December 19 2006

Ugly rumours

You may have heard a rumour that Old Grumpy has surrendered his cherished independence by joining the Liberal Democrats.
This is entirely false - the Liberal Democrats have joined me.
As I wrote some weeks ago, Cllr Pearl Llewellyn's decision to become an Independent Political Groupie (see Pearl fired) has changed the political balance on the county council with the result that the Independent Political Group was about to gain an extra seat on the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority (NPA) at the expense of Cllr Tony Brinsden (Lib Dem).
That would have given them virtual control of the NPA - not an attractive prospect for anyone who has observed the way they abuse their majority on the county council.
In addition, it would have meant the replacement of Cllr Brinsden, a man of sterling qualities, with one of the Leader's yes-men.
Having done hard sums at university, I was able to work out that, if the Lib Dems and myself formed a coalition, we would have enough seats to maintain Cllr Brinsden in his rightful place.
I suggested this course of action, and the Lib Dems agreed.
Unfortunately, I was unable to persuade them to cough up the six-figure transfer fee that I had in mind (see Pearl fired).
Readers can, however, be assured that, unlike the other so-called independents, I will not be trotting along to secret group meetings to be told how to vote.
Interestingly, I had a query from the Western Telegraph regarding my arrangement with the Lib Dems to which I replied as above.
I added: "It is very heartening to see the Western Telegraph taking an interest in members' political affiliations.
I have therefore appended election material published by Cllrs Anne Hughes and Jim Codd for your information.
(see Party animals)
Perhaps you could ask them how they reconcile the statements therein with membership of the IPG.
On the same tack, you could ask Cllrs Hughes and Mike Evans to explain how they justify their opposition to the car parking charges proposed by the Cabinet of which they are both members."
I look forward to this Wednesday's edition.

PS 25 August 2008. I should say I waited in vain, because, true to its policy of not criticising the ruling clique, the WT ( good job it issn't called the Western Chronicle) failed to follow up my suggestion.

Questions, questions

Any doubts I may have had about my decision to join forces with the Lib Dems were soon dispelled during last Thursday's meeting of full council.
One of the items on the agenda was my notice of motion calling for members of the public to have the right, as they have in Carmarthenshire and Swansea, to ask questions at council meetings.
My NoM included a provision restricting any individual to one question per meeting.
Up jumped Cllr Islwyn Howell's to propose an amendment that would have placed a similar restriction on members' constitutional right to put down written questions to the Leader.
No doubt, Cllr Howells thought this was a clever way of having a go at me as one of the more prolific sources of these written questions, but if he'd bothered to read the council's constitution, he would have known that this was an entirely new proposition and, therefore, not an amendment, as defined.
And he was being too clever by half, because, as I pointed out, any attempt by a Cabinet member to curtail backbenchers' ability to hold the executive to account smacked of totalitarianism and merely served to demonstrate the IPG's contempt for even the most basic principles of democracy.
When I called for a recorded vote, the Leader, realising it wouldn't look good in the papers, leaned across and spoke to Cllr Howells who, rather sheepishly, withdrew his "amendment".
Of course, Cllr Howells has every reason to resent my written question because it was one such that revealed that MMO2's successful appeal against the refusal to grant planning permission for the Uzmaston Tetra mast had cost the county council £170,000.
As regular readers will remember, it was largely down to Cllr Howells' efforts that, despite the clearest possible advice from officers that there were no grounds for refusal, the planning committee was persuaded to reject the proposal.
The reason for the huge bill for costs is that the inspector who heard the appeal decided that the original refusal was baseless and, therefore, the council should meet the cost of m'learned friends from both sides.
Cllr Howells is the Cabinet member with responsibility for education.

Out of order

Another with scant regard for the constitutional decencies is the Leader, Cllr John Davies, who appears to revel in the almost absolute power granted to him by the council's constitution.
So, at last week's meeting, when it came time for consideration of a Notice of Motion submitted by Cllr Rhys Sinnett, the Leader hopped up to propose that it should be rejected without debate.
It is easy to understand why the Leader might wish to sweep Cllr Sinnett's NoM under the carpet because it called for a vote of no confidence in the IPG's two representatives on the Fire Authority (Cllrs Brian Hall and John Allen-Mirehouse) on account of their support for cuts in night cover in Haverfordwest.
With 39 of the sixty votes at his command, the outcome of any vote on a proposal by the Leader is a foregone conclusion.
However, before the vote could be taken, I intervened to point out that, if this was allowed to go ahead, the Independents would be able to stifle debate on any subject they liked and, after the Chief Executive had whispered something in his ear, the Chairman ruled the Leader's proposal out of order.
That the Leader ever thought such a proposal appropriate tells you all you need to know about his democratic credentials.
It came as no surprise that, on a recorded vote, Cllr Sinnett's NoM was defeated by 32 -13 with the IPG voting solidly against.
Presumably, that means that the downgrading of fire services in Haverfordwest is official party policy.
Less easy to understand is why Neyland's two Labour members, Cllrs Ken Edwards and Simon Hancock, also voted against.
Indeed, one of the abiding mysteries is why Labour members, who presumably believe that party politics has a part to play in local government, more frequently vote against the party line than members of the IPG who avowedly don't.

Bending the rules

The arcane political balance rules means that the effect of my teaming up with the Lib Dems is the loss of my place on the planning committee.
This is no great sacrifice because I have always felt uncomfortable with the idea of elected politicians taking part in what is a quasi-judicial process.
The downside is that I will not be able to participate in the debate on two fascinating applications in respect of dwellings for "essential agricultural workers" in the north of the county.
Under the council's previous constitution, the local member had the right insist that any planning application in his ward should be determined by the planning committee rather than by officers acting under delegated powers.
That right was swept away when the new constitution came into effect in 2002.
Now, the determination of the vast majority of applications is delegated to officers
However, a planning delegation sub-committee has been set up where members can argue that a particular application should go to committee.
The rules for deciding the issue are narrowly drawn and require that there should be public concern about the application and that "The public concern relates to impacts affecting more than immediate neighbours, or the concerns raise issues which highlight conflicting planning policy issues."
Now, you could be forgiven for thinking that public concern (worry, anxiety) in this context means people have objections to the proposals, but not a bit of it because, when local member Lyn Davies applied to the planning delegation sub-committee to have the application determined by the planning committee he produced six letters in support of the application.
These, he claimed, showed that members of the public were concerned that the application should be decided by planning committee rather than by officers acting under delegated powers.
While this may be true, it is not an issue within the terms of reference of the planning delegation sub-committee.
Such legal niceties didn't cut any ice with sub-committee member David Neale, who said "It is obvious that people in the community want a fair hearing" and that the number of letters indicated a high degree of public concern.
Perhaps the most bizarre contribution came from Cllr Don Evans who asked: "Does this application raise public concern? Nobody has written in to say this development will affect my amenity."
You might think that, as nobody had written in to object, the answer to Cllr Evans' question was in the negative.
Wrong again! Cllr Evans wanted it to go to planning committee.
Once the first application was sent to committee, the second, which was very similar, was bound to follow.
So what was the purpose of all this sophistry?
Well, for a start the two applications had little if anything to do with farming.
The first involved an agricultural contractor who was about to retire and wanted a second dwelling on the site to house a manager for the business, and the second was another agricultural contractor who also ran 130 sheep on a 13 hectare smallholding.
Neither application comes within a million miles of the policy requirements for building essential agricultural workers' dwellings in the open countryside and, if left to an officer to decide would almost certainly be rejected.
However, once before the committee, there is at least an outside chance that, on the basis of what former planning director Roger Anderson used to call the "you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours" principle, Cllr Davies may be able to persuade his IPG friends to push them through.
Even if he doesn't, his electors will surely be grateful to him for "doing his best".
This is the sort of influence peddling that convinces me that elected politicians have no place in any sort of judicial process.
I would like to claim that this is an original idea but, alas, as long ago 1690, the philosopher John Locke made the same point when he wrote "It may be too great a temptation to human frailty, apt to grasp at power, for the same persons who have the power of making laws, to have also in their hands the power to execute them, whereby they may exempt themselves from obedience to the laws they make, and suit the law, both in its making and execution, to their own private advantage."
Montesquieu, the great French constitutional thinker, put it thus: "When the legislative and judicial powers are united in the same person there can be no liberty [because] the life and liberty of the subject would be exposed to arbitrary control."
This is the doctrine of the Separation of Powers on which our freedoms ultimately rest.
It is interesting that the recent difficulties experience by the Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, over the discontinuation of the Serious Fraud Office's investigation into alleged corruption involving the Saudi government, all flow from the fact that he wears two constitutional hats.
P.S 10 May 2007. Both applications sailed through the planning committee.
As they were departures from policy they had to come before full council where they were duly ratified.
The law requires that such departures must be reported to the Welsh Assembly which has the power to call in the applications for determination by an independent planning inspector.
These powers are rarely used; being generally reserved for applications that raise issues of national importance.

What the butler didn't remember

Feeling rather depressed after last Thursday's council meeting, I ended up in the Lord Kitchener Hotel in Milford Haven's Charles Street, where, I am afraid to say, I may have supped rather too deeply of the vin rouge.
There is some evidence that I made my way home in a taxi because, Grumpette tells me, about half an hour after my return the driver turned up with my glasses which had been found on the taxi's floor.
However, I am pleased to report that, unlike some prominent public figures, I kept a firm grip of my valuable personal possessions and my copy of the county council's constitution, which I always take to council meetings, was discovered the following day in the downstairs loo.
I wish to stress that I have no recollection of these events and have written to the Bishop of Southwark the Right Rev Tom Butler asking if he can put me in touch with his amnesiaologist.
In exchange for this information, I have offered to give him the benefit of my expertise; garnered during my rugby playing days, on how to fall down without bruising yourself.
Finally, for anyone who suggests that such drink-induced forgetfulness brings the office of councillor into disrepute, I would point out that, once I left the confines of county hall, I was not acting in an official capacity.
And, as I don't claim travelling expenses, there is no point in putting in an FoI request for my mileage claims in an attempt to prove otherwise.
Anyway, I hope you all have a happy Christmas - and don't drink too much.

Poets corner

And diff'ring judgements serve but to declare
That truth lies somewhere, if we knew but where.
(W. Cowper)