December 4 2009


Parking mad


It has been rather a good week for those of us eager to draw attention to the undemocratic nature of the local government Cabinet system.
Top of the bill is the universally unpopular decision to impose charges on the council's car parks.
Of course, none of us like paying for things that we have always enjoyed for free, but this case raises issues that go well beyond narrow self-interest - not the least of which is the adverse effects such charges will have on struggling retail centres such as Fishguard, Pembroke Dock and Milford Haven.
As an occasional shopper in the last of these I can say from experience that free and convenient parking outside Tesco's front door is an important consideration when deciding where to replenish my supplies of Merlot.
Cllr David Wildman (Burton) reportedly told the Cabinet that he didn't believe charges would affect the local economy, which only goes to show that being considered a suitable person to control the council's £300 million budget does not require even the most rudimentary grasp of basic economics.
Council Leader John Davies said the council was not there to be "popular".
While it is true that governments at all levels have to promote unpopular policies, which they believe to be in the public interest, they usually make some effort to persuade the electorate of the benefits flowing from their decisions.
In this case we have Cllr Jamie Adams blithely telling us that parking charges provided an important opportunity "to do something very special for our town centres".
Like closing them down completely?
Not that it is difficult for the Cabinet to make unpopular decisions in respect of the county's towns because eight out of the ten members (nine out of ten if you include Ken Rowlands (Johnston)) represent rural seats.
Cllr Michael Williams once described the Independent Political Group as a coalition of farmers, Freemasons and the far right, though in fairness it should be pointed out that since he said that some years ago there has been a dramatic decline in the number of Freemasons in positions of power.
The only cabinet member with an urban constituency is Cllr Sian James (Fishguard) who spoke out strongly against the imposition of charges in her home town.
Whether it is constitutionally proper for Cabinet members to use their positions to promote their own electoral interests is a moot point.
What is not in doubt, however, is that Cllr James is bound by the doctrine of collective Cabinet responsibility which means she has either to back the policy or resign.
So, unless her letter is in the post, she is now obliged to support this policy and the fact that she is "very frustrated" by the decision is neither here nor there.
That, I'm afraid, is the price you pay for your sixteen grand a year Special Responsibility Allowance.
Another interesting constitutional point arises from comments in the Mercury attributed to council chairman Anne Hughes.
Cllr Hughes told the paper: "As chairman I will ensure there is a recorded vote".
This would seem to indicate that the matter will be coming before full council though it has always been my understanding that, unless called-in by the relevant scrutiny committee, Cabinet decisions take full effect three days after the meeting at which they are made.
I have written to Cllr Hughes seeking clarification and will report further in due course.
In any case, neither the chairman, nor anyone else, can "ensure" a recorded vote because, according to the constitution, that requires a request by a member prior to the vote being taken". . . supported by ten other members who signify their support by rising in their places (if they are able) . . ."

Bankrolling Bluestone


It was a busy day for the Cabinet because it also had to decide on an agenda item rather coyly entitled "Bluestone Leisure Ltd", which, the public was informed, officers were recommending should be taken in private session because of the likely disclosure of "exempt information" as defined in the Local Government Act 1972 and that the public interest in protecting the information outweighed the public interest in its disclosure.
As an elected member, I have a copy of the pink papers containing this exempt information but, as an elected member I am forbidden by the Code of Conduct from sharing it with you.
That puts me in some difficulty because not everything in the pink papers is exempt information though it is not clear which bits are and which bits aren't.
So, for safety's sake, let us start with what is already in the public domain.
First we have a report in the Western Telegraph dated November 18 which gives details of the recent restructuring of the Bluestone Company resulting in the provision of an additional £10 million by Bank of Scotland and Finance Wales.
Headlined "Bluestone grows with new £10m investment" this wholly positive story by "Western Telegraph reporter", but almost certainly the product of Bluestone's PR department, tells us that "A new company Bluestone Resorts Ltd has been created as a result of this restructuring" and this new investment will "enable the holiday village to press ahead with the next phase of its development programme" and "It is thought that up to 100 extra jobs could be created".
It is thought by who?
The report also includes a puff by Peter Hain MP who tells the paper "This is great news for a world class tourist destination and massively important for jobs as we recover from the recession."
Old Grumpy paid a visit to Companies House website where I find that this restructuring has led to the creation of three new companies: Bluestone Resorts Ltd; Bluestone Resorts Group Ltd; and Bluestone Resorts Services Ltd.
Two of the four directors give their addresses Holborn Viaduct London (Bank of Scotland?) and a third that of Finance Wales.
The fourth a Mr Christopher resides at The Grange Cannaston Bridge.
Interestingly, there is no mention of William McNamara the original promoter of the project.
So, on the face of it, the company has fallen into the hands of the bankers.
And why three companies?
Well it is not easy to tell but one common practice with these restructurings is to form a property company that owns the assets and a trading company to run the show.
The property company rents the out assets to the trading company thereby protecting them from the trading company's creditors if things go pear-shaped.
Bankers earn million pound bonuses for devising such schemes.
Where does the county council fit into this scheme?
You will remember that the county council made a £1 million loan to Bluestone in the early stages of the development and later advanced a quasi-loan by building a roundabout (£750,000 rings a bell) at the entrance to the site with payment suspended until the project's completion.
In answer to questions at full council, members were told that these loans were interest bearing and on full commercial terms.
According to the published minutes, last Monday's Cabinet decided that "The equity option in Bluestone Resorts Ltd be taken up"
However that is only a partial account of what went on.
What the Cabinet actually decided was what is known in the trade as a debt for equity swap i.e it agreed to exchange the council's loan portfolio for a 3% stake in Bluestone Resorts Ltd.
As the mathematicians among you will have already worked out, £1.75 million is 3% of £58 million, which is what Bluestone Resorts Ltd should be worth on a value for money basis.
Amazingly, the decision was taken without anyone asking what the company owned or what it was worth.
Which only bears out my theory that the Cabinet is simply a group of people who are called together each month, at considerable expense, to apply a coat of democratic gloss to the decisions of the Chief Officers Management Board (COMB).
Nor does there appear to have been any discussion on the world of difference between a secured interest-bearing loan and equities which are an entirely speculative investment.
Remember, this is taxpayers' money we are talking about!
Of course, Bluestone might be a rip-roaring success and the council's 3% might turn out to be money-spinner.
On the other hand . . .
Interviewed by BBC Wales, Pembrokeshire council leader John Davies has said it [the council's investment] was a sign of "confidence in the company's future".
No doubt Cabinet members are queuing up to get their life savings into Bluestone, though I should warn them that the many members of the public who have e-mailed and telephoned following Grumpette's TV appearance do not share his optimism.
He also told the BBC that the meeting to discuss the confidential report had been open to all councillors.
That is rather disingenuous, even by the Leader's standards, because while non-Cabinet members could attend as spectators they were not allowed to participate.

Gone but not forgotten


Old Grumpy was disappointed, but not surprised, by Alwyn 'Monster Muncher' Luke's poor showing in the St Dogmaels by-election.
Forty nine votes is a dismal performance by any standards.
Providers of newsworthy copy such as ex Cllr Luke are difficult to replace (Big eater) (Master forger) and many, many more
I never really recovered my poise after the demise of Eddie Setterfield at the 1999 election and with Cllr Brian Hall being forced to take a back seat when his IPG colleagues jumped ship in the face of an opposition vote of no confidence (Hall resignation -what really happened) Luke was all I had left, and when he was unseated at the 2007 election I had run out of easy targets.
Then again, I'm not surprised he failed to make an impression because it only goes to prove what is known as "the power of incumbency".
By which is meant the number of votes to be acquired by what can only be described as influence-peddling.
What is surprising is that Luke hadn't cottoned on to this fact

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