December 2 2008

Closed book

A couple of weeks ago, a constituent rang Grumpette to ask her how she had voted on the decision to turn off the street lights in the middle of the night.
Grumpette replied that she hadn't, because the decision had been taken by the Cabinet.
So, when you read in the local paper that Pembrokeshire County Council has decided to this or that, do not assume that your elected representative has had any say in the matter.
A recent example is the decision taken by Monday's Cabinet to move Milford Haven Library and the Tourist Information Office from their present locations to a site identified in the officer's report only as Havens Head.
The first we knew about this was when the Cabinet agenda arrived through the post last Wednesday, though the scheme must have been in the pipeline for several months.
Grumpette fired off an e-mail e-mail to the Leader suggesting the matter be deferred until such time as a proper consultation process was carried out.
On Friday morning I received a phone call from my cabinet mentor Cllr David Wildman asking for my views on the changes.
I told him that I was unwilling to express an opinion because the cabinet report was so short on detail - no costings, not even the exact address of the property, though I have since learned it is the Milford Haven Port Authority's Cedar Court - and repeated the request for a deferment.
An hour or so later, Grumpette had a similar conversation with her cabinet mentor Cllr Jamie Adams.
I understand that Cllr Stan Hudson also asked for a deferment.
This cut no ice with the Cabinet which unanimously approved the officer's recommendation.
According to Grumpette's notes, Cllr Wildman told the meeting that there had been "a very positive response from Milford members".
Not from the occupants of Grumpy Towers, I can assure you, because we don't go in for reaching conclusions without knowing all the facts.
As for the others, all I can say is that two of them, Cllrs Anne Hughes and Danny Fellows, are board members of the Milford Haven Port Authority which stands to benefit from finding a tenant for this white elephant development.

Shot in the dark


Unfortunately, the principle of marshalling the facts before reaching a decision does not apply to that expensive (circa £150,000 a year in Special Responsibility Allowances) rubber stamp known as the Cabinet.
Also at Monday's meeting, it considered a proposal to sell Neyland Marina to the present tenants, Yacht Havens Ltd.
The report to Cabinet informs members that this sale will "provide the council with a substantial capital receipt".
Nobody bothered to enquire as to the size of this capital receipt and the Cabinet agreed that the facility should be sold "on the basis of the offer received and other conditions acceptable to the Director of Development."
I wonder how many of them would agree to allow an estate agent to sell their house on the promise that they would receive "a substantial capital receipt."
Sadly, for all the puffed-up self-importance of its members, the cabinet's role seems to be to apply a coat of democratic gloss to the decisions of the the Chief Officers Management Board.

All the Leader's men


Monday afternoon's corporate governance committee considered notices of motion from Cllr Bob Kilmister and myself regarding the appointment of chairmen and vice-chairmen of scrutiny committees.
Scrutiny committees, for those not familiar with the system, are modelled on the cross-party Parliamentary Select Committees, which, despite their in-built Labour majorities, regularly bring out scathing reports on the failings of government policy.
These committees fiercely protect their independence from government and some years ago, there was uproar in the house when it came to light that Tony Blair had been manoeuvring behind the scenes to have two of the most trenchant chairmen (Gwyneth Dunwoody and Donald Anderson) replaced by New Labour yes-men.
In their county council manifestation their main role is to scrutinise the activities of the Cabinet.
To this end they have the power - of which more later - to call in Cabinet decisions for further examination.
In 2006, the Welsh Assembly Government (WAG) published statutory guidelines which "encouraged" local authorities "to allocate scrutiny committee chairmanships in such a way as to include groups that are not part of the council administration, at least (my emphasis) to reflect party balance on the authority."
Under these arrangements the opposition would hold at least one of the four chairs - all of which are currently occupied by members of the ruling Independent Political Group.
According to WAG, its recommended method of distributing chairs ". . . would serve to assure the public that that the overview and scrutiny function is not in any way under the control of the council leadership."
I have previously described how the process of allocating these chairs is carried out: the Leader stands up at the AGM and reads out a list of who he is decided will be appointed.
Anything better designed to convince the public that these chairs are under the control of the leadership is hard to imagine.
In addition, these posts carry an SRA of nearly £9,000 and when I suggested that the the public could have no faith in the independence of committees chaired by the "Leader's place men" the chairman of the corporate governance committee Cllr Peter Stock, who holds one the the scrutiny committee chairs, intervened to say that he found the suggestion that he was "in the Leader's pocket" offensive.
As I pointed out, I hadn't mentioned anyone being in the leader's pocket, though I must give him full marks for thought-reading.
The report to members, which, as usual, recommended "the Notices of Motion be not accepted" was a sophistical masterpiece in which it was argued that, as the opposition hold three of the vice-chairmanships, the chairs and vice chairs of scrutiny committees were already divided 5-3 between the IPG and the opposition, reflecting the political balance and "It is therefore the view that the principles set out in paragraph 4.113 of the [WAG] guidance are being met and that it is not necessary to review the allocation of the offices of chairmen and vice chairmen of these committees.
This line of reasoning is flawed because the guidance refers only to chairs, so the allocation of vice-chairs has no bearing on the issue.
And there is a very good reason why chairs and vice-chairs should be treated separately and that is because the chairman has the power to call in a Cabinet decision unilaterally and the vice-chairman does not.
The only other way a decision can be called in is if four members of the committee request it.
On the subject of the independence of the chairmen, I would point out that, in the almost eight years that the Cabinet system has been running, not a single Cabinet decision has been called in by a chairman.

Pure spin

Grumpette fared slightly better with her notice of motion before the corporate governance committee which was partially accepted.
This involved the appointments to the 69 outside bodies and innumerable school governing bodies which are the purview of the Leader.
Her interest in the subject arose when she found that there was something called the Murco Oil Environmental Liaison Committee to which the Leader had the right to appoint four members.
As her Hubberston constituents are the ones most effected by the refinery, she was somewhat surprised to learn that she was not one of the four.
So, she e-mailed the Leader to complain about her exclusion and to enquire as to the criteria used to decide who should get the call.
He promptly played his get-out-of-jail card and upped the number to five.
As for the criteria used to make his original selection he wrote: "The original allocation in this instance was based on historical membership. Your predecessor Mr Alun Byrne had not during his office as councillor expressed any interest to become a member of the liaison committee."
You've got to be a consummate actor to tell them like that while keeping a straight face.
Old Grumpy has another explanation based on the laws of probability.
Actually, there are eight members who qualify geographically - six in Milford Haven, plus Johnston and Herbrandston.
Four of these eight: Cllrs Ken Rowlands, Anne Hughes, Danny Fellows and Martyn Davies are all members of the Leader's Independent Political Group, and, as you've already guessed, they were the chosen quartet.
The odds on this being a random selection are, I believe, 70:1
Pure coincidence, or pure politics?

Fruitful activity

From late summer on, Grumpette's artistic endeavours are mainly concentrated on still life drawings of onions, peppers, courgettes, tomatoes and aubergines - all harvested from Old Grumpy's bountiful garden, of course.
This is all very ecologically friendly because these artists models are later recycled as food.
I have a vision that, in fifty years or so, when Grumpette eventually becomes recognised for the genius that she undoubtedly is, our great-grandchildren will be able to go up into the loft and retrieve one of these dusty old masterpieces whenever they are short of a few million quid.
And, no doubt, books will be written about her work by eminent art historians who will record how she led the retreat from the sterile modernism of Damien Hurst and Tracey Emin by founding the Pre-Ratatouille movement.
P.S. Dear Isa Pedant,
I know an onion is not a fruit, but I couldn't think of anything better.

Old Grumpi?

It gives me no pleasure to have to admit that Wales stood alone between the northern hemisphere and a whitewash.
Or to report on another dismal performance by England.
Thank goodness Grumpette had the presence of mind to burn the sports' sections of the Sunday papers before I came home.
She should have incinerated the business sections as well because there was nothing but bad news there, too.
Fortunately, I didn't have a single bet on these autumn internationals, though I did have a near squeak when my old foe WS e-mailed to suggest that I might like to venture a bottle of £4.99 - he's a high-ranking public servant who can't be expected to drink cheap plonk - on the best result in Wales and England's games against Australia.
I rather fancied this bet, but inertia and the fact that WS has the hex on me - he relieved me of two bottles on the outcome of last year's Six-Nations - made me hesitate.
So, as they say, he who hesitates lives to fight another day.
If England don't improve, I may have to take up Cllr Michael Williams' offer to sponsor me for naturalisation.
Anybody got a second hand Welsh shirt (42" chest) going spare?

More Manorbier madness

It appears that things go from bad to worse in Manorbier, where, according to Cllr Malcolm Calver's website
the community council has now been landed with a bill for more than £900 - representing 10% of the legal costs for defending a libel action brought by former councillor Pat Griffiths against former councillor Tony Wales.
Just why the council tax payers of Manorbier should be picking up the tab is not altogether clear.
I hope to be able to provide an explanation next week


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