27 December 2005

oldgrumpy.mike@virgin.net

 

 

Interesting times

A few days before Christmas, I received an Ombudsman's report on an investigation into a complaint I had made against Cllr John Allen-Mirehouse, deputy Lord Lieutenant of Dyfed, magistrate, deputy Leader of Pembrokeshire County Council, and the county council's representative on the South and West Wales Fire Authority and the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority.
The final three paragraphs read:

28. Whatever Cllr Allen-Mirehouse's stated reasons for opposing the proposed policy, the decision was on a policy which would have decreased the value of development land, and he owned land which he believed would be developable and had taken active steps to develop.The policy could reasonably be regarded as likely to disadvantage him. He failed to declare an interest and spoke and voted on the policy.
29. In view of the above I conclude that Cllr Allen-Mirehouse was thus in breach of Paragraphs 7(a), 10, 11, 13(f) and 16(2) of the Code.
30. My finding under section 69 of the Local Government Act 2000 is that my report on this investigation should be referred to the President of the Adjudication Panel for Wales for adjudication by a tribunal.


But that's only part of a story which has its roots in events nearly four years ago, when Old Grumpy read in the local paper that Cllr Allen-Mirehouse had launched a fierce attack on a proposed "homes for locals" policy in respect of new developments at the meeting of the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority (PCNPA) held on 23 January 2002.
The minutes of that meeting record that he both spoke and voted against the proposals.
The thinking behind this policy is that, by removing the upward pressure on the price of building plots, caused by competition from wealthy outsiders, homes would be more affordable for local people
It occurred to Old Grumpy that Cllr Allen-Mirehouse, who is one of the county's largest landowners, might have a pecuniary interest in this matter and should not have been taking part in the debate..
This same policy also came up for discussion at two meetings of the county council: policy and resources committee on 14 February 2002 and full council on 28 February 2002.
Cllr Allen-Mirehouse was present at both these meetings, indeed he chaired the P and R committee, and, though he declared an interest at the second meeting by virtue of his membership of the PCNPA, at neither meeting did he declare an interest on account of his ownership of any land that might be affected by the policy.
Old Grumpy logged on to Companies House website where I discovered that Cllr Allen-Mirehouse was a director of a company called Angle Developments Ltd whose stated purposes are "development and sell land" (sic).
So, in May 2002, I complained to the Ombudsman that Cllr Allen-Mirehouse had breached the Code of Conduct by not declaring an interest and withdrawing from all three meetings.
Things took a rather strange twist when I received a letter from the Ombudsman dated 22 June 2002 informing me that he was referring the matter to the police "In accordance with liaison arrangements between the Commission and the police."
Fearing this was an attempt to kick the issue into the long grass, I wrote back to the Ombudsman pointing out that I had never suggested that Cllr Allen-Mirehouse had committed a crime and expressing my belief that S94-98 of the Local Government Act, under which the failure to declare a pecuniary interest was a criminal offence, had been repealed by the Local Government Act 2000.
But, it seems, I was wrong about this last point because, in a letter dated 27 June 2002, the Ombudsman informed me that S94-98 was still in force.
During the latter part of 2002 and the first six months of 2003, I fired off a series of letters and emails to the Ombudsman and the police asking for a progress report.
It appears there was no great urgency because, more than a year after the Ombudsman's letter of 27 June 2002 informing me of his decision to pass the investigation to the police; on 18 July 2003 to be precise, the Fraud Squad wrote telling me that "The investigation into your allegations against Cllr Allen-Mirehouse has, due to a concentration of our resources on other enquiries, only recently commenced in earnest."
Another year went by (you need a long attention-span in this business) and, after I asked the Ombudsman's office for an update, I received an email dated 20 June 2004 telling me they were going to contact the police ". . . to ascertain what progress had been made with their investigation."
There followed a period of silence, then, out of the blue, came a letter from the Ombudsman's office dated 27 September 2004 informing me that the police had found insufficient evidence to pursue a prosecution and, that "He [Cllr Allen-Mirehouse] has stated [to the police] that he has not applied for planning permission to develop any land and there is no evidence that he has any land which would be affected by the adoption of the policy on development within the National Park." and, "In light of the above I do not consider that there is any evidence that Cllr Allen-Mirehouse had a personal interest . . ." and, "I am therefore, under the authority delegated to me by the Ombudsman, formally discontinuing my investigation into the allegation."
Now, Cllr Allen-Mirehouse owns 2,500 acres on the Angle peninsula, and a substantial part of the village itself, and not sharing the enthusiasm of the police and the Ombudsman for believing everything I am told, I made the trip across the bridge to the National Park's offices in Llanion, where, after less than an hour rummaging around in the files, I came upon the evidence that the police and the Ombudsman's investigators had failed to unearth during an inquiry lasting the best part of two-and-a-half years.
This was in the form of applications by Cllr Allen-Mirehouse's agents for two parcels of land that he owned to be brought within the settlement limits of Angle village.
For those not familiar with the intricacies of the planning system, every village in the county has a line drawn around it to indicate the settlement limits.
There is a presumption in favour of planning consent for all land within the boundary, and a presumption against for all land without: also known as the open countryside.
The first application; in the name of Owen and Owen, the agents for Cllr Allen-Mirehouse's Angle Estate, requested that the village limits be redrawn to include a plot of land known as Whitehall, and the second; submitted by another agent, Mike Thorne, asked that another area should have its "green wedge" status removed, thereby making it available for development.
Both these requests were dated 4 July 2002 which, as those of you with good memories will recall, was a full year before the police investigation "commenced in earnest".
And there is an interesting difference in what the Ombudsman told me in his letter of 27 September 2004 - that the police had said ". . . there is no evidence that he [Cllr Allen-Mirehouse] has any land which would be affected by the adoption of the policy on development within the National Park" - and what he now says in paragraph 17 of his report - "Cllr Allen-Mirehouse told the police . . . He also said that he never intended to develop any land ..."
Clearly there is a crucial distinction between a lack of evidence, which may be put down to failings by the police, and a statement of fact, made to the police by the person under suspicion.
Unless this statement was made in the three week period between 22 June 2002 (when the Ombudsman informed me he was passing the matter over to the police) and 4 July 2002 (when the two applications were submitted by his agents) Cllr Allen-Mirehouse should have known that the claim that ". . .he never intended to develop any land . . ." was untrue.
And, if it was made during that three-week window, why did it take the police more than two years to inform the Ombudsman that there was no case to answer.
No, it is a virtual certainty that the statement was made after 4 July 2002 and highly probable that was after the police investigation got underway "in earnest" (18 July 2003) which was just over a year after Cllr Allen-Mirehouse had applied for land which he owned to be included within the settlement limits of Angle village i.e to become "affected by the adoption of the policy on development within the National Park".
On 3 October 2004, I wrote to the Ombudsman enclosing copies of the two documents from the National Park files and the case was reopened.
Subsequent investigations by the Ombudsman turned up another letter from Cllr Allen-Mirehouse's agents which showed he had been angling to have some of these plots included in the village envelope as early as June 2001 - more than six-months before the January meeting of the PCNPA where he first neglected to disclose his interest.
This breach of the Code should, of itself, be sufficient to warrant Cllr Allen-Mirehouse's resignation from the Cabinet.
But, you will recall, the Ombudsman closed his investigation in September 2004 on basis of Cllr Allen-Mirehouse's statement to the police, and reopened it when I provided evidence that the statement was untrue.
If a breach of the Code of Conduct isn't enough to force his resignation, surely making a misleading statement to the police in the course of a criminal investigation is enough to tip the balance.
And, of course, as readers of my Old Grumpy column in the Mercury will remember, this is not the first time Cllr Allen-Mirehouse has trod this path because, in 1999, the National Park Monitoring Officer found he had breached the Code by writing to his colleagues on the Pembrokeshire National Park Committee urging upon them a particular course of action with regard to a planning application on land which he owned.
Last Friday I had a call from the Western Telegraph asking for my comments on the above.
I declined, partly because I wanted my loyal readers to be the first to hear the full story, and partly because I am interested to see what spin the county council and Cllr Allen-Mirehouse put on things.
So, tomorrow morning (9.30 am), if the situation requires, I will update this page as part of a counter-spin operation.

 

Update

I see from the Telegraph's report that Cllr Allen-Mirehouse thinks the Ombudsman has got it wrong.
It will be interesting to see the outcome of the forthcoming legal argument.
The only thing I would take issue with is that the Telegraph has, probably because of pressure of space, selectively quoted from the Ombudsman's report.
The Telegraph reports that Cllr Allen-Mirehouse told the Ombudsman: "If I had an interest to declare, anybody owning land or houses in the National Park should also declare an interest, as should this policy be implemented house prices in the National Park would rise"
Clearly, if Cllr Allen-Mirehouse was right about that there would be no case to answer.
But, in the rest of the same paragraph, the Ombudsman says that: Whereas policy 47 [homes for locals policy] could indirectly lead to a general increase in the price of houses in the National Park by restricting housing supplies, it applies directly only to new (Ombudsman's emphasis) residential development."
Those with potential (my emphasis) development land thus stood to lose directly, as the value of new development land would be expected to decrease as a result of a restricted market."
And at the end of the following paragraph the Ombudsman says "I am not persuaded by his claim not to have had development in mind as at February 2002, when there is evidence that he did in June 2001 and in July 2004 on the same site."
The Ombudsman might have added July 2002 (see above).

Think of a number

It has not been a good week for the county council because, Old Grumpy hears, another Ombudsman's investigation has uncovered several examples of maladministration with regard to a planning consent at Prospect Place, Pembroke Dock.
It appears that, back in the early 90s, the former South Pembs District Council lost an appeal against its decision to refuse consent for a dwelling in one of the gardens to the rear of Prospect Place.
Fearing that this would bring an avalanche of similar applications, SPDC's planning department drew up a "development brief" designed to control the siting, scale and nature of future buildings in the area.
One of the problems facing those charged with drafting this document was that the gardens to the rear of Prospect Place are not uniform.
Indeed, taken as a whole, they taper from one end to the other, with the longest gardens belonging to the lowest numbers.
So, it was decided that development would only be allowed between Nos 1 and 32 - the gardens for the higher numbers being too short to allow adequate separation between new and existing dwellings.
According to the Ombudsman, someone has inked over the 32 in the original typed version of the brief, which now reads 38.
Unfortunately, whoever did this neither initialed, dated or gave any reason for the alteration, but it would seem unlikely that it was nothing whatever to do with the fact that the planning consent; the granting of which the Ombudsman has found to be procedurally flawed, is for um, er, No 38.
All that is now required to complete the picture is that global warming should progress to the point where Pembrokeshire's climate is suitable for growing bananas.

 

Open secrets


The county council's pre-Christmas meeting debated my notice of motion calling for a record to be kept of meetings between elected members and planning officers, at which individual planning applications are discussed..
It seemed to me that, in the interests of transparency, both applicants and objectors should know what goes on behind the scenes.
Not only would this be good administrative practice, but it would also help to counter allegations of undue influence by string-pulling councillors.
If these meetings were minuted, the public would have at least some idea of what pressure had been brought to bear.
Furthermore, the determination of planning applications is a quasi-judicial function so, if a planning committee member had been to the planning department advocating either approval or refusal of an application, they would have to declare an interest - on the grounds of prejudgment - at any subsequent planning committee, where the application was debated.
Of course, if no record is made of these meetings, it is impossible to know which members have an interest to declare.
Soon after the elections of June 2004 members were told that, because of the department's heavy workload, pre-application consultations between applicants and planning officers had been discontinued.
My interest in this matter had been kindled during my annual trawl through the county council's books when I noticed that Cllr Brian Hall had made some 70 visits to the planning department during the financial year 2004-2005, 39 of them with named applicants.
The strange thing is that many of these visits concerned developments not in his ward and applicants who are not his constituents.
For example, there is the well documented case of his involvement in the application for a caravan site at Waterston (see Invisible man and In denial).
In that case, Cllr Hall had twice visited County Hall with the applicant, or his agent, yet, though he was clearly in the applicant's camp, it didn't stop him from attending the meeting where the application was determined and proposing that the development be allowed.
This seems to offend against the principle that you can't both be an advocate for one of the parties and a member of the jury.
Indeed, at last week's meeting, Cllr Ken Edwards claimed that, following the planning committee's rejection of that application, Cllr Hall had been advising the applicant on a possible appeal.
It seems only fair to me that the people of Waterston who were objecting to this caravan site should have known about this
So, before speaking to my notice of motion, I was anxious to know about the status of Cllr Hall's visits.
In order to clarify matters, I asked the Director of Development, Mr Roger Barrett-Evans, whether the bar to pre-application consultations still applied if the applicant was accompanied by a member.
Not being fully satisfied by his answer, I asked again.
And again.
At this point up bobbed the chairman Cllr Clive Collins to announce that he was not going to tolerate my "interrogation" of the officer.
For anyone who thinks that "interrogation" carries a hint of Gestapo tactics, I should say that, though persistent, all my questions were put in a quiet civilized manner.
And, of course, it is the role of back bench members like myself to hold the executive - including Mr Barrett-Evans - to account.
That includes satisfying ourselves that the basic principle of democracy - that the rules apply equally to all - is being upheld.
Unfortunately, the prevailing view inside County Hall is that to ask awkward question is rank bad manners.
On the positive side, I am pleased to report that my notice of motion proved at least a partial success.
The recommendation from Cabinet was that only "formal, pre-arranged meetings" should be minuted.
But with a bit of help from Cllr Henry Jones - one of the few members of the Independent Political Group with the capacity for logical thought - the word formal was dropped on the grounds that it is difficult to imagine such a meeting ever taking place.
The word "pre-arranged" proved rather more problematic but, from what I understood the Chief Executive to say, it would include a meeting where a member poked his head round the officer's door and said "mind if I have a quick word about x,y and z.application".
That would be pre-arranged, if only by a second or two.
Ah! the wonders of the trained legal mind.

oldgrumpy.mike@virgin.net

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