on November 30.
The Western Telegraph reports that Freedom of Information requests have been submitted in an attempt to find out who made the decision, when it was made and the precise value of the shares.
A council spokesman is quoted as saying: ""The option to take up shares was given during this time [mid Nov] and the decision was then made by Cabinet".
However, what is not clear is whether the council agreed to take up this option at that time and whether the cabinet's role was merely to formalise this earlier agreement.
In a properly functioning democracy, that is the sort of question scrutiny committees are supposed to ask.
P.S. At yesterday's meeting of full council the Leader said the Bluestone decision could easily have been called in either by four members or the chairman of the scrutiny committee.
The fact that they hadn't chosen to do so meant there was "no great concern" about the issue, he claimed.
He should try to get out more.

Slippery words


Last week, I took exception to the Leaders statement that the private Cabinet meeting where the Bluestone decision was taken had been "open to all members" because it could be taken to mean that all members were able to participate.
In fact non-Cabinet members attended as mere spectators.
However, this false impression about the role of ordinary members is widespread.
Angela Burns AM told the BBC: "And I'd like to understand why all these other councillors are running around saying that this is a dreadful dreadful thing and what's going on.
Because they were obviously party to that meeting."
When Grumpette emailed her to point out that non-Cabinet members had only a watching brief Mrs Burns replied " I have been informed by a number of people that not only had you attended the meeting but that you sat at the cabinet table."
Now it is true that Grumpette sat at the Cabinet table but not in the sense that she was party to the proceedings.
What happened, I am told, is that the microphones were switched off because of concerns that people outside the chamber might be able to overhear what was being said.
Because she couldn't hear what was going on, Grumpette was invited to sit closer to the action.
Of course, had she been able to participate, it is probable that some rather more searching and intelligent questions might have been asked.
Mrs Burns also says: " I understand that the entire saga of Bluestone was laid bare before all the Councillors and therefore you are aware that the Council have not "purchased" shares in the company but rather swapped a loan in one company for shares in another company . . .".
The falsity of first part of this statement is being demonstrated on an almost daily basis, and, as for the second, foregoing the loan is the consideration for the purchase of the shares and putting inverted commas around purchase doesn't save it from being nonsense.


Never apologise . . .


Last month the Western Telegraph revealed that Pembrokeshire County Council (PCC) had paid consultants £67,000 to produce a report on car parking charges.
Joyce Watson AM and former leader of the Labour Group on PCC branded this expenditure a waste of public money.
PCC leader Cllr John Davies countered that the consultants were engaged "following a recommendation from a scrutiny committee" and that, as Mrs Watson was leader of the county council's Labour Group at the time the report was commissioned "She could have voiced her opposition then and even called-in the decision, but didn't do so."
My own researches showed that hardly anything Cllr Davies had to say on this issue was true (Story telling) (Blame game).
There was no scrutiny committee recommendation regarding the employment of consultants and there was no record of any formal Cabinet decision on the matter which might have been the subject of the call-in procedure.
All this prompted the present Leader of the Labour Group, Cllr Sue Perkins, to submit a written question asking: "Will the Leader state when it was possible for Joyce Watson, or any other member, to have the decision to use consultants at a fee of £67,000 called in as he claimed in the Western Telegraph?"
That set the leader off on a Wafflathon.
The Cabinet had decided on a year-long study on parking charges . . . this obviously involved a major piece of work. . . reasonable assumption that couldn't be carried out in-house therefore consultants would be required . . . had it been carried out in-house impartiality of officers would have been called into question . . . own staff would have had to be paid - £67,000 was equivalent to 18 months salary for an officer.
On and on he droned studiously avoiding the fact that only cabinet decisions can be called in.
As the Cabinet had never made any decision regarding the employment of consultants, at least none that is recorded in the minutes, there was simply nothing on which to base a call-in, therefore there was absolutely no justification for his attack on Joyce Watson.
A bigger man would have apologised by now, but the Leader seems to lack the intellectual capacity to admit that he might be wrong.
As he ploughed on with his attempt to prove that black was white, even his own ultra-loyal party members looked embarrassed.

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